The Language Called Kazakh

The Language Called Kazakh
Kazakh is a complex language spoken by 8 million people in the world, and has a complex alphabet history.

A business translation professional’s education is never done. That’s not exactly a well-known slogan, but I aim to make it well-known, because it’s true. In some professions, you can graduate from your training and not learn a single new thing for the rest of your career. In others, you have to continuously study and keep up-to-date.

High quality translation is one of the latter, because not only is language continuously shifting and evolving, making your skills in a particular language always on the verge of obsolescence, but the languages that are in-demand shift too, albeit more slowly. As a result, I am always making a study of new languages just in case. Recently I’ve been looking into Kazakh.

The Kazakh Language

Officially, Kazakh (or Qazaq as you might see it depicted) is a Turkic language. It’s mainly spoken in Kazakhstan, Russia and China, with a total of about 8 million people speaking it as a native language. Kazakh was originally written in a Cyrillic alphabet due to the influence of Russia, but in the 19th Century there was a cultural “revolt” of sorts and many Kazakh intellectuals began writing the language in the Arabic Script. Russia attempted to combat this by setting up secular schools that taught Cyrillic writing, but it didn’t really work, and by 1917 the Arabic script had won the day.

In 1927 a Kazakh nationalist movement was violently suppressed, and part of the response was to ban the Arabic script outright. The Latin alphabet was then used until 1940, when Cyrillic returned again. Keeping up with the Kazakh alphabet is not an easy task – in the modern day there are plans to again replace the Cyrillic alphabet with the Latin one!

Loan Words

Another complication with the Kazakh alphabet is the fact that many letters that are officially part of the modern alphabet only exist in order to accommodate Russian loan words, of which there are many, owing to the incredible influence (some might say dominance) of the Russians for much of recorded history. As a result you are forced to learn a large number of letters you won’t use unless you include loan words in your vocabulary.

For Western speakers, one of the more challenging aspects of Kazakh is the fact that it employ Vowel Harmony. In a nutshell, vowel harmony means there are rules about which vowels can be found next to each other in a word. This makes spelling and grammar a bit more challenging. The best part is, the more recent loan words don’t follow these rules, making it even more confusing!

Kazakh may seem at first glance to be an unimportant language, but remember those 8 million speakers – Kazakh has more influence than you might think, especially if you’re trying to do business in that part of the world. Every language has a story to tell, and every language is worth studying.

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