Feb 1, 2018 at 12:00am ET By Joanna Hughes

Kazakhstan president Nursultan A. Nazarbayev recently announced his intent to replace the Russian-inherited alphabet with a newly created Latin alphabet-based script by the year 2025. The challenge, as detailed by the New York Times? “How to write down a tongue that has no alphabet of its own but has always used scripts imported from the outside.”  

Here’s a closer look at the issue, along with why apostrophes are under attack.

Looking Back and Looking Ahead

In revealing plans for the language shakeup, Mr. Nazarbayev deemed the move to be “not only the fulfillment of the dreams of our ancestors, but also the way to the future for younger generations.”

However, while the idea of casting off an alphabet associated with political and economic turmoil may be a noble one and has largely been met with applause, experts say it’s not as easy as it sounds. In particular, linguists are rejecting the president’s preference for enlisting an abundance of apostrophes to indicate Kazakh-specific sounds. For example, “The Republic of Kazakhstan” will be written as “Qazaqstan Respy’bli’kasy” in Kazakh.

In addition to deeming the new writing system to be “ugly and imprecise,” experts also say it’s not conducive to everything from Google searches to Twitter hashtags. Political analyst Aidos Sarym told The Times, “We are supposed to be modernizing the language but are cutting ourselves from the internet.”

Speaking to a Larger Issue

The apostrophe itself may be small, but the controversy also speaks to a larger issue.

Continued Sarym, “This is just the basic problem of our country: If the president says something or just writes something on a napkin, everybody has to applaud. [But language] is a very delicate sphere that cannot be dictated by officials.”

Kazakh political commentator Dossym Satpayev put it more directly in telling The Times, "The president is thinking about his legacy and wants to go down in history as the man who created a new alphabet. The problem is that our president is not a philologist."

Learn more about studying in Kazakhstan.

Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.

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