Kazakhstan: plans to adopt Latin-based alphabet sparks backlash

Kazakhstan: plans to adopt Latin-based alphabet sparks backlash

Qazaq Banki, or Kazakh Bank in Kazakh, has welcomed the adoption of a Latin-based alphabet for the Kazakh language by putting out adverts in the new script.

(Naubet Bisenov)

Kazakhstan is pushing ahead with plans to switch the Kazakh language alphabet from Cyrillic to Latin, despite facing public backlash.

On 27 October, the president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, signed a degree to adopt a new Latin-based alphabet for the Kazakh language whereby nine specific Kazakh sounds will no longer be expressed by stand-alone letters or any combination of letters, but via the use of apostrophes.

The move is designed to equip Kazakhstan – a country of approximately 18.1 million people – for the digital age. Although a Turkic language, Kazakh has been written in Cyrillic since 1940 when Kazakhstan was part of the Soviet empire. By switching to a Latin-based alphabet, Kazakh will be easier to read and write online.

However, despite initial support for the move, which is expected to be rolled out gradually by 2025, it has received pushback from various quarters. Many people are irritated by the lack of public consultation. Others wonder why a country that is majority Russian-speaking (according to a 2009 census, 85 per cent of Kazakhs claimed they were fluent in Russian while only 62 per cent said they could read, write and speak Kazakh) would want to move away from Cyrillic.

Some accuse the Kazakh authorities of trying to distract the population from one of the most serious economic crises (following the collapse of energy prices) to affect the country since it gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

And others have also taken issue with the proposed use of apostrophes which is considered an inelegant if practical solution.

Aygul Imanova, an Almaty-based lawyer told Equal Times: “By suggesting an alphabet full of apostrophes authorities are in a way discrediting the great idea and are switching the debate from ‘we don’t want a Roman alphabet’ to ‘we don’t want the apostrophe.’”

President Nazarbayev first mooted the idea in 2006 after Kazakhstan’s other Turkic neighbours – Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – switched the scripts of their respective national languages from Cyrillic to Latin in the late 1990s.

“Generational shifts are forcing authorities to pay greater attention to the agenda of the next generation of Kazakhs and to draw up this agenda and to manage it if they can,” Aidos Sarym, an Almaty-based political analyst told Equal Times.

Kazakhstan’s cultural divide

The switch from Cyrillic to Latin for the Kazakh language has laid bare the cultural fault lines between Kazakhstan’s majority ethnic Kazakhs and its minority ethnic Russians. Although the two communities mix and live side by side, large sections of the former (approximately 70 per cent of the population) consider the ‘decyrillisation’ of their language an overdue issue. Most ethnic Russians, however, having been fed a Moscow-based media diet of anti-western, pro-Russian propaganda, see the change as an unnecessary exercise aimed separating Kazakhstan from Russia and the Russian language.

However, Nazarbayev and his officials have repeatedly asserted that the switch will only affect Kazakh; Russian, which is a semi-official language in Kazakhstan, will continue to be written in Cyrillic. “We will not abandon Cyrillic and we will not forget the Russian language and culture. This is impossible for Kazakhs,” Nazarbayev said at a public meeting in the southern city of Shymkent in April, just two weeks after instructing the government to work on the new alphabet.

Teachers of Kazakh say they acknowledge the fears and frustrations of Russian speakers and are keen not to alienate them further from learning Kazakh. “It is a tough task to teach Kazakh to Russian-speaking children in Cyrillic even now, and I am afraid a new alphabet will give them another reason not to learn Kazakh,” said Aishat Kamardinova, who teaches Kazakh in a Russian-language school.

When Nazarbayev announced the government’s plans to change the alphabet last spring, the government set up a working group to draft a new Latin-based alphabet.

Initial plans for the alphabet used digraphs (pairings of two or three letters to represent a single sound, such as ‘sh’ or ‘th’ in English) to relay specific Kazakh sounds. However, this invited ridicule from sections of Kazakhstan’s Russian-speaking population who demonstrated their opposition to the move by mocking it.

For example, one viral meme started showed the new spelling of the Kazakh word for “carrot” as “saebiz” in the proposed draft, which was suggested to be read like the Russian word “za(y)ebis” for “fuck off” or “fucking great”. Similarly, the new spelling of the Kazakh word “shygys” meaning “east”, would be spelt as “s’ygys” if the apostrophes are adopted, and this could be confused with the word for “to fuck”.

Despite the version of the alphabet with digraphs having been axed, at least one entrepreneur seized on the controversy and named his cafe Saebiz in Kazakhstan’s commercial capital of Almaty. “I think the name of the cafe somehow attracts people, but our strength is also the quality of the food we serve and our affordable prices,” café manager Olesya Tulanova told Equal Times. She also said that her café had not received complaints from the public over the controversy. “People should understand that the world doesn’t stay put; it evolves, hence the adoption of Roman letters.”

Officials involved in drafting the new alphabet say that the use of the apostrophe was necessitated by the desire to make it simple. The current Cyrillic-based alphabet consists of 42 letters – all 33 letters of the Russian alphabet plus nine specific Kazakh sounds. This makes accommodating all the letters on a standard QWERTY keyboard a nightmare. The current proposed alphabet has 24 Latin letters in addition to the apostrophe used with other letters making it 32 letters in total.

Leyla Yermenbayeva, a Kazakh-language instructor at Almaty’s English-language Kimep University, says that she is against the proposed new version of the Kazakh alphabet with the apostrophe, as are many of her students. “We cannot make it without digraphs because some digraphs used in English like ‘sh’ and ‘ch’ have become so familiar. The new alphabet should draw from English,” she explained. “This would also make it easier for English speakers to learn Kazakh.”

Yermenbayeva says that the new alphabet should first be scrutinised and tested, and new spelling rules should be adopted, before it is rolled out.

Following the presidential decree to adopt the alphabet with the apostrophe, Kazakh netizens launched a petition against it but with major online petition websites blocked in Kazakhstan the campaign gained little traction. However, perhaps in response to public indignation, authorities backtracked and said that the proposed alphabet wasn’t final and that it would be modified in due course.

Ardak Bukeyeva, an Almaty-based journalist and signatory to the petition, links the government’s U-turn on the final version of the alphabet to these grassroots protests. The journalist also questions the whole process of drafting the alphabet when it was adopted by a presidential decree.

“This is a serious matter and it concerns the whole nation. It should be done in a decent way, otherwise it discredits the idea,” Bukeyeva said. “Understandably, a new version of the alphabet cannot please everyone, but it should be at least discussed widely so that the best version is chosen,” the journalist concluded.