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Aidos Sarym: “Shifting to Latin alphabet is internal affair of Kazakhs”

Aidos Sarym. Photo: 365Info

Following his highly publicized decision to change the Kazakh alphabet from Cyrillic to Latin alphabet, President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev assures “they have no plans to refuse from the Russian language, from Cyrillic alphabet.” Nevertheless, doubts still remain… To make things clear, EADaily has interviewed Aidos Sarym, a political analyst, member of the task group to draft Kazakh alphabet.

The highly-publicized decision to shift from Cyrillic to Latin alphabet in Kazakhstan has prompted accusations of unreliability against the strategic ally...

Well, in Russia, at least part of the expert society compares Kazakhstan's shifting to the Latin alphabet as a stab in the back. They say Kazakhstan is leaving the Russian space. I think this is about how people perceive the situation. Of course, one can interpret it that way too. However, the way Russia’s government responds to the issue makes me think that Nursultan Nazarbayev and Vladimir Putin discussed it at their informal meeting earlier this year in Chimbulak. It stands to reason that the issue was discussed and Kazakhstan’s arguments were heard. What’s the question? Modernization of the language – it is a part of a big program of modernizing the society. We have faced a situation when we should modernize our country and the people, change ourselves and become a modern progressive country or be torn by internal contradictions, become more archaicized and Islamized, and eventually find ourselves among problematic countries. From the viewpoint of Russia’s long-term interests, the first option is preferable, the more so as there is a 7,500m-long common border. In debates with Russian colleagues I bring the following argument. Russia considers itself a superpower. If you were on USA’s place, what neighbor would you prefer: Canada or Mexico? The answer is evident – a neighbor with normal, predictable people welcoming technological process. Hence, Russia should support our decision and not condemn it. Anyway, the Russian language is a lingua franca - a language that is adopted as a common language between speakers whose native languages are different – since there remain borders, family and personal ties. The Russian language will be further used in Kazakhstan. It is out of the question.

How they in Kazakhstan assess transition to the Latin alphabet in other, neighbor countries?

Switching to a new graphic for the Kazakh language is the internal affair of Kazakhs who have the right to choose anything, even Chinese characters or Georgian alphabet. It is our sovereign right. However, speaking about adoption of the Latin alphabet, we mean that it applies to the people who speak our state language or are going to do it. Consequently, the Russian newspapers that are published in Kazakhstan, TV and radio channels, Russian-language schools will further operate as they did by present. They will operate as long as they are demanded in the market. No one is going to create any obstacles or additional difficulties for them. The shifting process as such implies the following. A final decision on the alphabet meeting the language and the public needs and possibilities will be approved by the end of the year. Afterwards, a more difficult process will start – we will have to revise our spelling, the rules of correct pronunciation of the Kazakh language.

The point is that after Stalin’s speech “Marxism and Problems of Linguistics” in 1950, which was mocked by specialists, they conducted another very harmful “language reform” in the Soviet republics. In particular, when Kazakhstan switched to Cyrillic alphabet in 1940, the internal language rules and spelling were close to the needs of the Kazakh language. However, in 1950-1953, language reforms resulted in adoption of a rule under which all the words, all surnames, names in Kazakh language were written the way they sounded in Russian.

This has prompted fundamental changes in the language – new letters, new spelling, and new orthoepy. Presently, I call the alphabet we have a Russian-Kazakh alphabet. Since many letters are used quite rarely in the Kazakh language or not used at all. To keep such useless letters in the era of computers is too much. Therefore, the task group is currently working on the alphabet. We need to reckon with the day-to-day realities. For instance, if we text a short message using Kazakh alphabet, sending it will cost us twice as much as if we had texted it in Russian. Meantime, texting with use of the Latin alphabet costs us half as much as in Russian. Such circumstances influence economy and others. It will take us long to switch to the Latin alphabet. We will be publishing new dictionaries, developing new rules of Romanization and spelling. This work will require some time, maybe a couple of years. We will need to hold research and methodology courses. I’d like to see a large patriotic movement that will be propagating the language and training the people. In such case, switching to the Latin alphabet will become reality by 2025, as scheduled. Internet is the specifics of our epoch – cultural heritage cannot disappear. A huge work is already underway to digitize libraries, archives.

By some data, the Kazakh alphabet will have similarities with the Turkish language. Is it true?

Disputes continue. The people engaged in software development, IT-products, suggest avoiding going beyond modern English language. They say it will help adjusting all software programs, and problems will be minimized. They are speaking about a 26-letter alphabet, or 29 or even 31. Currently we have 42 letters in the Kazakh alphabet. Philologists say there are specific Kazakh letters that should be marked with separate diacritical signs and this may add 3-4 symbols to the current English alphabet. There are about 100 options in total.

Will it be hard for the people to shift to the Latin alphabet? A similar process in neighboring Uzbekistan has become stalled.

People under 50 will hardly feel much difficulty with the process. Today, we are using a huge amount of texts in Latin alphabet. Many people travel much and learn foreign languages. After all, Latin alphabet is neither Chinese characters and nor Runic alphabet. The older generation may face some problems of psychological nature. I think it would be good to leave a Kazakh press segment for this category of people.

Their language environment will not disappear. On the other hand, we hope to have everyone speaking Kazakh language start learning. We equalize Russian-speaking Kazakhs, Kazakh-speaking Kazakhs and everyone who lives in the symbolic Kazakh space. We will get opportunities to improve the language immunity.

In Turkish language, for instance, French has become a basis for adoption of foreign terms. We have disputes over what language to take as a basis – English, French… This is about orthoepy rules. In Russia, for example, they took the Latin as a basis. And it is not because it was the Latin as such, but because the Latin belonged to no one. However, I think, the brightest and most interesting discussions are going to happen when we start developing pronunciation rules and spelling.

EADaily’s Central Asian Bureau

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