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Kazakh Gets Re-Written, Will Begin Using Latin Script

By Azamat Batyrov April 14, 2017

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Kazakhstan starts a milestone alphabet transition from Cyrillic to Latin / Evgeny Tkachenko / About Kazakhstan

Kazakh, one of Kazakhstan’s two official languages, will soon be getting a make-over. The Cyrillic script, used to write the language and is more popularly associated with Russian, will be replaced with a Latin alphabet instead, intended to make learning the language easier for foreigners and aid children with learning English, according to Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Nazarbayev made the announcement via an official article published in the state-owned Egemen Kazakhstan newspaper on Wednesday, stating that the switch will be complete by 2025.

"By the end of 2017, after consultation with academics and representatives of the public, a single standard for the new Kazakh alphabet and script should be developed," Nazarbayev wrote. “From 2018, Kazakhstan must train specialists to teach the new alphabet and produce textbooks for secondary schools." 

Nazarbayev called on the government to begin preparatory work to make the change and create a schedule for the switchover, ordering all official documents, periodicals and books in Kazakh to be published in Latin, rather than Cyrillic, letters. Nazarbayev believes the new alphabet will pave the way for more effective modernization of Kazakhstan – a post-Soviet state created in 1991 after the collapse of the USSR – and more easily facilitate communication with the world beyond the borders of a region historically dominated and influenced by Russia.

Having first floated the idea to switch scripts in 2012, the country’s 82-year old leader believes that using a Latin script to write Kazakh – a language spoken or at least understood by 74 percent of the country’s 18 million inhabitants – will enable Kazakhstani children to learn English faster.

 “The state or the nation should not be like rigid metal, they should be living organisms capable of constantly evolving. You need to be able to change to keep up with life. Anybody that fails to understand this will always lag behind,” read the letter.

Home to more than seven ethnic groups, most of Kazakhstan’s citizens, called Kazakhstanis, identify as being ethnically Kazakh, which is also the name of the country’s official state language according to its constitution, although Russian is also recognized as an official language.

While ethnic Russians make up nearly a quarter of Kazakhstan’s population, compared to 63 percent of inhabitants who are Kazakh, their influence has dominated Central Asia for centuries. The Kazakh language is Turkic, however, even though its modern form consists of many loan words from Russian, Persian, Arabic, Mongol, Uzbek, Tatar and Chinese languages. 

Nazarbayev’s move to use a Latin alphabet for the Kazakh language will not be the first time it is written using a script commonly associated with European languages like English, German, Italian and Spanish. After 1927, the Latin script had replaced a modified version of the Arabic script, which had been used since the eleventh century. But by 1940, Cyrillic was introduced as a common alphabet for all republics of the Soviet Union, which included Kazakhstan. 

Since then, Kazakh has been written using a modified version of the Russian alphabet, also written in Cyrillic script, consisting of Russian’s 33 letters plus another nine. These include letters like “Ғ”, “Қ” and “Ң” to represent guttural sounds not found in Russian, and vowels like “Ө”, “I”, and “Ұ”.

While the Cyrillic alphabet currently dominates written communication amongst Kazakhstanis within the country, the Kazakh diaspora in Turkey uses a Latin script. In China, Kazakh communities use Arabic.

Linguists in Kazakhstan are divided over whether Latin or Cyrillic more easily transmits the sounds of the Kazakh language, and on which form of the Latin script to adopt. Turkic states using Latin, such as Turkey, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, use a variety of scripts, and no one format applies to all Turkic languages. 

Shakir Ibaev, a professor of philology at the Eurasian National University in Astana, is convinced that converting back to Latin will make life easier for foreigners in Kazakhstan.

“With the current [Cyrillic] Kazakh alphabet many sounds and syllables in oral speech are lost in writing, as we write one thing and say another. The foreigner who starts learning the Kazakh alphabet will read in the same way it is written,” Ibaev said according to a report by Sputnik Kazakhstan.

“The alphabet switchover will eliminate [this problem] language barrier and fear for foreigners,” he added.

Nazarbayev’s desire to switch to the Latin script – something Turkey’s Mustafa Kemal Atatürk did in 1928 to alter the written form of another Turkic language, namely Turkish – will not bypass politics, says political analyst and member of the Communist People’s Party of Kazakhstan Sultanbek Sultanguliev, who linked the reasons behind changing scripts to Kazakhstan’s geopolitical and foreign policy ambitions.

“We cannot exclude that the president’s article is a signal to Moscow and the West. For Russia, it is a hint at being more compliant with the issues of common economic interests for Kazakhstan, but for the West it is a demonstration of loyalty and a sign of independence from Russia, against the background of deterioration in Russia-US relations,” Sultanguliev said.