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Kyrgyzstan: Orthographic Reforms Meet With Mixed Reaction

On 1 January, Kyrgyzstan introduced a new orthographic system intended to make the spelling of words, particularly loan words from foreign languages, simpler and more consistent. While the changes are logical, the project may prove expensive, raising the question why it is being implemented at a time when Kyrgyzstan has a foreign debt of some $1.5 billion.

Prague, 8 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The decision to introduce the new orthographic rules was adopted last June by the upper chamber of parliament at the request of the Kyrgyz State Language Commission.

The commission has already started distributing 10,000 copies of booklets explaining the new rules, and a special publication of the new orthography is now being prepared for schools and higher educational institutions.

In 2003-04, the Ministry of Transportation and Communications must bring all road signs, names of settlements, districts, administrative-territorial units, and rivers in line with the new orthographic rules. Publishing houses, newspapers, and journals publishing in the Kyrgyz language will also be obliged to bring their publications in line with the new orthography.

According to the State Language Commission, the orthographic changes are necessitated by changes in society. The new rules contain provisions for writing words adopted from foreign languages -- including Russian -- as they are actually pronounced, instead of retaining the spelling of the lending language.

The Kyrgyz alphabetic writing system at present consists of 36 differentiated units of sounds (phonemes) or letters -- 33 Russian, plus three additional Cyrillic-based characters used for characteristic Turkic sounds not found in Russian.

An orthographic reform has been long overdue. During the Soviet period, speakers of the Kyrgyz language spelled borrowed Russian words in accordance with the rules of Russian orthography, but other foreign words according to Kyrgyz orthographic rules. (For example, the Arabic word for school, "maktab," is spelled "mekteb" in Kyrgyz.)

This created problems in studying Kyrgyz during the Soviet period, because there were too many exceptions to orthography rules that could not be explained. This situation created spelling discrepancies in textbooks, newspapers, and journals, as well as in educational practice.

Academician Bubuina Oruzbaeva, a member of the Kyrgyz State Language Commission, explained the decision to change the orthography: "The grammar rules used until now were approved on 23 May 1953. They were signed by the then chairman of the Kirghiz Supreme Soviet, Torobai Kulatov. Time has passed since those days; it is about 50 years since that date. A lot of controversial issues have been revealed. That is why within the last quarter of a century, the problems of unification of the orthography rules have been raised [by scholars]."

Theoretically, the new simplified rules will mean that everyone will know how to spell new words, given their pronunciation -- and how to pronounce new words, given their spelling. But some scholars -- like Abak Biyaliev, an associate professor at Kyrgyz National University -- say the booklet outlining the new spelling rules is muddled and difficult to understand. "Let me give an example [of the shortcomings]. Take Clause 1. The difference between a letter and a vowel has not been defined. It says that there are 34 sounds [i.e., vowels and consonants in the Kyrgyz language], but what happened to the other five? Our students are asking us: 'You explained that there are 39 sounds, but where are the other five? They were not properly explained.'"

BiyAliyev adds that the new spelling rules given in the orthography booklet are too complicated, saying, "They must be simple in order for people to understand."

Another problem lies in the fact that spelling and orthographic reforms are expensive. Can Kyrgyzstan really afford these changes with a huge foreign debt looming overhead?

Almaz Jumaliev, an expert from the Kyrgyz Finance Ministry, outlined what the project is likely to cost: "In the 2003 budget law, about 5,359,000 soms were planned for the needs of the state language fund. This represents about 5,360,000 soms." That is the equivalent of $116,000. It is not clear, however, whether that sum also includes the cost of producing an entire new series of textbooks for the education system. The Education Ministry is so short of money that last year it was forced to abolish free meals for school students. Can it really afford to adapt the existing textbooks to the new spelling rules and print new editions?

But according to academician Toktosun Akmatov, another member of the State Language Commission, at least there will not be a major problem with revising Kyrgyzstan's legislation and constitution to bring them into line with the new rules.

Akmatov explained that during the ongoing process of amending the country's constitution, the entire text will be updated in accordance with the new spelling. Laws that have been passed by parliament but not yet published will be promulgated in the new spelling, but those already published will not be changed.

"The texts of the old laws will remain as they are. For example, now there is an ongoing process of amendment and changes to the constitution. Its [revised] text will be published in accordance with the new orthographic rules. New laws, decrees and all other new documents will be published in that format. The old laws will remain [in their present version] until they are published. Then their text will be transcribed in accordance with the new orthographic rules."

After they became independent in 1991, Kyrgzystan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan all found themselves with the same problem -- alphabets and spelling systems that did not reflect adequately the way words in their respective languages are pronounced.

Of the three countries, Uzbekistan has acted most boldly to solve that problem. In August 1995, it announced the transition from the Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet. But that transition remains incomplete, as even some government ministries still use Cyrillic.

Kazakhstan, by contrast, has not even addressed the problem, as the government reportedly fears that any partial attempt to adapt Cyrillic could trigger demands to switch to Latin as Uzbekistan has done.

The Kyrgyz move to introduce new spelling rules while still retaining the Cyrillic alphabet could thus be considered a compromise solution.