A University of Kansas linguist is risking Russia’s ire in helping Kazakhstan change its writing system

The World in Words
Will these Kazakh schoolchildren use Cyrillic or Latin script in the future?

Kazakhstan has decided that its national language, Kazakh, needs a new writing system.

For decades, it has been using the Cyrillic script, a legacy of Soviet times. Now, though, Kazakhstan's long-term president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, has been re-orienting his country away from Moscow, and toward the West.

And so it was that in late 2013, Kazakh linguists got in touch with Allard Jongman, chair of the linguistics department and a phonetics specialist at the University of Kansas. 

"I was contacted by a graduate student working on this project, and he wrote to me rather than the professor because the professor doesn't know any English," said Jongman in an interview on Kansas City public radio station KCUR's Central Standard program. "He said, 'Look, we're trying to convert our writing system. But … we don't know exactly what the consonants and vowels of Kazakh are.'" (Click on the audio button above to hear the interview.)

Jongman told interviewer Gina Kaufmann there are two reasons why Kazakhs are confused about how their language should sound, both having to do with Soviet domination. First, the language is full of imported Russian words that have sounds in them that are not native to Kazakh.

Second, Cyrillic script is tailored to Russian sounds, and sometimes it doesn't do justice to Kazakh sounds. Over the decades, though, Kazakh has made accommodations, and that's changed some pronunciations.

It's not clear that the Latin alphabet will be any more accurate, of course. Jongman is aware that the whole project could backfire.

"It could really screw things up," says Jongman. But he doesn't think it will. 

And then there are the geo-politics. Russian President Vladimir Putin has said the break-up of the Soviet Union was a tragedy. He has invaded the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Ukraine. Kazakhs fear they could be next.

In August, Putin questioned whether Kazahkan is really even a nation. He said President Nazarbayev had "created a state in a territory that had never had a state before. The Kazakhs had no statehood."

Russia shares a 4,000-mile border with Kazakhstan. The Kazakh army is tiny in comparison to Russia's. Not the easiest set of circumstances to introduce a new writing system.

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