Over breakfast in my apartment in Almaty, some friends and I were discussing the news. After covering everything from state visits to trade deals, I cautiously brought up the new Latin Kazakh alphabet, hoping to hear their thoughts. Rather than stating his own opinion, however, my roommate Sayat turned and asked me a seemingly simple question:
“Leora, do you know the real reason why our government is changing our alphabet over to Latin?”
Leora Eisenberg is a third-year undergraduate at Princeton University, where she is studying Slavic Languages and Literatures (read: Soviet history with a focus on Central Asia). She spent the summer of 2017 in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, as a recipient of the State Department’s Critical Language Scholarship and the summer of 2018 as a Streicker International Fellow in Kazakhstan. Leora hopes to spend many more summers in Central Asia as she continues her academic career.
Since October 2017, the Kazakhstani government has been working on shifting the alphabet of the Kazakh language from Cyrillic to Latin, with the deadline for its completion set for 2025. The government has gone through several versions, with some eminently legible, and others impossible to read. Reactions to the new alphabet have been mixed at best, and I hesitated, not wanting to answer his question incorrectly.
Experts said that the new alphabet was a way for Kazakhstan to distance itself from Russia. Government officials claimed it would allow citizens to ease into the Age of the Internet. Others thought it would make it easier for Kazakhstanis to learn languages like English, French, and Spanish, all of which have Latin-based alphabets. Not knowing which of the three answers was correct, I opted for the most neutral one:
“To make it easier to use the Internet?”
Noting my uncertainty, Sayat shook his head, disappointed.
“It’s to unify all of the Turkic peoples,” he chastised. “Azerbaijan, Turkey, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan—they all already have Latin alphabets. Our alphabet is the next step. Then we can unify.”
Not everyone would agree with his analysis. In a BBC article, Anar Fazylzhanova, a Kazakh linguist who helped develop the new alphabet, put forward the opposite view, claiming that rather than being a step toward pan-Turkic nationalism, the alphabet “is the choice of the people, of the nation… It shows that our independent history is finally beginning.” In the same article, Anar Fazylzhanova contended that “47% of the younger generation—aged 18 to 25—supported a switch to a Latin-based script in 2007; that number jumped to 80% in 2016.”
Anecdotally, however, in the Kazakhstani metropolis of Almaty, young people do not appear to be as supportive as those numbers would suggest, for two main reasons: the fear that certain sounds will disappear and the concern that their parents and grandparents will not catch on.
Ademi,* a friend in her mid-twenties, sighed when I brought up the topic.
“On the one hand,” she said, “it will help us integrate into the global community. It will be much easier for others to read what we write. But the new alphabet will eliminate many of the sounds native to Kazakh.”
She began to explain: in Kazakh, her name is spelled Әдемі, with the ә and i denoting sounds unique to Kazakh, and the other three letters native to the Cyrillic—Russian—alphabet. With the advent of the new alphabet, she worries that these sounds will disappear. Other individuals between the ages of 23 and 27 voiced the same concern. “Will our poetry sound the same with Latin letters?” one asked.
However widespread these fears are, they are for the most part unfounded. Sounds native to a language rarely disappear solely due to an alphabet shift. When the alphabet in neighboring Kyrgyzstan switched to Cyrillic in the 1940s, letters for the hard “q” and “gh” sounds were not transferred into the new alphabet; that said, the sounds have not disappeared from spoken Kyrgyz [article in Russian]. And it is even less of a concern in the present case, as the Latin letters are being adapted in order to denote sounds indigenous to Kazakh.
The new alphabet contains thirty separate letters and two two-letter combinations (“ch” and “sh”) to match a single letter in the Cyrillic alphabet. (It is worth noting that using letter combinations to denote a sound like sh—rather than just one letter with a diacritic, as many other Turkic languages do—sacrifices mutual intelligibility to a degree, thus contributing to discrediting the argument that the new alphabet is a move toward pan-Turkic unification.)
Тhe Latin alphabet presents no great difficulty to those who have grown up in an era where English (and other Western languages) are ubiquitous. The official point, after all, is to ease into the Age of the Internet and to more easily learn languages which use a Latin alphabet.
Roza, a 19-year-old Kazakh girl native to Almaty, told me that “the new alphabet won’t affect [her] at all because [she] know[s] the Latin alphabet.”
This makes sense: anyone who has gone through the Kazakhstani educational system since the fall of USSR has likely had at least minimal instruction in English and is, in theory, familiar with Latin letters. In recent years, there has even been a push for trilingualism in Kazakhstan—that is, for all students to learn Kazakh, Russian, and English—which would make adopting a Latin-based alphabet simple for those students.
For others, however, the new alphabet is daunting.
Roza commented that the older generation will struggle: “Filling out documents will be hard for them in the Latin alphabet.” Gulnura, a 23-year-old Kazakh girl native to the eastern city of Ust-Kamenogorsk, expressed similar sentiments, saying that it would be hard for people like her parents, who never learned English in school and who, if they learned German during the Cold War, have long since forgotten it. (While Gulnura was not personally opposed to the change, she was also “not really sure that Kazakhstan really needs it.”)
Given this potential gap between the older and younger generations in terms of familiarity with the Latin alphabet, it is entirely possible that it may take years after 2025 to fully switch to the new alphabet, if proper government monitoring and implementation are lacking. The government of Uzbekistan, for example, originally set a deadline of 2000 for switching the Uzbek alphabet completely to Latin; as of 2017, however, both alphabets were still in use, with the government and bureaucracy (i.e., the older generation) using Cyrillic to such an extent that younger employees have to learn it.
Asel, a native of the southern city of Kyzylorda in her mid-twenties, worried that the situation in Kazakhstan might turn out the same and that “everyone will have to relearn how to read and write.”
“Poluchitsya kasha,” she said, using a remarkably descriptive Russian phrase. “You’ll get oatmeal [in people’s heads].”
Even some staunch supporters of the new alphabet recognize that the older generation will struggle to adopt it.
Sabit, a 24-year-old Kazakh banker native to Almaty, admitted that it will be hard for them. However, he also told me that it was “about time for Kazakhstan to switch over to Latin”—or rather switch back, considering that Kazakhstan had a Latin alphabet during the 1930s. Called Yangälif, it was originally an umbrella alphabet for all Turkic languages spoken in the Soviet Union and was only later made to suit individual languages, such as Turkmen, Tatar, and Kazakh. That is to say, 2025 won’t be the first time that the Western world will be able to read— although not necessarily understand—Kazakh.
My interlocutors also mentioned other reasons for opposing the alphabet switch. Asel indicated that the alphabet is just “letting dust into people’s eyes,” i.e. distracting them from the true problems of life in Kazakhstan today.
“It’s illogical,” said Almazbek, a 25-year-old lawyer and Almaty native who was in no uncertain terms opposed to the alphabet shift. “It’s just a way for the government to suck money out of its citizens.” The bill for re-education programs and replacing signage in hospitals, in schools, and on public transportation, he noted, would presumably be picked up by the taxpayer.
Others I spoke with felt similarly. Nikita, a 25-year-old computer programmer, said it was a “colossal waste of money.” The Kazakhstani government has allocated roughly 670 million dollars for the alphabet shift.
The shift is more than just going from Cyrillic to Latin; it is a transition from Russia-centrism to a focus on the Western world
According to the new alphabet’s proponents, however, every penny (or, in Kazakhstan, every tenge) is worth it. The shift is more than just going from Cyrillic to Latin; it is a transition from Russia-centrism to a focus on the Western world. It is more than just casting off the chains of an age-old Soviet legacy; it is about creating a new future for Kazakhstan. But most young people, at least in my limited experience in Almaty, do not see it that way.
Of the twelve Almaty-dwellers (aged 18 to 25) I interviewed about the new alphabet specifically, only three had an overall positive view of the change. Interestingly enough, all three were men, although no larger conclusions can be drawn from this—except maybe that while many young people view the new alphabet as a threat to their parents’ ability to live their day-to-day lives, some Kazakh young men see it as the first step toward pan-Turkic world domination, as unlikely as this seems.
*Some names have been changed in order to protect individuals’ privacy.
Feature image belongs to Shamil Zhumatov, Reuters