Kazakh Alphabet: No Place for Prescriptivism

Last October, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev decided to change Kazakh’s alphabet from the Cyrillic to Latin script by 2025. On the surface, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this. It’s understandable that Nazarbayev would want to employ the most globally used alphabet and distance his country from its Soviet past—though ironically the Soviets first Latinized Kazakh in 1929 before Cyrillicizing it in 1940. However, instead of basing his new Latin alphabet off of that of another Turkic language, Nazarbayev decided to invent his own system. That was a mistake.

In order to account for sounds specific to Kazakh’s phonemic inventory, Nazarbayev created a system that added apostrophes to certain Latin characters instead of diacritics. Linguists knew this was a bad idea from the start and recommended modeling the new Kazakh alphabet off of the Turkish alphabet. Instead of listening to linguists and many of his fellow countrymen, Nazarbayev imposed his prescriptivist alphabet that is highly difficult to read. In addition, some words are unsearchable in Google and impossible to use within a Twitter hashtag. These shortcomings do not exactly bring Kazakh into the 21st century.

After a few months of harsh, widespread criticism, Nazarbayev decided this week to change Kazakh’s alphabet yet again. This time Kazakhstan is adopting the neighboring Turkmen alphabet, which was modeled off of the Turkish alphabet. Now that petty prescriptivism has been swept aside, the Latinization of Kazakh has a real chance to succeed.

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