Kazakhstan plans switch to Latin alphabet

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.


9 thoughts on “Kazakhstan plans switch to Latin alphabet

  1. I can’t say this makes a huge amount of sense to me.

    I went to the kazinform site, dumped a few cyrillic documents in word and started converting and essentially this new romanization is just a transliteration of the cyrillic.

    The only change I could find at all is that the Russian ‘hard sign’ (used only in a few Russian borrowings and useless from the point of view of Kazakh as far as I can tell) is dropped.

    But then the story of attempted literacy in Central Asia (former Soviet union and China) is essentially changing the script to suit the current political climate, how much longer before this reform is undone to reflect some future political change?

  2. IIRC, more than one language in that area has had its main script changed from Arabic to Roman to Cyrillic and then back to Roman — and that’s just within the past 100 years.

  3. Sure it is political, however look at the last few years of Kazakhstani PR. The country is looking for greater ties with the EU and the west in general. It’s economy is doing ‘well’ (as far as petrodollars go) and has tried to relaunch its image in the world as the ‘business centre of central asia'(which is the core of the beef the gov’t had with the Borat movie). It even went as far as to revamp the entire capital! So a switch to Roman alphabet will compliment the push for greater relations with the West. It will come out of the shadows of being ‘just another -stan country’ with all the USSR baggage that goes with it (of which there is alot but in this case use of Cyrillic).

    In reply to Mr. Farris, it’s not so much about literacy as much as the Kazakh gov’t wants to reinvent itself; to project a different image to the world. Much like the use of the Roman alphabet in Turkish over the use of Turko-Arabic script under Ataturk.

    The Roman alphabet is the most employed the world over. Kazakhstan probably feels that this move would move the country into a more global presence. Is that true? Who knows as one could make the arguement any which way he likes.

    Linguistically, I cannot say I know the Kazakh language enough to say whether the move is good or bad or even necessary. However, drastic language changes by governments are rarely about language.

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  5. Dear master of Pinyin News:
    Occasionally, I have found your website.
    I’m very interested in all topics on it.
    I’ll read the website carefully afterwards.
    In this letter, I’ll say something on the topics “Kazakhstan plans switch to Latin alphabet”.
    As the main ethnic group of the country is Islamic believing, I think it’s better to switch to Arabic alphabet than Latin one.
    There is the ready Arabic alphabet of Kazak tili in Xinjiang, China, my country. As for the Latin alphabet, it can be used as pinyin for Kazakh language.
    I think a international meeting should be held for this if it is reasonable and possible.
    I am planning to compile a Kazakh Chinese dictionary, which is suitable both in Kazakhstan and Xinjiang.

    Best Regards!
    Senior engineer of computer application: Deng Yinglie

    PS: If you can read Chinese, you may know me by searching “???” in google.

  6. “As the main ethnic group of the country is Islamic believing, I think it’s better to switch to Arabic alphabet than Latin one.”

    But the Arabic alphabet is a terrible match for Turkic languages (like Kazakh and Uighir) the structure of Arabic makes vowelless writing feasible but it just doesn’t work for Turkic languages unless the vowels are written pretty consistently (by which time it’s arguably no longer the Arabic alphabet).

    I think keeping with Cyrillic (which represents the language’s longest and most prolific literary tradition) makes more sense (with a latin auxiliary transliteration)

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