Tag Archives: nationalism

A University of Kansas linguist is risking Russia’s ire in helping Kazakhstan change its writing system

Will these Kazakh schoolchildren use Cyrillic or Latin script in the future? (Photo: Maxim Zolotukhin/World Bank via Flickr)

Will these Kazakh schoolchildren use Cyrillic or Latin script in the future? (Photo: Maxim Zolotukhin/World Bank via Flickr)

Kazakhstan has decided that its national language, Kazakh, needs a new writing system.

For decades, it has been using the Cyrillic script, a legacy of Soviet times. Now, though, Kazakhstan’s long-term president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, has been re-orienting his country away from Moscow, and toward the West.

And so it was that in late 2013, Kazakh linguists got in touch with Allard Jongman, chair of the linguistics department and a phonetics specialist at the University of Kansas.

“I was contacted by a graduate student working on this project, and he wrote to me rather than the professor because the professor doesn’t know any English,” said Jongman in an interview on Kansas City public radio station KCUR’s Central Standard program. “He said, ‘Look, we’re trying to convert our writing system. But … we don’t know exactly what the consonants and vowels of Kazakh are.'” (Click on the audio button above to hear the interview.)

Jongman told interviewer Gina Kaufmann there are two reasons why Kazakhs are confused about how their language should sound, both having to do with Soviet domination. First, the language is full of imported Russian words that have sounds in them that are not native to Kazakh.

Second, Cyrillic script is tailored to Russian sounds, and sometimes it doesn’t do justice to Kazakh sounds. Over the decades, though, Kazakh has made accommodations, and that’s changed some pronunciations.

It’s not clear that the Latin alphabet will be any more accurate, of course. Jongman is aware that the whole project could backfire.

“It could really screw things up,” says Jongman. But he doesn’t think it will.

And then there are the geo-politics. Russian President Vladimir Putin has said the break-up of the Soviet Union was a tragedy. He has invaded the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Ukraine. Kazakhs fear they could be next.

In August, Putin questioned whether Kazahkan is really even a nation. He said President Nazarbayev had “created a state in a territory that had never had a state before. The Kazakhs had no statehood.”

Russia shares a 4,000-mile border with Kazakhstan. The Kazakh army is tiny in comparison to Russia’s. Not the easiest set of circumstances in which to introduce a new writing system.


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A New Protestant Beginning for the Irish Language in Belfast

[Guest post from Aaron Schrank]

The Irish language used to be a symbol of Catholic nationalism. But it’s gradually becoming de-politicized, morphing into just another minority language in need of saving.

Lower Newtownards Road in East Belfast is solid Protestant territory. It was a hot spot for sectarian violence at the height of the troubles. Today, British flags flutter from fences. Murals of masked gunmen adorn the sides of buildings. It’s pretty much the last place you’d expect to find people learning Irish. But inside a community center, about a dozen people from the neighborhood are doing just that.

An Irish class in session in a Protestant section of Belfast (Photo: Sarah Parvini)

You wouldn’t have seen this a few decades ago. Just ask Sandra Irvine.

“When I was at school, I was brought up in East Belfast, yes, in a very Protestant area and for me to learn Irish would have been considered very strange,” Irvine said.

But she had always been curious about the language.

“I did actually attempt to learn Irish, but couldn’t find anywhere that I could go to, so it was in my mind for a very long time, but it wasn’t an option.”

Now, Irish is an option for people like Irvine. East Belfast Mission hosts classes five times a week.

This push for Protestant Irish learners is largely the work of one woman: Linda Ervine, the center’s Irish language development officer. It’s her job to convince people who, at best, see the language as irrelevant and, at worst, as an enemy tongue to care about it. She tells them to look a century into history, to when plenty of Protestants here spoke Irish.

“What the language does is, it allows people to explore the idea of Irishness in a non-threatening way,” said Ervine. “We are Irish. I feel I’m Irish.”

This means a lot coming from Linda Ervine. Her brother-in-law, David Ervine, was a well-known member of the Ulster Volunteer Force—a protestant paramilitary group. He did six years in prison before leading Northern Ireland’s Progressive Unionist Party.

“It was almost like we give people permission from the protestant community,” said Ervine. “Like, if we could do it, it was alright, sort of took the sting out of it or something.”

Linda Ervine’s efforts coincide with a push across Northern Ireland, backed by the government, for Irish language learning called Liofa, meaning “fluent.”

The culture minister whose pet project this is, Carál Ní Chuilín, is a Catholic and a former Provisional IRA militant.

But the campaign does have some cross-community support.

Basil McCrea is one the leading protestant politicians backing Liofa. He says that for Protestants to embrace Irish, it needs to be freed from its divisive past. And he has a little dig at some Catholic politicians – he says they still use the language as a political prop, especially during heated debates in parliament.

“You know when they’re annoyed because they respond in a huge amount of Irish,” said McCrea. “It’s like flying a flag. Fair enough. But it’s got nothing to do about language and everything to do about politics.”

Irish Teacher Cuthbert Arutura (Photo: Sarah Parvini)

There’s a well-known saying in Belfast, attributed to a Catholic Sinn Fein politician: “Every word of Irish spoken is like another bullet being fired in the struggle for Irish freedom.” It shows just how political the recent history of this language has been.

But not everyone here remembers that history. At an integrated Catholic and Protestant school south of Belfast, Cuthbert Arutura, or “Tura” for short, is speaking Irish with a room full of 10 and 11-year olds. These kids were born after the 1998 peace agreement.

Tura’s here to show them the language doesn’t have to be about politics. He’s a Zimbabwean immigrant, who moved to East Belfast 20 years ago.

“I’m a protestant. So I don’t buy the stories that politicians use to justify pursuing certain narratives,” Tura said. “The language isn’t owned by a political entity. It’s something that is living.”

For Tura, Irish has been a way to connect with his new home. Before moving here, he didn’t know how little it was spoken. Now, he works to save it.

“Tír gan teanga tír gan anam,” Tura said. “A country with no language is a country without a soul.” These words form the lyrics of a song he sings to the students.

Tura is among a wave of immigrants coming to Northern Ireland who don’t view Irish with decades of discord in mind. They see it as just another minority language, one that might be on its way out. Whether or not they’re learning Irish, and few are, they are at least helping normalize attitudes to language. Maybe that will mean even a few more locals, on either side of the Protestant-Catholic divide, will consider picking it up.


Patrick Cox adds:

Below is the podcast that includes the interview with my dad. He grew up learning Irish in newly independent Ireland. And after more than a decade of studying it at school, he promptly forgot nearly all of it.



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The Chinese Yuan, the US Dollar and the Currency of Language

Imagine a time in the not too distant future when global business deals are mainly conducted in Mandarin Chinese. Contracts outlining  sales of, say, Brazilian planes to India are written in Mandarin, the payments made in yuan. The websites of the World Trade Organization and the G20 are in Chinese, with options to switch to Spanish, Portuguese and English.

That may be a bit hyperbolic for the near future, but in certain parts of the world there’s evidence of some resistance to English.

In Malaysia, a new generation of political leaders are embracing the Malay language (known to its speakers as Bahasa Malayu) as a nationalist symbol.  Schools have been told to stop teaching math and science in English, and instead teach those subjects in Malay.

In neighboring Singapore, English remains the language of instruction. It is also the “glue” language that binds the multilingual, multiethnic population together.  But the government also wants its citizens to speak Mandarin— the majority of Singaporeans are ethnic Han Chinese, but older Singaporeans tend to speak Hokkien and other dialects that are not understood by Mandarin speakers.

The Singaporean  government’s reasoning is the same is at was when it introduced English to the city-state many decades ago: then,  Singapore’s future depended on trade with English-speaking nations; today, its future depends on trade with China. For Singaporean businessman Lee Han Shih, if the Chinese yuan replaces the dollar as the world’s leading reserve currency, “then you have to learn Chinese.” What’s more, if trade deals are done in yuan,  “there’s no need to use English.” The decline of the English language, Lee predicts, will follow the decline of the US dollar.

Then there’s the growing popularity in Singapore of Singlish, a home-and-street language that’s a mash-up of English, Hokkien, Malay and several other languages. In this linguistic milieu, English is feeling the squeeze.  Even if it remains in schoolrooms, it may be on the wane everywhere else in Singapore.

The question is: are these two examples from the Malay Peninsula exceptions to English’s march to global supremacy? Or are they harbingers of the future decline of English?

I’ve talked about Singlish before in the pod, with the very entertaining Singporean ex-pats Colin Goh and Yen Yen Woo. Also, there’s Mr Brown’s Singapore blog and podcast here, and more on Jennifer Pak, who reported today’s episode, here.

Incidentally, the next pod and post suggest that English doesn’t have much to be worried about in the immediate future.  Jennifer Pak will be reporting from Vietnam, where young people are clamoring to learn English.

Listen here or via iTunes.


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