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 Kazakhstan's various ethnic groups. Following Nazarbayev's 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 Cyrillic.
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 country's 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 Kazakhstan's 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: Kazakhstan's 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 Nazarbayev's 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 Kazakhstan's 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
Paul Bartlett is an Almaty-based freelance writer specialising in education issues.