Kazakhstan and the Cyrillic alphabet vs. Latin alphabet

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Here's an article from two weeks back on the subject:

In November 2002, Citibank became the first American bank to open a retail operation in Russia, replete with phone and Internet banking. It offered middle-class Russian clients in Moscow and St. Petersburg both ruble and dollar accounts, overdraft and loan facilities in both currencies, and even debit - though no credit - cards. Murky laws regarding ownership of real estate had initially preclude mortgages. Citibank already managed some corporate business in Russia with a modest asset portfolio of c. $1 billion.

According to the Russian headquarters of the bank, the price tag of opening the branch reached "several million dollars". Most of it was to convert the bank's global systems to the 33-letters Cyrillic alphabet. This is an illustration of the hidden business costs incurred by preferring the idiosyncratic Slavic script to the widely used Latin one.

Russian news agencies reported that on November 15, 2002 the Duma passed an amendment to the Law on the Languages of the Peoples of the Russian Federation, making the Cyrillic alphabet mandatory, though not exclusive. The use of other scripts is hence subject to the enactment case-by-case federal laws.

Many of Russia's numerous constituent republics and countless ethnic minorities are unhappy. The Tatars, for instance, have been using the Latin script since September 2001. Cyrillic characters in Tatarstan are due to be phased out in 2011. The republic of Karelia, next to the Finnish border, has been using Latin letters exclusively and would also be adversely affected.


The economic implications of an obscure script were well grasped by Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. He was fond of saying that "the cornerstone of education is an easy system of reading and writing. The key to this is the new Turkish alphabet based on the Latin script." In 1928, he replaced the cumbersome Arabic script with a Latinized version of Turkish. Literacy shot up and access to a wealth of educational and cultural material was secured.

Personally I think Kazakhstan should switch over, simply for the reason that almost all other Turkic-speaking countries have done the same and they should follow suit in order to boost communication between them. That will boost the value of learning not only Kazakh but every other Turkic language, given their similarities. Keeping Russian as an important language should be enough to keep people from losing their knowledge of Cyrillic, and thus they should be able to read Kazakh texts pre-2015 (just making a wild guess at when it may happen).


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