Latinization and Kazakhstan

by Michael Hancock-Parmer on 12/17/2012 · 1 comment

I’m writing this post to share some concerns about the Latinization program for Kazakhstan announced by President Nazarbaev in connection with other progressive changes to the Republic.

The Too Long; Didn’t Read analysis of what I’m about to write is simple: I am not as excited for Latinization as I used to be. I am not forecasting doom or anything like it. Nor am I saying that this is all part of some conspiracy or weird power grab on the part of Nazarbaev. No. I am rather trying to share some concerns that might interest Registan’s readers.

I have reservations that it will adversely affect Kazakhstan’s citizens in their efforts to better understand their past and the formation of the their current situation. However, I accept that the continued existence of Russian in the Republic may be an alleviating factor with regard to understanding and reading Cyrillic Kazakh into the future. And this argument, I admit, is totally divorced from issues of technology, keyboards, and texting. In that regard, it seems to me that the manufacturers (I assume mostly in East and Southeast Asia) meet demand rather than create it, but I’ll admit ignorance on the general issue. In addition, I have used for several years an overlay that allows me to type in Cyrillic phonetically; when I type Q, I get Қ, and so on.

These announcements came in time for the celebration of Kazakhstan’s independence, December 16th. This date was  from the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. Martha Olcott describes Nazarbaev as “the master of the art of the possible” in her Hoover series monograph The Kazakhs. (p.265) It would seem that she is correct in that regard, as switching to Latin is indeed a possibility. In fact, it happened before. Should the Kazakh language be written in Latin by 2025 as planned, it will be the fourth alphabet in 100 years, considering that Arabic-script Kazakh was still being produced in 1925, in Latin by 1929, and in Cyrillic for the most of the remainder (1930s-present).

This is not the first time since Independence that Latin has been proposed as the alphabet for the Kazakhs of Kazakhstan. Half-serious and serious propositions alike have fluttered through the various levels of Kazakh governance. I remember reading this write-up by Adil Nurmakov late in 2007, the year I finished my time in the Peace Corps in Kazakhstan. At that time a similar announcement was quickly modified by Nazarbaev that such things are best not hurried.

I have less to say about the practical costs and abilities surrounding Latinization because of the examples offered by the spectrum of Latinizing post-Soviet Republics (Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tatarstan’s abortive efforts to the same). In general, the more centrally controlled a country, the quicker and more complete Latinization was completed. Relative isolation from outside populations likely also affects this transition, but only to an extent. I doubt the Turkmen population of Afghanistan weighed too heavily on Turkmenbashi’s mind when he decided to Latinize.

The historical context of alphabet shifting in Kazakhstan is no light topic. It is absolutely tied with the division of the regions people into separate nationalities with their own trajectories and walled-off communities. This division allowed the strong, centralized government in European Russia to successfully dictate cultural and historical agendas throughout the Soviet Union.

In essence, “Arabic-script Kazakh” is nearly a contradiction in terms. When written in Arabic script, Kazakh, Tatar, Bashkir, and Karakalpak appear much more identical then then do in the current Cyrillic alphabets. Moreover, their close relationship with Uzbek, Uyghur, Kyrgyz, Turkmen, and Ottoman-Turkish was far more apparent. Though much ink has been spilled attacking the awkwardness of Arabic at correctly carrying Turkic language, the longevity of the alphabet must be re-considered rather than seen as a sign of backwardness or Oriental decadence. Rather, the very limitations of the Arabic script (i.e. writing of the various Turkic vowels) might be considered as its strength. In essence, while the Arabic script was able to add letters to represent vowels (modern Uyghur in China is an excellent example), the obscuring of the same vowels allowed for easier comprehension between speakers with different pronunciations. One can see a rough analog with the ratio of English written vowels to pronounced vowels; many differences in pronunciation are obscured, allowing much easier communication (in writing) between speakers in northern and southern portions of the United States, to say nothing of between Australia, India, England, the US, etc.

The drive to create individual alphabets for the various nationalities was a part of Stalin’s early nationality policy, about which much has been written. I have little to add to that discussion, but I reference it to reiterate that this created an unequal distribution of “literacy” to the various Turkic peoples. Tatars were told they had a rich literary heritage, while the Kyrgyz were told they had no literature whatsoever before the 1920s, but only oral epics like Manas (which of course, they had in addition to written works). These arbitrary divisions, however, had little to do with the initial drive to Latinize in the 1920s.

And this is the key difference: the drive to Latinize in the 1920s was towards a universal Latin alphabet. The alphabet showcased at the first Turkology Conference in Baku in 1926 would go on to become the official alphabet of modern Turkish in the Republic of Turkey in 1928, and the official replacement for Arabic-script throughout the Turkic republics and provinces of the Soviet Union.

For various reasons I won’t digest into a blog post, that dream died early for the Soviet Union. And the drive to Cyrillicize began. If one looks up the various Cyrillic alphabets, one will notice that no two have the same number of letters, nor the same orthography for vowels or common phonemes (which happen to be consonant clusters in English) like “ng,” “ch,” and “sh.” In addition, the vocabulary of each was also treated to arbitrary division, with key words replaced by Russian cognates — but not universally between the various areas. In short, Stalin’s policies seem to have totally succeeded in creating a pile of languages from what had previously been several closely connected dialects. I use this terminology generally – if you want to argue about the definition of dialect and language, I’m happy to read your comments.

And so — my two concerns:

One: As happened to the Arabic-script documents being unreachable and unknown, so too might happen to the treasury of work written during the Soviet Union. And let there be no doubt – nearly everything that it means to be a Kazakh in terms of Kazakh-specific national poetry, literature, heroic tales – was created and written in Cyrillic. The point is not that no one will transfer this body of literature, but that they have to do so in the first place. It will be expensive and time-consuming, meaning it will be selective. And even the best selection committee will leave too much out of the picture.

Two: the new Latin alphabets of Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Uzbekistan are hardly identical. Vowels and those same problematic consonants are all over the place. But that isn’t really my idea of why this is likely a project with very serious consequences. Rather, the point of transferring the body of literature is much more expensive proposition if you have to do it 8 times instead of 1 time. Moreover, there is still a vast body of literature in Arabic script untouched, sitting in state and private collections across the former Soviet Union and Turkey. Some have the training necessary to read it, but the states involved seem to have limited interest in sharing these narratives, poems, histories, and religious works with the great-grandchildren of those that produced it. This, of course, ignores the fact that Kazakhs in China still use the Arabic script, though the Kazakhs of Mongolia similarly use Cyrillic.

That being said, I do have confidence that Kazakhstan will do a better job than most of getting the historical importance of this shift. I am constantly gladdened by the published archival collections put out in Kazakhstan, where a team of scholars works to Cyrillicize older Arabic-script documents for the public and researchers. But still the ridiculous idea prevails: that the steppe did not share a literary past with the so-called “Tatars” and “Uzbeks” of Kazan, Crimea, Samarkand, Bukhara, and Tashkent.

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This post was written by...

– author of 20 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Michael earned an MA in Central Eurasian Studies in 2011 and remains a student at Indiana University pursuing a dual PhD in Russian History and Central Eurasian Studies. He served 6 months in the Peace Corps in Uzbekistan in 2005. After the events in Andijan and the subsequent closure of the program, he served 2 years in southern Kazakhstan, returning to the Midwest in 2007. His general area of interest is on post-Timur Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, centered on the Syr Darya river valley.

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{ 1 comment }

Kimdir December 18, 2012 at 1:11 pm


I welcome Kazakhstan’s decision to move to Latinized Kazakh alphabet and I am going to share my own experience with both alphabets in an example of Cyrillic and Latinized Uzbek to make my point.

I finished my high school education in Cyrillic Uzbek and later, when Latinized Uzbek alphabet as introduced when I was in college, I had to learn the new alphabet. Since I was learning English just like any student has to learn at least one foreign language, I had no problems whatsoever to start reading and writing Uzbek in Latin letters. There was of course a convenience premium to reading Uzbek in Latin alphabet because my eyes were used to Cyrillic Uzbek. I could observe the same behavior in others as well whose primary choice would be books in Cyrillic Uzbek rather than Latinized Uzbek. Though there was one good thing about the move to Latin letters – the Uzbek language adopted the “QWERTY” keyboard as it is, without making any modifications. This made it very easy to use computer for both Uzbek and English language purposes. If I remember correctly the parliament’s decision to adopt QWERTY had to do with promoting computer usage and learning English in general public.

I am not sure how Kazakhs will stray away from QWERTY creating their own vowels but QWERTY made it very easy to start using the Latinized Uzbek and learning English. I am aware that QWERTY is built to accommodate the English language and no other language whatsoever and reflects how often one letter is repeated most often in English speech. Uzbek speakers are very tiny in comparison to English speakers and the reason to use QWERTY probably had to do with timing and funds issues since all keyboards in use where QWERTY.

That being said, older generations who were already out of college when Latinized Uzbek alphabet was introduced still exclusively use Cyrillic. I expect the same might happen in the Kazakh society, the young people will start using it when it is introduced but the adults will probably stick with Cyrillic. After one or two generations the society will be using Latinized alphabet 100% of the time.

What will it to to literary traditions?

One of the good traditions of the old Soviet educational system was to highly encourage students to read various books with emphasis on world literary heritage. There where libraries everywhere, including rural areas. Since books where easily accessible and teachers prodded us to read I grew up reading a lot of books in Cyrillic Uzbek and Russian. Later, when Uzbekistan introduced Latin letters only selected number of books got published again in Latinized Uzbek, the rest were not published at all cutting off young people from a vast literary wealth of the world. Some of the students learned both alphabets and read most magazines and books in Cyrillic whereas all of their school textbooks where only in Latinized Uzbek. So now we have a whole new generation that grew up using both alphabets but this generation as a whole reads less that the older generation. I guess there are several reason to it – just like kids everywhere these days kids in Uzbekistan spend more and more time in front of their computers playing video games or watching TV which takes away valuable time from reading books. I believe though, unavailability of books in Latinized Uzbek alphabet is the main reason for the weak culture of reading among young generation who used Latinized Uzbek in school. This tells me that unless Kazakhstan does something radically different, they are headed the same direction.

There are political motives of moving from one alphabet to another and those motives cannot be underestimated. Uzbekistan moved from Arabic alphabet to Latin in 1920’s because Uzbekistan because a secular country and wanted to break with Islam. That move made most of the religious literature instantly inaccessible that helped to establish a secular society. After that it was time to develop a Soviet identity and Stalin ordered the Uzbek alphabet to be changed from Latin to Cyrillic in 1930’s. This tied Uzbeks tighter to Moscow and made learning Russian easier. Once Uzbekistan became independent there was a new political agenda, to assert its independence, to be a part of wider global family and to distance itself from Moscow and communist ideology. So the alphabet changed from Cyrillic back to Latin. There are a lot of political reasons that one can see why alphabet changed 4 times in the last 100 years and all these political motives apply to Kazakhstan as well. For those who don’t know Latinized Uzbek alphabet of 1920’s and the modern alphabet are very different. The old Latin alphabet used specialized Uzbek vowels that are different from any language that uses Latin letters whereas the new Uzbek alphabet does not use anything different from English alphabet – it makes use of QWERTY to describe any Uzbek sound.

I would say Kazakhstan is following Uzbekistan’s example. There is much more than just “trying to be a part of world culture and use Latin letters”. There is a big nation-building aspect to this move. Kazakstan is right next to Russia and is dominated by the Russian language and culture to the point that Kazakh language and culture has bastardized. Most of Kazakhs who live in urban areas do not speak Kazakh, they speak Russian as their first language. They do not watch Kazakh TV and do not read Kazakh newspapers. If the government can’t reach its own population in its own language it is not a string nation. using Russian language and culture Russian can always dominate Kazakhstan the way she wants. Newly rich Kazakhstan feels that it has the resources to reassert its own language and culture at least within its own borders. Using Latin letters for Kazakhstan is a move as much as to distance itself from Moscow as it is to be a part of the bigger world. It won’t be easy and it will take more time than anybody realizes but at the end Kazakhstan as a nation will benefit from it.

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