[lg policy] Kazakhstan seeks to use language as tool for establishing independence, scholar says
haroldfs at gmail.com
Tue Jan 30 11:49:48 EST 2018
Kazakhstan seeks to use language as tool for establishing independence,
LAWRENCE — When Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev visited the White
House earlier this month, he thanked President Donald Trump and U.S.
leaders for their support for his nation's "independence and territorial
To establish the Central Asian nation's independence from regional powers,
the authoritarian leader has used one less-traditional method recently:
changing Kazakhstan's alphabet.
A University of Kansas linguistic anthropologist said Nazarbayev's move
from a heavy Cyrillic to Latin alphabet is interesting for several reasons,
including that the change has shed light on language as an often overlooked
critical piece in geopolitics.
"In some ways this is the first writing system of the texting generation,"
said Arienne Dwyer, a University of Kansas professor of linguistic
anthropology and director of research at the Institute for Digital Research
in the Humanities. "It is very youth-oriented. At the same time, it is a
subtle pivot away from Russia because of the change from Cyrillic to a
Nazarbayev has led Kazakhstan since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and
the world's largest landlocked country has a complex history with other
nations in the region as well. The switch in alphabets cannot be viewed as
aligning with Europe, Dwyer said, because Nazarbayev chose not to use
umlauted and accented characters, typical in German or Hungarian, nor as
aligning itself with Turkish orthographic conventions.
"What you're seeing is through a writing system a country is showing its
new strength, and it's drawing a kind of ideological border between these
countries and itself," Dwyer said. "This is despite the fact that it has
close ties with all of these units."
The new alphabet relies heavily on apostrophes, she said, likely an effort
to make it easier to use via text messaging and social media, though
it has received
in some linguistic circles.
"The net effect of some change like this is it is both a practical one that
is in the realm of human-computer-interaction, where you optimize the range
of motion and the number of clicks the user has to do with the device,
whether that is a cellphone, tablet or laptop," Dwyer said. "The other
component is an ideological one where the country is declaring separation
between or a boundary between itself and Russia, Europe and Turkey. It is
quite significant in a geopolitical sense because if you compare Kazakhstan
to other neighboring countries, it is the first one to make this move."
Still, the process will not be painless.
"This is a big change in people's lives. You think about our parents and
grandparents learning new behaviors in order to use computers," Dwyer said.
"For Kazakhstani citizens, abandoning the writing system they grew up with
and using an unfamiliar one is a similar feeling for people."
Dwyer said the downside of anybody changing a writing system is cutting off
a generation from previous generation literature and science.
"In the case of Kazakhstan, that danger is not as acute because the Russian
language, culture and economy are still important forces in the society
that we know that most things will be bilingual in both Russian and Kazakh,
using both writing systems," Dwyer said.
Russian will be taught, which ensures children will learn Russian, and
therefore Cyrillic, she said.
"However, it does disfavor the oldest generation, who are not used to
reading this and would have to learn the system," Dwyer said. "The oldest
generation likely never learned to read the Latin script."
Could we see other nations follow in this tactic to seek more psychological
independence? For now, Kazakhstan may be the only one that can afford to do
it, she said, based on its economic advantage with somewhat vast natural
"For Kazakhstan, this switch is an additional way of showing that it has
arrived as an international first-world country," Dwyer said. "They are a
major oil power. They successfully balance Russian and Chinese interests,
and they have established an internationally oriented university."
One key takeaway message from the alphabet switch is that language planning
can be a powerful means to signal ideology and geopolitical power.
"With this move, the country implies 'we are autonomous decision-makers, we
are a first-world country,'" Dwyer said. "Therefore, language policy
changes are subtle but effective — sometimes more effective than other
As a scholar, Dwyer also examines how the languages and cultures of Central
Asia can change. She analyzes premodern Turkic manuscripts written in the
Perso-Arabic script that predated the arrival of Latin and Cyrillic scripts
to that area.
She recently published an article
<https://kuscholarworks.ku.edu/handle/1808/23399>, "On writing, reading and
scripts in early 20th century Kashgar," that examined premodern manuscript
technologies — papermaking and the spread of calligraphic styles from
Persia to Central Asia and India — as part of a larger project to digitize,
analyze and put online Central Asian Turkic manuscripts from the early
Funded by the Henry Luce Foundation, a multinational research team of
Americans, a French scholar of Persian and Uyghur students transcribed,
translated and examined the manuscripts for elements of both traditional
medicine and grammar. The manuscripts were collected in the early 20th
century by Sweden's then ambassador to Kashgar, Gunnar Jarring.
However, like the modern Kazakhs, who will need time to adjust to their
new, apostrophe-rich Latin writing system, Dwyer's research team has taken
time to learn how to read and especially transcribe the Chaghatai language
of these Kashgar manuscripts.
"We had come up with several spelling systems so that as many people as
possible can read one of them. And we have English translations. Otherwise,
our scholarship would be inaccessible," Dwyer said.
All their work is publicly available on the project's website
"The project is particularly powerful for the Uyghur students. This
Chaghatai language we are looking at is close to their
great-great-grandparents' language," Dwyer said. "Therefore, the students
have valuable insights on changes in healing practices and language. We
also want academics, as well as their parents and grandparents, to be able
to read one version of these manuscripts we present. This is their
Both the changes in the Kazakhstani writing system and the KU-based
research on and sharing of Central Asian manuscripts show how cultural and
linguistic histories inform decision-making in the present.
"For geopolitical insight about a region, demographers, economists and
political scientists are often consulted," Dwyer said, "but by seeing how
people interpret language and culture, you often get more insight into
national ideologies, aspirations and policies than you might with just
reading overt policies and interviewing people about them."
Photo: President Barack Obama speaks with, from left, President Nursultan
Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, President Dmitry Medvedev of Russia and Russian
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during the second plenary session of the
Nuclear Security Summit at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in
Washington, D.C., on April 13, 2010. Arienne Dwyer, KU linguistic
anthropologist, said Nazarbayev's recent move from a heavy Cyrillic to
Latin alphabet sheds light on language as an often overlooked critical
piece in geopolitics. *Credit:* Pete Souza/White House official photo.
Harold F. Schiffman
Professor Emeritus of
Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305
Phone: (215) 898-7475
Fax: (215) 573-2138
Email: haroldfs at gmail.com
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