Kazakhstan adopts new version of Latin-based Kazakh alphabet

ASTANA – President Nursultan Nazarbayev amended his Oct. 26, 2017 decree concerning the transition of the Kazakh alphabet from Cyrillic to Latin script, which if kept, would have put into effect a Latin-script alphabet with 32 letters including nine characters with apostrophes. The new amendment replaces the apostrophes with diacritic signs and digraphs. The deadline to complete the switch remains 2025.

The following is the new version of the alphabet introduced by the amendment.

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The government previously published an action plan detailing the phased transfer to the Latin alphabet. According to the document, the three successive phases will cover 1) regulatory-legal framework (2018-2020), 2) issuance of official records including passports and IDs and trainings for teachers and the adult population (2021-2023) and 3) actual day-to-day use of Latin script in public and state offices, as well as publishing the state media in new alphabet (2024-2025).

Before switching to the Latin alphabet (a modified variant for Turkic languages also called Yanalif) in early 1920s, the Kazakh language was transcribed in Arabic script. In 1940, however, along with other Turkic-speaking constituent republics of the Soviet Union, the country was ordered to adopt a version of Cyrillic, which due to incorporating Kazakh-specific hissing syllables and distinct vowels contains 42 letters.

A public discussion to switch back to Latin script has long continued and grew bigger with Nazarbayev tasking the government in 2017 with drafting a plan to begin the transfer.

The public reaction to the October version of the script deemed it equivocal, objecting, for example, to the use of apostrophes as a nonstarter in the digital age.

Anticipating the debate, Senate Chairman Kassym-Jomart Tokayev warned those who began hastily introducing the apostrophe-based Latin script on outdoor signs and newspapers.

“The national commission has not yet made its final decision on the transfer of the Kazakh language into the Latin alphabet. Therefore, it is too soon to use apostrophes in newspapers and other places,” he said.

Several public figures have addressed the latest amendment.

Minister of Information and Communication Dauren Abayev expanded the reasons behind the amendment.

“The experts working on the matter had concerns over apostrophes, because this mark is used as a spacer or special shift-in; it complicates the web search, even creating some financial complications,” he said.

The president heard the call and “this version [without apostrophes] will be more effective,” he added.

Predicting the questions from the parent and teachers’ community, Minister of Education and Science Yerlan Sagadiyev said the ministry is planning to hold open discussions with pedagogues and will draft and pilot a new ABC book. He stressed the switch to Latin script will start with reception grade pupils (a beginning grade with 6-year-olds)

“Only then we can come to a schedule for introducing the new alphabet,” he said.

Nur Otan Party First Deputy Chairman Maulen Ashimbayev expressed his support for the new version, noting the decision to switch to Latin script is an important step in modernising the language and adapting it to the global educational, scientific and information space.

“The amendments make the Kazakh language more practical and functional,” he said. “It is a strategic decision aimed to work for the nation’s future.”

Capital deputy mayor and professional philologist Yermek Amanshayev told city residents the transfer to Latin script is a systemic work that engaged distinguished Kazakh scientists and language experts.

“All ideas and suggestions on the matter will always be considered with due diligence. Today, we see a version that suits everyone. But most importantly, it is crucial for our people’s future,” he said.

Tokayev’s recent tweet offered congratulations to fellow Kazakhstanis on the brand-new alphabet, commending the amendment as a historic event.