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FLAIR – Spelling it rite …

The Lake News    January 4, 2024    4 min read   

In May 2017, I went to visit a friend of mine from International School days who was living in Kazakhstan. After Hamburg, I had gone to live in Brisbane, and Jonathan had moved to Almaty, Kazakhstan’s former capital. The actual capital of Kazakhstan is Astana, which has had two name changes since 2017.

Kazakhstan, like Australia, is one of those massive places that take up a lot of room on the map. Almaty (“The Home of the Apple Trees”) is a beautiful place. I recommend you visit it. Seemingly at the end of every street is a vista of towering mountain ranges, outliers of the Himalayas, topped with glistening white snow against a spotless blue sky.

When I arrived, however, all was not well in Almaty. Nor in the whole country, for that matter. Spelling change was in the air. There are two major languages in the country: native Kazakh and Russian. The use of Russian dates from the past, when Kazakhstan was incorporated into the USSR. Until recent times, Russian was the top language. Kazakh was used in country areas and it was ever so slightly looked down upon as not being Top Drawer.  Remember, English was a kitchen and back-door language long after the Normans invaded and brought French. Still is, in some regards.

However, the President in 2017 decreed that henceforward the Kazakh language should start taking the prime position in the country, relegating Russian to Number Two. But spelling was the problem, and in particular, which alphabet to use. Russian is written in the Cyrillic alphabet. Old Kazakh had used Arabic script, but with the inclusion of Kazakhstan into the USSR, the Arab script was abandoned, and the Kazakh language was written in a modified version of the Russian alphabet. As Kazakh and Russian are not related, all kinds of jiggery-pokery was adopted to force Kazakh to conform to Russian spelling. So, the president decreed that Kazakh should henceforward be written in the Latin/Roman alphabet: the same one we use. Other countries in Central Asia have done the same: Kazakhstan was just following suit.

But how to accommodate some of the sounds that the Latin alphabet doesn’t have a symbol for? Two different versions of the Latin alphabet were therefore devised for the Kazakh language, and that meant that in 2017, four spelling systems were in use in the country. Not only that, but the opportunity was taken to discontinue some street names and suburbs that were named after notable Russian personalities, and replace them with Kazakh ones – the general idea, of course being to replace the foreign culture with a native one.

Just as I arrived in Almaty, the old tramway system was in the final stage of being replaced by a shiny new fleet of Chinese-built trolleybuses. And like the buses you see in Forest Lake, they have electronic destination signs, telling you where they are going. Cleverly the new Almaty buses signs not only cycle through four different alphabets, but also alternate between Russian and Kazakh place names. The consequence was, quite obviously, that no one really knew for certain where the trolleybuses were going to, and what the ultimate destination would be. Standing on the roadway in front of a trolleybus, watching the destination go through its cycle of contents until you recognised something, was not a practical solution.

I think it is all largely sorted out now. Jonathan tells me there is still a lot of confusion, but common consensus has prevailed, and the choice of alphabets has been reduced to two: Cyrillic Kazakh and Latin Kazakh (version 2022).

Which prompts me to ask, rather timidly: is it not time we had a spelling reform in English too? The spelling system we use is so awkward and old-fashioned, it surprises me that people in non-English countries ever master it. All the -OUGH words, for instance, all the confusion between a single consonant (L) and a double (LL) as in TRAVELLER. And there are even worse examples by the hundreds of non-logical and outdated spelling. I have to think twice myself before writing WEIRD, SIEGE and SEIZE.

But I think I shall be long dead and gone, before any attempt is made to bring the language of Shakespeare and the Bible up-to-date.

Aaron Burden, Unsplash

The Lake News

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