Kazakh Switch to Latin Is Actually Good News for Russian in Kazakhstan

Moscow Reacts To Kazakhstan And Kyrgyzstan Switching From Cyrillic With Hysterics

The switch to an unfamiliar alphabet for Kazakh will make the move from widespread use of Russian all the more daunting, Russia Insider reported.

The government of Kazakhstan is planning to switch the Kazakh language from Cyrillic to a Latin-based alphabet modeled on the one in use in Turkey.

On the one hand this will clearly increase cultural differences between Kazakhstan and Russia, but on the other hand, it may actually easily boost the use of Russian in Kazakhstan:

In 2013, a group of linguists and well-known individuals from the arts and academia published an open letter criticizing any change of script, citing the unintended consequences of such a move.

Among them, the letter authors suggested, a change to the Latin alphabet would generate additional difficulties that ordinary Kazakhs would encounter in trying to master their own tongue.

Under the 1995 Constitution (revised in 1997, 2007, 2010 and 2017), which is currently in force, Kazakh is the official language, while Russian has the status of a “language of inte-rethnic communication” (Akorda.kz, April 5, 2017; Zonakz.net, February 13, 2013; Kazpravda.kz, February 3, 2007).

In reality, Russian is still widely used today in the media, education, healthcare and science. While Kazakh is massively spoken in rural areas, Russian remains dominant in the urban setting.

Many young people are unable to speak Kazakh fluently, because their parents either do not know the language themselves or made a voluntary decision to not teach it at a time when it did not seem to serve any particular purpose.

A special phrase even exists in Kazakhstan to designate those not using their language in daily life—“shala Kazakh” (“shala” means “raw” or “incomplete”), in contrast with “nagyz” or “true” Kazakhs.

It is also not uncommon for Kazakhs to recognize each other’s regional provenance by the level of proficiency in the official language. Natives of western and southern provinces are usually confident Kazakh speakers, whereas those who come from northern and eastern Kazakhstan, where Russia’s cultural influence has been strongest, prefer Russian instead (Nomad.su, April 20, 2012).

The nation of 18 million is home to 5 million Russians, Ukrainians and Germans, all of whom who are Russian-speaking. In addition to them, however, millions more ethnic Kazakhs are likewise Russian-speaking.

Since independence in 1991 government has been promoting the use of Kazakh at the expense of Russian and ethnic Kazakhs have been slowly shifting away from Russian.

The switch from Cyrillic to an unfamiliar alphabet has every potential to slow down down that process further. As the government makes adopting a new language even more demanding fewer Kazakhs will attempt it and fewer will succeed.