Legislating Letters: Kazakhstan’s Alphabetical Experiment

Only one army can march into a city with a measly squadron of around 26 soldiers and orchestrate a coup without firing a single bullet. Over the past 100 years, alphabets have ushered in remarkable change around the world. Swahili and Turkish bade goodbye to the Arabic script in favor of Romanization. Vietnamese and Korean abandoned traditional Chinese characters and  adopted Latin script and the original Hangeul alphabet, respectively. Today, Kazakhstan is continuing this tradition with plans to move away from its Cyrillic script, which serves as a omnipresent reminder of life under the Soviets.

Artificial changes to a language’s script are often presented as savvy and forward-thinking. But they can also be geopolitical moves aimed at asserting a new national identity that end up causing more harm than good. Despite this possibility, Kazakhstan has no plans to turn back on its mission to Romanize its alphabet.

“The Stans,” as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan are commonly known, became autonomous states after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and are home to some of the most repressive and authoritarian regimes in the world. They are largely artificial constructions of Stalin, who sought to incorporate Central Asia into his vast empire, and thus have little national culture or cohesion predating the establishment of the USSR. While the Russian language dominated Central Asia during Soviet times, the national languages of each of these Soviet Socialist Republics (SSRs) maintained prominence while also embracing the Russian Cyrillic alphabet. Upon independence, however, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have attempted to adopt the Latin alphabet instead. Now, Kazakhstan plans to do the same.

Last May, President Nursultan Nazarbayev signed Decree Number 569, instituting plans to move from the Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet by 2025. The decree seems arbitrary, unnecessary, and ill-fated, especially given the inefficacy of similar policies in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. The autocratic leader cited the need to simplify the Kazakh language and make Kazakh citizens more digitally literate, but both arguments are easily refutable. Kazakh, when written in Cyrillic, has 42 characters—33 from Russian and nine unique letters of its own. These letters represent a wide variety of unique sounds that cannot be accommodated in print if the language is compressed to the 26 letters in the Latin alphabet.

Nazarbayev believes he has a solution to this problem: the apostrophe. Rather than employ umlauts and unique derivations of Latin letters—as other Turkic languages have done—he insists that the apostrophe will be sufficient for representing nuances in pronunciation. Out of all shortcomings of Romanization, this policy has generated the most resentment from Kazakh citizens. Reformed Kazakh, it seems, will be dismembered by apostrophes, so much so that even the official name of Kazakhstan—Qazakstan Respy’bli’kasy—will be butchered. In addition to the aesthetic implications, internet users are deeply bothered: Hashtags, after all, don’t allow for punctuation. Nazarbayev’s attempt to make his language fit for the digital age has actually backfired.

Defects in Kazakh—which is not even the most widely-spoken language in Kazakhstan—would not be fixed by Latin letters. Both Russian and Kazakh are considered official languages in the country, and in Kazakhstan’s last census in 2009, 85 percent of the population reported being fluent in Russian, compared to 62 percent for Kazakh. If Nazarbayev’s goal is to increase the accessibility and usage of Kazakh, shifting away from the alphabet of the the nation’s most widely-spoken language is counterproductive.

Similar linguistic legislation in other Central Asian countries has predictably had limited success. Immediately after gaining independence, Uzbekistan mandated its transition to the Latin alphabet with a 1993 law. Intended to be fully implemented by 2010, the effort has largely failed: Day-to-day life in Uzbek society remains dominated by Cyrillic writing, indicating that Central Asian populations are resistant to legally-mandated linguistic alterations. Russian, considered the lingua franca of Central Asia, does not seem to be going anywhere.

"Artificial changes to a language’s script are often presented as savvy and forward-thinking. But they can also be geopolitical moves aimed at asserting a new national identity that end up causing more harm than good."

It’s not as if the Latin alphabet occupies any cultural significance for Kazakhs, either. In fact, no written script really does. Kazakh originated as a spoken language and was first recorded in Arabic script in the 10th century when Islam spread to Central Asia. Only in the 1800s was Kazakh officially standardized with Arabic writing, and even then it was used mainly by elites and intellectuals. Upon Kazakhstan’s incorporation as an SSR, Kazakh was briefly replaced by the Latin alphabet in 1927, until Stalin directed that all languages in the USSR be written in Cyrillic in order to create a homogenized Soviet identity. In a sense, written Kazakh is a language rooted in appropriation—its scripts always manipulated by the Central Asian hegemon.

The most compelling rationale for Nazarbayev’s decree is geopolitical. Central Asian languages are Turkic, and both Stalin’s incorporation of the Stans as SSRs and his insistence on Cyrillic were manifestations of paranoia about a pan-Turkic movement. Now, after the fall of the USSR, the Cyrillic alphabet is an emblem of connection to Russia. Nazarbayev has labeled Kazakhstan’s usage of the Cyrillic alphabet as political; his new policy has similar motivations. Adrienne Dwyer, a linguistic anthropologist at the University of Kansas, characterizes Nazarbayev’s move as “drawing a kind of ideological border between [the former SSRs] and itself,” paradoxical since “[Kazakhstan] has close ties with all of these units.”

Dwyer sees this language policy as Kazakhstan’s effort to seek “psychological independence.” The new writing system is primarily an attempt at national rebranding and reassertion, though its intended audience is unclear. It is possible that Nazarbayev is returning to his Turkic roots and orienting himself towards Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s authoritarian Turkey. Turkey, after all, was the first state to recognize Kazakhstan’s independence in 1991 and has tense relations with Russia. Whatever the motivation, Kazakh nationalists and pan-Turkists are thrilled by the decision; Azerbaijani Turkologists are confident Kazakhstan’s adoption of the Latin script will “greatly facilitate mutual understanding between the Turkic-speaking peoples.”

But their excitement may soon recede. Nazarbayev’s attempt at Kazakhification through alphabet reform is poised to backfire. Kazakhstan and Russia are still deeply connected. Any attempt to assert a national Kazakh identity will be stifled if the Kazakh language is made inaccessible to well over a third of Kazakhstan’s population. While the international image goals of a Kazakh transformation may have been achieved, they will only serve to further purge the Central Asian republic of an already-declining national ethos and thereby erode, rather than solidify, a common Kazakh identity. Photo

About the Author

Allison Meakem '20 is the Campus Editor of the Brown Political Review. Allison can be reached at allison_meakem@brown.edu

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