People walk by an election poster of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev in Almaty on April 2, 2011.
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev has ordered that his country’s official alphabet be changed from Cyrillic to Latin. For Kazakhstan, this is symbolic distancing of the former Soviet state from its neighbor, Russia. For the rest of us, it raises a question of how we’re now supposed to spell the country’s name.
Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and author of the forthcoming book, Invisible Countries.
Reuters notes that this is actually the third time that the country’s alphabet has been changed in a century. Until the 1920s, Kazakh, a Turkic language, was written with Arabic script. Then, the occupying Soviet Union briefly changed it to Latin, and then to Cyrillic in the 1940s.
Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, the ethnic Russian population of Kazakhstan has been rapidly declining while the government has been working to promote a distinctively Kazakh ethnic identity. (This topic was recently explored in a fascinating article in the Virginia Quarterly Review by Will Boast about the resurgence of the traditional nomadic game of kokpar, or “goat grabbing.”) This is partly to guard against any expansionist ideas from up north, where Kazakh independence is not always taken entirely seriously. In 2014, the year of the annexation of Crimea, Vladimir Putin paid Nazarbayev a backhanded compliment by saying he should be praised for having “created a state on a territory where there was never a state.”
Another justification for the new switch is ease of use with digital devices: Cyrillic’s 42 characters can be tough to shoehorn onto keyboards designed with the Latin Alphabet in mind. “A standard Kazakh keyboard utilizes almost all number keys in addition to letter and punctuation keys,” according to Reuters. In general, non-Latin scripts have had a hard time making the transition to an internet still largely dominated by English.
Then there’s the name issue. In Kazakh Cyrillic, Kazakhstan is spelled: Қазақстан. In the official spelling system the government has adopted, the letter Қ with a descender—which doesn’t exist in Russian—will be replaced by Q. The country’s name will therefore be spelled Qazaqstan. It’s not clear whether Kazakhstan, or Qazaqstan, plans to make this the official English spelling of its name, but if it does, that will take some getting used to.
We English speakers usually come around to locally preferred names—Myanmar not Burma, Mumbai not Bombay—but it can take a while. Case in point: The Czech Republic officially changed its English name to the less cumbersome Czechia last year, but as the AP style guide snootily notes, “that name has yet to catch on in common usage.”
For now, Slate’s official style will remain “Kazakhstan.”