Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Tue Nov 21 12:57:43 UTC 2006

Forwarded from

Eurasia Insight:

Kazakhstan is contemplating a switch to the Latin alphabet. With the
President Nursultan Nazarbayev himself raising it, observers think it may
well become reality. Addressing the Assembly of Peoples of Kazakhstan in
late October, Nazarbayev said it was time to think of switching. I think
we should return to the question of moving the Kazakh alphabet to Latin,
he told delegates representing Kazakhstans various ethnic groups.
Following Nazarbayevs comments, a commission was set up to look into
alphabet change. It is to investigate the problems Turkey, Azerbaijan,
Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan encountered when they switched to Latin and
come up with proposals by March of next year. Professor Kobey Khusayn,
director of the Academy of Sciences Institute of Linguistics, is a member
of the commission. Research is needed we need to know what is best for us
how to do this, when to do this, he told EurasiaNet, adding that the
institute has been given 7.5 million tenge ($60,000 USD) for this. The
idea of changing from Cyrillic is not new; Kazakhstan agreed to make the
switch back in the early 1990s, along with the four other former Soviet
Turkic republics, following a series of meetings with Turkey. While
Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan were quick to adopt Latin script,
Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan delayed the switchover, and both still use

If Kazakhstan changes, it would mark the fourth alphabet used in the
country during the past century. In the early 20th century, Arabic was
used. In 1929, officials introduced a modified Latin script, as Soviet
officials sought to make a break with the countrys Muslim past. After just
over a decade in use, however, Latin was supplanted in 1940 by Cyrillic,
as the need to have a common alphabet for all republics became Soviet
policy. Following independence in 1991, alphabet change remained on the
backburner for political and economic reasons. The re-emergence of the
alphabet issue is linked to Kazakhstans modernization drive, some
observers believe. Reasons for adopting Latin are both practical and
ideological, assert supporters of the idea. On the practical side,
computer compatibility is often cited, and Nazarbayev invoked this. Latin
script dominates in communications, he told the Assembly of Peoples. Layla
Yermenbayeva, a Kazakh-language instructor at the Kazakhstan Institute of
Management, Economics and Strategic Research, is among those advocating
the switch for this reason. She says Cyrillic complicates the use of the
Internet for educational purposes.

The Nachnem s Ponedelnika newspaper suggests that using Latin would
facilitate foreign language learning for Kazakhs. However, there could be
a reverse effect: Kazakhstans Russian speakers might perceive a switch as
an obstacle to learning Kazakh. These are the people that the government
most needs to learn Kazakh. Meanwhile, many linguists support a switch to
Latin, Professor Khusayn told EurasiaNet. The problem is not linguistic,
he says, but a cultural problem, a political problem, an economic problem,
a problem of education, so politicians, economists, financiers and
sociologists should be asked the question when and how.

Ideologically, the switch could be interpreted as a move away from the
Russian sphere of influence; it is a move likely to appeal to ethnic
Kazakhs as the country seeks to reposition itself in the post-Soviet
space. Some commentators suggest that it could lead to a rapprochement of
Turkic peoples. It is not clear whether the timing of Nazarbayevs
announcement is linked to the Turkic state summit in Antalya November 17.
[For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The switch would affect
the young and old in different ways. The older generation would be at a
disadvantage; they are the least likely to know English, or other Western
languages, and would likely find it harder to adapt to the new alphabet.
The younger generation would presumably have less difficulty in learning
the new script. At the same time, they might find themselves cut off, at
least temporarily, from their literary and cultural heritage, as the vast
majority of literature in Kazakh printed in Cyrillic.

I don't think it will be hard for the younger generation, nor for the
middle-aged. They have all learned languages and know the Latin alphabet.
It will probably be hard for pensioners and the inhabitants of rural
areas, says Yermenbayeva. Inhabitants of rural areas have limited access
to computers and the Internet and therefore have less exposure to the
Latin alphabet. The introduction of the Latin script followed similar
patterns in Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, with the script first
introduced into schools and then newspapers printed with parallel texts in
Cyrillic and Latin. In all three countries, the pace of the introduction
proved to be slower than expected.

The huge costs involved in reprinting everything from textbooks and
official forms to street and shop signs also proved to be a factor
hampering the adoption of the new script. However, with Kazakhstan awash
with petrodollars, the cost may not be the most important factor.
Nazarbayev cautioned against haste in deciding the alphabet issue. Indeed,
care must be taken if the switch is to be successful. The Latinization of
the alphabet is one of several reforms currently being contemplated by
Nazarbayev. In mid-November, he announced plans to clean up Kazakhstans
gambling industry. Starting January 1, 2007, all casinos in the country
will have to move to Lake Kapshagai near Almaty, or to Lake Burabay near
Astana, the president said.

As with alphabet change, the establishment of Las Vegas-style pockets of
vice on the steppe can be seen as connected with modernization attempts.
Earlier in 2006, Nazarbayev introduced what has become his pet project:
transforming Kazakhstan into one of the worlds 50 most competitive
economies. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].


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