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Serbian signs of the times are not in Cyrillic

A symptom of Westernization: Serbs read and write as well with the Latin alphabet.

By Nicole ItanoCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 29, 2008

Alphabet blizzard: Latin letters are increasingly replacing Serbian Cyrllic in newspapers, signs, and even bestselling books.

Nicole Itano

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BELGRADE, Serbia

In the years since this city emerged, battered and bombed, from the nightmare of Slobodan Milosevic's rule, Western capitalism has remade this city's graceful streets. Billboards hawk McDonald's and Coca-Cola, and young Serbs window shop for Diesel, Nike, and other Western brands.

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But the most visible symbol of Western encroachment may be the signs themselves: Everywhere, the Latin alphabet is edging out Serbian Cyrillic, the alphabet that once distinguished Serbs from their Croatian neighbors.

Around the globe, English-dominated culture threatens to subsume many small cultures and languages, but the Serbian Cyrillic alphabet is particularly endangered because there's a perfectly acceptable form of the written language, Serbo-Croatian, that uses the Latin alphabet. It's just not, well, historically Serbian.

Before World War II, Serbian Cyrillic – a 19th-century adaptation of the Russian alphabet – was dominant, and the Latin alphabet was rarely used here. But under Josip Broz Tito's Yugoslavia, which tried to forge a common identity among the its many peoples, the two scripts had equal status. In the 1990s, some of Serbia's nationalist politicians tried to assert the primacy of Cyrillic, but the wave of Western cultural influence that has washed in since Milosevic's 2000 fall has largely swept away those efforts.

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The Latin alphabet rules the streets of Belgrade today – with the exception of official documents and the fraying campaign posters that are almost all in Cyrillic, the vast majority of newspapers, magazines, billboards, and menus are written in Latin characters.

"That's the price of globalization," says Zorica Tomic, a professor of cultural and communication theory at the University of Belgrade, waving her hand at the evidence in nearby signs.

Most Serbs say they're equally comfortable in both alphabets – many insist they don't even notice when switching between the two. But in subtle ways, Cyrillic is fading from everyday use and Latin is becoming the alphabet of choice – particularly among Serbia's urban population.

The dimly lit Cyber-Shark Internet cafe is a good example. A dozen young people sit hunched over computers, logged in to Western Internet sites like Facebook, MySpace, and Skype. A giant poster advertises an Internet role-playing game, Guild Wars. Here it's not just the Latin alphabet that dominates, but English.

Goran Nikolovski, the 21-year-old manager, keeps his MySpace page open all day so he can stay tuned to the lives of friends from his other life as a popular Belgrade DJ. He is part of Serbia's new Internet generation, which chats by text message (in the Latin alphabet, because cellphone Cyrillic is not an option) and through online communities like MySpace.

"Technology is the main reason young people use more Latin than Cyrillic," he says. The default on all the computers here is the Latin alphabet and Mr. Nikolovski only gets rare requests from "older people" to switch them to Cyrillic.

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What if Serbian Cyrillic disappeared altogether? Nikolovski shrugs. "It's all the same to me."

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