Who do we want to be like? Writing can unite

How we portray ourselves says something important about who we want to be
How we portray ourselves says something important about who we want to be

People tend to match their language and mannerisms with the group they want to fit in with. Small children like to imitate their parents, for example. We can change alignment, too. Once small kids become teenagers, they try to do everything in a way different from their parents. Their language goes from imitating their parents to matching their peers. Grown people also change behavior in different social settings. Wives roll their eyes when they see their husbands horsing around with their high school friends. “At least they (mostly) don’t act like this at home!” they think to themselves. (Fortunately, we know what’s acceptable there.) Through speech and mannerisms, humans fit themselves in with the most significant group at a given time and place.

Societies shift their alignment, too. While they may see themselves akin to one group at one time, a change in worldview can bring them into sync with another group. Russian society, aligned with the West in the 18th and 19th centuries, to the extent that some aristocrats spoke French but not Russian. They rejected the West in the October Revolution in the early 20th century. In the late 20th century, it aspired to similar ideals as the West, expressed by the new advertising slogan, “Новое поколение выбирает Пепси!” “A new generation chooses Pepsi!” In the early 21st century, it moved away from the West again in struggles over the status of independent journalism and the imprisonment of Pussy Riot. Each move reveals a shift towards or against an ideology associated with the West.

Language reveals such shifts, as well, and look different depending on how the society imagines itself. The penetration of technology into people’s lives changes how they speak. Whatever native language an Indian speaks, the words “IT,” “End User,” or “Tech Support,” all come out in English. At the same time, L’Académie française, the French Academy, replaces foreign neologisms in order to preserve the French language and culture. For example, “bookmark” would be “le marque-page”. The Academy seeks to make the French language the most basic reference in communication, as opposed to another standard, such as English.

Last post, I discussed how alphabets can be used to divide.  In this post, I will show how writing systems unite.  A seemingly superficial change in a language, the script or alphabet, reveals how a society wants to align itself. I’ve collected a few examples that show changes in writing systems, which move in a new cultural direction, unify multiple cultures, and assimilate to an occupying force. While a language may or may not change, a society can use the form of writing to express affinity with another culture or to unite disparate groups with a single culture.

Moving towards the West

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk

For most of its history Turkish was written with the Arabic alphabet. In the early 20th century, however, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk initiated a vast reform to modernize and, many ways, westernize. Educational reform comprised a large part of the reform, which included moving communication from the Arabic to the Latin alphabet. The reasons were complex. The facts here come from the article, “Atatürk’s Reforms.”

One reason was that the Arabic script was not well-equiped to depict the complex vowels of Turkish as well as the Latin script. In addition, Atatürk wanted to purify the Turkish language of foreign words, especially from Arabic and Persian. The Arabic script was better equipped to depict Arabic words. Since Atatürk wanted to make the language more Turkish and less Arabic, the change of script suited both desires.

Technology also influenced Atatürk’s decision. The 19th century technologies of the telegraph and moveable-type printing press demonstrated the weakness of using the Arabic alphabet. They were designed to work with the Latin alphabet; you could not communicate a message in the Arabic script with a telegraph, for example. For Turkish ideas to be expressed broadly and quickly, the alphabet had to match that of current communication technologies.

This part of the educational reform displayed a symbolic unification with the West among the other reforms. By sharing this aspect of literacy, Turkey identified and aligned with the West over the mother of Turkish literacy, the Arab East.

Writing unites peoples

Chinese benefits from an international alphabet. The writing system is used across the country as the standard, even among the scores of languages and dialects spoken in its territory. The written language maps most closely, however, to the standard Mandarin dialect, though it does not match it precisely.

Other languages in China use other writing systems, but only for their own language. Cantonese, for example, uses a form of writing that more resembles the spoken form.  Uyghur currently uses four scripts, none of which resembles Chinese writing.  Dungan, which is a dialect resembling Mandarin, uses the Cyrillic alphabet. Other languages aren’t writing at all.

The written Chinese language, nevertheless, achieved unity among a diversity of peoples and languages in its vast territory. International communication, that is, among the many peoples of China, can take place because everyone is taught the same written language. Remnants of earlier Chinese imperial power can be seen in Japanese and Korean writing, which began with Chinese writing. They moved away from Chinese writing to different extents, as they formed their own national identity, but the common Chinese roots of writing show the early international influence of this writing system. Chinese writing offers a way of communicating easily among speakers of many languages, centered on the Mandarin-based power structure.

Assimilating and flourishing

The Coptic Alphabet

Most people are familiar with the ancient Egyptian language as written in hieroglyphics on, for example, the great pyramids. The language and its writing went through more than one stage of evolution. As the Rosetta Stone illustrates, formal hieroglyphic writing was superceded by a handwritten, cursive style. After many centuries of development, the later form of the language is called “Coptic.” (Three different dialects exist, but that is not relevant for this post.) The language started being written with Greek letters, starting in the 1st century BCE after the Greeks took control of the country in the 4th-3rd centuries BCE. Information comes from the article, “Coptic Language.”

Beyond the writing system, Egypt was becoming heavily influenced by Greek culture. Greek Alexandrian literature was some of the most important writing in pre-Christian times, and held on to this influence after the early adoption of Christianity in that city. The Coptic language was also an important literary language for many centuries, and it was promoted by students of Greek rhetoric. As Christianity blossomed in Greek-dominated lands, Coptic flourished. Many hagiographa were written in Coptic, as were many of the famous gnostic writings of the Nag Hammadi library.

As Greek culture came to dominate Coptic culture, Greek writing became more important. The Coptic language itself remained strong, but the strong influence of Greece is apparent in the alphabet, the vehicle of Egyptian literature.

Determining alignment

Turkey plugged into the benefits of the progressive West and turned away from the East by shifting to the Latin alphabet. Chinese united different nations under one written form of language. Coptic entered into a new cultural millieu by adopting the alphabet of their Greek conquerers. An alphabet symbolizes unity, even if the languages remain mutually incomprehensible.

Who do you want to read your writing? How do you make sure they read what you have to say? How do you make sure your people can read what they have to say? After answering these questions, cultures tend to align themselves with a particular form of writing, even if the language stays the same. Even though an alphabet expresses no linguistic meaning on its own, it manifests cultural solidarity, like food or clothing does.

Not just what we express, but how we express it says something about who we are and who we aspire to be. As intelligent human beings, we must be aware of our speech and behavior and who it aligns us with. By choosing carefully our form of expression, we can make ourselves closer to who we want to be.

Photo credit: SodanieChea / Foter.com / CC BY

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3 thoughts on “Who do we want to be like? Writing can unite

  1. Another very interesting post, think-you.

    Just one criticism – Korean writing doesn’t show all that much Chinese in it – it’s a separate alphabet that was invented in the court around the 14th century (I think that’s the date, I could be wrong). Yes, they sometimes use Chinese characters/words, but mostly the alphabet is completely different. It happened because the king at the time wanted his people to be literate, and learning how to write in Chinese was/is very difficult, so he commissioned a bunch of advisors to invent an alphabet for their language.


    1. Thanks for keeping me honest, Rachel! I probably overstated the overlap there.

      It would be interesting to study more in depth the method of adaptation of Chinese writing in Japanese and Korean relatively. Did Korean completely make up their writing or did they pick up cues from Chinese? I’d so, to what extent?


      1. To be honest, I don’t really know. My Korean lessons were a long time ago, back when I wasn’t very interested in languages, and we barely touched on how the writing system was devised. I do know that they studied how sounds were formed to make the alphabet – for example, “G” and “N” are written ┐ and └ because that’s the shape the tongue makes. And both “NG” and silent are written O, presumably because that’s also the shape the mouth makes. And similar-sounding letters look similar – “K” is the same as G but with another horizontal stroke halfway down, like a backwards F, “B” and “P” look similar, “D” and “T” are [ and E, and so forth (sorry, my keyboard doesn’t support Korean letters…) Of course it’s written in syllables (initial consonant top-left, vowel can be top-right or underneath, depending on which vowel it is, and a final consonant can be at the bottom), so it looks a bit like Chinese to the Western observer.


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