when letters turn into political symbols

Painted on the facet of tanks and emblazoned on the shirt of Russian gymnast Ivan Kuliak, the letter Z has come to symbolize assist for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It has even been integrated into the spelling of place names similar to КуZбасс in south central Russia.

In some international locations, the Czech Republic as an illustration, there are even discussions about whether or not displaying the letter needs to be a felony offence. Its rise comes shortly after one other lesser-used letter from the Latin alphabet – Q – turned part of far-right politics within the US (and overseas) by the conspiracy idea QAnon.

Using symbols is a basic a part of any political battle -– a part of the propaganda technique that tries to form the general public narrative. However what’s most fascinating is how these efficient symbols emerge, and that a few of them resonate so powerfully that they find yourself banned as a type of hate speech.

The warfare for public opinion that runs alongside the precise warfare in Ukraine has given rise to a bunch of symbols representing assist for one facet or the opposite. Twitter is stuffed with individuals including the Ukrainian flag emoji to their title. The defiant phrases of the Ukrainian defenders of Snake Island – “Russian warship, go fuck your self!” – have turn into a robust underdog slogan, and even the idea for an official Ukrainian postage stamp.

On the opposite facet, probably the most notable image has been the straightforward Z. There have been many theories about why this letter has turn into a pro-war image, and what its origins is likely to be. Is it as a result of it represents the Russian phrase for west (zapad), the course by which Putin’s tanks are rolling? Or is it shorthand for Za pobedu –- “for victory”? There’s additionally the oddity that the Cyrillic alphabet doesn’t have an indication resembling Z. The zed sound is written as З.

Giving letters which means

The circumstances of an emblem’s origin are solely a small a part of its story. It’s the best way symbols come to resonate in society, and the way individuals impose meanings on them, which transforms arbitrary indicators into highly effective devices of propaganda.

Political symbols can take just about any type you may think about. In 2013, penguins turned the image of anti-government protesters in Istanbul. When violent clashes between police and protesters first broke out, all of the nationwide TV channels selected to not cowl them. CNN Türk as an alternative ran a documentary about penguins –- which protesters then adopted as an emblem for his or her battle, and to mock the broadcaster.

Using letters of the alphabet as political symbols is just a little uncommon for the straightforward cause that particular person letters aren’t meant to have any intrinsic which means of their very own. They’re supposed merely to symbolize sounds which, when mixed, produce phrases which solely then have a which means.

When the Nato phonetic alphabet (Alfa, Bravo, Charlie and so forth) was being developed, one of many standards for phrases used to symbolize letters was that they need to “be free from any affiliation with objectionable meanings”. They need to be politically and culturally impartial, in the identical method the letters themselves are.

The neutrality of alphabetic letters was additionally behind the World Well being Group’s determination to make use of Greek letters to designate new COVID variants. Previous to this, the variants had been named in accordance with their place of birth, however this risked stigmatising areas or international locations by having them perpetually related to the virus. Even then, sure letters needed to be omitted in case they by accident led to undesirable associations. The Greek letter Xi, for instance, was skipped because it resembles the surname of the president of China, Xi Jinping.

What this reveals is that language is at all times doubtlessly political, exactly as a result of it’s on the coronary heart of how people work together – and human interplay itself is at all times, at some stage, political. Phrases and symbols have a denotative which means – their literal “dictionary definition” – however additionally they carry traces of the historical past of their use, which colors the connotations they’ve for individuals.

A man points at a black t-shirt with a letter Z on it at a souvenir stall
A memento store in St. Petersburg sells t-shirts with the letter Z, whereas Russia continues its assault on Ukraine.
Anatoly Maltsev / EPA-EFE

It’s not stunning that the 2 latest situations of alphabetic letters as political symbols have adopted the 2 least used of all of the letters. Z has historically been seen as superfluous in English –- a lot in order that Shakespeare made it the idea of an insult in King Lear: “Thou whoreson zed! Thou pointless letter!” And Q has associations with phrases similar to question and query. So neither was a totally clean canvas earlier than their use was co-opted.

In the end, nonetheless, it’s the best way that indicators are literally used that transforms them into symbols. It’s a matter of who they’re utilized by, for what goal. As soon as this utilization begins to unfold by society and is adopted by supporters, highlighted and debated by the media – and, in some instances, banned – its which means shortly will get embedded within the tradition. Finally, it turns into a part of the on a regular basis vocabulary we use to make sense of the world.

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