15 july 2020

Central Asia news

Latinising the alphabet in Kazakhstan: «Please avoid the trap Uzbekistan fell into»

14.04.2017 17:11 msk

Daniil Kislov

Analytics Politics Kazakhstan Russia

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev proposed to quickly—until the end of this year that is—to draft a project of the Latin script-based Kazakh alphabet. Fergana Chief Editor Daniil Kislov shares his thoughts on positives and negatives of introducing said novelty in Kazakhstan.

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Sometimes nations change their alphabets because the new one looks nicer, while at other times there is a legitimate practical benefit. However, more often than not, doing so is merely a whim or politics of the ruler whose surrounding is always ready to come with an ideological basis for any “genius idea” he may come up with. And why does not anybody think of tragic consequences of such attempts on the quality of reading and, by extension, education in society?

Political scientist Yerlan Karin shed some light on the political and ideological essence of “Latinisation from Nazarbayev” in his commentaries to an article the president authored, which he used to make said proposal. The main goal behind changing the script is “qualitative transformation of the mass conscience of society.” Let me be more precise: “Transition to the Latin script is not just a change of letters, but it is a civilizational choice for us… our yearning toward being part of the open world and aiming at progress… modernising the education system in Kazakhstan.”

If one is to consider that the idea of using the Latin script was first voiced in early 2000, one cannot but conclude that this “civilizational choice” has been maturing and maturing for almost two decades. That said, what does this collocation mean anyway?

Supporters claim that the Latin script will:

- help get closer with other Turkic nations,

- give a boost to obtainment of global knowledge in the English language, and

- protect the Kazakh language from assimilating into the Russian language.

However, none of the points holds water really. The Russian Turks and Kyrgyz to the south of Kazakhstan, i.e. the closest Turkic nations to Kazakhs, use the Cyrillic alphabet. The Uzbeks will be discussed in detail separately below. The Turks of Turkey, Turkmen and Azeris use adapted Latin letters, which significantly differs from the classical Latin letters, since letters with diacritic elements are pronounced completely differently. In other words, there is no such thing as “common alphabet of Turkic nations.”

Further, it is naïve to cite the better “apprehensibility” of Latinised languages on the global level. Who has decided that knowing how to write the Kazakh word “nan” with Latin letters will help one learn the word “bread” in English?..

Concerning the “Russian assimilation”: even if such a thing is taking place, it is happening in the oral speech, certainly not in the written speech. Furthermore, the introduction of the Latin script may lead to significant contractions of number of Kazakhstani Russian willing to learn the state language.

A Kazakh newspaper published in 1937. The Kazakh alphabet was transitioned to Cyrillic in 1940. In a short span of time between 1929 and 1940, the Kazakhs used Latin; the Arabic alphabet was used until 1929.

At this time, perhaps there are more of those who oppose the Latin script than those who support among the Kazakh-speaking members of that very society the analyst cited above refers to. And arguments those who oppose have seem more valid. There is, they would argue, the danger of forfeiting the grandiose cultural heritage gained in the “Cyrillic period” of the Kazakh language, because no one guarantees that all works of world and national literature, textbooks, technical manuals along with other publications would be transcribed in the Latin script as they should be and in a timely manner.

Another argument is that there is room for errors in rendering certain specific sounds of the Kazakh language in a Latin script-based alphabet. Just look at Turkmenistan which changed the Latinised alphabet twice after it was adopted in 1990s. Attempts to establish organic “phonetic script” in the case of Kazakh are as naïve and utopic as those who attempted in Russia to write the word moloko [milk] the way it is pronounced, mylako.

Finally, many people draw attention to enormous and yet to be calculated expenses, which the state budget would most likely be unable to bear.

A sad experience of attempting to transition to Latin has taken place in Uzbekistan, a country very close to Kazakhstan geographically. The transition to the Latin script was launched in 1993 and planned for completion in 2000. However, the deadline was first pushed until 2005, then until 2010. But even by 2017, only the fields of education and partially official documentation are performed with the Latin script, while newspapers and magazines continue using the Cyrillic alphabet with some 70% of overall print material published in Cyrillic; advertisements on TV channels and online use both Latin and Cyrillic letters.

This resulted in a situation where the younger generation does not understand the books the older generation reads, having faced difficulties of mastering the Latin alphabet because they are used to the Cyrillic alphabet.

The transition has led to an even more dispersed Uzbek-speaking world in Central Asia. The Uzbeks of Uzbekistan do not understand the writings of ethnic Uzbeks of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, as the latter continued acquiring education using the Cyrillic alphabet.

I want to emphasise the following: Latinisation in Kazakhstan has no direct relation to the Russian language nor the political union between Kazakhstan and Russian. The fact of the matter here is perhaps an intellectual and cultural problem of the Kazakh ethnicity itself. Look at how the public expression of the Uzbek language has changed following a Latinisation attempt there. Due to degradation of the general education, even signs are written with obvious mistakes.

The sign features a variation of the word workshop named after Mirzo Ulugbek. So don't make any hasty conclusions. Photo by Fergana.Ru in Tashkent, 2009.

Against this backdrop, removing the Cyrillic is possible, of course. But what losses the nation will have to bear and what benefits are there to reap? The former seem to be immense, while the latter are quite opaque.

Said transition period is going to be long, expensive and painful one as it will consume so much finances, emotional and intellectual forces of the society that the historical and cultural effect of the Latin script could be rendered completely ineffective if not turn out to be outright negative.

A lot of money will be required to reprint not only street nameplates, but also the entirety of official documents, all books, the entire Kazakh segment of the Internet, volumes of books in libraries, subtitles of all movies, and brains of the whole society. And that is no “civilizational choice”; rather, this is a dead-end, waste of an enormous amount of efforts and energy for an end, which may spell an intellectual regress, not progress, for the entire nation.

It is especially so in the digital information era when the amount of information published both online and on paper is growing exponentially.

One can only hope Nazarbayev’s initiative, which he has been advancing since early 2000s, will be irreversibly buried this time. To the Kazakhs’ own benefit, by the way.

Daniil Kislov, ferghananews@gmail.com

Fergana international information agency.