Latinising the Kazakh script: A necessary step to reclaim identity

Screen Shot 2017-11-03 at 15.45.15Latinisation of the Kazakh alphabet is well under way.  The President has signed the Law; a working version of the new script has been approved; and responsible state agencies have been appointed.  However, the reform continues to generate heated debates in the media, on social networks, and in the old-fashioned offline (kitchen) conversations.  This is no surprise, as the rationales for the policy that are often voiced by officials and the majority of experts are vague and superficial: for example, Latinisation will help students learn English (my knowledge of the Latin script did not help me learn German); Cyrillic has too many unnecessary letters (well, get rid of them—no need to change the whole set); the Latin script will promote the integration of Kazakhstan into the globalised information space (but unifying alphabets will not make Kazakh and English mutually intelligible).  They seem to avoid the real reasons for the reform, which are largely ideological, and thus fail to convince people in its necessity and garner genuine public support instead of the usual compliance with top-down initiatives.  But if we look back at the recent history of alphabets in Kazakhstan (Latinisation in the late 1920s and Russification that followed just over a decade later), we will see why it is essential that the Kazakh script be re-Latinised, or, more importantly de-Russified.

The first Latinisation of the Kazakh script (along with the scripts of all the other Turkic languages in the USSR) was part of the Cultural Revolution implemented by the Soviet government in the 1920s.  In particular, it was aimed to eliminate illiteracy and undermine the influence of Islam.  Both of these goals were served well by abolishing the Arabic script, which was difficult to learn and provided access to a large volume of religious literature, as well as means of communication with foreign Muslim states.  When the time came to choose a new alphabet, the insightful Soviet ideologues were nearly unanimous: Cyrillic was not an option.  Members of the specially formed committee saw the strong association of the Russian alphabet with the tsarist Russification policies.  A prominent Russian philologist, Evgeniy Polivanov, wrote in 1928: “hatred towards the missionary scripts (during Russification) was … so obvious that proposing a Russian-based alphabet in this environment would be a utopia, to say the least.” A rarely discussed fact is that not only Turkic languages, but all the languages of the Soviet Union were planned to shift to the Latin script; there actually were serious, well-studied proposals for Latinisation of Russian.  A world-renowned linguist Nikolai Yakovlev, a member of the special sub-committee on Russian Latinisation formed in 1930, recognised the enormous ideological power of alphabets and proposed this justification for Latinising Russian: “The Russian civil alphabet and its history is a script of the autocratic oppression, missionary propaganda, [and] Russian national chauvinism, which is particularly evident in the Russification role of this alphabet in relation to the ethnic minorities of the former Russian Empire.”  It was true then, and it is true now: alphabet is not a neutral system of signs; it is an emotionally charged chronicle of oppression, and a tool for social, political and cultural propaganda.  It was clear then that Russian letters would be symbolic shackles for Kazakh, Uzbek, and other Turkic languages, but is it not so clear now?

The liberal approach to language planning in the USSR was soon abandoned, along with the plan to unify all languages of the country under the Latin script.  Well, unification was still on the table, but this time under Cyrillic.  All the Turkic languages switched to Russian alphabet within a staggering few months—the first step of a dramatic change that was particularly drastic in Kazakhstan: Russification of education, displacement of the Kazakh language from official and prestigious domains, and a severe language shift to Russian among the majority of urban Kazakhs.  Russian imperialism was back and, armed by a ruthless machine of Soviet authoritarianism, bulldozed its way to universal literacy and linguistic unification, nearly destroying the Kazakh language in the process.  And the Russification of the Kazakh alphabet is an important and graphic symbol of this violent abuse.  Although there has been considerable progress in reversing the language shift in the years of independence, Kazakh still has not gained the strength of a true national language; Russian continues to dominate in business, culture, and even education.  There is clearly a need for a symbolic act of throwing out the imperialist shackles of Russian that perpetuate the subordinate position of Kazakh.  A need to decolonise it and reinvent as an independent language of an independent nation proud of its history, culture, and traditions, with a strong and distinct identity.

Naturally, in a multi-ethnic country like Kazakhstan, with a large Russian ethnic minority, and where most other minorities are also Russian-speakers, there is great concern over the fate of the Russian language.  Latinisation of the Kazakh alphabet may look like a desire to sever cultural ties with Russia and promote linguistic assimilation.  It is, however, unlikely that Russian in Kazakhstan will ever be threatened: it will continue to be a medium of instruction or a compulsory subject at all schools, and, given the expanding economic integration with Russia, it will go on being a popular language, as there is no stronger imperative than profit.

Thus, notwithstanding the fears of assimilation, Kazakh has to be de-colonised and lose its crippling ties with Russian.  With a renewed image, free from the oppression of the past, and elevated from the subjugated position imposed on it by colonialist practices, the Kazakh language will become a powerful and attractive symbol of the unique Kazakhstani national identity, national pride, and independence.

7 thoughts on “Latinising the Kazakh script: A necessary step to reclaim identity

  1. I agree that Latinisation is a way to re-establish Kazakhstani identity, and it is good that our government is concerned with the matter of identity. I like the intention, but honestly, I am not fond of a newly suggested script as I find it highly inconvenient.


    1. the newly proposed script might look strange now, but after a few years of using it, you won’t even remember why you felt this way. when we read, we don’t actually decode every single letter one by one; instead we perceive a whole word as one long symbol. you only pay attention to individual letters when you try to read an unfamiliar word. i think the inconvenience will disappear once you have got used to (memorised) the new look of the whole words.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Doesn’t it mean that abandoning one imperial power we are seeking our place in the arms of another, just more attractive at the moment?

    I can still see this picture: “Russian imperialism was back and, armed by a ruthless machine of Soviet authoritarianism, bulldozed its way to universal literacy and linguistic unification.” It reminded me Orwell’s 1984. Have you ever considered writing a dystopian novel? You should try 🙂


    1. i don’t think there is anything imperial about this new transition, as it is happening of our own accord rather than being imposed on us by an external and oppressive power. besides, this programme does not contain a hidden “malware” aimed at subtractive bilingualism as the soviet policy did.

      thanks for the compliment though! 🙂 alas, i have neither skill nor talent for creative writing.


  3. Thank you for the post, Andrey. I am not very knowledgeable about the history of Kazakh scripts, but the way I see the change is more for branding the country in the eyes of globalised world rather than reclaiming its identity. Correct me, if I’m wrong


  4. Thank you for the thought-provoking and interesting post. I enjoyed reading about the relationship of identity and new policy and I agree that latinisation may give Kazakh language fresh air to revive and develop. The way you presented the historical backround with explaining the agenda for each step makes me to believe that adopting the new script is rather feasible. As you wrote Russian is and will be one of the dominant languages in the country because of the cultural, geographical (neighboring Russia) and economical factors, so the change of the script is not a threat for Russian language at all. However, I wonder whether we need this policy now when we are striving hard to make trilingual policy work.


  5. Wonderful discussion here. Superb post. Stay tuned for the forthcoming issue NUGSE Research in Education, which will feature our own @chsherbakov tackling this issue from both sides! (5/5)


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