Scripts, Religion and Ideology


Religion often determines the choice of alphabets. So do other ideological factors that have impact on religious ones—such as nationalism and Marxism. Opposition to the influence of religion led Mustafa Kemal Atatürk to switch the spelling of Turkish and Judeo-Spanish from Arabic and Hebrew letters to Latin characters. Nationalism led Romania to switch from the Cyrillic alphabet to Latin characters. Marxist regimes did not switch alphabets and writing systems but altered them. Thus, many Chinese characters were simplified by Chairman Mao. And in the Soviet Union, Yiddish words of Hebrew origin were spelled phonetically rather than traditionally, and final forms of letters were eliminated. In each of these and other cases discussed in this article, belief or identity was reflected in the writing systems of these various languages.

Keywords: religion, nationalism, political philosophy, identification, alphabets

Can an alphabet define a language? It can according to Solomon A. Birnbaum. He wrote, “It would not be extravagant to consider the question as to whether the term ‘Jewish language’ might not be appropriate even if the language of a Jewish group and its non-Jewish parallel were to differ only in the alphabet employed. For difference of script is an unmistakable sign that the writers of the languages live in separate cultural realms and the very difference is itself instrumental in creating what amounts to an insurmountable practical barrier between the written languages of the two groups” (Birnbaum 1979:9).

A striking example of the relationship between writing systems and language identification is found in China. Mandarin, Cantonese, Shanghainese etc. are generally referred to as dialects of Chinese, despite the fact that they are mutually unintelligible. They are all written with Chinese characters, which exist independently of the pronunciation of the words they represent. Perhaps if these varieties of Chinese had been written using an alphabet, it would have become obvious that they are not mutually intelligible. The writing system of Chinese in all its varieties supports Birnbaum’s theory that scripts are a major aspect of defining what is a language and what is a dialect.

Are Hindi and Urdu separate languages? There has been debate about whether they are mutually intelligible. We needn’t get into that discussion. What we know is that Hindi is written in the Devanagari alphabet, reflecting the Hindu religion of its speakers. Urdu is written in a modified version of the Persian script, which is derived from the Arabic script, since its speakers are Muslims. The difference in alphabets is the primary reason that Hindi and Urdu are considered separate languages.

Bengali, on the other hand, is always written in Bengali script, part of the same family as Devanagari. Bengali is the official language of Bangladesh, a Muslim-majority country, and the Indian state of West Bengal, which has a Hindu majority. Since both groups use the same writing system, Bengali is considered a single language, despite the fact that Bangladesh and West Bengal have different systems of standardized spelling. In 1947, the Bengali-speaking people of East Pakistan (today’s Bangladesh), who identified strongly with their language, demanded that Bengali be given equal status with Urdu as an official language. When their demands were ignored, the speakers of Bengali were convinced that ethnic and political domination by West Pakistan motivated the decision. Eventually, after great strife and loss of life, East Pakistan achieved independence in 1971, becoming Bangladesh (Pasha 1995; Afzal 2001). Now that Bangladesh is an independent nation, there are differences in the ways that Bengali is spelled in India and in Bangladesh, as well as differences in vocabulary (see Bagchi 1996). Nevertheless, in both countries the language is recognized as Bengali (called “Bangla” in Bengali).

Similarly, Serbian and Croatian are mutually intelligible. Sometimes, the language is called Serbo-Croatian. Now that Serbia and Croatia are independent countries, the languages are often considered distinct by their governments. Serbian is written in the Cyrillic alphabet, reflecting the Eastern Orthodox religion of most of its speakers; Croatian is written in the Latin alphabet, since most of its speakers are Roman Catholic. In Bosnia, however, where many of the speakers are Muslims, there is no version of the language written in Arabic letters. Both Cyrillic and Latin letters are found. Latin letters are more commonly used, probably since they are the most common in the rest of the world.

Jewish languages, such as Yiddish, Judeo-Italian, Judeo-Persian, etc., are written in the Hebrew alphabet. So was Judeo-Spanish—also called Ladino or Judezmo—for most of its history. “Just as Christians wrote Medieval Spanish in the Roman alphabet of the Catholic Church and Hispano-Romance-speaking Muslims wrote their language in the Arabic letters of the Qur’ān, so the Jews of Spain practiced what their descendants in the Ottoman Empire called soletrear ‘writing the vernacular in the Hebrew alphabet’” (Bunis 2016: 381). However, when Mustafa Kemal Atatürk decided that Turkey was a secular state in 1928, he changed the Turkish writing system from Arabic letters to Latin letters. “On the order of Kemal Atatürk in 1928, the Republic of Turkey switched virtually overnight from the Arabic-based script of Ottoman Turkish … to a Roman alphabet script” (Comrie 1996: 682). Judezmo followed. “In the 1930s, the Judezmo press of Istanbul began to appear in Turkish Romanization” (Bunis 2018: 211).

Here is sentence in Ladino in Hebrew script (Rashi script no longer exists):

Here is the same sentence in the Latin alphabet:

Kada benadam i benadam nase forro i igual en dinyidad i en derechos. Todos son baale razon i konsiensia i deven komportarsen los unos verso los otros kon fraternidad.

Here is a translation:

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

During World War II, Turkey was not occupied by Germany, and so its Jews survived, unlike the Jews of Greece and the former Yugoslavia, most of whom were rounded up and taken to death camps. Consequently, most of the Ladino-speaking Jews in the world today are from Turkey or descended from people who lived in Turkey. In almost all the world, Judeo-Spanish is written in the Latin alphabet. In Israel, however, Hebrew letters have returned (personal communication from Daisy Sadaka Braverman). Although Solomon Birnbaum wrote that a Jewish language might differ from its non-Jewish parallel only in the alphabet employed, as we have seen above, Ladino did not rejoin Spanish when it began to use Latin characters. It had been developing independently, especially since the expulsion from Spain in 1492. Furthermore, it does not use Latin letters according to Spanish orthographic traditions. For example, the letter K is standard in Ladino.

Regimes in Marxist countries did not switch to different alphabets but modified their writing systems. China introduced simplified characters after Chairman Mao took over the country. Writers of Yiddish in the Soviet Union dropped the final variants of its letters; they no longer wrote words that had been borrowed from Hebrew in their traditional spelling, without vowels, but instead spelled these words phonetically, with letters for both vowels and consonants. Gennady Estraikh writes, “On 8 March 1919, the reform of Yiddish spelling was put on the agenda of the Central Bureau of the Jewish sections” (Estraikh 1999: 120). There was a “Second Conference of Jewish Cultural Workers (April 1928, in Kharkov)” (124). “The 1928 spelling code, as amended in January 1929, became the official Soviet Yiddish orthography” (131). In traditional Yiddish spelling, the name of author Sholem Aleichem is written as follows:

Here is the author's name in Soviet Yiddish:

Outside of the Soviet Union, traditional Yiddish spelling survived and is still used today.

Mongolia was officially an independent country during the Stalin era, but it was a de facto Soviet satellite. In the 1940s, the historic Mongol characters were replaced by Cyrillic. The historic Mongol script was derived from the Uyghur script during the reign of Genghis Khan in the 13th Century. It is written vertically. After the fall of the USSR, the people of Mongolia initiated a democratic revolution in the early 1990s, and some protesters demanded that the Mongolian Cyrillic alphabet imposed by the socialist political system, be replaced by the classical script. György Kara (1996) writes that “recent political changes favor its revival” (Kara: 545). In In Inner Mongolia, which is part of China, Cyrillic is not in any way connected to Chinese, and so Cyrillic was never introduced into Mongolian writing. Today, the Mongolian minority in China still can use the historic script.1

Here are the words “Mongolian script,” written in Mongolian script:

And here is “Mongolian script” written in Mongolian Cyrillic:

Монгол бичиг

The Uyghur alphabet survives in Inner Mongolia, but in its homeland, Xinjiang Province in Western China, Uyghur, a Turkic language, has been replaced by Arabic script, reflecting the religion of most of its speakers.

In addition to the Uyghurs, there is another and probably larger group of Muslims called the Hui (pronounced [hwe]) who live in almost every part of China. They speak a language very closely related to Mandarin Chinese, called Huihuihua, but their former written language, using Arabic script, was called Xiao’erjing (Dillon 1999: 155) However, by and large, they simply speak Chinese. The Chinese character for the name for the Hui people is the same as for the very familiar word hui meaning ‘return’. In Kaifeng, Henan Province, there are two groups called Huihui, Muslims and Jews. As I have noted elsewhere (Jochnowitz 2015), the ancestors of the Jews “may have come from Persia or Central Asia. The date of their migration is unknown. Their variety of Judeo-Persian died more than 200 years ago. … In Kaifeng, interestingly, the Muslims were called the bai mao (white hat) Huihui and the Jews were called the lan mao (blue hat) Huihui” (308). There exists a Haggadah—the text of the service for the Passover Seder, written in Early Judeo-Persian, “originally composed no later than the thirteenth century CE. The extensive use of EJP [early Judeo-Persian] for instructions to the reading of the text and the translation of the Hebrew hymn points to the likelihood of the Passover Haggadah originated from Persian-speaking lands, perhaps modern day Central Asia” (Wong and Yasharpour 2011: 63).

In China, the Hui are distinguished simply by their religion. Nevertheless, they are counted as a separate group by the Chinese government. The 1990 census reported a population of 8,602,928, of whom 185,000 lived in Beijing (Dillon 1999: 1). One province of China is officially named the Ningxia Hui Autonomous region. It is located in northwestern China, adjacent to Inner Mongolia. The Hui community used to write Chinese using the Arabic alphabet, although apparently, that knowledge had been lost during the period of the anti-religious restrictions under Chairman Mao. Under Mao, “minority schools and colleges were closed down, the use of language minority scripts was restricted or even banned and many cadres of minority nationality were replaced by Hans” (Dillon 1999: 164).

Marxism is an atheistic ideology. Although it is not a religion, it has introduced changes in the writing systems of many languages. Marxist countries did not switch to different alphabets but modified their writing systems. The Soviet Union, in 1918, removed the hard sign from the ends of words, where it was no longer pronounced and served no phonetic purpose. In China, many of the traditional characters were simplified by the State Council of the People’s Republic of China. Taiwan and Hong Kong kept the traditional characters. Today, Mainland China and Taiwan use these different versions of Chinese characters.

Turkey, China, and the USSR changed writing systems to free themselves from the past. Romania, on the other hand, switched from the Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet to reunite with its past. During the period 1880–82, Romania abandoned Cyrillic, despite the fact that a majority of Romanian speakers are Orthodox Christians. People had become increasingly aware of the fact that Romanian was a Romance language. History mattered more. Marius Sala (2005) writes,

The latter half of the second millennium is undoubtedly characterized by the linguistic ‘victory’ of the Romanian language. Romanian is introduced into private letters (the first letter written in Romanian dates from 1521). … The Cyrillic alphabet was replaced by the Latin alphabet (although the first texts written in the Latin alphabet date from the 16th century, the use of the Latin alphabet becomes official and compulsory only in the 19th century). [The Romanians] suddenly turned westwards, pushed by the Enlightenment. The Romanians’ orientation toward the Neo-Latin peoples entailed the re-Romanization of Romanian (Sala 2005: 27).

In Bessarabia, however, the Cyrillic alphabet remained, since the area was part of the Russian Empire, and later part of the Soviet Union—the Moldavian SSR. In 1989, what had been the Moldavian SSR became the country called Moldova. When that happened, the government switched from Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet.

The unstressed Vulgar Latin [o] became [u] in Romanian, and the name of the country once was Rumania. In France, the name of the country is still Roumanie. The same awareness of the country’s history as part of the Roman Empire led to changing the country’s name to Romania, thus rejecting the sound change of [o] to [u] that had taken place. Romanian did not become a different language when it switched from the Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet. It kept its religion and its culture. So did Ladino in Turkey, despite its change to Latin letters. Menachem Banitt (1963) says that the language of the Jews of medieval France was simply the French of its time. He is in disagreement with Solomon A. Birnbaum on this subject. Kirsten Fudeman discusses this question at some length (2010). It is sometimes apparent that using a different script leads to the creation of a new language. Yiddish is unambiguously different from German. On the other hand, the Romanian spelled in Cyrillic of the Moldovan SSR is unambiguously the same as the Romanian spelled in Latin letters of the country of Moldova. People may disagree about whether Cantonese is a Chinese dialect or an independent language. The debate will continue.

Religious, ideological, political and ethnic identities can be very powerful. Scripts can simultaneously reflect and define these identities. In the case of Marxism, reforming the world is an aspect of its ideology, and so writing systems have to be reformed by being made simpler. In the case of religion, writing systems reflect sacred texts. In the case of ethnicity, writing systems reflect national history, which may take precedence over religion, as happened in the cases of Bengali and Romanian. Choosing a script is making a statement. The choice of a script is a means of defining the primary identity of a language and its speakers.


When my daughter Miriam and I visited Inner Mongolia in 1989, we were delighted to see that every single sign in Chinese was accompanied by a translation into Mongolian written in the traditional alphabet.


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This article appeared in WORD, Volume 65, 2019 - Issue 3: Language and Religion.