Best script for writing Qazaq

/ qazaq / 8 min read /

Qazaq language has a particular trait of having been written with more than one script throughout its history.

However, this is not a research in history of Qazaq writing systems but rather a conjecture comparing various scripts and trying to assess how well each of them could reveal the features of Qazaq grammar and the spirit of Qazaq culture.

Let’s play the game: if there was a choice, which of the scripts would be the best script for writing Qazaq?


Qazaq in Cyrillic script

Cyrillic is an official script that has been in use since 1940s until now. However, it’s definitely not the best script for writing Qazaq.

There are two major problems with Qazaq Cyrillic.

Firstly, the 1940 reform of the script by Särsen Amanjolulı was based on the principle that all new loanwords from Russian (including loanwords from other Western languages that came through Russian) keep their original Russian spelling, so that all minority languages of the Soviet Union and their scripts would eventually converge. Even the Cyrillic letters like ф that do not correspond to any Qazaq phonemes have been kept for that purpose.

Qazaqs have had a long history of borrowing vocabulary from Russian since the establishment of their ties with the Russian Empire, and prior to the reform the spelling of the borrowed words was qazaqised e.g. bötelke (bottle, from Russian ‘бутылка’), sot (court of justice, from Russian ‘суд’), etc.

After the reform, however, Qazaq language has been injected with words that did not follow Qazaq morphophonology, and have never been genuinely adopted, but instead disrupted the language. Of course, those native Qazaq speakers who didn’t have a good command of Russian would still adapt them to Qazaq pronunciation in speech, but the lack of support for it in script meant the whole process was haphazard, and resulted in most Qazaqs pronouncing them according to Russian phonetics, which disrupted the natural sound of Qazaq.

The second big problem is that the letters и and у became widely used for spelling Qazaq words. The respective front unrounded and back rounded vowels are i /ɘ/ and u /ʊ/, while и and у correspond to diphthongs of these vowels with a labial–velar approximant w, and у in the consonant position can also mean a standalone w. However, even this convoluted system is not used consistently in relation to vowel harmony. For example, even in front vowel verbs у is used as an ending while the pronunciation is ıw, and logically и should be used instead. In certain single syllable words where it is impossible to deduct the vowel harmony from other vowels, like ми brain this resulted in regular mispronunciation.

In addition to that, Cyrillic does not really have any deep connection to Qazaq culture. It has only be used officially for several decades, and even if we add up the total three centuries of colonisation of Qazaqs by the Russians, Cyrillic still looks pretty much alien except for certain Slavic peoples.

Finally, Cyrillic script is ugly. It has the letter ж (it is also used for Qazaq). Due to that, no languages actually benefit from being written with Cyrillic, even Bulgarian whose speakers invented it in the first place. It would be for the best of the whole civilisation if scripts that have letters like ж were consigned to oblivion on the outskirts of human history.


Qazaq in Latin script

With all the recent hype of future transition to Qazaq Latin by 2030, it gets a lot of positive traction.

With the correct approach to the writing reform (think Qazaq Grammar Latin and not Resmi Nuskası), it will get rid of the linguistic discrepancies mentioned above. Also, it is aesthetically pleasing as well as easier to learn for foreigners.

However, the problem of loanwords adoption remains, only it’s now about the loanwords from Latin-based languages. Again, there are two possible approaches. One can either keep the original spelling, e.g. ‘interface’ which will disrupt the Qazaq language, or qazaqise the spelling to ‘interpäys’ which will give up all hopes that Qazaq will ever be easier to use in IT (which have been futile all along anyway.)

In addition to that, Latin script is not really neutral. It does not say ‘tawelsizdik’ but instead screams ‘türik otarlauw’. While this may even be welcomed by supporters of Turan and the ideology of Pan-Turkism, any good Qazaq Latin script (Qazaq Grammar Latin too) is still doomed to look like Turkish. The idea to use ‘c’ for /ɕ/ is pure genius as it accounts for dialectal difference between North and South, but graphically it heads the same way. It is sad enough already that Youtube AI identifies spoken Qazaq as Turkish and tries to auto-generate Turkish subtitles for videos in Qazaq. With the script also looking similar to Turkish Qazaq will be even less distinctive. Unless one looks really closely.


Qazaq in Arabic script

Arabic script beats all of the above on the aesthetics side, and its pure alphabetic form devised by Ahmet Baytursınulı in 1924 is a pure linguistic delight. For instance, vowel harmony is denoted using a single hamza·ء‎ per word and then only when necessary.

However, Arabic is not neutral either. Even though there are historical examples of secular states using Arabic script e.g. Pahlavi Iran, and even though in Arabic speaking countries it is used universally by adherents of any religion, it has been too closely associated with islam. Qazaqstan is a secular state, and not many would happily embrace the script, even though it has been in use by Qazaqs in other countries, and has been so ingeniously designed by one of the greatest Qazaq intellectuals.

Having said that, there is a way to distance Arabic script from Arab culture at least to some extent. Turkish peoples haven’t got it directly from the Arabs, they received it through Persians. That’s why certain Persian letters are also used. Persian culture has always maintained certain independence from the Arabic culture, and was more closely associated with the Turkic culture than any other. And Persians traditionally had been employing nastaliq, a distinctive calligraphic style that Arabs even find hard to read. And though its use as the predominant script survived until present only in India and Pakistan, it has once flourished throughout all of the Central Asia. Sadly, it presented a lot of problems with typesetting, and only recently computers have become capable of reproducing it correctly. For that reason, Qazaq newspaper and books published in the beginning of the 20th century were not using it. However, if Qazaq were to be written with Arabic script, it should without doubt be written with nastaliq.

Old Uyghur

This is somewhat of an unusual take, as Old Uyghur script has never been historically used to write Qazaq. However, it has been used to write Old Turkic, which is an ancestor of Qazaq, and it has some unique advantages.

Firstly, from the aesthetic perspective it is outstanding, evoking natural images of grass and mountain torrents, having very nomadic feel to it. Vertical cursive is also superb for easy writing and reading, and in conjunction with its very minimalistic graphics, it fits the image of the traditional nomadic Qazaq culture really well. Also, being devised for Old Turkic it can be quite well adapted to modern Qazaq phonetics.

Secondly, a modern version of Old Uyghur adapted for Qazaq will make it a sibling script to traditional Mongolian that also derives from Old Uyghur, and which is currently used in Inner Mongolia, and planned for introduction as an official script in Khalkh Mongolia after 2025 as well.

This would be a great opportunity to underline the common heritage of Genghis Khan and Golden Horde shared by Qazaqs and Mongols, while at the same time accentuating the unique nomadic culture of the region.

Old Türkic

Qazaq in Old Turkic script

Old Turkic script is an oldest writing system dating back to 6th century that had been in use since the First Turkic Khaganate and until the 10th century.

It is sometimes called ‘runic’ because of a superficial semblance to Germanic runes. However, the writing systems are not related (well, not closely related as they still share a common ancestor, Proto-Sinaitic script that is shared by the majority of modern writing systems) and the similarity most conclusively comes from using chisel and stone for the early writings for both of them. Also the different writing direction, and the unique graphics of the script make it a unique product of traditional Turkic culture deserving to exist in its own right and to be spared of the eurocentric ‘runic’ label.

The unique feature of the script is two separate sets of certain consonants to account for vowel harmony while most of the vowels are written the same irregardless. Also, a colon-like sign have been traditionally used to separate the words.

Aesthetically it is the most unique of all the scripts discussed here, very pleasing to the eye, while decently comfortable to write as well, even though it is not cursive. Lack of connection between the letters makes it equally suitable for vertical writing, and it has indeed been written like that, as can be seen from certain historical artifacts, utilising the unique writing direction from bottom to top with lines going from right to left.

Also, even though other Turkic people (mostly Tatars and Turks) show their interest in the script, it is mostly popular in Qazaqstan which is also the country where a lot of archeological evidence of the script have been found, and there is also a modernised version of the script developed by Kaganica centre in Almatı who also hold calligraphy classes.

The uniqueness of the Old Turkic script, as well as its deep ties with the traditional Qazaq culture, make it ideal for writing Qazaq, which, combined with its growing popularity among Qazaq language enthusiasts, might make it a unique phenomenon in the future.

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