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Kazakhstan is changing its alphabet – here’s why

Sergey Kamshylin via Shutterstock

Kazakhstan is changing its alphabet – here’s why

Kazakhstan is to adopt a new alphabet, replacing the Russian Cyrillic script with the alphabet you are reading at the moment. This was announced in October by the Kazakh president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who signed decree Number 569, which also sets out an expanded version of the Roman alphabet – to be introduced in schools in 2018. The aim is for full transition by 2025.

The Cyrillic script currently used for Kazakh has 42 symbols (33 derived from the Russian alphabet plus nine for additional Kazakh sounds). Because the Roman alphabet contains just 26 letters, additional provision has had to be made. The new Kazakh script will use the apostrophe to extend the number of letters to 32. According to The Guardian the official name of the country, Қазақстан Республикасы, will henceforth be rendered Qazaqstan Respy’blikasy.

The proposed switch of alphabets has been in the pipeline at least since 2006, so this pronouncement should have caused little surprise. The plan was announced in April, building on proposals put forward in December 2012 as part of the president’s Kazakhstan-2050 strategy, where the political rationale comes across unequivocally: “For the sake of the future of our children we should make this decision [adopt the Roman alphabet] and create it as a condition of entry for our wider global integration.”

Another reason why Nazarbayev’s decree should have come as no surprise is that periodic language reform is very much part of the landscape in Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan, which has a population of 18.2m people, is a multilingual country with 117 spoken languages. Russian remains the dominant language of communication – but the prestige of Kazakh is increasing. The official policy is one of societal trilingualism (Kazakh-Russian-English), with particular support for “the state language” – what the Kazakhstan-2050 strategy calls “the spiritual pivot”.

Kazakhstan occupies a strategic position in Central Asia and shifting allegiances can be clearly charted in the history of script reform. Early Runic scripts were gradually replaced by the Arabic script following the introduction of Islam in the 8th century. In 1924, the inherited Arabic script was modified to better reflect the sounds of Kazakh, which gave way to a Roman-based script in 1929. This, in turn, was replaced by Cyrillic in 1940, under the Soviet-era policy of russification.

Following the break-up of the Soviet Union, neighbouring Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan quickly adopted the Roman script. Kazakhstan, the last of the former Soviet republics to declare independence, was politically more cautious. The economic situation in the early 1990s didn’t permit the luxury of alphabet reform, but a rapid upturn in the economic fortunes of the nation since 2000 has meant an increasing commitment to Western ideals, to communication with the West, to learning English and to adopting its script.

Tongue-tied

The English-speaking world is not used to state-level intervention in the language, meddling in how it should be structured and how it will be used. Proposals for an official language body have come and gone over the centuries, but English – unusually in the international context – is relatively unplanned.

Language planning (sometimes referred to as language management or cultivation) – and the associated development of language policies – is not just a state-level matter but also characterises how relationships play out at other levels: in education, in religious groups, in business, even within families. Wherever language practices are controlled or modified by those in authority (parents, teachers, religious or business leaders) we have language planning.

Sticking to state-level planning for now, there are plenty of examples: German was subject to orthographic reform in 1998 including limiting the use of the ß symbol and relaxing its rules about the use of commas. Meanwhile, Icelandic vocabulary is closely scrutinised and monitored to keep it free from foreign borrowings. The role of the Académie française in moderating the French language is well known.

Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev (l) with Vladimir Putin in Sochi, Russia in October 2017. EPA-EFE/Maxim Shemetov

Is the direction in language planning always and inevitably top-down? Is it always the ideology of the dominant party (government, teacher, parent) which dictates language practices and prevails?

The term “language planning” was coined in the 1960s to describe the ongoing process of state-level intervention in Norway. Successive reforms in the spelling and structure of both standard forms of Norwegian – the “Bokmål” (book language) and “Nynorsk” (New Norwegian) – were introduced as part of a process which would ultimately lead them to converge into a single standard variety of the language (“Samnorsk”, or Common Norwegian).

Generations of Norwegians objected to the constant changes but seemed powerless to prevent further reform coming down from Norway’s Language Council. However, it appears now that the will of the people has prevailed in Norway and the official policy has shifted from direct engineering of the written forms of Norwegian to leaving them alone to develop organically. Norway will continue to write the two forms of the language into the foreseeable future. The “success” of language policies depends crucially on their political context.

Watch your language

In Kazakhstan, it is unlikely that the direction of influence in language planning will change very soon. Language policy will continue to be pursued in the post-Soviet regions “as a central vector for change in the reconfiguring sociopolitical constellations for some time to come”. In other words, it’s more about politics than language.

Despite the enormous practical challenges inherent in the wholesale replacement of one script with another in a country of massive linguistic variety, we can be sure that Decree 569 will be made to work, heedless of “a swell of indignant reactions among nationalistically inclined commentators in Russia”.

While such top-down intervention in language practices may stick in the craw of monolingual English speakers, used to a decidedly bottom-up approach to managing the national language, the Kazakh policy of trilingualism (the “three-language policy”) is one we should respect. As Britain prepares to leave the EU, like Kazakhstan, Britain will have cause to reconsider its international political relations.

In pursuit of “wider global integration” Britain would do well to cling to the official EU language policy of multilingualism and the recommendation that “every European citizen should master two other languages in addition to their mother tongue”.

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