Professor aiding Kazakhstan in switching native language to Latin alphabet

Tue, 07/01/2014

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Christine Metz Howard
KU News Service
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LAWRENCE – A University of Kansas professor is helping a Central Asian country increase its economic development potential and better integrate with new technology by mapping a Latin-based writing system for the country’s native language.

This summer Allard Jongman, chair of the Department of Linguistics, spent two weeks at L.N. Gumilyov Eurasian National University in Kazakhstan teaching a summer course and consulting with faculty on how to switch the written language of Kazakh from Cyrillic to Latin script.

Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev believes switching Kazakh to a Latin alphabet, the most common writing system in the world, will bring more economic development to the country. The Latin script also is more compatible with technology, making it easier to use keyboards and cell phones.

“To realize I’m working on something that has major implications for the alphabet and eventually for the everyday life of millions of citizens, that is huge,” Jongman said.

Home to more than 17 million people, Kazakhstan is the world’s largest landlocked country and borders Russia, China and the Caspian Sea. The state language is Kazakh, but Russian is also frequently spoken there.

Similar to languages spoken in other Central Asian countries of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, Kazakh is a Turkic language. For centuries, the language was written in Arabic script and, for a brief time, Latin. After Kazakhstan became an official part of the Soviet Union, the language was written in Cyrillic, which makes up the Russian alphabet.

In order to map the language onto a Latin alphabet, Jongman and other researchers had to identify what consonants and vowels make up Kazakh. The task was a challenging one since after decades of Soviet Union influence, Russian sounds had been borrowed and incorporated into the Kazakh language. And, when the language was converted to Cyrillic, if there was a sound in Kazakh that wasn’t part of the Cyrillic alphabet, it was represented with whatever sounded closest to it.

“During those 70 years, sounds started drifting. Now, people aren’t sure what is a Kazakh sound or what’s not,” Jongman said.

As an example of the confusion, Jongman points to grade school primers that have varying numbers in how many sounds make up the language. In first grade it’s 41, in fifth grade it’s 38, and in ninth grade it’s even fewer.

“The number of sounds doesn’t change depending on the level you are in. It tells you about the disarray and disagreement that we have regarding sound,” Jongman said.

Jongman and faculty at L.N. Gumilyov Eurasian National University have narrowed the Kazakh language down to 19 consonants and nine vowels, which will be used to shape the Latin alphabet. They are working on an article for the Journal of the International Phonetic Association. Jongman also plans to return to Kazakhstan next summer to continue working on the transition.

The hope is to develop a model that can be used in surrounding countries, which also speak Turkic languages and use the Cyrillic script.

“If we get this right, it may spread to other countries,” Jongman said. 



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