Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Education and Science has followed up on suggestions from President Nursultan Nazarbayev by proposing a six-step plan to switch the country from the Cyrillic alphabet to the Latin one. The plan is based on a similar one used in Uzbekistan.
The plan for switching to Latin will have a five-year preparatory stage, during which the practicalities will be worked out. The next step will see publications being printed using the new alphabet, alongside the existing one for the initial changeover period, and the working-age population will be trained in using the new script. Teaching materials using Latin will be introduced into the country’s school system. The final phase will be the consolidation of Latin as the Kazakh language in Cyrillic fades from public use.
The switch is projected to cost US$300 million, though some expect the cost to be higher.
With the country awash with petrodollars from its booming energy sector, financing the switch should not be a problem. It remains to be seen, however, whether officials will retain the political will to press ahead, given that the measure could cause disruption at home, and seems likely to vex one of Kazakhstan’s key allies, Russia.
Along with the usual arguments for alphabet change, in particular promoting the country’s integration into the global economy, officials have argued that a Latin alphabet could help Kazakhstan forge a more cohesive national identity, moving it out from under Russia’s shadow.
“Switching the Kazakh alphabet to Latin means for Kazakhs changing the Soviet (colonial) identity, which still largely dominates the national consciousness, to a sovereign (Kazakh) identity,” the report stated. “Among the many arguments in favor of switching the Kazakh alphabet to Latin, boosting the national identity of the Kazakh people is the main and decisive one.”
This explicit statement marks a break with Kazakhstan’s earlier, low-key approach to discussing the switch to Latin. While Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan acted quickly after the 1991 Soviet collapse to embrace Latin script, Kazakhstan took a more cautious route: it did not want to alienate its large Russian-speaking population. In addition, officials felt that with the country in the grip of economic crisis in the early 1990s, changing the alphabet at that time was not a fiscally justifiable move.
The report pulls no punches in identifying the Cyrillic alphabet as being a major barrier to developing a Kazakh national identity: “It [Cyrillic] facilitated and facilitates the orientation of the Kazakh national consciousness towards the Russian language and Russian culture. As a result, Kazakh identity as such remains largely undefined. On this level, moving to Latin will make it possible to form a clearer national identity for Kazakhs.”
Another reason for the switch is linked to the representation of the sounds of the Kazakh language. “In many cases the phonetic nature of Kazakh is not shown according to Cyrillic script,” Professor Kobey Khusayn, director of the Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Linguistics, told EurasiaNet in an interview. As a result, he said, certain Kazakh sounds are not properly represented and this leads to difficulties with correct pronunciation. The introduction of Cyrillic in 1940 was “imposed from above” for ideological reasons, he added, with no consideration of how this alphabet suited the Kazakh language.
Kazinform, the state news agency, already issues news in both the Cyrillic and Latin scripts.
- Kazakhstan: moving forward with plan to replace Cyrillic with Latin alphabet, Eurasia, September 4, 2007
- Kazakhstan changing from Cyrillic to Latin alphabet, Kazinform, September 17, 2007
- Government adopting Latin Alphabet, American Chamber of Commerce in Kazakhstan, November 6, 2006
- About advantages of the Latin alphabet, academician Abduali Khaidari, Kazinform, April 16, 2004