Kazakh alphabet: past, present and future

By Dana Omirgazy

Kazakh_latin_alphabet_(1924)Language is possibly the main wealth for the people of any nation. Its origin is one of the most challenging topics in modern linguistics.

The history of Kazakh language graphics has deep roots. The writings of the Central Asian people and the origin of the Kazakh language itself arose in the early Middle Ages, according to the National Digital History website.

Ancient Turkic runic writing, known scientifically as the Orkhono-Yenisei letter, originated and functioned in Eurasia in the sixth-seventh centuries and early Middle Ages. From the 5th-15th centuries, Turkic was the language of interethnic communication on the largest part of the territory. During the reign of Mongolian khans Batyi and Munke, all official documents in the Golden Horde and international correspondence, in addition to Mongolian, were conducted in Turkic.

Central Asian and Kazakh spiritual and secular schools used Arabic script. Columns, cornices, building domes and structures were decorated with beautifully ornamental Arabic calligraphy. Scientists and poets wrote their works in Arabic, decorating the pages with drawings. All the works of the outstanding minds of the East were written in Arabic and Farsi (Persian), as these languages were considered international. Arabic graphics were used on the territory of modern Kazakhstan for almost 900 years, from the 10th-20th centuries.

In 1912, Kazakh scholar Akhmet Baitursynov reformed the Kazakh alphabet based on Arabic graphics, making it possible for use by millions of Kazakhs living abroad. He excluded all Arabic letters not used in Kazakh and added letters specific to the language. After 1917, Kazakhstan began introducing Latin script. Arabic letters, which in their time played a positive role in social development, seemed to suspend historical progress.

Nazarbayev meet with diplomatic corps 3

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev has long advocated switching to the Latin alphabet

The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) Central Executive Committee Presidium and Council of People’s Commissars adopted a resolution on Aug. 7, 1929 introducing the Unified Turkic Alphabet based on Latin script. The 30-letter alphabet was short-lived, however, used only from 1929-1939.

A new alphabet based on Russian graphics, consisting of 42 letters with the phonetic features of the Kazakh language, was proposed in 1940. The regulation “On changing the Kazakh script from the Latinised into a new alphabet on the basis of Russian graphics” was adopted Nov. 13, 1940 and Kazakh books, newspapers and magazines were subsequently published in Cyrillic script.

The history of the Kazakh language alphabet, for the most part, was determined for specific political reasons, according to President Nursultan Nazarbayev. In the past year, the Kazakh alphabet has again become a hotly debated topic among politicians and scientists, Kazakh and foreign media, academicians and ordinary people.

From the first days of independence in 1991, the head of state has paid particular attention to the development of the Kazakh language. In 2006, he raised the question of transitioning the alphabet to Latin script at the 12th session of the Assembly of the People of Kazakhstan.

Six years later, Nazarbayev announced the country’s willingness and need to switch to the Latin alphabet. In 2017, he published a wide-ranging policy article, “Course towards the future: modernisation of Kazakhstan’s identity,” where he focused on a phased transition to the Latin alphabet. The discussions culminated in his Oct. 26 decree to change the existing Kazakh alphabet to Latin-based script.

“In order to ensure the transition of the Kazakh alphabet from Cyrillic letters to Latin ones, I decree to approve the attached alphabet of the Kazakh language based on the Latin script. The government of Kazakhstan is to set up a national commission to change the Kazakh alphabet to Latin script, organise a gradual switch to Latin script by 2025 and take other measures to implement this decree, including those of an organisational and legislative nature,” the document read.

A version of the alphabet approved by a presidential decree from Oct. 26, 2017.

The new alphabet featured 32 signs instead of 42 Cyrillic letters, nine of which were written with an apostrophe.

The new version of the Latin alphabet provoked an ambiguous response from users and was actively discussed on social networks. Some users did not like the new alphabet and expressed the opinion the version should be further developed.

Nazarbayev amended his original decree on Feb. 19, replacing the apostrophes with diacritic signs and digraphs. The deadline to complete the switch remains 2025.

The version of the alphabet approved on Feb. 19, 2018.

Mazhilis (lower house of Parliament) Chair Nurlan Nigmatulin believes the modern world is the world of the Latin alphabet.

“The question of changing the Kazakh alphabet did not emerge accidentally. Both professional philologists and public experts have discussed this question in society for a long time. The transition of the Kazakh language into the Latin script is a science-based process and includes a set of interrelated activities aimed at training teachers and various groups of the population, developing textbooks and teaching materials and translating office work and information space into the Latin alphabet. None of the stages should be overlooked. The transition to the Latin script should be carried out dynamically, excepting rush and ill-considered forcing events,” he said.

Kazakhstan’s Teacher of the Year Alexander Kintsel

Kazakhstan’s Teacher of the Year Alexander Kintsel supports the switch to the Latin alphabet

A few people have reproved the project, however, stating rejecting the Cyrillic alphabet will decrease Kazakh language literacy and make Russian-language schools more popular. Others believe the changes would weaken the position of the Russian language in Kazakhstan itself.

The President has noted the transition does not in any way affect the rights of Russian-speaking citizens, as the use of the Russian language in Cyrillic script will remain unchanged.

Kazakhstan’s Teacher of the Year Alexander Kintsel supported his view.

“The transition to Latin script is the imperative of the time. However, we will understand this only when we come into direct contact [with it]. For example, some time ago Kazakhstan began to publish its own textbooks and there was a lot of criticism. However, as experience has shown, they became relevant. Textbooks are now at a quite good level. Everything requires experience. It will take some time. Everything will fall into place and the same Latin alphabet will be successfully implemented. According to widespread opinion, Turkic languages sound more organic in the Latin script than the Cyrillic one due to the specificity of their phonetics,” he said.

Most Kazakh citizens remain positive and look forward to new changes in the alphabet. They believe the transition is essential to stay focused in a modern world where the largest part of the population uses Latin script.

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