Kazakh Language/ қазақ тілі – a travel blog

by | January 14, 2022 |

Because of ongoing events in Kazakhstan in January 2022, I am reposting this Kazakh Language blog I wrote when I visited the country in 2017:

Title image: Kazakh signs with both the Cyrillic and Latin alphabet abound. Very helpful!

Kazakh Language: Getting Started

In Astana I met friend and co-author Phillip Carter. Our first job was to find a Kazak language teacher. It’s what we do, and our linguistic adventures certainly played a part in writing:

Before arriving, Phillip’s efforts to find a Kazakh language teacher online yielded no responses. So we relied on the resourceful staff at the Marriott where I was staying to find us:

Kazakh Language

Yesset Adelshin (Есет Аделшiн), me and Phillip

There are plenty of people in town who can teach the Kazakh language through Russian. The problem was finding one to teach us through English. Yesset was our man.

There are no teaching materials (that we found in Astana or that Yesset knew of) so we made our own. Out of the gate you have to tackle the Cyrillic alphabet. At first glance, Yikes!

Kazakh language

At second glance it’s not as hard as it looks. It helps to know the Greek alphabet where, for instance, Г (gamma) = g, Д (delta) = d, Л (lambda) = l, П (pi) = P, Р (rho) = r and Ф (phi) = f. Then there’s Hebrew Ш (shin) = sh. In addition, there are Russian letters not really used in Kazakh, which are the ones I’ve put in parentheses.

The key to the Kazakh alphabet is found in the letters that do not exist in Russian:

Consonants: Ғ like French ‘r’, Қ like very hard ‘k’ and Ң like ‘ng’

Vowels: Ө, Ұ and Ү

Kazakh Language: Vowel Harmony

The vowels are tricky and play a part in vowel harmony, which is a feature of Turkic languages like Kazakh. The easiest explanation of the phenomenon is to say that all vowels in a word must ‘match.’ Look at the bottom of my alphabet page where I have the vowels divided by ‘front,’ ‘back,’ and ‘neutral.’

When it comes to putting endings on words, the ending will have the vowel that matches the ones in the word.

Plural marker (lar/ler):

адам  (adam) ‘man/human’ + лар (lar) ‘plural’ = adamlar ‘men/humans’

eв (еv) ‘house’ +  лер  (ler) ‘plural’ =  evler ‘houses’

So, back vowels (like ‘a’) will line up with back vowels, and front ( like ‘e’) with front.

Case in point: the title image СУВЕНИР ‘souvenir,’ which has the front vowel Е and two neutral vowels У and И. So the plural form is, predictably, with the front vowel : ЛЕР ‘ler.’

I like it!

I knew about vowel harmony going in, so it wasn’t a big deal.

Kazakh Language: Going To Class

The first day of class was in a building in front of a construction site:

Very scenic! No, not my backside

On the way to lunch, we passed the Islamic cultural center you see in the background. Here it is from the front:

НҮР АСТАНА = NUR (‘light) ASTANA. The green-and-white sign says Рамазан ‘Ramazan’ that is, Ramadan

On the plaza in front of the cultural center is a yurt. Yurts dot parks in the capital.

Yurts can also house restaurants. I really wanted to eat in one, but we never got around to it

After Day 1, we decided that the lobby of the Marriott, where I was staying, was the best place for our lessons.

Kazakh Language: Any Results?

After one week of Kazakh for 2-3 hours/day, am I functional? Hardly. But I did get a thrill out of asking a taxi driver “Канша?” (kansha = ‘how much’) and understanding the answer: “Төрт мың” (turt ming = four thousand).

Kazakh currency is the tenge.

If you can read what’s on the currency, you’ve got it made. This banknote says: бір мың теңге = bir ming tenge ‘one thousand tenge’

Phillip and I travel the globe to investigate first-hand the language situation in places with an interesting and/or fraught history. The language situation in Kazakhstan has its twists.

When Uzbekistan was an SSR, the Kazakh language started to decline. By 1991 only 39% of the population was ethnic Kazakh and some of them spoke Russian better than Kazakh. Since 1991, however, the language has been gaining ground. In recent years the percentage of ethnic Kazakhs has risen to 64%, due in part to the government repatriating ethnic Kazakhs from China and elsewhere, while ethnic Russians have left Kazakhstan in various waves to go to Russia.

On our last day, the director of the language school, Aidana Mukhametkaliyeva, joined us. She is ethnic Kazakh but speaks Russian better than Kazakh and is eager to learn more.

Kazakh Language

Me, Aidana, Phillip and Yesset. I’m wearing the red-and-white Kazakh scarf Aidana gave me. We’re in the Marriot bar with the lobby behind us.

Final note: Beginning in late 2017 the government will start plans to Latinize the alphabet and phase out Cyrillic. The switch to the Latin alphabet is to be completed by 2025. The shift is gradual in order to avoid creating a group of people who are suddenly illiterate.

See also: All my Asia blogs

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This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen

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