Alphabet soup as Kazakh leader orders switch to Latin letters

ALMATY (Reuters) - Kazakhstan is to change its official alphabet for the third time in less than 100 years in what is seen in part as symbolic move to underline its independence.

An illustration image shows the new Latin-based Kazakh alphabet published in newspaper in Almaty, Kazakhstan October 27, 2017. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov/Illustration

President Nursultan Nazarbayev ordered his office on Thursday to prepare for a switch to a Latin-based alphabet from a Cyrillic one, distancing itself, at least graphically, from Russia.

The oil-rich former Soviet republic of 18 million has very close ties with Moscow, its main trading partner, but is also wary of Russia’s ambitions to maintain its political influence throughout the region.

Kazakh, a Turkic language, used to be written in Arabic script until the 1920s when the Soviet Union briefly introduced a Latin alphabet for it.

This was later replaced by a Cyrillic one in 1940, based on the Russian alphabet.

Part of the latest switch relates to modern technology.

The currently used Cyrillic alphabet has 42 symbols, making it cumbersome to use with digital devices - a standard Kazakh keyboard utilizes almost all number keys in addition to letter and punctuation keys.

The latest version of the proposed Latin alphabet works around that by using apostrophe signs to modify letters. The country’s official name would thus be spelled as Qazaqstan Respy’blikasy.

According to a statement published by Nazarbayev’s office, he has ordered his chief of staff to draft an executive order introducing the new alphabet. The switch will be gradual, it said.

Alhough Kazakh has been the state language since Kazakhstan became independent in 1991, only 62 percent of the population said they were fluent in both written and spoken Kazakh during a the most recent national census in 2009.

Russian is more widespread with 85 percent claiming fluency in the same census. Russian is recognized as an official language in Kazakhstan.

Several other Turkic nations, including Turkey itself, ex-Soviet Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, have also switched to Latin alphabets.

Reporting by Olzhas Auyezov