This piece is a part of our large series focusing on the languages that are not discussed nearly as much as they should be. This list includes languages with their own unique scripts, such as Georgian or Armenian, as well as languages using extended Cyrillic and Latin. We’re preparing this series using research on extended Cyrillic which we conducted in partnership with Type Journal.
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The people living in Central Asia developed a written culture in the early Middle Ages, but a separate literary Kazakh language was only formed by the second half of the 19th century. This language used the Arabic script, which came to Asia along with Islam and was not quite comfortable for Kazakh. That is why poet and linguist Ahmet Baitursynuly came up with an idea of tailoring the Arabic script to the specifics of Kazakh phonetics, adding five new letters and removing most of those not used in the Kazakh language. A modified version of that reformed alphabet is still used by the Kazakhs living in Afghanistan, Iran, and China.
Kazakh Grammar, Mehmed Uraz Kiziljari, 1910
Yañalif, a Latin-based alphabet for all Turkic languages of the USSR, was developed by 1928 and Kazakh switched to this alphabet. Nearly unchanged, Yañalif had been used for nine years, but in 1938 linguists replaced Uu by Ūū, introduced another two letters, Ff and Xx (for them to be used in loanwords), as well as changed the meaning of several letters. As sometimes certain letters were missing, typesetters replaced them with graphically similar
Art and Literature magazine, 1940
ABC Book, 1940
In the late 1930s, the Soviet authorities started forcing most republics to switch their languages to Cyrillic. Kazakh newspapers and magazines have been printed in Cyrillic since 1940. As of 2023, that alphabet remains almost unchanged: Ӯӯ was replaced with Ұұ in 1951, and then Ёё was introduced in 1957. There are currently 42 letters, with 33 of them being the same as in Russian plus Әә, Ғғ, Ққ, Ңң, Өө, Ұұ, Үү, Һһ, Іі.
Kairat footbal team merch box, 1990. Image: olx.kz
Kiz Zhibek opera poster, Eva Levina-Rosenholz, 1938
Beer labels, 1969. Image: violity.com
Alma-Ata loudspeaker packaging, 1960. Image: meshok.net
Kiz Zhibek film poster (fragment), 1960
Acheemnoul ensemble performance poster, 1972. Image: olx.kz
The Cyrillic Әә is name-wise the same as the so-called schwa in the International Phonetic Alphabet, but it represents a different sound in Kazakh. The construction of Әә resembles a lowercase е rotated 180 degrees, however, it is a character graphically related to the Cyrillic Ээ, from which it inherited the shape of the upper ending stroke.
When it comes to placement and weight of a bar in the uppercase Ғ, designers often use the Latin Ð as the reference. There’s no such reference for the lowercase glyph, so it gets designed with an eye on the uppercase.
The uppercase Һ is (typically) a Cyrillic Ч, rotated 180 degrees. However, it would be a mistake to apply the same logic to the lowercase һ glyph. It actually replicates the Latin h.
In 2017, President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev instructed to develop a new Latin alphabet for the Kazakh language in order to completely abandon Cyrillic by 2025. The 2017 project of alphabet included 25 letters and 8 digraphs. In 2019, after Kassym-Jomart Tokayev became president, a new version of the alphabet arrived, this time featuring 32 letters and no digraphs. In 2021, the Kazakh Latin was revised once
The same year, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev suggested to delay the introduction of Latin and reconsider the spelling rules of the language first so that it is better suitable for the Latin script.
Today Kazakhstan still uses Cyrillic, yet Latin (as last edited) can be found on exhibition posters or in music videos, for example.
Sazalem music label and festival identity, Aidash Studio
Skryptonite concert poster, Danial Segizbayev
Kok by dudeontheguitar single cover
Kõk Tu (Irina Kairatovna × SHIZA) music video screenshot