-Біздің еліміздің атауында Орталық Азияның басқа да елдеріндегі сияқты “стан” деген жалғау бар. Сонымен бір мезгілде, шетелдіктер халқының саны небәрі екі миллионды құрайтын Моңғолияға қызығушылық танытады, бірақ оның атауында “стан” жалғауы жоқ. Сірә, еліміздің атауын уақыт өте келе “Қазақ елі” деп өзгерту мәселесін қарастыру керек шығар, бірақ алдымен міндетті түрде халықтың талқысына салған жөн, – деді Президент. [Link]
-В названии нашей страны есть окончание «стан», как и у других государств Центральной Азии. В то же время иностранцы проявляют интерес к Монголии, население которой составляет всего два миллиона человек, при этом в ее названии отсутствует окончание «стан». Возможно, надо рассмотреть со временем вопрос перехода на название нашей страны «Қазақ елі», но прежде следует обязательно обсудить это с народом, – сказал Президент. [Link]
“The name of our country ends in “stan” as other states of the Central Asia. At the same time, foreigners take an interest in Mongolia, the population of which makes up only two million, but its name does not end in “stan”. Perhaps, eventually it is necessary to consider an issue of changing the name of our country into the “Kazakh Nation”, but first of all, it should necessarily be discussed with people,” the President said.
Not every speech given by Nazarbaev ends up in my Google news feed, but this one did, with the help of Reuters, the BBC, and The Washington Post. For some, coverage in the Washington Post may be sign enough that one can safely ignore this speech. However, the news cycle more broadly has carried this news far and wide, perhaps because of the Olympic Games in Sochi. In any event, coverage of this possibility might be of interest to Registan’s readers.
I would open this opinion piece by stating frankly that the people of Kazakhstan of course may name their country in any way they like, may change their minds and rename their country, and do it all again three times next week, without explaining themselves to anyone. However, if someone asks me what I think about the matter, I suppose I have some small rights to express my opinions as well, as uninformed by my absence from Nazarbaev’s initial audience as I may be.
Let us consider first the issue of semantics of the name change, then the reasons given by Nazarbaev, and then the coverage in our delightful US media.
First, the idea that елі is more appropriate than стан is, to me, a matter of opinion, not fact. The transcriber of Nazarbaev’s speech is correct, however, in that it would effectively change Kazakhstan (one word) into Kazakh Nation (two words), if only because -stan is a suffix, while el is a stand-alone noun in modern Kazakh.
El has changed meaning over time and certainly is, like -stan, a word that existed long, long before there were any Kazakhs in Kazakhstan, at least by that name. El occurs in the Orkhon inscriptions — the translation of that word has received scholarly attention and the consensus, according to the Encyclopedia of Islam, is a meaning closest to modern English “empire,” signifying people unified under the rule of a leader, in that case a kagan. Mahmud Kashgar-i’s definition would be closer to English “district,” or “territory,” so again, it works quite nicely as a stand-in for -stan. However, there is also the sticky point that the same word or a homophone meant also “peace,” from which comes the word ilchi, or elshi in Kazakh — ambassador, in the sense of “bringer of peace,” “peace-maker.”
It should be clear, then, that because the word has such a long history, its meaning has morphed and changed through the ages. Consider that in Turkish, el by itself does signify people, but more specifically “other people.” One imagines folks in Turkey finding it rather fitting that a foreign country be renamed “Kazakhs, those other people.”
One can paint a larger issue here of the struggles in unifying terms that are arguably ineffable already in English; nation, state, people, folk, country, ethnicity, race. My own (admittedly amateur) attempts to render those as questionably one-to-one translations in Kazakh would fail, in part because there is a serious amount of history fighting through these terms. Kazakh has words for an administration system that was slowly wiped out in the nineteenth century, an act continually resisted. This administration, as ineffective as it may have been for creating a military force capable of stopping the Cossacks, preserved a certain way of life and also allowed a vast territory without roads, canals, or meaningfully navigable rivers to claim a political unity. That sense was replaced by one imposed from above by Russia, one which had relatively straightforward ideas about the existence of nations and states, tribes and races. Perhaps even without this history, one would still struggle to differentiate Kazakh khalk/khalyk from ult, el from ulys/ulus. Certainly in southern Kazakhstan, unless I misunderstood what I heard, the question asked among Kazakhs one hears at introductions is “Which el are you from?” The answer to this is identification along those pre-Russian lines: Horde, Taipa/Taifa, Ru, i.e. Orta Zhuz, Naiman, Sadyr.
Nazarbaev’s Stated Reasons
Nazarbaev discussed this name change in the context of how Kazakhstan can better attract visitors from abroad, unless I misinterpret his meaning in saying, “foreigners take an interest in Mongolia” because it doesn’t end in -stan. Without overdoing it, this strikes me as an expression of the villification of -stan. This is hardly new — I remember an Onion article describing the area of Central Asia as “Nuke-have-istan.” There are too many examples of this joke to bother citing examples — most likely this joke is understandable to Registan’s readers. It is also deeply unfortunate and communicates the sad fact that we are comfortable with associating those countries ending in -stan with some form of violent, extremist politics, and lest we forget, Islam. For people in Kazakhstan, they might point out, “not all Islam, just the bad kind.” I wish that this was true of everyone – - it seems more likely some in the US might consider -stan countries as having too many Muslims to be salvageable.
To wax poetic, perhaps another unintended victim of the War on Terror will be the name of this country I love so much and have spent so much time researching and studying. It’s not the worst thing in the world, but it seems inappropriate somehow.
Kazakhstan should remain Kazakhstan. It is one of many -stan countries that illustrate the foolishness of our generalizing the characteristics of all -stan, and all Muslim, countries. I respect many of Nazarbaev’s decisions over his long career, but I really think he should leave well enough alone. Is anyone really in danger of confusing Kazakhstan with Pakistan or Turkmenistan? Perhaps some are. Are those confused “foreigners” in control of interests Nazarbaev would like to court? I do not know. Perhaps they are.
I would also offer a small caveat or correction to Nazarbaev — Mongolia has born the suffix -stan for much of its history, especially in the languages of its neighbors, as have other countries in Asia. The -stan prefix is practically synonymous with English -land, i.e. England, Ireland, Greenland, Swaziland, Thailand, etc.
This is really barely worth mentioning, other than showcasing how journalism has descended into click-baiting and the barest of Wikipedia researching. Let us consider probably the most misleading piece, that in the Washington Post, with the click-bait title, “Yes, Kazakhstan should change its name. This map shows why.” I have reservations about any argument in the social sciences that can be made solely with an infographic, especially if that infographic is an “ethnic map” from the early 1990s. Ethnicity, and this must be obvious to most folks, is more complicated than a binary statement. It is more than a “choose one thing on this list and only one, because the definition of ethnicity is a homogenous, non-mixing population” kind of statement.
In any event, the unfortunate fact is that the journalist here–Max Fischer (other click-bait stories include one of those delightful “Sochi, what a joke!” type lists)–believes that Kazakhstan is a problematic name because it implies a homogenous Kazakh population. If that were the case, truly, then Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, et al should also become Uzbek eli, Turkmen eli, etc. However, Kazakh Eli is hardly an improvement and no, “Kazakh Nation” is not a good translation of that term.
This brings up the only action item I can suggest: can we make some sort of concerted effort to teach English users that “Nation” and “State” are not actually synonyms? This is getting embarrassing.