Kazakhstan Could Become Qazaqstan as it Eyes New Alphabet

Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev attends a signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China August 31, 2015. Lintao Zhang/Pool/Reuters

Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev has called on his government to begin preparing to shift the nation's alphabet from the Cyrillic—as used by neighbor Russia—to the Latin.

Kazakhstan has been independent since the collapse of the Soviet Union but Russian is still widely spoken alongside Kazakh and both are official languages.

But despite the use of Russian in Kazakhstan and its neighbors, the region's native languages belong to the Turkic rather than Slavic family.

Other countries with Turkic languages, such as Turkey, Azerbaijan and nearby Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan use the Latin alphabet. And now, according to Russian news agency Interfax, Nazarbayev has commissioned experts to begin work on a Kazakh alphabet based on the Latin one, by the end of the year.

"The Latin alphabet was used [in Kazakhstan] from 1929 to 1940," Nazarbayev said. "In 1940…a law was adopted transferring the Kazakh language from the Latin alphabet to one based on Russian script. Thus, changes in the Kazakh alphabet were political."

Nazarbayev plans the transition to the new Latinized Kazakh script to be complete by 2025. The stated purpose of the move is to make Kazakhstan a more recognizable brand internationally, but it will also appeal to patriotic Kazakhs.

According to Camilla Hagelund, Central Asia analyst at risk analytics firm Verisk Maplecroft, the initiative will likely be a success given Nazarbayev's immense unilateral influence in his country and the fact that the change "reflects the public mood."

"Kazakh businesses have, for example, increasingly adopted the use of Q instead of K in their company names—using Qazaq instead of Kazakh," she says. Such changes are closer to non-Cyrillic regional conventions. The letter "Q" does not exist in the Cyrillic alphabet.

Nazarbayev even noted that the Kazakh diaspora in Turkey is already widely using Latin script to write in Kazakh and schoolchildren all learn the Latin alphabet as part of studying English at school. That is not to say the transition will be without pitfalls, however, as Hagelund warns companies will have to rebrand products and retrain personnel on using new equipment.

"At the socio-economic level the implications are much greater, including the need to replace school books, adding pressure on strained public finances," Hagelund says. "The change would [also] risk making large swathes of the public illiterate. "

Hagelund does not expect Russia to be overly concerned about losing a common alphabet with one of its closest allies, however.