A number of issues regarding Kazakh language have come out recently. First, there was the announcement on the 24th of October that Kazakhstan will switch to the Latin alphabet, whereas now it uses a Cyrillic alphabet. Historically, Kazakh was originally written in a Turkish script and then in Arabic script, and briefly in Latin script before Russian colonization and assimilation in the Soviet Union. So the move has some historic roots. Many blogs have taken up the issue of the new alphabet, and I was going to sum them up, but as I’m writing this, I got scooped by NewEurasian Live Journal, so I’ll just link to their summary here. Great minds think alike!
I will post directly to this blogger’s informal transcription proposal with examples, because it’s fun to look over.
Uzbekistan moved to a Latin alphabet for Uzbek after independence, which many viewed as a move to assert independence from Russia and the Soviet past. Kazakhstan may be making a similar stand. In the end I suspect it is a move toward making it easier for both foreigners to learn Kazakh (and make it a more “friendly” language), and for Kazakhstani to learn English.
The current thinking in the government is to produce a tri-lingual nation and new textbooks for kids have come out recently, including one called The Kingdom of Three Languages which teaches Kazakh, Russian, and English through the adventures of two Kazakh brothers, a Russian boy, and a British girl.
Recently, at the meeting of the Assembly of the People of Kazakhstan, Nazarbayev said that civil servants who do not speak Kazakh will be out of a job. This comes in the midst of ministries switching to Kazakh as the language of memos and internal letters. Also, the President announced that there will need to be new words in Kazakh for scientific and technical terms, so that Kazakhs are not just borrowing Russian or English words. This creates a great deal of prestige for Kazakh, but does make it harder for non-speakers—this non-speaker relies heavily on borrowed words to understand things in Kazakh.
Rumors persist that having Kazakh is a great advantage in the market, and in fact, there were plans to have a test of Kazakh language for all candidates for the prestigious Bolashak Scholarship. Presidential candidates do have to pass a Kazakh language test, scrapped out of fear it would isolate non-Kazakhs. There was also the recent scandal over the new tenge, on which the word Bank was misspelled in Kazakh, which led many to wonder, “Who are these shmucks in Astana who can’t speak Kazakh?” Some of those shmucks wonder, “Who are these nationalist jerks to force me to learn a new language?”
In fact, many young and successful Kazakhs in the cities do not speak Kazakh. In Soviet times, Russian-language schools were given more resources and their graduates did better, leading many parents to send their kids to Russian-language schools. In part from historical habit and in part because Kazakh lacks scientific terms, and since Russian is an international language, publications, textbooks, translations of Western books are more likely to be in Russian than Kazakh. Also, many up-and-coming students chose to focus on English or another foreign language instead of learning Kazakh. So you end up with a population that doesn’t speak Kazakh and doesn’t see any need to speak Kazakh (and I note that there are many exceptions to this rule). In fact, some people say with pride that they do not speak Kazakh. At the same time, I was sitting with some friends who work at a Ministry who has already made the switch to Kazakh as the working language. All of them were Kazakh and they were joking that only one of them can speak Kazakh—and very basic Kazakh at that. There was a palpable feeling of shame among them.
In the capital city, here in the historically Russian dominated north, it is not uncommon to hear people on the street speaking Kazakh. It is not uncommon for a store clerk to greet me and serve me in Russian, then turn to the Kazakh behind me and address him in Kazakh. In the south, they say, even Russians speak Kazakh because it’s so widely used.
It’s a tight rope that Nazarbayev and the nation are walking. On the one hand, this is Kazakhstan—land of the Kazakhs. There is a nationalist argument to be made, that Russians and Ukrainians are guests here and should learn the language. On the other hand, Kazakhstan prides itself on being a land of ethnic diversity where 120 nationalities. Unlike other melting pot countries such as the US or France, where one culture and one language has dominated, in Kazakhstan the native culture and language have been suppressed for over 100 years. Professor William Fierman at Indiana University makes an interesting parallel between the Soviet philosophy of nationhood and the situation Nazarbayev finds himself in (Ab Imperio Feb 2005). The USSR found itself in a double bind of trying to prove that all cultures of the Soviet Union were benefiting from Socialism and at the same time to demonstrate that a Homo Sovieticus, a socialist man and culture was being formed, and that it was strong! Similarly, the Kazakh government wants to juggle Kazakhstan as a multi-ethnic tolerant land of diversity and on the other hand, to emphasize that it is the land of the Kazakhs. As I’ve noted here before, one of the main reasons for developing a new shining capital, is to unite a people around a symbol that is not associated with any one ethnicity or nationality.
In fact, many Kazakhstani feel a strong tie to Russian culture, brought to them as Soviet culture, and thus as the culture of their childhood or the “good old days.” Soviet actors and artists are referred to as “ours.” Beef stroganoff, goulash and borsch are standard foods in cafes and restaurants. On New Years, people still tune in to watch the Kremlin clock turn to midnight, and New Years is still the most popular holiday in Kazakhstan. Old Soviet holidays are still noted by people, if not celebrated officially. On the other hand, Nauryz, the Muslim New Year, somewhat celebrated by Kazakhs before the Russian colonization, was introduced from above (though very enthusiastically taken up!).
Fierman cites a Kazakh nationalist who in 2004 came down against a Kazakhstani nation (as opposed to a Kazakh-only nation) on the grounds that Russian language and culture were too strong and would dominate any kind of unified, diverse culture. Koishybayev supported waiting until Kazakh culture was strong enough to form the core. Which provides an interesting model, one that most modern nations pursue, of a core dominant culture which nevertheless provides a space for other cultures to live and flourish.
At the moment, the situation seems to almost resemble the US where English is the dominant language but spaces exist for speakers of other languages—regions exist where all signs and advertisements are in Spanish (or Chinese or Russian!), official forms are often provided in different languages, etc. The issue is that in this analogy, Russian is the dominant language and Kazakh speakers are being accommodated. Can this situation be overturned to the point where both languages share equal footing? Possibly, with the provision of strong educational materials in Kazakh, and with the government not simply ordering people to use Kazakh, but also providing support—classes in Kazakh for government workers, educational television shows. Some of this is being done. More needs to be done, particularly targeting non-Kazakh Kazakhstani.
One suggestion that might be taken up is one Professor Fierman made to me: entertaining television shows for kids (something like Seasame Street I suppose, which Russians, Ukrainians, Germans will want to watch. And while they watch babushka will also be watching, and learning!
Also widespread advertisement of the fact that nothing warms a Kazakh’s heart than when a non-Kazakh speaks it. I even got free milk once by calling it sut!