Alphabet Change Sparks Debate

A government proposal to switch to the Latin alphabet has divided opinion in Kazakstan.

Alphabet Change Sparks Debate

A government proposal to switch to the Latin alphabet has divided opinion in Kazakstan.

President Nursultan Nazarbaev has generated a stir in Kazakstan by setting up a commission to consider whether the Kazak language should be written in the Latin alphabet rather than Cyrillic, as it is now.

With the commission not due to report back until March, the issue is already generating fierce debate, with some saying it is an important step on the path to modernising the country and others arguing it is ill-considered and could cause divisions between the country’s main ethnic groups, and even between different generations .

Nazarbaev has promised to consider all thearguments for and against the change before making a decision. However, he points out that Latin script has already been used by other Turkic-language countries such as Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

If the change is made, it won’t be the first time that Kazaks will have had to adjust to a new alphabet. In 1929, they switched from Arabic script to a Latin alphabet devised for all the Soviet Central Asian peoples. This was done for political reasons, to secularise the region and limit external Muslim influence; it also followed the example set by Ataturk’s Turkey.

However, in 1940 Roman script was dumped in favour of the current 42-letter Cyrillic writing system – the Russian alphabet plus nine characters to deal with sounds peculiar to Kazak.

Abduali Kaidarov, the leading researcher at the Institute of Linguistics, supports the switch to Latin. He argues that Cyrillic, which the Soviets justified as a unifying force, in fact divided peoples speaking similar Turkic languages as each adopted different special letters of their own.

“Latin can unite the culture of all Turkic peoples,” said Kaidarov.

Some Uzbeks and Turkmen might disagree. It is not clear what the new Kazak alphabet will look like, if it is adopted, but it will almost certainly not be the one used in the Thirties. Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have all devised new and very different Latin-based systems, which leave their writing systems at least as far apart from each other as they were before.

Kaidarov insists the difficulty of learning a new alphabet and other problems are being greatly exaggerated, and points out that there will be a long transitional period to help ease people through the change.

He himself learned both Latin and Cyrillic scripts in his school days, and says that as children are taught the new alphabet, their parents will pick it up as they help them with homework.

The director of the National Library, Murat Auezov, shares Kaidarov’s views, pointing out that many Kazak students are already familiar with the Latin alphabet through their study of foreign languages. “The Latin script holds no secrets or mysteries for them,” he said.

Another important argument in favour, he says, in the fact that most computer technology uses the Latin alphabet.

However, Auezov, the son of the famous writer Mukhtar Auezov, would like to see Kazaks retain a knowledge of Cyrillic, “because it is a great system of writing”. Kazakstan retains strong economic and political connections with Russia, with which it shares a long border.

Urban Kazaks tend to speak Russian well, sometimes as their first language, and there is a large ethnic Russian community, plus other minorities who use the language.

The deputy director of the Centre of Social Problems, Kanat Berentaev, strongly disagrees that switching from Cyrillic is the way forward. He says introducing a new alphabet will make just studying Kazak harder for other ethnic groups. A Russian-speaker learning Kazak via Cyrillic only has to get to grips with a few extra characters, whereas the new system will be completely alien.

Berentaev also worries that by moving to a new script, younger Kazaks may be cut off from the body of cultural and scientific literature written in the post-1940 Soviet period. “We have encountered this already… when the Latin script was changed for Cyrillic. Everything written in the old script turned out to be unwanted and simply disappeared,” he said.

He also doubts the switch will be as straightforward as its advocates suggest. In Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, he said, teachers and others were confused by the changes, forcing the authorities to scale back their plans for a swift move to Latin. As many adults are still unable to read the new alphabets, governments in those countries have allowed some publications to continue to use Cyrillic, and even government correspondence has yet to fully convert to Latin.

In Uzbekistan, the move has proved costly and has eaten into the education budget, Berentaev says, with school funds going “to reprinting billboards, signs, new alphabet books…. This money was simply thrown away.”

Poet and translator Auezkhan Kodar points to the possibility of a wall developing between the different generations that use the two scripts. Younger people will not have access to literature published in the Soviet period, while older generations will be cut off from those who have made the transition.

Political analyst Sabit Jusupov thinks the heated debate is premature, saying the switch is far from imminent.

“This issue has been raised several times. Just recall the mid-Nineties, when various forces raised the issue for a number of reasons, and the wave of public discussion then died away,” he said.

However, Svetlana Poznyakova, a linguist and head of the MediaNet journalism school, has no doubt that the issue will continue to generate fierce debate. She thinks the public reaction will be “very negative”.

“This applies both to the Russian-speaking and the Kazak-speaking populations,” said Poznyakova. “For Russians, Cyrillic is an alphabet they have used for centuries.”

Filip Prokudin is an independent journalist in Almaty. Marina Korobkina, who writes for IWPR’s news analysis service NBCentralAsia, contributed to this report.

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