News that Kazakhstan is proceeding with plans to switch the alphabet used for the Kazakh language from Cyrillic to Latin is stoking a furious public debate.
The battle lines cross the linguistic divide and reveal divisions lurking beneath the surface of society. The discussion goes beyond linguistic questions into thorny territory such as Kazakhstan’s multiethnic, multicultural society; its geopolitical priorities; and the colonial legacy.
Kazakhstan has been mulling the alphabet change since the 1990s, and pursuing stop-start plans to switch since 2006. Last December President Nursultan Nazarbayev broached the sensitive topic again, announcing that written Kazakh will switch to Latin letters – but not until 2025. The change, he argued, would provide “an impulse for the modernization of the Kazakh language” and promote “our global integration.”
While many Kazakh speakers welcome the news, others express outrage.
One group of 66 prominent intellectuals – including writers, academics and journalists known for their vigorous promotion of Kazakh-language interests – have penned an open letter to Nazarbayev against the planned change.
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Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.