Azerbaijan, a tiny, oil-rich country where Eastern Europe meets Western Asia and Iran, has a fraught history with its current Latin script. In the 7th century, Arabic script was introduced during the Arab conquest, and was used to write Azerbaijani until the ’20s, when it was exchanged for Latin script under Soviet rule—a deliberate attempt to counter the influence of Islam. In 1939, Joseph Stalin took his colonization program further when he imposed the Cyrillic alphabet on the Soviet Empire. After obtaining independence in 1991, though, Azerbaijan switched from Cyrillic to Latin script again, adopting a modern variation of the 1929 writing system. The switch was part of a massive repackaging of Azerbaijani national identity, and a vehicle for the new government’s claims to legitimacy.
Writing systems can have the power to unite or divide related communities. Serbian and Croatian, for instance, are close dialects of the same language—so close that the language is usually referred to as Serbo-Croatian. Each, however, is militantly defined by its own script: Serbs use Cyrillic, Croats use Latin. Hindi and Urdu also share a common vocabulary and grammatical structure, and linguists refer to them as one language: Hindi-Urdu. In print, however, the distinction has religious and political significance. Hindi is written in Devanagari, historically associated with Hinduism, while Urdu is written in an Arabic script associated with Islam. Hindi is used in India, while Urdu is used in Pakistan.
Typography can also evoke narratives of the past in the service of national identity. In the ’30s, the Nazis embraced blackletter type as deeply and authentically German, and the Italian fascists engraved their monuments with capital letters in a Trajanic style, making a conspicuous connection between their party and the Roman Empire. But such movements can emerge from the grassroots as well. In the Basque region of Spain, the Euskadi-style script—lettering with bulging shapes and tapered serifs, the result of ancient artisans’ technique of scraping stone from the outside of the letters instead of engraving them—evokes myths of an idyllic past separate from Spain.
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