Revolutionary Scripts: The Politics of Writing Systems

by Richard Oliver Collin
Department of Politics and Geography
Coastal Carolina University

[Presented 26 October 2005 at the Vernacular 2005 Conference on Language and Society, held at the Universidad de las Américas, Puebla, Mexico and sponsored by the American Political Science Association and the Policy Studies Organization.]

Abstract

This paper studies the relevance of scripts or writing systems to politics, drawing on recent work in sociolinguistics, linguistic anthropology, and the sociology of language, and applying these insights to the study of political conflict.

After an attempt to establish a common vocabulary, the paper explores how divergent writing systems may exacerbate conflicts within a speech community (Hindustani and Serbo-Croatian are examples) and, conversely, how a common writing system can confer national unity upon a linguistic group that has actually fragmented into separate speech communities (Chinese and Arabic are cases in point).

After a glance at governmental interference with writing systems, the paper surveys several cases of deliberate script shift, examining the Korean and Turkish examples before reviewing the massive Soviet effort to configure writing systems within the USSR to achieve ideological objectives. With the collapse of the Soviet Empire, countries in Central Europe and Central Asia are now making politically significant choices about future writing systems.

The paper concludes with a note on the importance of writing system analysis to the understanding of ethnic and nationalist conflict.

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