You will know by now that I am interested in languages. I did Latin, Greek and French at A Level, so this interest started at a young age; but I am still interested largely because almost every difficult problem I have ever encountered has arisen from, or been made worse by, inept communication, and sometimes my own. You will, I suspect, find the same thing. Today I have a slightly different language story.
An interesting announcement was made in October this year which almost certainly passed everybody by except for a handful of boarders. A man called Nursultan Nazarbayev, the president of Kazakhstan, announced that his own country is to adopt a new alphabet. The Kazakh script will cease to be the Russian Cyrillic script – if you have not seen any Russian written down, a few of the letters are similar to our own, but more are rather similar to those of the Ancient Greeks – but they will instead adopt the Roman alphabet that we ourselves use. This will be introduced in schools in 2018; and then they aim for full transition by 2025.
Now imagine the difficulty of doing something like that. Not only does our Roman alphabet have 26 letters, where the Cyrillic script currently used for Kazakh has 42; but there are also a number of sounds which are not easily replicated by the change to a new alphabet. Accordingly, six further letters will be added to the Roman alphabet to compensate, making this a 32 letter alphabet. This is perhaps one reason why it has already taken 11 years of work to come to fruition.
Secondly, isn’t it interesting how and why a state government might want to change a language. Usually in our own country, any changes in language are driven bottom up – that is to say that, by speaking in a certain way, our language steadily adopts change. There are always new words each year in the Oxford English Dictionary, because they have fallen into common use by ordinary people. An example, which is now more common, was when I first lived in Australia and was told by one the boys that their history teacher was “sick”. It was the first time I had heard the word sick to mean fantastic or wonderful. You can find that definition in the dictionary now. In Kazakhstan, and indeed elsewhere in the world, notably Norway and Israel, language has been manipulated top down – that is to say that the government create change. The reason given by the Kazakhstani president for doing this is that the they should make this decision for the future of their children and create it as a condition of entry for their wider global integration.
In actual fact, Kazakhstan is a multilingual country with 117 spoken languages, of which Russian, Kazakh and English are the officially recognised state languages. It does in fact have a history of script reform, having changed on a number of occasions in its history to suit its geopolitical position. This latest attempt is another example of where language can be considered as a unifying force for people of either the same or different backgrounds.
Signor Sanchez spoke to us earlier in the term about a language called Esperanto, which was created with the intention to unify all countries together so that language learning was no longer necessary and so that all people could understand each other. Another example is, perhaps, just as amazing. You may have been reading recently that it is 100 years to the month since the Balfour declaration was signed by that English Prime Minister to allow Jewish people a homeland in what was then Palestine. Perhaps what is less known is that a new language was written at about the same time and for the same purpose. For many centuries, the Jewish people had been dispersed across the world, with the result that their language, Hebrew, had also become diluted (and to a large extent lost) amongst a sea of other languages. The Biblical scripts survived, as did commentaries on those scripts in Biblical Hebrew, and also a colloquial version of Hebrew known as Yiddish. But in the early 20th century a man called Ben-Yehuda realised that the Jewish people could only unify if they had a unifying language and he set about to create one. To construct modern Hebrew, he used 8,000 words from the Bible, another 20,000 from biblical commentaries; and then he had to make up some words altogether (clearly there was no biblical word for electricity, for instance) and cobble together others from what he knew of ancient meanings (so ke-vis means “road” now, where in ancient Aramaic it meant “trodden down”).
Languages are not just a means of basic spoken communication between people, but they also speak of a people’s past. They give clues to culture and history. They can also, as we have seen, unify people. The Kazakhs wish to align with the Western World; the writers of Esperanto wished to create a global language; and the Jews built a language to draw together the disparate strands of their people in one land. We are lucky in this country that we have a language which is already used globally; but equally, as we draw away from our closest neighbours in the coming years, it is worth remembering that studying language is rarely likely to be a wasted effort.