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.