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Off Script

Published on the official site of the president, Akorda, the decree read: “The government of Kazakhstan is to set up a national commission to change the Kazakh alphabet to Latin script, organize a gradual switch to Latin script by 2025, and take other measures to implement this decree, including those of an organizational and legislative nature.“

In fact, the move represents a return to the Latin script, which the Kazakh alphabet originally adopted back in 1929. Since the 10th century, Kazakh, like most languages belonging to the Turkic family, was written in Arabic script. In 1929, along with changing the capital of the autonomous socialist republic from Kyzylorda to Almaty, which remained the capital until 1997, the Arabic script was dropped in favor of a Latin-based one.
Yet this transformation was short-lived, and under the pressure of “Sovietization“ and mass influx of peoples from other parts of the USSR, Kazakh formally adopted a Cyrillic script, so as to parallel the widely spoken Russian language.
Nazarbayev instructed working groups back in 2012 along the complex journey of transitioning back toward a Latin script. Unlike neighboring Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Azerbaijan, which embraced Latin letters shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan—or Qazaqstan, as it is spelled under the reforms—took a more gradual approach, so as to be more inclusive of its 85% fluent speakers of Russian. The president, while pointing out that the transition process always remained under his “special control,“ proudly announced “no country in the world has discussed its new alphabet with the entire nation in that way.“
In technical terms, the new Kazakh alphabet consists of 32 letters, compared to the 42 symbols in the Cyrillic alphabet. The previous Cyrillic letters will be replaced by Latin analogs based on their phonetic resemblance. In addition, nine characters with apostrophes have been included to signify some distinct Kazakh vowels and hissing syllables.
With the decree issued and nationwide consensus secured, including from citizens, linguists, and scientists, the attention now turns to implementation. Official documentation, books, and periodicals related to political and cultural practices in Kazakhstan are all required to undergo transformation to the new script, albeit at a gradual pace, by 2025. Moreover, regarding its application in the education sector, as of 2018, the government will begin preparing academic materials and specialists to begin introducing the new alphabet across the education system. This will begin by enabling the printing of new school and university textbooks in the new Latin script, followed by the switch of the entire academic system into the modernized Kazakh alphabet.
Crucially, the move is seen to complement the country’s widespread digitalization efforts. As noted by the president, it will allow the Kazakh language to “develop further and be included in the global information space,“ while at the same time, due to its written similarities, support the promotion of the English language, which has also been amongst the government’s priorities on the road to modernization.
While still in the early stages of implementation, the transition to a new Latin-based script sends a powerful signal for Kazakhstan’s shifting political and economic orientation. The influence of the new script on digitalization and modernization will no doubt alter economic activities such as trade, finance, and others. Qazaqstan is betting that the long-term economic benefits will outweigh the short-term costs of the transition—such as replacing textbooks and retraining workers to use equipment with Latin script—and any economic strain on its ties with Russia. A feasibility study on the switch from 2007 estimates the costs at USD300 million, but further integration with the global economy through common script, digitalization, and modernization could reap greater benefits.

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