A Quarrel Over the Letter ‘K’ Breaks Out in an Unfortunate Place: Kazakhstan

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Almaty, KAZAKHSTAN—Or should that be Almaty, QAZAQSTAN?

Former Soviet state aspires to ditch its cumbersome 42-letter Cyrillic alphabet in favor of a Latin one—but which letter should represent the nation’s distinctive guttural ‘K’?

This Central Asian nation sandwiched between Russia and China is arguing over a surprisingly elemental question: how to spell its name.

After decades of employing the Cyrillic letters used in Russia, its former Soviet master, Kazakhstan is considering rendering its national language with versions of the Latin letters used in English.

The country’s long-serving president supports the switch. But doing so is no simple matter. For starters, there is the nettlesome question of how to represent the two guttural “K” sounds in the country’s name. (Click to hear the proper pronunciation.)

“The sound is special in the Kazakh language,” says Anar Fazylzhanova, deputy director of Kazakhstan’s Linguistics Institute, a state body that is researching the alphabet.

If the change happens, it could lead to the third English-language spelling since the nation broke away from Russia in 1991. “It doesn’t look very good when a country can’t decide how to spell its name,” observes Rasul Jumaly, a former foreign-ministry official who is now a political scientist.

Ms. Fazylzhanova and her colleagues are puzzling over which letters to use for which sounds. There are 42 letters in the Kazakh version of the Cyrillic alphabet. On local computer keyboards, they spill into the numbers area. Some of them are rarely used because they don’t correspond to Kazakh’s 26 sounds, she says.

Latin letters aren’t ideal either. Ms. Fazylzhanova has suggested using diacritics, marks to modify the pronunciation of certain letters. Programmers prefer using several letters for one sound to keep the keyboard simple.

During a recent interview, she sketched some of the options: a Q, a K with a squiggle below it, and one with an inverted hat.

“Research shows that most Kazakhs favor Q,” she says.

After declaring independence from Russia, Kazakhstan has promoted the use of the national language over previously dominant Russian. President Nursultan Nazarbayev says he wants to modernize the predominantly Muslim country of about 18 million, a top-20 oil producer the size of Australia. Using the alphabet of globalization, he says, will help bring it into the global mainstream.

Kazakhstan remains allied with Russia, and Mr. Nazarbayev says the switch isn’t a political move. Some analysts contend Kazakhstan is looking to temper Russia’s influence and increase links with its ethnic brethren from southeastern Europe to western China who also speak Turkic languages.

“It’s an effort to set a course of development that won’t tie its future to Russia,” says Arkady Dubnov, a Central Asia analyst.

When the Bolsheviks took control of Kazakhstan in the 1920s, they replaced the Arabic script with Latin letters. Around the same time, Turkey’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, introduced Latin letters as part of his attempt to orient his country westward. The Bolsheviks even considered switching the Russian alphabet from Cyrillic to Latin, but eventually dropped the idea.

The Kremlin ordered Kazakh and other languages of Central Asia to be written in Cyrillic, beginning in 1940, as part of a campaign to tether Soviet republics more tightly to Moscow. After the Soviet Union’s demise in 1991, those ties unraveled. Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan switched from Cyrillic to Latin letters.

The idea also was floated in Kazakhstan, but dumping Cyrillic was a delicate matter for a country that tilted closer to Russia. In 2012, Mr. Nazarbayev announced the goal of switching, starting in 2025, as part of a broad program to modernize the country.

Last October, Kazkommertsbank, one of the country’s largest banks, rebranded as Qazkom with a new symbol: a large letter Q. The bank said the change reflected its efforts to innovate—and its linguistic smarts.

“An alphabet based on the Latin script is the optimal one to reflect the phonetic range of the Kazakh language,” it said.

The use of Q is spreading. Another bank changed its name to Qazaq Banki in 2013. The country’s sovereign-wealth fund launched Qazaq Air, an airline, in 2015.

The alphabetical upheaval has plenty of opponents. Some say the cost of changing signs, updating documents and retraining the workforce could reach tens of millions of dollars.

Others complain that the main body of Kazakh literature, written in Cyrillic, will become indecipherable. Some writers penned an open letter to the president urging him to reconsider.

“There are millions of books written in Cyrillic,” says Kanat Kabdrakhmanov, a writer and editor. “A whole people will become illiterate.”

Some say the proposed overhaul doesn’t reach far enough back. Amankos Mektep-tegi, a journalism professor, wants to revive the centuries-old runic script of the ancient language to which Kazakh traces its roots. No matter, he says, that almost no one in Kazakhstan knows the symbols.

“This alphabet is in our blood,” he says. “When we start to study the alphabet, every Kazakh will quickly understand it.”

Already some websites offer texts using the Latin alphabet. Kazinform, the national news agency, has for more than a decade offered Kazakh news in the Latin and Arabic alphabets so that the Kazakh diaspora can read news from their homeland, says Rafael Gafarov, the agency’s technical director. Ethnic Kazakhs in China, for example, use Arabic script.

Still, the most hotly debated topic is the spelling of the country’s name. Kazakhstan is a transliteration of the Russian version, used in official documents and communications during the first years of independence. In the mid-1990s, the country officially switched to Kazakstan, which was supposed to be closer to the native version, but several years later switched back to Kazakhstan, says Mr. Jumaly, the political scientist.

A new spelling of the country’s name in Kazakh doesn’t necessarily mean the English version will change. But some hope to persuade foreign countries to adopt a new version.

“In English, the version ‘Qazaqstan’ more correctly reflects the essence of our state than ‘Kazakhstan,’” the chairman of the country’s parliament, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, wrote on Twitter recently.

Ms. Fazylzhanova from the Linguistics Institute is jubilant that her cause is getting official backing. For decades, Russian words weren’t adapted into Kazakh but incorporated unchanged, including their spelling and pronunciation, she says.

“Latin script will help Kazakhs take their language back,” she says. “Kazakh pronunciation will be reborn.”