Politics of Romanisation in Azerbaijan (1921-1992)

Writing systems are used as, and considered to be, important tools and symbols of political discourses of their time. This article presents a historical overview of the alphabet changes in Azerbaijan and shows how the alphabets were associated with the discourses of modernisation, nationalism and national identity construction. In the early twentieth century, the discussion on the need to shift from the Arabic alphabet to the Roman was actually an extension of the wider debate on national identity and language coupled with the will to modernise and progress. In 1940, the Soviet regime imposed the shift from the Roman alphabet to the Cyrillic in a top-down manner This change was neither negotiated nor discussed among the intellectuals and there was almost no room for the expression of critical views. With the introduction of glasnost and perestroika in the late 1980s, intellectuals started to question to what extent the Cyrillic alphabet and the Russian language could represent the Azerbaijani language, civilisation, and national identity. In 1991, Azerbaijan adopted the Roman alphabet. The case of Azerbaijan shows that alphabet changes are symbolic acts to deny and/or reject the previous political and cultural heritage and its legitimacy and tools for undermining its prominence in the new processes of transformation and change.