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Kazakhstan: Language
Country Study > Chapter 5 > National Identity > Language

LANGUAGE


The two official languages in Kazakhstan are Russian and Kazak. Kazak is part of the Nogai-Kipchak subgroup of northeastern Turkic languages, heavily influenced by both Tatar and Mongol. Kazak was first written only in the 1860s, using Arabic script. In 1929 Latin script was introduced. In 1940 Stalin decided to unify the written materials of the Central Asian republics with those of the Slavic rulers by introducing a modified form of Cyrillic. In 1992 the return of a Latin-based alphabet came under discussion, but the enormous costs involved appear to have stopped further consideration of the idea.

Kazak first became a state language in the late Soviet period, when few of the republic's Russians gave serious thought to the possibility that they might need Kazak to retain their employment, to serve in the armed forces, or to have their children enter a Kazakhstani university. At that point, fewer than 5 percent of Russians could speak Kazak, although the majority of Kazaks could speak Russian. However, with the separation between Russia and Kazakhstan that followed independence, Russian nationalist sentiment and objections to alleged discrimination in official language policies have increased, especially in the north, as Russians have felt the threat of Kazak becoming the sole legal state language. Meanwhile, Kazaks have strongly defended the preeminence of their tongue, although mastery of the language is far from universal even among Kazaks. According to some estimates, as much as 40 percent of the Kazak population is not fluent in Kazak. The standard language of business, for example, is Russian.

Even those who are fluent find Kazak a difficult language to work with in science, business, and some administrative settings because it remained largely a "kitchen" language in Soviet times, never developing a modern technical vocabulary. Nor has there been extensive translation of technical or popular literature into Kazak. Thus, for most Kazaks Russian remains the primary "world language." In fact, President Nazarbayev defended making Kazak the sole official language on the grounds that decades of Russification had endangered the survival of Kazak as a language. The practical primacy of Russian is reflected in the schools. Despite efforts to increase the number of schools where Kazak is the primary language of instruction, Russian appeared to continue its domination in the mid-1990s. In 1990 about twice as many schools taught in Russian as in Kazak. Although institutions of higher learning now show a strong selection bias in favor of Kazak students, Russian remains the language of instruction in most subjects.

The issue of languages is one of the most politicized and contentious in Kazakhstan. The volatility of the language issue has been augmented by Russia's controversial proposals, beginning in 1993, that Kazakhstan's Russians be granted dual citizenship. Although Nazarbayev rejected such a policy, the language controversy prompted him to postpone deadlines for implementation of laws making Kazak the sole official language. Thus, it is unlikely that most adult non-Kazaks will have to learn Kazak. Nevertheless, demographic trends make it probable that the next generation will have to learn Kazak, a prospect that generates considerable discomfort in the non-Kazak population. The 1995 constitution does not provide for dual citizenship, but it does alleviate Russian concerns by declaring Russian an official language. That status means that Russian would continue as the primary language of communication for many ethnic Kazaks, and it will remain acceptable for use in schools (a major concern of Russian citizens) and official documents.

Data as of March 1996




Last Updated: March 1996


Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Kazakhstan was first published in 1996. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on Factba.se.

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