The Cyrillic script was introduced top Kazakh-speaking communities during the 1800s by the Russian Empire. Since then, it had been adjusted and adapted by scholars to conform more to the characteristics of Kazakh speech, and its current form was finalized in 1940. Cyrillic, as used to write Kazakh, contains 42 letters. 33 of these letters come from the original Russian alphabet, but an additional nine have been added for sounds specific to Kazakh. It is written from left-to-right.
The Latin script used to write Kazakh is similar to other languages that use the same system, but with additional letters, for a total of 32. In addition to the standard 26 letters, there are 6 more which are A’, G’, I’, N’, O’, S’, C’, U’, and Y’, which all represent distinct sounds that exist in Kazakh. Like Cyrillic, and other languages that use Latin script, it was written from left-to-right, and includes Western style punctuation.
The Arabic script is the writing system used in both Altay Prefecture and Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture, both part of the Xinjiang Autonomous Region in China, as well as in Afghanistan and Iran. The script may differ between the different regions, but in general, there are 29 letters and a symbol to identify front vowels. Like other Arabic scripts, and unlike Cyrillic and Latin scripts, it is written from right-to-left.
Kazakh has roots in the language of Chagatay, as spoken by Jüz, tribal federations that originated from Uzbek Khanates (groups ruled by Khans). The Jüz and the original Khanates spoke Chagatay, but as they separated and settled in different regions that would be come to known as present-day Kazakhstan, the language spoken by the groups began to diverge and evolve. The variety spoken by the Jüz would eventually be known as Kazakh.
Kazakh was originally only a spoken language. Chagatay, its mother language, was written using Arabic, and when Kazakh was written, it was done with Arabic as well. Only a small amount of writing can be seen from this time, which was around the 10th century.
In the 1700s, the Mongol Empire threatened areas of present-day Kazakhstan and the Jüz was under the protection of the Russian Empire. By the mid-1800s, the Russian Empire had incorporated the Jüz tribes into their fold. At the same time, a standardized version of Kazakh had evolved using the Arabic script, and an intellectual and literary class had formed for Kazakh.
In the early 1900s, the Kazakhstan region was known as the Kirghiz Autonomous Soviet Social Republic (ASSR) and was renamed to Kazakh ASSR in 1925. During this period, Soviet administration made the decision to use a Latin-based script for written Kazakh. However, under Stalin, all languages that were in the Soviet Union were ordered to use Cyrillic.
However, in areas that were not included in the Soviet Union, but still had Kazakh speaking populations, Arabic continued to be the prominent script in which the language was, and still is, written.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kazakh has been the official language of an independent Kazakhstan. However, there was still competition from Russian and many who live in Kazakhstan still speak Russian as a native language. In fact, it is estimated that only 60% of the population is fluent in the Kazakh language. However, as Kazakh gains more status and usage in Kazakhstan, it remains an important language for the country.
Recently Kazakhstan announced it will change it’s alphabet from Cryllic to a Latin based script.