Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Kazakh Cultural Figures Come Out Against Latinization

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 19 – Sixty-six of the most senior Kazakh intellectuals are appealing to President Nursultan Nazarbayev and the Kazakhstan government not to proceed with plans to shift written Kazakh from a Cyrillic-based script to a Latin one lest such a shift further weaken both the Kazakh language and the identity of the Kazakh nation.

            In their letter, a Russian translation of which appeared today (zonakz.net/articles/63417), the authors outline their objections not from the position of those concerned that such a change might further divide the Kazakhs from the ethnic Russians but rather from that of Kazakhs concerned about the fate of their language and their people.

            They argue that they would have nothing against the plan if it were the case that all the languages in the republic were to shift from Cyrillic to Latin, but that is not the situation: the government is planning to change the alphabet only for Kazakh while leaving Russian, the other language widely used there, in Cyrillic.

            But in fact, the objections of the authors are deeper and broader than that.  They point out that “almost a million” book titles have been published in Kazakh in Cyrillic, and that it is likely that “with the shift to the Latin script, our younger generation would be cut off from the history of their ancestors.”

            The Kazakhs say that they base that conclusion on the experience of Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan, two Turkic countries that have made the shift from Cyrillic to Latin scripts since 1991. In Uzbekistan, they suggest, the printruns of newspapers and books fell by 90 percent or more, because people stopped reading when the new script was introduced.

            The authors of the appealpointed out that “it is surprising that many do not understand that a language which is already in a troubled position will weaken still further with each change of alphabet,” and as the language weakens, they continue, so too do the ties linking people of the nation to each other.

            Moreover, they point out, “billions” would be needed to make the shift, something the Kazakh intellectuals say could be put to far better use by promoting Kazakh language knowledge among ethnic Kazakhs, many of whom cannot read or write in their own language because they so often use Russian.

             They note that three years ago, it was discovered that 90 percent of the students in the Russian language program of the Nazarbayev School in the capital city of Astana were ethnic Kazakhs, a disturbing fact that was not given wide circulation because of “unpublished directives of the authorities” not to do so.

            But even the readily available data are not encouraging, the Kazakh writers say. Forty-sven percent of Kazkah children in Astana ow study in Russian schools.  President Nazarbayev himself has noted this, pointing out several years ago that “more than half of the Kazakhs, although able to read their native language cannot write in it.”

            And last year, the Kazakh intellectuals continue, one senior official said that “now only 30 percent of Kazakhs do not know their native language,” a figure that in itself is a confession of failure and one that will not be corrected by the shift from Cyrillic to Latin. Indeed, that may make things worse.

            What would that mean for Kazakh national culture? Nothing good, the intellectuals say.  At present, there are more than 500 Kazakh-language newspapers and journals in Kazakhstan compared to “about 2500” Russian-language ones.  That disproportion, the writers of the appeal say, raises the question: “Do we live in Kazakhstan or have we become part of Russia?”

            If the government goes ahead with plans to shift Kazakh to the Latin script, they argue, “the number [of Kazakhs} who will not be able to read and write in their native language will grow,” and that will have the paradoxical effect of “strengthening” the position of Cyrillic and hence of Russian at the expense of Kazakh.

            It is thus a mistake to assume that “with the shift to the Latin script” there will be an intensification of Kazakh national identity. Instead, just the reverse is likely to happen, with Kazakhs becoming even more deeply split than now between those who use Kazakh and those who rely on Russian.

            Of course, the Kazakh intellectuals acknowledge, a shift to the Latin script will make using computers easier and will promote the rapprochement of the Turkic peoples, but they argue that its negative impact on the Kazakh nation itself is “an undertaking” that those concerned with that people can only regret.

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