Kazakhstan’s quarter-century struggle to assert its autonomy from former overlord Russia has hit an unlikely snag: the lowly apostrophe.
A vast but sparsely populated country wedged between Russia and China, Kazakhstan came under the rule of its northern neighbour as Russia and Britain jostled for control of Central Asia in the Great Game. It also came under its linguistic influence, and to this day, many Kazakhs speak more Russian than their Turkic native tongue.
This became especially concerning after Russian state media, which remain popular in Kazakhstan, helped whip up Russian-speaking separatists to fight government forces in Ukraine in 2014.
In April, Kazakhstan’s president of 27 years, Nursultan Nazarbayev, ordered the government to prepare a new Kazakh alphabet based on Latin characters and ditch the one based on Russia’s Cyrillic script, which the Soviets implemented in 1940. He has said this will give Kazakhstan “real independence” and help it join the “information world”.
But a cumbersome version of the new alphabet chosen by Mr Nazarbayev last autumn has sparked rare dissent in this authoritarian country due to its ample apostrophes. Of 32 letters in the alphabet, nine are written with an apostrophe.
An “against apostrophes” hashtag soon appeared on social media. So did a “No to Kazakh Latinisation with apostrophes!” Change.org petition in October, which was briefly blocked.
Film director Saken Zholdas made a video explaining how inconvenient the apostrophes were. “With this decision, we are unintentionally, or maybe intentionally, killing the brand of Kazakh language once and for all,” he said.
The problem lies in the need to differentiate related but distinct Kazakh sounds, such as a long and short “a,” or consonants similar to “s” and “sh”.
Setting them apart with an apostrophe allows the alphabet to be typed on a standard Latin keyboard, but also produces odd flurries of punctuation and many eyesore words.
For instance, the word for “bottle,” pronounced “shisha,” is written “s’i’s’a”, while “east,” pronounced “shyghys,” becomes “s’yg’ys”. Those are hardly the worst: The word for “skier” will be “s’an’g’ys’y” and that for “crucial” will be “s’es’u’s’i”.
The Republic of Kazakhstan will be written “Qazaqstan Respy’bli’kasy”.
Some have speculated that Mr Nazarbayev picked the apostrophes to keep Kazakh distinct from the Latinised alphabets of other Turkic languages and placate Russia, which since Soviet times has feared pan-Turkic movements along its southern border.
“The guy just liked it, and since our country is this way, no one in government can tell the president no,” Aidos Sarym, a political analyst who previously served on a state working group on Latinisation, told The Telegraph.
Last month, Mr Nazarbayev said while the new apostrophes had caused “much discussion,” this version was the right one because it suited computer keyboards.
But at the same time it complicates web searches and social media hashtags, where an apostrophe between letters splits them into separate words.
“From a technical point of view, apostrophes create more problems than they solve,” said political analyst Dosym Satpayev.
In his video, Mr Zholdas suggested replacing the apostrophes with accent marks over the nine letters in question, a move he said could be supported by 70 per cent of computer fonts.
Despite the defence of his version in December, Mr Nazarbayev also said there was still time to “work with the new alphabet” before the country switches over fully in 2025, giving hope that he could eventually relax his stance.
“He wants to go into history … as the father of the new Latin Kazakh alphabet,” Mr Sarym said. “You can choose any version and let it be called the Nazarbayev version, but do it right so there aren’t problems now, and so that tomorrow we won’t have to do an upgrade.”