Thursday, September 21, 2006



Letter writing

Sep 21st 2006 | SOFIA
From The Economist print edition

Of orthography and politics

IF BULGARIA joins the European Union in three months' time, which the European Commission will recommend next week, it will mark a rare turn in the 15-year retreat of the Cyrillic alphabet. For Bulgarian will then become an official EU language—and it will bring with it the script named after St Cyril, a ninth-century Byzantine monk.

Cyrillic has been in retreat ever since it was dumped, along with Soviet rule, first by Moldova, and then by Azerbaijan. Tatarstan, a Turkic republic in the middle of Russia, tried, rebelliously, to switch to Latin letters when Kremlin rule was wobbling, but it has since been forced to change back. In Central Asia, Cyrillic still survives, although Uzbekistan officially wants to change. In Montenegro, Europe's newest country after its secession from Serbia this summer, the Latin alphabet is increasingly popular, although in theory both still have equal status.

Does it matter? Alphabets work best with the languages for which they were invented. Everywhere else, the result is a confusing fudge of strange clusters of consonants, vowels and diacritical marks. In Slavic languages using the Latin alphabet, the sh and ch sounds, single letters in Cyrillic, become head-splitting combinations of sz, cz, ci, si, ś, š, and ć, as in the Polish word szczęśliwy (meaning happy).

Bulgaria's transliteration is particularly chaotic. Nikolay Vassilev, the minister responsible for sorting it out, cites the town of Панагюрище, which can be transliterated in no fewer than seven different ways. The new system plumps for Panagyurishte. Being back on the map of Europe is one thing. Being consistently recognised by outsiders may be quite another.


ogilicious said...

š, ž, đ, č, ć
ш, ж, ђ, ч, ћ

ogilicious said...

Sorry, I'm new to the system so my one comment is actually two. The diacritics work, just choose the right keyboard (if you dare write in Polish!). I thought it would be fun to have my New York business cards spelled correctly so that my last name Radić, wouldn't be Radic. It took a little bit of back and forth, but it worked out in the end. America is good like that: commerical mind and fear of discrimination accusations work wonders.

Once again, squeaky wheel...

widell said...

We did have the same problem with the Greek alphabet, didn't we? For Bulgarians, the Cyrillic alphabet is not a trivial matter as they regard St. Cyril as half Bulgarian.