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Kazakhstan’s $664 m Linguistic Reform Sees New Alphabet Comes Online

By Nazrin Gadimova May 18, 2018

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In February, Nazarbayev approved a modified version of the alphabet, which uses diacritics to denote sounds found in the Kazakh language that are not present, for example, in English or the European romance languages.

Kazakhstan’s government is striving to make learning the local language easier for foreigners to learn, and easier for locals to read and write.

A newly-adopted Kazakh alphabet, which uses a Latin, rather than Cyrillic alphabet, is available for users of Android and iOS smartphones, after linguists and software developers from Kazakhstan launched special keyboard for smartphones and tablets on Tuesday.

Dubbed “Qazaq Latin Keyboard,” the application features a transliteration service. Words in Kazakh can be entered in Cyrillic and the computer program will transform them into how they should be writing using the Latin script.

The app first appeared on Play Market this month, and already has more than 1,000 downloads, according to Sultan Aitzhanov, deputy director at the Fund of the first President of Kazakhstan.

“Before developing the application, we studied similar foreign projects,” Aitzhanov said Tuesday at a press conference held at the central communications agency. “The Russian and English [keyboard applications] are very well developed. The Kazakh language is just beginning to span the Internet.”

The development of the government-backed project lasted three months, and now the application is being improved upon and updated.

“We worked with the developers of the alphabet, which, as you know, changed twice,” added Azat Shaueev, who chairs the Foundation for the Development of the State Language.

A Latin alphabet for Kazakh was introduced by the Soviets and used from 1927 to 1940, at which time it was replaced with Cyrillic. In 2017, President Nursultan Nazarbayev announced that the government would be launching an effort to standardize a Latin script that will replace Cyrillic, requiring the transformation to be completed by 2025.

In September 2017, linguists from Kazakhstan’s Coordination and Methodological Center for the Development of Languages presented the first version of the Kazakh alphabet in a new Latin alphabet, which featured eight digraphs and 25 characters. However, this version did not guarantee the preservation of specific sounds of the Kazakh language.

Following public debates, President Nazarbayev was presented with another draft of the alphabet in late 2017. That version included 32 letters and featured an apostrophe. Kazakhstanis began actively discussing this version on the Internet – some users were interested how to write names using letters that were not displayed in the new alphabet, while others complained about the bulkiness of words created that required the use of numerous apostrophes.

In addition, a series of debates between academics, linguists, and public representatives have weighed in on the pros and cons of re-writing the alphabet.

In February, Nazarbayev approved a modified version of the alphabet, which uses diacritics to denote sounds found in the Kazakh language that are not present, for example, in English or the European romance languages.

While the project to re-write the language has not come cheaply – Astana budgeted about $664 million – Nazarbayev believes that using a Latin script to write Kazakh 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,” Nazarbayev wrote in an official article published in the state-owned Egemen Kazakhstan newspaper in 2017.

Meanwhile, some have warned that changing the script will result in a series of problems, including a generational gap, as the younger generations will not have access to their cultural heritage, as the letters and writings of previous generations, as well as the literature published in the Soviet and post-Soviet periods, will not be reprinted – and eventually become unreadable.

Elmira Orazaliyeva, Associate Professor at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Kazakh Language and Turkic Studies at Nazarbayev University, believes the preparatory stage for the transition will not be spontaneous and rapid.

“We need skilled personnel who will train the entire population, both in the city and in the countryside,” Orazaliyeva told Caspian News, adding that the difficulties are inevitable.

“These are development of spelling guidelines, the transition of everything already written and printed to the Latin alphabet, including written heritage, fiction, modern science-related publications. Taking into account international experience and practice, the process will be carried out step by step, and some time will be required,” she added.

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 such as 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. In 1928, the Soviet Union approved a single alphabet for the Turkic languages based on the Latin alphabet, but in 1940 it was replaced with the Cyrillic alphabet, used until the present day.