Kazakhstan’s project to overhaul its alphabet will cost hundreds of millions of dollars

These two have one less thing in common.
These two have one less thing in common.
Image: Sputnik/Kremlin/Alexei Druzhinin
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Last year, Nursultan Nazarbayev, the only president in the history of Kazakhstan, declared (link in Kazakh) that the country’s writing system had to change. No longer would it be based on the Cyrillic script used by its former Russian colonizers. Instead, he announced, it will use the Latin script of English, German, and French.

It’s difficult to convey how bold of a move this is. Here’s one way to put it in perspective: To carry out the project, the government has allocated no less than 218 billion (link in Kazakh) Kazakhstani tenge, or around $670 million.

That might seem like a lot. But to bring about such a change the country will effectively have to re-enroll the entire population in kindergarten. Imagine being told that instead of “g” you will from now on have to write “г,” as it is in Cyrillic. It would take some adjustment.

The new Kazakh alphabet
The new Kazakh alphabet
Image: Government of Kazakhstan

About 90% of the budget will be spent teaching people how to use the new script, according to the BBC. That includes creating new learning materials, translating existing textbooks, setting up classes, and other related steps. There are also technical barriers. The government will need to develop software to automatically convert the old characters to the new script, for example.

Plus, there’s the fact that everything in the country already uses the old system. To make a full transition, news websites, books, movie subtitles, restaurant menus, street signs, blog posts, Twitter, maps, company branding, and everything in between will need to change. All told, the government thinks it will take seven years.

Is all that worth it? One interpretation of Nazarbayev’s move says that it’s merely an expensive way for the authoritarian leader to distance his country from its time as a victim of Soviet expansionism. If that’s the case, he will also have to reckon with the large number of Russian speakers in the country, many of whom are ethnic Kazakhs.

There’s also the argument that the current writing system needs to be modernized. Cyrillic was forced on Kazakh, and is not a great fit. Many sounds in the language do not have natural Cyrillic equivalents. And with 42 characters, the alphabet does not translate well to computer keyboards. The new version (link in Kazakh) has 32 characters and uses the Latin script that appears on just about every keyboard in the world.

The investment may or may not pay off. Either way, the project reveals how deeply embedded writing is to our world, and how costly it is to change.