Kazakhstan’s much-vaunted switchover to the Latin alphabet may be in trouble, if a report in Russian daily Izvestia is to be believed.
The newspaper on July 16 quoted unnamed sources at the Kazakh Foreign Ministry as saying that the deadline for ditching Cyrillic in favor of the newly devised script could be delayed to 2035, from the previous target date of 2025. The cited reason for the postponement is to make the process “more painless.”
“An overwhelming section of the population over 65 years of age does not have a sufficiently good command of the Latin alphabet,” the newspaper cited its source as saying.
The plan to transition away from Cyrillic – the alphabet used for Russian – to Latin script was adopted in October 2017 by then-President Nursultan Nazarbayev. The vision was to have all official documentation, magazines and books published in Kazakh be published exclusively in Latin script.
Nazarbayev argued that his decision was needed to modernize Kazakh society. Other supporters of the move argued that it would nudge Kazakhstan closer to the global intellectual community and help adapt the country to the needs of modern information technology. Some Russian chauvinists, meanwhile, grumbled that this was all part of a plot to steer Kazakhstan away from Moscow’s sphere of cultural influence.
The adoption of a new alphabet was not without hiccups, however.
Initially, lawmakers were asked to consider the merits of a 25-character alphabet, which would have represented a colossal shift away from the 42-letter Cyrillic alphabet now in use. Seemingly ignoring most of the public discussion around that option, Nazarbayev then suddenly signed off on a 32-letter version that almost nobody had seen before and then ordered officials to start ensuring that alphabet was put into place by 2025.
This second iteration was roundly mocked for its preponderant use of apostrophes, so Nazarbayev had a rethink some months later and approved yet another version, also consisting of 32 letters, but with some significant differences.
Since that time, the new-looking Kazakh writing has begun to appear on street signs and outside government buildings. In November, a government-funded newspaper called Til Qazyna, written entirely in Latin script, began appearing in newstands. Most other media – including that run by the government – have remained loyal to Cyrillic, however.
In truth, even the ultimately agreed version of the alphabet has continued to come in for flak, prompting some language experts to wonder if more change could be in the works.
"The Latin alphabet as adopted in its current form is inefficient and does not meet the original criteria of being simple, convenient and consisting of the basic QWERTY symbols available on any computer," Kanat Tasibekov, the author of a Kazakh language manual, told Eurasianet.
Almaz Kumenov is an Almaty-based journalist.