Alphabet soup

The Kazakh language comes in three shapes: Arabic, Cyrillic, and Latin.

Sometime between 1850 and 1700 BCE, a group of Semitic-speaking people adapted a version of Egyptian hieroglyphics to represent the sounds of their language.

This script is often considered the first alphabetic writing system, where unique symbols stand for single consonants (vowels were omitted). Written from right to left and spread by Phoenician merchants, this alphabet consisted of 22 symbols simple enough for ordinary traders to learn and draw, making it widely accessible.

By the 8th century BCE, the Phoenician alphabet had spread to Greece, where it was refined to record the Greek language. One innovation was to use letters to represent vowels. Scholars believe it was this – allowing the text to be read and pronounced without ambiguity – that marked the creation of the first “true” alphabet.

The Etruscans borrowed a western variant of the Greek alphabet and Latin-speakers adopted 21 of these 26 letters to form the Latin alphabet we know today. With the expansion of the Roman Empire, Latin and its alphabet spread to the lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea and after 1492, with colonisation, to the rest of the world.

But not to Kazakhstan, a Central Asian country extending from the Caspian Sea in the west to the Altai Mountains on its eastern border with China and Russia. There, Kazakh is spoken – a Turkic language that until recently used a modified Cyrillic alphabet with 42 letters. In 2017, Kazakhstan’s then president signed a decree changing to the Latin alphabet. By 2025, everything in the country – from school textbooks and literature to street signs and official documents – will have to be rewritten.

The country’s new president says the change marks an important stage in Kazakhstan’s “spiritual modernization,” pointing out that 90% of information worldwide is available in the Latin alphabet. The new Kazakh alphabet has 32 letters, including nine that are uniquely Kazakh sounds.

Confusingly, this will be the third time Kazakhstan has plunged itself into a new alphabet soup. In 1929, it changed from Arabic script to Latin, as the Soviet Union pushed to create a secular education system. In 1940, the country switched to the Cyrillic alphabet under a programme of “Russification”.

Today, ethnic Kazakhs make up the majority of the population and the government has decided to promote “Kazakh values” rather than those of the former Russian overlord. As the Kazakh saying goes, “A crow from your land is better than a hawk from a foreign land.”


Published by

Philip Lee

Writer and musician who tries to join up the dots.

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