Kazakhstan, a Central Asian country, decided to change its alphabet and go from Cyrillic script to the Latin-based style, which is adopted by most West countries. But what economic costs does such a change imply?
The change was approved by President Nursultan Nazarbayev and announced in mid-February this year. The government however, signed off on the change in October last year, but it received criticism from the population, something that happens rarely in this democratic country.
The new version of the Kazakh alphabet contains letters with apostrophes, which are meant to depict certain sounds of the country’s language. However, people called this ‘ugly’. The second variation utilizes acute accents, which are placed above the extra letters. Thus, ‘Qazaqstan Respy’bli’kasy’ (which means ‘the Republic of Kazakhstan’), is now, according to the second version of the alphabet, ‘Qazaqstan Respýblıkasy’, without any apostrophes.
“It’s more beautiful than the former variant,” says Asset Kaipiyev, the co-founder of a restaurant located in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan.
But at some point, it hit him. He opened the restaurant called Sa’biz in December, 2017. He used letters from the first version of the new Kazakh alphabet in the name of his restaurant. This means that he has to reconsider all marketing materials, change the labeling on all menus and napkin holders, not to mention about the massive sign placed outside the building, which will have to be replaced. The one essential aspect that Kaipiyev did not predict was that the alphabet would be revised by the government. The cost of all these changes would be around $3,000 and everything would have to be changed to Sábiz.
However, Kaipiyev is not the only small business owner who is going through this change. The same will happen to everyone owning a business in Kazakhstan. The transition is supposed to be completed by 2025 and according to specialists, it’s quite an ambitious goal, considering that most people living in this country are more fluent in Russian than in Kazakh.
The thing about mother tongue
The 2016 census performed in Kazakhstan revealed that ethnic Kazakhs make up about 66% of the population, while 20% is represented by ethnic Russians. Due to the fact that the country was under Soviet rule for many years, Russian is spoken by about 94% of the population, making Kazakh the second most spoken language in the country, by about 74%.
Compared to Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, who started implementing the Latin script in 1992, respectively in 1993, Kazakhstan is making the change almost 30 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The fact that they are making the transition today implies increased costs, which are hard to predict.
What’s the cost, after all?
According to state media, the total budget allocated by the government for this seven-year transition will amount to about $664mm (218 billion tenge, in the local currency). Worth mentioning is that this sum has been divided into 3 stages and about 90% of it is allocated to education programs, including to textbooks publishing in the Latin script.
The translation of textbooks and other types of teaching kits will start this year and teachers from all schools in the country will begin teaching the new alphabet to students from first grade and pre-school starting off 2020. by the end of 2025, all levels of grades will have fully transitioned.
Another part of this sum will be allocated to developing an IT program that converts language and recodes Cyrillic into Latin script. This one is going to start in the third quarter of this year.
Are there hidden costs too?
Even though the government has presented a good plan on how this transition is supposed to happen and on the amount of money necessary for this change, one economist expressed his worries related to unexpected costs.
Madumarov says that “if this reform is not properly implemented, the risks are high that highly qualified people from the Russian-speaking majority, which includes also ethnic Kazakhs, may want to consider emigration. The risks may be that some of their opportunities would be cut.”