hidden europe 16

From alpha to omega: European alphabets

by Nicky Gardner


Travel around Europe and you will come across runic texts in Scandinavia and Scotland's Orkney islands, Glagolitic inscriptions in Croatia and Hebrew texts on synagogues across the continent. We explore how alphabets often become an emblem of identity.

The Iron Curtain may long since have disappeared, but another barrier still makes some west Europeans hesitate before travelling east. That is the thorny question of alphabets. Even if you don't understand a language, you can get a long way with a phrase book and a dictionary - provided of course you have a basic understanding of the alphabet. Getting to grips with Cyrillic is actually pretty easy, but a lot of travellers just don't try. Road signs, notices in shops, menus and bus timetables may all begin to take on some hazy meaning if you can just get your head round the alphabet. The effort always pays off. But it is not only travellers who have to cope with multiple alphabets. We take a look at how entire countries have chopped and changed the way they write.

When the distinguished Azeri literary critic Kamal Talibzade died last year at the age of eighty-three, so ended the life of a man who had with great ease used more alphabets than most of us could ever manage. Kamal was born into a country that then used the Arabic script - as indeed it had done for a dozen centuries. At home, he learnt the Arabic way of writing from his father. But not long into his school education, Azerbaijan switched from the Arabic to the Latin alphabet. Kamal duly learnt the Latin script. Then when Kamil was fifteen years old, Stalin decreed that all the Turkic Republics in the Soviet Union should switch to the Cyrillic alphabet, and Kamal started learning to read and write all over again.

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