September 1993 (1.3)
The New Azerbaijani Alphabet
The Upside-Down 'e' (An Editor's Nightmare)*
by Betty Blair
Actually, I really wasn't aware that any problem existed with the Azerbaijani alphabet until I walked into one of Baku's highest educational institutions this past June and one of the top administrators confided, "We really have a problem with our new alphabet - it's that upside down 'e.' Do us a favor: in your next issue of Azerbaijan International, replace it with a combination "ae" or some such letter, and put a footnote at the bottom of the page explaining what you've done. The Latin alphabet is capable of handling every sound in our language. We shouldn't have created a letter that was outside the standard Latin alphabet."
I listened. This wasn't just some academic who happened to be disgruntled about some pedantic, esoteric matter. He, himself, a respected linguist, had been a member of the government's advisory board who helped make the decision to adopt the new alphabet.
"We were mostly linguists on that committee. We knew all about language, but we didn't have the technological expertise to anticipate all the complications we were getting into when we created a few letters of our own."
The "upside down 'e'" represents the /æ/ sound in the Azerbaijani language. (In English, it's like the vowel sound in words like "fat cat.") Curiously enough, this symbol wasn't included in the original alphabet adopted on December 25, 1991.
At that time, it was represented with two dots (dieresis or umlaut) (ä). But it seems this representation, since it has to carry the weight of the most frequently used sound in the language, became very cumbersome. Not only was it awkward to write all those dots. It was slow, tedious, and extremely unappealing aesthetically, whether handwritten or typed.
For example, the first name of Azerbaijan's first elected President is Äbülfäzl ,which, when written with the new alphabet, needed 6 dots. Arabic, a script infamous for its dots, used only 3; and Cyrillic, none.
And so it was that on May 16, 1992, the first official change was introduced into the new alphabet; the "upside down 'e'" was resurrected, like the eternal phoenix rising from consuming flames. There was a history to its reappearance. Actually, it was one of the oldest letters in the non-Arabic representation of the Azerbaijani language. Created in 1928 when the Latin script was originally adopted, it somehow managed to escape unscathed during the Cyrillization (1939-1991) of the Soviet era, and for that reason, it's shape, though strange to Westerners, was very familiar to Azerbaijani readers.
(But back to my story). Time passed. I returned to California and had a chance to speak with some of the professors teaching Azeri classes in universities across the United States.
"What are you doing about the upside down 'e' in the new script?" I asked. One paused, "Well, I don't have it on my computer yet, so I'm writing out all the instructional material by hand."
Another was managing quite fine, except for the 'e' (as we soon came to call it). "I could work ten times faster if I could find a typeface with this 'e,'" he told me. At first he had tried using the symbol known as "partial differential" on the standard keyboard. But it really didn't align well. Like a tall, awkward, gangly kid who is always standing head and shoulders above his peers, somehow this shape just didn't fit. Then he managed to find a Cyrillic Azeri typeface, and so every time he needed an upside-down "e," he had to "import" and "paste" it in - sometimes two or three times in a single word. The last time I talked with him, he had finally managed to get a customized typeface - and life was just fine.
I called one of the U.S. companies that has a joint-venture project in Azerbaijan. "The upside down 'e?' Well, we don't quite know what to do," they told me. "I'm sure someone can design it for us if we need it--but we're still in a dilemma about which language to use - Russian or Azeri. We're trying so hard to be appropriate and so sensitive. It's real important to us not to offend anybody."
Shortly afterwards, I contacted a good friend of mine who is a computer programmer. I wanted to explore the implications of designing a new letter for the computer."It's no problem. No big deal.You can design any shape you want. There are plenty of software packages available to design your own font."
He failed to mention that the cost for these "design-it-yourself" software packages begins at about $250, and in my own case, where would I find the hours to sit and plod through some manual to figure how to make an upside down 'e?'
I asked my friend to do a little research to find out what other implications there might be for the computer, such as international copyright regulations and e-mail transmission.
Copyright turned out to be, as he put it, "a can of worms." Legally, you can't just add a letter or two to some existing font that somebody else has created and then sell it as your own.
As for e-mail, transmission is possible, though a bit involved, as "binary file transfer" (which preserves the text exactly as written) must be used (software packages like UUENCODE and UUDECODE). Of course, both transmitter and receiver need identical Azeri font programs.
But my friend soon tired of the subject, and it wasn't long before he was sending me e-mail - "Come on, Blair, quit 'e-bashing'" (obviously new slang for what he perceived me to be doing to the Azeri alphabet). "Lay off. I told you everything is possible with computer technology. Don't go making such a big deal over this 'e.'
"Hey look, I'm not 'e-bashing,'" I tried to defend myself. "Sure computers can do everything if you have the social and economic infrastructure to support it. But at what price? No one can afford to buy fonts at $100 in Azerbaijan. Doctors only make $20-$30 a month (U.S. currency equivalent). It would take half a year just to earn that amount of money. And with rampant inflation and the war - it's totally out of the question.
"And," I continued, "if the 'e' weren't such a big problem, how is it possible that you can walk into any bookstore in Baku and count on one hand (no exaggeration) the books that have been published in the new Latin alphabet. Nearly two years have passed since the alphabet was officially adopted, and Azerbaijanis are a highly literate society. There's a real problem here.
"If you take a very close look at the Ministry of Education's first primer (Karimov, 1992), you'll see they had to customize every single upside-down 'e' by first printing an 'o,' then drawing a line through the center and cutting out a little wedge - an incredibly painstaking process."
Somehow, my friend still wasn't convinced of the complications involved, and it wasn't long afterwards that friends-of-this-friend started calling me.
"Why are you making such a big deal about the upside-down 'e?'" they wanted to know.
"Look, Azerbaijan simply can't support it. Economically, they're a new nation struggling to enter the market economy, and they should tap into the huge investment (time, money, and intellectual talent) that is awaiting them by staying within the restrictions of the standard Latin computer keyboard. They're a small country--only 7-8 million people. Who's going to manufacture a typewriter for such a small market? And thousands of typefaces already exist. Why should they do the work that's already been done for them?"
Days passed. More complications with the Azeri script became evident as we continued to try to put the magazine together. Our typeface, which obviously had been designed for 12-point size print couldn't produce the "g" when sized larger or smaller. Another font couldn't produce bold or italic, and, consequently required underlining. E-mail transmission was out of the question since none of us had the required software. In fact, we couldn't even swap disks. The upside-down 'e' on each customized typeface had been designed for different keys. On one, you pressed, "option +zero." Another used "alternate + comma" and a third required three strokes "alternate + shift + z."
The ergonomics were dizzying. Ideally, the most frequently used sounds in an alphabet should be represented by keys that are on, or, at least close to, the "home keys" (asdf jkl;) so that the typist can generate speed. But for me to type an upside-down 'e' (option + zero) is like making the little fingers of each hand pirouette like ballerinas across a stage in opposite directions.
Moving off the home keys so frequently to the extreme edges of the keyboard creates the possibility that typists won't always return to the home keys successfully. And if they don't, they'll end up with a whole string of misspelled words. Let's not talk about what happens to one's speed with these customized letters - when two, three, and sometimes four strokes are required to produce one character.
Among the customized Azeri fonts that exist in the U.S. right now, most of them resemble "Times." Azerbaijan International is produced mostly with "Helvetica." When we needed only one letter from the Azeri alphabet (as in this article), we had to open up the Azeri font and "paste" it in every single time. Despite all that effort, it had to be re-aligned each time - as it was slightly lower than the other letters. And, too, it was thinner.
But the telephone calls from "friends" weren't over. "It looks like you're really saying that the Azerbaijanis should simply adopt the English alphabet."
"Not at all," I replied. "I wouldn't wish the English alphabet on anybody - especially with its incredible lack of sound-symbol correlation. We have too few symbols to represent so many sounds - especially the vowels. No, let Azerbaijanis designate all their vowels. Just let them find a creative way to do it on the standard keyboard. There's all kinds of diacritical marks that can be added (¨ ´ ` ) not to mention the -æ- that already exists as one letter.
"It's obvious that the Azerbaijani alphabet designers were really thinking with pen and pencil when they added these new characters. There's no problem to add a little tail or slash to an s (ß), or to omit a dot from an i when it's done by hand - it's only a slight variation. But when it comes to machines, either the letter exists or it doesn't.
"That's why the new Azeri Latin alphabet, seemingly so close to the one used in the Western world today, is, in reality, so far away."
"But, then, you're making the alphabet dictated by technology," my friend added, unwilling to give up. "Azerbaijanis should be able to choose any symbol they want. Technology should serve them."
"You're right. Man should not be a slave to technology. The "tail shouldn't wag the dog." But that's idealistic and unreal. Technology always has its own limitations and perimeters. It's not the first time technology has shaped the alphabet. The same story has been repeating itself since the beginning of literary history. Greek and Latin were clearly determined by the hammer and chisel against marble - it's easier to carve straight lines in stone than rounded ones - that's why so many of our capitals are straight lines. The cursive Arabic was influenced by pen; cuneiform, by clay and sharp stick. Simply today, the determining tools are fonts, computer keyboards, and satellite transmissions - the only difference being that they're a bit new and unfamiliar in the alphabet designers' hands.
"Alphabets are really all about communication, not isolation. They're simply codes to represent speech and provide a means to express ideas beyond time and space. Azerbaijan doesn't need to 're-invent the wheel'. A whole vast world is out there ready to propel them into the 21st century if they can only find creative ways to fit their own unique language and circumstances into it."
Paul Jordan-Smith of UCLA's Office of Academic Computing contributed to this article.