Alphabet Soup on the Steppes: Language Reform in Kazakhstan – by Marin Ekstrom. The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, at NorthStarReports.org and facebook.com/NorthStarReports
[Figurines representing Kazakh national dress, and Kazakh camel figurines]
A language’s writing system, if it has one, seems integral to its identity. After all, who can imagine English without its ABCs, Chinese (中文) without its thousands of ideographs, or the right-to-left flowing curves of Arabic (العَرَبِيَّة) ? It is true that a language’s writing system has a major influence in shaping a nation’s cultural and linguistic character. However, it is often times more arbitrary than one would expect. Case in point: Kazakhstan. In the course of approximately 100 years, Kazakhstan has changed its writing system multiple times: Қазақ тілі / Qazaq tili / قازاق ٴتىلى all represent the same language (the phrase, by the way, translates as “the Kazakh language” ). The history of the Kazakh language is a case study in how national and linguistic identity is often more permeable than one would expect; at the same time, certain enduring features of language and culture can help preserve identity through times of tumultuous change.
[Kazakh language books in the (soon-to-be obsolete) Cyrillic script. Kazakh folklore (the books to the side of it are written in Russian). Qurans and other Islamic texts]
Kazakh is part of the Turkic language family. It is related to such languages as Kyrgyz, Uzbek, and Turkmen (some of its neighboring countries), as well as Turkish. The earliest-known Kazakh writing system was a set of ancient Turkic runes known as the Orkhon-Yenisei script. In the 8th century, Islam spread to Kazakhstan and quickly became the dominant religion in the country. As a result of this religious influence, Kazakhs adopted a version of the Arabic script for their writing system; this system was subsequently used for centuries and is still in use amongst ethnic Kazakhs living in China, Afghanistan, and Iran. In the 1920s, authorities representing the newly established USSR decided to replace the Arabic script with a Latin-based one. They believed that the Arabic script represented loyalty to old traditions, and believed that a Latin script would forge a modern transformation for Kazakh identity. In 1940, the Kazakh language underwent yet another major change by adopting a Cyrillic-based alphabet. Soviet authorities wanted Kazakhstan to remain loyal to Russia, the most powerful Soviet republic, and believed that sharing a common alphabet would bind the countries more closely together. The Cyrillic alphabet is currently the system in use today. That status will not last for long, however, as President Nursultan Nazarbayev announced that the Kazakh government has begun developing a new Latin-based script that will come into effect by 2025. The Kazakh government claimed that this switch has both cultural and practical implications. From a cultural perspective, the government stated that changing the Kazakh alphabet would serve as a way to distance itself from its Soviet past. From a practical standpoint, the government noted that “…the Latin alphabet is the most widely used writing system in the world and is used by approximately 70% of countries” (Sarzhanov, 2017); furthermore, technological and digital communication is more widely processed through Latin-based systems than other ones. The government thus believes that adopting a Latin alphabet would make Kazakh more accessible to fellow Latin-based countries, and in turn would promote greater intercommunication, business investments, Kazakh language learning initiatives, and other such positive impacts. While the push for Latin writing reform has also met its fair share of criticism, it is very likely to go through in a few short years. Thus, for the 21st century at least, the Latin-based script seems to be the en vogue option for helping to determine Kazakh identity.
[A side-by-side comparison of the soon-to-be implemented Latin script with their Cyrillic counterparts. The Kazakh National Museum ]
The case of Kazakhstan is far from the only example of alphabet reform (in fact, it is a shared experience amongst several former Soviet republics). But it portrays a vivid example of how cultural and historical factors can affect national identity in a very drastic and sometimes rapid manner. The Kazakh writing systems reflect how such factors as Islam (the Arabic script), Soviet rule (the Cyrillic script), and now globalization in the digital age (the Latin script) have significantly impacted both its self-conceptualization and its cultural alliances. Nevertheless, the Kazakh people have fought remarkably hard to preserve the key features of their language and culture. This fact is especially prominent in the oral Kazakh language, which has preserved many of its unique features throughout history. That is the key takeaway of this case study: although writing system changes have significantly impacted Kazakhstan, the essence of the Kazakh language and identity have remained intact…and it will continue to do so for many more generations ( and possible writing system reforms) to come.
Marin Ekstrom serves as an assistant managing editor for The North Star Reports
Ho, A. (2018). By Any Other Name: Kazakhstan’s Alphabet Migration. [online] Bpr.berkeley.edu. Available at: https://bpr.berkeley.edu/2018/04/04/by-any-other-name-kazakhstans- alphabet-migration/ [Accessed 2 Dec. 2018].
Omirgazy, D. (2018). Kazakh alphabet: past, present and future – Edge: Kazakhstan. [online] Edgekz.com. Available at: https://www.edgekz.com/kazakh-alphabet-past-present-and- future/ [Accessed 2 Dec. 2018].
Sarzhanov, K. (2017). Language reform: path towards modernization of nation’s identity. [online] Mfa.gov.kz. Available at: http://mfa.gov.kz/en/brazil/content-view/azykovaa- reforma-kak-put-k-modernizacii-obsestvennogo-soznania [Accessed 2 Dec. 2018].
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Professor Hong-Ming Liang, Ph.D., Editor-in-Chief and Publisher, The North Star Reports. Kathryn Marquis Hirsch, Managing Editor, The North Star Reports. Ellie Swanson and Marin Ekstrom, Assistant Managing Editors, The North Star Reports.
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31 responses to “Alphabet Soup on the Steppes: Language Reform in Kazakhstan – by Marin Ekstrom. The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, at NorthStarReports.org and facebook.com/NorthStarReports”
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Marin, thank you for sharing such an interesting yet widely unknown piece of cultural evolution. I think it’s quite beautiful the way the Kazakhstan people have been able to remain close to their historic language despite forced adaptation: proving the strength of cultural bloodstream within ones community. I can’t imagine having to completely relearn such an ingrained piece of my identity. to have to change something so completely that is used so intensively for almost everything is incredibly daunting. The resiliency of the Kazakhstani people is very admirable to me.
The idea of adapting to a new alphabet is unsettling. I feel like it would be both an interesting and challenging initiative. I also think this is unsettling, because changing the alphabet has a major impact on the identity of one’s language. To be honest, I never really thought about alphabet-change as something that happens for a language, and I am amazed. What do the people of Kazakhstan tend to thing about this issue? Does it have an impact on personal identity? Who gets to decide to change an alphabet?
Thank you for sharing.
This is a very interesting story and I cannot imagine going through so many language changes as a people. I study the Spanish language and the different dialects are deeply rooted in the place, people, and culture. It is sad that language is often the first thing to be changed when colonized because it is a way of uniting people of many generations. I also cannot help but think about immigrants that move to a country with a different main spoken language and how they are somewhat forced to assimilate to the new language. Often they do not continue teaching the generations that come after them their linguistic ancestry. Retention of languages is something I think is very important when moving to a new country, but it not always accepted in the new area. I can’t even imagine being in the same place of generations and the language of the area changing.
This is a very interesting article that where you examine the divide between the old Soviet rule and the new era of the world. Kazakhstan wants to switch to a latin based alphabet to be more connected with the western civilization. This is nothing new as many people want to learn English which is considered the primary language of business and power. It will be interesting to see how the people of this country respond to this especially since they cannot contest the dictatorship. I could not imagine the US where they determine that you need switch languages when I am over 35+ years old and trying the learn a completely new language. It is a very interesting article that you wrote and I enjoyed it thoroughly.
Kazakhstan wanting to distance itself from parts of its past that they may be less than proud of is an intriguing topic. Even though the Soviet rule end decades ago I personally still associate many eastern European nations as being Soviet countries in the back of my mind. I was surprised by the fact that they are just straight up changing writing systems at a set time in the future. I can imagine it will not go over as smoothly as they are hoping as learning the new Latin base is much harder than just using what everyone already knows. I can see where they are coming from, but I am sure many citizens will be opposed to this change. Thank you for the great article I loved reading it!
Thank you for writing from Kazakhstan for us. The topic of alphabet reform got me thinking about learning new languages and how basically speaking people using the Cyrillic alphabet would have to learn how to read again, maybe after many decades of life. That being said in order to participate in a global market with a global internet, having a Latin script would be an enormous benefit moving forward for the people of Kazakhstan. It is great that you have done so much research on the topic. I find your pictures to be mysterious to me, the pictures from the museum have a very clean and professional look, something that museums here in the United States could learn. Thank you for your efforts I hope that you have a great Christmas and a Happy New Year.
Thank you for sharing part of your experience in Kazakhstan. I have never heard of alphabet reform and this article does a great job of summarizing this idea. I can’t imagine having to learn a new alphabet at my age of any older. When I think about growing up my whole life using one alphabet and then being forced to use another would be terrible. We’ve talked a lot about language in professor Liang’s class as well as many NSR articles. I feel as though this is just another example of how lucky we are to speak and write in the language that we do. I can never see this being a problem in the United States and before reading this article I never would have imagined that it would be a problem anywhere else. It will be interesting to see how the older generations of Kazakhstan react to this new alphabet that they will have to use. I know my stubborn self would refuse to adopt anything new, especially at an old age. Thanks again for sharing this really interesting article.
Thanks for this article, Marin.
It is really interesting to consider a change in alphabet and the implications that could have on identity. It is significant for a society to renounce a language that has come from a negative past, so even though this is just an alphabet being given up, it still says a lot about the people. I think it is difficult to make a decision so weighty as this, with relatively short time-frame. I wonder how it is possible for whole societies to adapt themselves and their identities so quickly, and whether or not they resent their government for making such choices. I almost feel as if learning a new language (even with a different alphabet) would be simpler than trying to put one’s spoken language to a new alphabet. But wouldn’t it be cool to be able to transfer language across alphabets? I suppose that’s what cognates are for. I am interested to see how this plan works out in comparison to how it has worked in the past.
This was very interesting to read and learn about the language reform in Kazakhstan. I would imagine the constant changing of language and writing can cause some divide among people in the country. Also, I would imagine there may be a divide among generations in terms of language, tradition, and the form of writing they may use. I wonder if this will cause or has caused issues among citizens in terms of communication. Another thing I find interesting is how language seems to be changing in order to adapt to the world around them. When the Soviets changed the language it was adapted in order to connect the two countries together and may have worked to do that. Now it seems to be changing again to better connect Kazakhstan with Latin- based countries. In the United States and other countries it is such a privilege to have a language that is spoken and understood in many parts of the world because I could not imagine having to learn a new language or change mine no matter how minor the adjustments may be.
Alphabet reform is an intriguing subject, especially since language is, as you have written, an integral part of our identities. I am glad Khazakstan is able to preserve the key identifiers that make the language of Khazakstan in their new coming alphabet. I think it alphabet reform could be a positive thing in the case of Khazakstan in this instance. However, I wonder how you can shift an entire country over to a new alphabet? This is more of a logistical question, but I think it must be difficult to do. Also, if we are to preserve identity–and since language is such an important aspect of identity–how do we preserve the aspects of identity formed within the citizens of Khazakstan with past alphabets without making those aspects of identity feel erased by the institution of a new alphabet?
Thank you for sharing this article!
This article was really interesting to read and it really shows how important a language is for a cultural. The influence of other cultural’s has greatly shaped the country of Kazakhstan where Islam and soviet influence has formed a national identity for the people. Another influence that is greatly impacting the country is globalization as the world becomes more interconnected than ever before. Many technological and digital communication uses Latin based systems with Kazakhstan realizing that this could help them have greater intercommunication with other countries. At stake is the country’s alphabet system where they still use the Cyrillic alphabet and the introduction of Latin could greatly impact their culture. Overall, the country’s decision will impact future generations down the road and influence their national identity.
What an interesting concept. I can’t imagine having to learn a new alphabet for another language, much less my own. This is a great example of the fluidity of language and nationality. We presume these things to be set in stone—that that’s the way things have always been—but that is far from the truth. It’s really incredible that not only has English dominated the global sphere, but even the letters of the West have a certain privilege about them, in relation to the ease of technology.
How do you feel this will change Kazakh identity? Will it be a gradual or quick change?
Thank you for sharing,
I can’t even imagine what it must be like for a whole country to undergo so many language changes. They would have to relearn how to read and write essentially. Is the Latin-based language one they created themselves or is it borrowed in pieces from other languages? And, to what degree is the general public on board with this new language implementation? I feel it is impossible to learn a new language without undergoing change even to the slightest degree. You become a little of the language you learn, so these people might fear that they are losing a part of their history? Also, with these new changes, I am assuming they will have to reprint a lot of things which sounds like an expensive task. I hope everything goes well. Thanks for sharing!
This is such an interesting article the ideas that express gives a newbie like me a brief history of Kazakhstan and its language. I am never been really thought about the country nor the culture so it is interesting to read how the country has been influenced by so many powers. It is interesting that the people have learned to adapt whenever a change is proposed. Moreover, I cannot imagine the work and effort that can put to change the people’s alphabet. You stated that the new Latin-based script has been projected to come into effect by 2025. This makes me wonder how much pressure is the president putting on the people and the programs that would carry out this mission. In the past how many years did it take the people to transition from an Arabic script to a Cyrillic script? Also, will the newly proposed latin script be able to be attained by 2025? I guess that is something that we have to wait and see. Thank you so much for sharing, you have prompted me to go find more about this history.
I really can’t imagine having an entire country shift to a different form of alphabet, especially when the type of alphabet is so integral to the country’s language. When I took French classes in high school, I was glad that we at least got to work with an almost identical alphabet and had to focus primarily on the pronunciation of letters. I can only imagine how much more difficult it may be to learn a language that doesn’t share the same letters as one’s native language. I find it interesting that Kazakhstan is looking to change to a Latin-based script in order to make themselves more accessible for business. I wonder how fast or slow this change will be implemented. Thank you for sharing!
Thank you for sharing your knowledge of the Kazakh written language history. This is a stunning example of the force of global imperialism having drastic effects on cultures that are on the “losing” end. I am very pleased to hear that the Kazakh spoken language has been able to survive and maintain its individual nuances. Kazakhstan, like many other areas of the world, is beautiful and full of extremely resilient people. A trait that has been very necessary in the midst of nearly constant outside rule. Here’s hoping that the new written language (while clearly influenced by global consumerism) is a sign that the Kazakh people will be able to exercise at least some choice in how their culture is represented in the future.
Thank you for sharing this extremely interesting story! I would have never known about this kind of cultural reform from a different part of the world. I’m not surprised that the government is developing a new Latin based language. It is a common thing for government to try to severe ties with a dark past. I haven’t thought about what language reform would look like here in America, needless to say it probably would not go over as smoothly as it has in Kazakhstan. This is a perfect example of how everything in this world in dynamic. If language and writing can change to the adapting world around it, than it should be very easy for us as humans to do the same.
I do not think I would be able to switch alphabets just like that. The long lasting effects of changing the alphabet would be more than most people could imagine. I agree that a countries language system and alphabet help shape its ideology to what it is. I think that the country’s language would be extremely hard to learn due to the fact that there has been so many changes to it and it takes parts of many different languages. I really enjoyed reading about Kazakhstan because not many people in western culture know much about the country because to is a very new country that was once part of the Soviet Union. Thank you for writing about this.
This article was very interesting to read for me. I am fascinated by languages and the influence they have on culture. I guess I never really thought about how easily a language can be influenced by modern day business. I can’t imagine trying to learn all the new switches the people of Kazakhstan are facing. Thank you for sharing this interesting article!
Thank you for this thoughtful article. I think this is really awesome. I am taking Deaf culture and I have learned how influential language is to a culture. It is really interesting how often the Kazakh language has been changed or switched u. I think it is really interesting to think about the process of changing from an Arabic script to a latin one. It is so important to keep identity and language sacred in different cultures and I’m glad to know that Kazakhstan values that.
Thank you for this very interesting article! Central Asia is an area that I feel that I lack knowledge about, despite it having a history that is as long as it is intriguing. Undergoing this quick changes of alphabets must amount to a challenge for the Kazakhs, and as you write in the article it’s hard to not see it as an attempt to strengthen ties to certain parts of the world and take distance from the old rulers. I find it fascinating to see how some parts of the world actively tries to remove most symbols of a colonized or occupied past (like razing statues, changing street names and changing alphabets) while some seem to be fine with (at least to some extent) keeping the language and cultural customs enforced by foreigners. I assume that there is for most part a somewhat pragmatic reasoning behind this; for example, I don’t think that the Kazakhs would give up on Cyrillic that easily if it would have been the dominating alphabet of the world.
This was an extremely interesting article to read, as a GCL student I find much joy in learning the experiences and ways in which other cultures go about daily life. To hear that the Kazakhstan people are reforming there alphabet is something completely foreign to me I was under the impression that language, in the 21st century was solidified to an extent, as I would never think for reforms large as the change of the use of an alphabet would take place. Let alone 3 different changes, this is extremely interesting to me, and I think it would be great for the country, as the president says that adopting the Latin alphabet would allow for much easier intercommunication between nations.
Thank you for such an intriguing article, I would love to learn more on the status of this as time progresses.
I thought your article was an intriguing topic to write about! I am very interested in learning about different languages and how they intertwine with the cultures, making this a compelling article to read! I find it interesting that they decided to transition to a new alphabet that could be beneficial for business, intercommunication, and other aspects. However, being someone who is learning a new language myself, I wonder how hard the transition might be for some people. Thank you for sharing this article! I enjoyed reading it!
Your article was very interesting to read because I did not know that the Kazakhstan language has been reformed various amounts of times. Language plays such a big part in shaping culture and identity. It is really interesting how the purpose of the language reform is to build intercommunication with other nations and for business investments. The Kazakhstan government portrays the reform as a positive change for their nation but does not take into consideration how the reform will affect the Kazakh identity. Thank you for sharing this article!
Thank you for the well-written article. I find it interested how even though we associate cultures with their written language, it is still possible to change it. I am intrigued to see how this unfolds. How does a country even begin to make such a change? I would assume the transition period would not be without its obstacles. I am curious if there has been any resistance to this change?
Thank you for sharing such an incredibly interesting article! I do not believe that many people think about the subtle and, as read, sometimes drastic changes made to language throughout time. Changing the alphabet, especially multiple times, I believe would be a change to the people, and it makes me wonder if there is an emphasis on spoken language rather than written. Personally, I have and continue to study three languages. Two of these languages have Latin letters and the other, Cyrillic. Cyrillic was a challenge, but after a few days I really got all 33 letters down. I wonder how it is in reverse; are the 26 letters easier? Or do people find themselves creating sounds they don’t normally make, or are they possibly left without sounds they have grown up using?
Marin, I found this article very interesting because it is something I don’t ever think of. Learning a new language is very hard but learning a whole new alphabet and being expected to replace your old tongue with the new would be especially hard. I’m sure this is an even more pressing issue among elders in the country. This is a major cultural change even though we may not be paying it much attention; language drives everything and it is imperfect. Thank you for sharing!
What an interesting way to discuss alphabet reform. I love the way you incorporated culture as well as origins and historical relevance in order to explain what the Kazakh written language has come to be today. Particularly, I found it quite compelling the way you described different alphabets in relation to the cultures identity. It would be very interesting to see how the Kazakh alpahabet and others continue to evolve over time.
This was a really fascinating article- I didn’t know language reform like this was such a prominent topic in modern society. It was something I had never thought about happening today, which is interesting in itself as we are an ever-changing and fast-changing world. I can’t imagine what it’s like for the people of Kazakhstan to adapt to a knew written language, though I’m sure some might be grateful for the furthering of Soviet ties. In my World History textbook, it speaks of how powerful languages can be: “Such phonetic compounds evolved into formal written graphs, which have endured to the present in East Asia. This graphic-based writing… has set China (and later Japan, Korea, and Vietnam) apart from societies in Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean that rely on syllable- and alphabet-based writing systems” (Tignor, p.107). Languages created hundreds of years ago have not only spread across countries, but have lasted to the present day and created very individual societies.
I was particularly drawn to your article by the photo on the front. Upon further reading I was interested in the discussion on the Kazakh language as I am unfamiliar to any background with it. I agree our languages are part of our cultural identity, it is just one of many aspects that create such a diverse world between cultures. I was surprised to read that Kazakhstan has changed their writing system not only once but several times. Despite the changing system I was not surprised to read that the Arabic writing system used for centuries still has some presence in the Kazakh population. I did find it interesting that the alliance with Russia led their writing system to change again, this time to Cyrillic. I understand trying to create some similarities between the countries but relearning an entire writing system seems complicated and possible saddening for Kazakhs. I better understand the push for a Latin based system since it is so wide spread in the world.
I thought it was interesting how more recently powerful neighbors, such as Russia, had such a strong influence on the writing system for Kazakhs. In “Worlds Together, Worlds Apart” by Tignor et al., they state that even surrounded by powerful empires such as the Persian and Neo-Assyrian, the Sea People, Greeks, Phoenicians, and Israelites all managed to retain their language, beliefs, and other systems (p. 139, 2018). It is interesting how some cultures can stick to their languages and roots despite rising empires and rivals, yet even today some cultures are malleable and conform to different systems of surrounding neighbors. Contrasting to this Tignor et al. also discuss the Hellenistic Culture. The Hellenistic Culture used a common language called Koine in order to create a common dialect that people everywhere could understand. This replaced many of the individual dialects found within the city-states and Koine became the international language of this time period (p. 205, 2018). It was really interesting to compare and contrast this kind of change taking place with the Kazakh to ancient populations who had deeply rooted language or similar to Kazakh the strive for a more well known language.