Saturday, October 28, 2017

New Kazakh Alphabet Escapes Russian Orbit but Fails to Move into a Common Turkic One

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 28 -- Nursultan Nazarbayev has ordered his country to shift from the Cyrillic to the Latin script, but instead of choosing one that would link Kazakhstan more closely to the Turkic world, the president has selected a Latin script that fails to do that and may face problems of acceptance much as has been the case in Uzbekistan, according to Amir Eyvaz.

            The Azerbaijani philologist says that Nazarbayev has chosen a Latin script resembling the one in Uzbekistan but with even more problems: The Uzbek Latin script adds apostrophes in the case of three Latin letters to designate specific sounds, while the proposed Kazakh Latin one adds an apostrophe to nine (

            These apostrophes can be a problem, Eyvaz says. In Uzbekistan, their appearance has led many to continue to use Cyrillic letters instead of these apostrophe ones, thus undercutting the shift from Cyrillic to Latin.  And texts in the new Kazakh Latin script with nine will look even more choppy and less attractive.

            Indeed, the Baku scholar argues, Nazarbayev’s Latin script is “the very worst that could be thought up” both because of these problems and because it ignores both the history of the Latin alphabet in Turkic languages and the role such a script, if sufficiently common, could play in uniting the Turkic world.

            “The Latin script is not something alien for Turkic languages,” Ayvaz says. There was a 14th century manuscript in it, and since the end of the 19th century, various reformers have been pushing for a shift away first from Arabic and then from Cyrillic scripts to a common Latin alphabet.

            A common Turkic Latin script was developed in the early 1920s and used by all the Turkic peoples of the Soviet Union until the 1940s when they were forced to drop it and go over to Cyrillic alphabets instead.  After 1991, the drive to shift to the Latin script resumed, first in Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan which adopted the pre-war script as the basis of their new ones.

            Uzbekistan and now Kazakhstan have done so but as noted with modifications and without umlauts. Significantly, informally at least up to now, Tatarstan and the Crimean tatars have moved toward the common Latin script of the Turkic world. And many had hoped for different outcomes in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

            “Alas,” Eyvaz says, “this didn’t happen, and when such a chance [for the elaboration of a common Turkic Latin script that will link the Turkic world from Anatolia through the Caucasus to Turkestan] will appear again is unknown.”

            The situation may not be quite as bleak as the Azerbaijani scholar suggests. Other scholars have pointed out that Turkic peoples who have gone over to the Latin script have evolved their writing systems over time. Consequently, it is possible that Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan will also move in that direction in the future (

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