Asia-Pacific

Why is this country changing its entire alphabet?

From 2020, all pre-schoolers and first-grade students in Kazakhstan will be taught in the new script. Source: Getty Images

Imagine if you had to re-learn how to write in your native language. An ambitious plan by Kazakhstan’s president will see more than 18 million people do just that by 2025.

Altay Sabyrbay has a master’s degree but will soon go back to learning his ABCs.

The 26-year-old engineer - like the rest of his 17 million countrymen - is following a ruling by Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev to replace the country’s traditional written language with an English-looking one.

“I think it is a step forward for us; it will be easier for foreigners to study Kazakh, and for young generations to learn English, or other Latin languages,” Mr Sabyrbay told SBS News. “It may also be more convenient for tourists.”

Altay Sabyrbay
Altay Sabyrbay lives in Kazakhstan's capital, Astana.
Supplied

When the bold overhaul was announced late last year, the president said it was “not only the fulfilment of the dreams of our ancestors but also the way to the future for younger generations.”

And it has reportedly been a long time coming.

The 77-year-old president has led Kazakhstan, the largest land-locked nation in the world, since its independence in 1990. He is said to have been considering the change for more than a decade but only now the funds to do it; it is said to be costing the country more than $800 million.

Last year Kazakh President Nazarbayev declared the Kazakh written language had to change.
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev declared the written language had to change.
Getty Images

Why the change?

The Cyrillic alphabet was imposed on Kazakhstan by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin in the 1940s and while many of the country’s neighbours ditched the script, for Kazakhs the linguistic legacy of Soviet rule remains.

Arabic script had been used in Kazakhstan since the 8th century, until 1929 when the country briefly switched to Latin.

The new alphabet is based on a Latin script and includes many characters which correspond with the English alphabet.  

The new look Latin script.
The new look Latin script.
Government of Kazakhstan

The University of Adelaide’s Richard Pomfret, who specialises in the politics of Central Asia, said the language transition – set to be complete by 2025 – signifies a bold step away from Russia.

“It’s an investment,” he said. “It indicates a greater cultural distance from Russia, and the trigger was Russia’s actions with Ukraine.”

Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev pictured with Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2017.
President Nazarbayev pictured with Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2017.
Getty Images Europe

In 2014, Russia used military force to annex Crimea from Ukraine, a move which escalated existing tensions between the two nations, and according to Professor Pomfret, made neighbouring countries nervous.

“After independence, Kazakhstan and Ukraine had similar treaties, they both agreed to decommission their nuclear weapons, and in return, the other nuclear powers agreed to territorial integrity, which looked fine until 2014, when Russia did not pay attention to that,” he said.

“Russia is now seen as less powerful and influential than it was half a dozen years ago,” Professor Pomfret said. “Kazakhstan has always had quite a close relationship with Russia, but they appear to be backing away from it [now].”

Only three countries in Central Asia still have the Cyrillic script; Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic and Tajikistan. Following independence, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan returned to a Latin script as their official written language.

How will they do it?

Kazakhstan’s switchover will involve logistical challenges for almost everyone; restaurant owners will need to change over their menus, teachers will need new textbooks, and signage throughout the country will need a refresh.

The current alphabet has more than 42 characters, which makes typing and texting difficult, but the new-look language will have just 32 characters. 

“It may make things easier, in terms of being online, using the web,” Professor Pomfret said.

From 2020, all pre-schoolers and first-grade students will be taught in the new script - an achievable goal according to English teacher Jasin Mihlbauer, who migrated from the US to Kazakhstan more than a decade ago.

“A lot of people grew up using Cyrillic, so they will be challenged but I’m sure they will rise to the occasion,” Mr Mihlbauer said. “By 2025, they should at least be ready for the most part.”

Teething problems

More than 100 ethnic groups live in Kazakhstan; ethnic Kazakhs make up more than half of the population and more than a quarter are ethnic Russians. Its diversity has paved the way for a policy of trilingualism; Kazakh, English and Russian are all considered official languages.

But earlier this year, President Nazarbayev implemented an immediate ban on speaking Russian in cabinet meetings and parliamentary hearings and said those who were not fluent would need to rely on translations.

Ministers must now speak Kazakh in parliament.
Ministers must now speak Kazakh in parliament.
Getty Images

Late last year the president was forced to amend the initial new version of the alphabet after the public took issue with its liberal use of apostrophes.

“The problem was officials making stupid decisions on how the alphabet would look – they wanted special characters to be written with an apostrophe, but thank god they changed their mind,” Mr Sabyrbay said.

The new-look script, which will be rolled out in teaching kits and textbooks later this year, now uses French-style accents instead of apostrophes to convey specific sounds. The characters s' and c' will be replaced by sh and ch. 

A fresh start

The government has already begun targeting internet users in its campaign to promote the new script, allocating more than $1 million to working with bloggers who will help them promote and explain the new alphabet.

Engineer Mr Sabyrbay is hopeful its benefits will go beyond the pages on which it is printed.

“Maybe it will be difficult for some, perhaps for elderly people. But for me, I think it’s quite easy and intuitive,” he said.

“I think it will help to form a Kazakh identity.”

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