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Latinisation of the Kazakh alphabet

How to understand the Kazakh case next to similar examples in the former Soviet Union.

December 3, 2019 - Okan Bahtiyar - Articles and Commentary

Baiterek Tower in Nur-Sultan, capital of Kazakhstan. Photo: Francisco Anzola (cc) flickr.com

“The future of Kazakh people lies in the fluent use of Kazakh, Russian and English languages”. This statement by former President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev, summarises the nuance for the meaning of Kazakh Latinisation. Official authorities in Russia have reacted by stating their understanding and respect for such a decision of a sovereign state. Whereas the more popular reactions from commentators in Russia were loaded with anger and nationalistic sentiments. Some Western analysts immediately interpreted this decision as a change in East-West relations and Kazakhstan becoming more Western. Neither is fully true. The answer for the right direction lies in the statement above.

The Latinisation of alphabets in the last century has brought with it political, as well as cultural changes for the nations involved. Ataturk’s language reforms in 1928 shifted Turkey’s orientation from the East to the West. Five years earlier, in 1923, Azerbaijan underwent a similar Latinisation process of their alphabet. In that time, these attempts were used as a method of placing the nations on the progressive line of human development. The choice of Kazakhstan to adopt a script change now is interesting. Yet, it is different than the two script changes above and also different than those in the former Soviet region after 1991. All of the post-Soviet states, like Moldova, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, that changed to the Latin script after 1991 did it to assert their independence.

However, the Kazakh transition to a Latin script comes at a time when integration with Moscow appears high on the agenda. The country has been a member of the Eurasian Economic Union since 2015. It is also not intended to slight Russian minorities. In Moldova which has Russians in Transniestra, the Latinisation in 1989 led to a frozen conflict. The context of Kazakhstan is different. For that reason, it is not adequate to read the Kazakh case by attaching the historical meanings to Latinisation in a similar way. It bears different meanings in an increasingly globalised and digitalised world.

The start signal for the Kazakh script change process from Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet was given by President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s signing of a decree on October 26th 2017. It announced that the Cyrillic alphabet will gradually be replaced with the Latin alphabet by 2025.

In this regard, the government had published an action plan explaining the gradual transition to the Latin alphabet. This action plan contains three phases: a regulatory-legal framework from 2018-2020, the transition of official records such as passports and IDs into Latin script from 2021-2023. The second phase will also include training of teachers and the population. In the final stage from 2024-2025, the aim is to use the Latin alphabet widely, like in the publishing of state media.

But what do all these attempts actually mean? While theories given to this long awaited (Nazarbayev stated in October 2017 that Latinisation has always been on their minds, since indepence in 1991) script change range from Kazakh Westernisation, to Turkey oriented policies, analysts do not pay enough attention to the changing conditions of the globalised and digitalised world.

A traditional Kazakh rug. Photo: Mark Heard (cc) wikimedia.org

Historical script changes in Eurasia

The Eurasian region is not unfamiliar with script change processes. The Turkic languages of the region have especially experienced several changes ranging between the Arabic, Cyrillic and Latin alphabets.

From the collapse of the Soviet Union onwards five former Soviet Republics underwent the Latinisation of their alphabet. Kazakhstan’s motivation, more than any other former Soviet Republics has been influenced by economical concerns. The Kazakh authorities believe that the script change will positively impact outside investment in the country.

Before the Bolshevik Revolution, only a few ‘developed’ languages within the Russian Empire were present. Even though there were some attempts to modernise the writing systems of these languages, it was the Soviets who launched a campaign of ‘indigenisation’ after the revolution. This campaign aimed to integrate the various ethnic groups into the (local) state apparatus. A part of the campaign contained the development of ‘under developed’ languages in the Soviet Union. The result was the standardisation of languages and the adoption of new writing systems. In the beginning, the Latin alphabet was used by Soviet authorities due to the association of the Cyrillic script with the Tsarist Empire.

The Azeri language for instance, experienced a Latinisation process in 1923. The foundations for that script change were already laid out in the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic of 1918, which was established shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. During the short-lived republic, Azeri’s have followed policies of making the Azeri-Turkish language the official state language, before being toppled down by the Bolsheviks in 1920.

Yet, in the years following the Azeri’s script change became increasingly politically oriented towards Moscow. Nevertheless, when Stalin came to power, he reversed the developments and Cyrillic was imposed on the various ethnic languages. Stalin was afraid that the various nationalities would threaten his position; the result was the Russification of the ethnic Soviet Republics through the use of the Cyrillic alphabet. This situation continued until Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika, which signaled the dissolution of the USSR.

Turkey, the only example here that was not part of the former Soviet region but experienced a script change, reformed its alphabet in the same period as Azerbaijan. Although Turkish representatives participated in the First Turkology Congress in Baku by 1926 to discuss the Latinisation of Turkic languages for the same ideological motivations, Turkey moved in the opposite direction of Azerbaijan by becoming western oriented. In German historical diplomatic writings, for example,one can read the interests of Western European countries in the change of the Turkish script in accordance with their own alphabets.

In these examples, Latinisation meant either modernisation, Westernisation, progress, or political independence.

While the Kazakh script change certainly has economic modernisation reasons, cultural Westernisation seems less present. Also less present is the choice to become politically-oriented towards one camp or the other.

The importance of Latinisation for Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan’s choice to adopt a new script offers the possibility of creating a unified system of written Kazakh which is understandable for Kazakh speakers outside the country. Kazakh is the official state language of Kazakhstan. Roughly 70 per cent of the population claims knowledge of the language. It is also spoken by Kazakh communities in China, Mongolia, Turkey, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, and Germany. The use of different alphabets by Kazakh speakers outside the country divides these communities.

Accordingly, the different Kazakh communities cannot read the same texts or enjoy the same literature. In order to be able to understand Kazakh texts and literature, translation into the appropriate writing system is required. In this light, Latinisation has the potential to create an online common space for Kazakh literature and texts for speakers in Kazakhstan and elsewhere. Hence, it has the potential to unite the Kazakh diaspora on a written level. The users of Kazakh outside Kazakhstan are more acquainted with the Latin alphabet because they are often involved in international environments or raised in a Latin alphabet-using country. Making Kazakh understandable for all of these communities is important for the development of spoken Kazakh and connecting the different speakers of the language. Furthermore, Latinisation is seen by many Kazakh speakers as a significant step in solidifying the development of the state language. Whether it is perceived as de-Sovietization or not, a new status for the Kazakh language will bolster the national identity.

One might wonder what impact it will have on the use of Russian in Kazakhstan. President Nazarbayev made it clear several times that Russian will not be effected since the Cyrillic alphabet continues to be used for that language. In the words of Nazerbayev in April 2017: “We will not abandon Cyrillic and we will not forget the Russian language and culture. This is impossible for Kazakhs.”

Besides the impact of Latinisation on the Russian language, there is a valid question of how it will impact the minority ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan. When Moldova changed their script from Cyrillic to Latin in 1989, tensions increased with its ethnic minority Russians in Transnistria. The conflict eventually escalated into a ‘frozen’ one. The roots of the current situation date back to a flawed resolution between Moldova and Russia in 1992. When Transnistria seceded from the Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic in 1990, Moldova attempted to regain control over the region. However, they were repelled by the Russians. Eventually, a resolution was signed in 1992 that allowed Russian armed forces in Transnistria as a “peacekeeping force” that inadvertently made its withdrawal dependent on a Moldovan-Transnistrian political settlement. However, the Kazakh case is different. The military and economic relations of Kazakhstan with Russia are built on stronger grounds. Both are part of the two most important international organizations in the region, namely the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) and the Eurasian Economic Union. In this context, the Kazakh Latinisation is a move of opening up, rather than becoming western. Also, cultural-linguistic relations between the Kazakhs and Russians are solidly-rooted in history, so a similar scenario to the one in Moldova seems very unlikely.

Approximately 95 per cent of the country’s population speaks fluent Russian. This legacy dates back to the Soviet Union when Russian was imposed on the various Soviet Republics. After gaining their independence, Russia continued to be an important language in Kazakhstan. In 1995 Russian was recognized in the Kazakh Constitution as a state language. The Russian language is widely used among the Kazakh population; in academia, science, and business it is even the primary language. In schools, both Russian and Kazakh are used for instructing students. Despite efforts to diminish the influence of Russian after Kazakhstan gained its sovereignty in 1991, it kept its importance, especially in the northern regions and the Almaty province. Another example for the functioning of Russian in daily Kazakh life is the presence of several Russian publications, television and radio broadcasts.

(Online) Discussions of the new alphabet

Currently, at least five official modes of transliterating the Kazakh language from Cyrillic to Latin exist. The language committee set the goal for itself to produce a new version that does not depend on older transliteration tables.

The first version of the new alphabet contained 32 letters, including nine characters with apostrophes. In this version, apostrophes are replaced with diacritic sign and digraphs. Public disappointment has caused several groups to protest together against the apostrophe alphabet. This disappointment did not come as a surprise; before its official presentation, the working committee on the language project also criticized this version. Those against the ‘apostrophe’ alphabet argue that it will only complicate the writing system.

The difficulty in choosing the right version of the Latin alphabet is due to the fact that the Kazakh language has unique sounds which are difficult to denote using a normal version of the Latin alphabet. Other former Soviet countries that chose to switch to a Latin script solved this problem by using umlauts and phonetic symbols. Whatever the specific reason is for choosing a writing system with so many apostrophes, it is clear that it brings several difficulties with it. For instance, the opponents have also argued that searching on Google will become nearly impossible. For instance, the word for cherry will be written under the new system as s’i’i’e (pronounce she-ee-ye). Another example is the word for society (qogam), which under the apostrophe version becomes divided into qog’am.

The discussions emerging from the first version also showed a number of important developments in Kazakhstan. Different linguistic spheres are being brought together and a unified voice is being formed against the ‘apostrophe alphabet.’ The Kazakh speakers, shala Kazakhs (Russified ethnic Kazakhs), and Russian speakers united behind the cause of rejecting the apostrophe version of the alphabet.

“I am ‘for’ the Latin alphabet, I am ‘against’ apostrophes.” This logo began trending on Kaznet (Kazakhstani internet) after the ‘apostrophe alphabet’ was revealed in October 2017. Users of this logo shared it as their profile pictures on social media accounts.

In influencing the shape of the new alphabet, online platforms and social networks have played a significant role. For instance, it is notable that Russian speakers support the Latinisation of Kazakh, but what they criticise is the apostrophe version. Some Russian speakers have expressed their dissatisfaction with the apostrophe version by transliterating their last names, as seen in the famous meme of S’is’kin for Shishkin. Kazakh citizens have created their own communities on Facebook, and several popular users and other internet bloggers are cited in important discussions on the various versions of the new alphabet. The web has formed an important dimension in understanding the meaning of the Kazakh script change.

With, or without apostrophe?

Thanks to the involvement of academia and other experts, and the ongoing public debate on the net, President Nazarbayev made a statement which embraced the importance of popular opinion on the direction of the script change. Already in early October 2017, Nazarbayev had met with the working committee and other experts to discuss the versions of the new script. Later that year, in December 2017, academics expressed their concerns regarding the ‘apostrophe alphabet’ in a resonant letter to the president. They asked him to prevent the change into a version with apostrophes. In the letter they made the argument that the apostrophe version would complicate the writing system, and therewith diminish the status of the Kazakh language. Basically, pointing to the use of Kazakh which will diminish compared to the usage of other languages.

In February 2018, a presidential order was published which approved a new version of the Latin alphabet without the apostrophes. Instead, diacritical signs above letters are used to replace apostrophes. The presidential decree was based on advice given by IT specialists and other linguistic experts resulting from the difficulty in the use of an apostrophe alphabet.

The Kazakh script change, what does it mean?

Like any other language planning, the Kazakh script change is political in nature. Yet, it is not comparable with earlier script changes in the former Soviet region. The world has changed; it has become more globalised and digitalised. In this regard, digital media has been a significant factor and will continue to influence discussions on transliterations and the difficulties in the public adoption of the alphabet.

While the Russian historic and cultural influences are not abandoned with such a transition, neither is a fully western course the case. Yes, economic motivations are clearly present; but with them, Kazakhstan seems to be looking for a position as a ‘cultural bridge’. This move opens the country’s digital doors to the rest of the world. Kazakh will now be read and written online more easily.

Okan Bahtiyar is an academic expert on Eastern Europe and Russia. He has a Msc. in International and Comparative Politics from the Catholic University of Leuven and a MA in Russian and Eurasian Studies from Leiden University. He has conducted research on various topics related to the field in cooperation with the University of Amsterdam East European Studies department.

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