LAWRENCE — When Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev visited the White House earlier this month, he thanked President Donald Trump and U.S. leaders for their support for his nation's "independence and territorial integrity."
To establish the Central Asian nation's independence from regional powers, the authoritarian leader has used one less-traditional method recently: changing Kazakhstan's alphabet.
A University of Kansas linguistic anthropologist said Nazarbayev's move from a heavy Cyrillic to Latin alphabet is interesting for several reasons, including that the change has shed light on language as an often overlooked critical piece in geopolitics.
"In some ways this is the first writing system of the texting generation," said Arienne Dwyer, a University of Kansas professor of linguistic anthropology and director of research at the Institute for Digital Research in the Humanities. "It is very youth-oriented. At the same time, it is a subtle pivot away from Russia because of the change from Cyrillic to a Latin alphabet."
Nazarbayev has led Kazakhstan since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the world's largest landlocked country has a complex history with other nations in the region as well. The switch in alphabets cannot be viewed as aligning with Europe, Dwyer said, because Nazarbayev chose not to use umlauted and accented characters, typical in German or Hungarian, nor as aligning itself with Turkish orthographic conventions.
"What you're seeing is through a writing system a country is showing its new strength, and it's drawing a kind of ideological border between these countries and itself," Dwyer said. "This is despite the fact that it has close ties with all of these units."
The new alphabet relies heavily on apostrophes, she said, likely an effort to make it easier to use via text messaging and social media, though it has received criticism in some linguistic circles.
"The net effect of some change like this is it is both a practical one that is in the realm of human-computer-interaction, where you optimize the range of motion and the number of clicks the user has to do with the device, whether that is a cellphone, tablet or laptop," Dwyer said. "The other component is an ideological one where the country is declaring separation between or a boundary between itself and Russia, Europe and Turkey. It is quite significant in a geopolitical sense because if you compare Kazakhstan to other neighboring countries, it is the first one to make this move."
Still, the process will not be painless.
"This is a big change in people's lives. You think about our parents and grandparents learning new behaviors in order to use computers," Dwyer said. "For Kazakhstani citizens, abandoning the writing system they grew up with and using an unfamiliar one is a similar feeling for people."
Dwyer said the downside of anybody changing a writing system is cutting off a generation from previous generations' literature and science.
"In the case of Kazakhstan, that danger is not as acute because the Russian language, culture and economy are still important forces in the society that we know that most things will be bilingual in both Russian and Kazakh, using both writing systems," Dwyer said.
Russian will be taught, which ensures children will learn Russian, and therefore Cyrillic, she said.
"However, it does disfavor the oldest generation, who are not used to reading this and would have to learn the system," Dwyer said. "The oldest generation likely never learned to read the Latin script."
Could we see other nations follow in this tactic to seek more psychological independence? For now, Kazakhstan may be the only one that can afford to do it, she said, based on its economic advantage with somewhat vast natural resources.
"For Kazakhstan, this switch is an additional way of showing that it has arrived as an international first-world country," Dwyer said. "They are a major oil power. They successfully balance Russian and Chinese interests, and they have established an internationally oriented university."
One key takeaway message from the alphabet switch is that language planning can be a powerful means to signal ideology and geopolitical power.
"With this move, the country implies 'we are autonomous decision-makers, we are a first-world country,'" Dwyer said. "Therefore, language policy changes are subtle but effective — sometimes more effective than other approaches."
As a scholar, Dwyer also examines how the languages and cultures of Central Asia can change. She analyzes premodern Turkic manuscripts written in the Perso-Arabic script that predated the arrival of Latin and Cyrillic scripts to that area.
She recently published an article, "On writing, reading and scripts in early 20th century Kashgar," that examined premodern manuscript technologies — papermaking and the spread of calligraphic styles from Persia to Central Asia and India — as part of a larger project to digitize, analyze and put online Central Asian Turkic manuscripts from the early 1900s.
Funded by the Henry Luce Foundation, a multinational research team of Americans, Uyghur students and a French scholar of Persian transcribed, translated and examined the manuscripts for elements of both traditional medicine and grammar. The manuscripts were collected in the early 20th century by Sweden's then ambassador to Kashgar, Gunnar Jarring.
However, like the modern Kazakhs, who will need time to adjust to their new, apostrophe-rich Latin writing system, Dwyer's research team has taken time to learn how to read and especially transcribe the Chaghatai language of these Kashgar manuscripts.
"We had come up with several spelling systems so that as many people as possible can read one of them. And we have English translations. Otherwise, our scholarship would be inaccessible," Dwyer said.
All their work is publicly available on the project's website.
"The project is particularly powerful for the Uyghur students. This Chaghatai language we are looking at is close to their great-great-grandparents' language," Dwyer said. "Therefore, the students have valuable insights on changes in healing practices and language. We also want academics, as well as their parents and grandparents, to be able to read one version of these manuscripts we present. This is their community's heritage."
Both the changes in the Kazakhstani writing system and the KU-based research on and sharing of Central Asian manuscripts show how cultural and linguistic histories inform decision-making in the present.
"For geopolitical insight about a region, demographers, economists and political scientists are often consulted," Dwyer said, "but by seeing how people interpret language and culture, you often get more insight into national ideologies, aspirations and policies than you might with just reading overt policies and interviewing people about them."
Top photo: President Barack Obama speaks with, from left, President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, President Dmitry Medvedev of Russia and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during the second plenary session of the Nuclear Security Summit on April 13, 2010. Arienne Dwyer, KU linguistic anthropologist, said Nazarbayev's recent move from a heavy Cyrillic to Latin alphabet sheds light on language as an often overlooked critical piece in geopolitics. Credit: Pete Souza/White House official photo.
At right: President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan and Russian President Vladimir Putin visit during the Moscow Victory Day Parade in 2016. Credit: Kremlin.