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There are two theories for the etymology of the name Azerbaijan. One view is that since the word azer means “fire,” the name means “land of fire,” referring to the natural burning of surface oil deposits, or to the oil-fueled fires in temples of the Zoroastrian religion. The other theory is that the name is a derivative of Atropaten, an ancient name of the region, named after Atropat, who was a governor for Alexander the Great in the fourth century B.C.E.
Although Azerbaijan’s history shows the mark of substantial religious and cultural influence from Iran, linguistically and ethnically the country is predominantly Turkic. The republic was part of the Soviet Union for seventy years, but Russian culture had only incidental impact.
The official language is Azerbaijani, a Turkic, belonging to the southern branch of the Altaic languages. In 1994 it was estimated that some 82 percent of Azerbaijan’s citizens speak Azerbaijani as their first language. In addition, 38 percent of Azerbaijanis speak Russian fluently to accommodate Russian domination of the economy and politics. Although official Soviet figures showed that about 32 percent of Russians living in Azerbaijan spoke Azerbaijani, the Russian population generally was reluctant to learn the local language. Most Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh use Russian rather than Azerbaijani as their second language.
The Azerbaijani language is part of the Oghuz, or Western Turkic, group of Turkic languages, together with Anatolian Turkish (spoken in Turkey) and Turkmen (spoken in Turkmenistan). The Oghuz tribes of Central Asia spoke this precursor language between the seventh and eleventh centuries. The three descendent languages share common linguistic features. Dialectical differences between Azerbaijani and Anatolian Turkish have been attributed to Mongolian and Turkic influences. Despite these differences, Anatolian Turkish speakers and Azerbaijanis can often understand one another if they speak carefully. Spoken Azerbaijani includes several dialects. Since the nineteenth century, Russian loanwords (particularly technical terms) and grammatical and lexical structures have entered the Azerbaijani language in Russian-controlled Azerbaijan, as have Persian words in Iranian Azerbaijan. The resulting variants remain mutually intelligible, however.
In the immediate pre-Soviet period, literature in Azerbaijan was written in Arabic in several literary forms that by 1900 were giving way to a more vernacular Azerbaijani Turkish form. In 1924 Soviet officials pressured the Azerbaijani government into approving the gradual introduction of a modified Roman alphabet. Scholars have speculated that this decision was aimed at isolating the Muslim peoples from their Islamic culture, thus reducing the threat of nationalist movements. In the late 1930s, however, Soviet authorities reversed their policy and dictated use of the Cyrillic alphabet, which became official in 1940. Turkey’s switch to a modified Roman alphabet in 1928 may have prompted Stalin to reinforce Azerbaijan’s isolation from dangerous outside influences by switching to Cyrillic. This change also made it easier for Azerbaijanis to learn Russian.
When the Soviet Union disintegrated, the alphabet question arose once again. Iran reportedly advocated use of Arabic as part of a campaign to expand the influence of Shia Islam in Azerbaijan. Most Azerbaijani intellectuals ultimately rejected switching to Arabic, however, noting that Iran had not allowed proper study of the Azerbaijani language in northern Iran. Instead, the intellectuals preferred a modified Roman alphabet incorporating symbols for unique Azerbaijani language sounds. In December 1991, the legislature approved a gradual return to a “New Roman” alphabet.