Kazakh and Russian are official languages for commercial purposes. Kazakh, spoken by 64.4 percent of the population, is the official “state” language, and Russian, spoken by 95 percent of the population, is designated as the “language of interethnic communication” and is used in everyday business. In 2006 President Nazarbayev proposed that Kazakhstan switch from the Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet. [Source: Library of Congress, December, 2006 **]

The Russification program in Kazakhstan was successful. Many Kazakhs speak Russian better than Kazakh. Kazakh first became a state language in the late Soviet period, when few of the republic's Russians gave serious thought to the possibility that they might need Kazakh to retain their employment, to serve in the armed forces, or to have their children enter a Kazakhstani university. At that point, fewer than 5 percent of Russians could speak Kazakh, although the majority of Kazakhs could speak Russian. However, with the separation between Russia and Kazakhstan that followed independence, Russian nationalist sentiment and objections to alleged discrimination in official language policies have increased, especially in the north, as Russians have felt the threat of Kazakh becoming the sole legal state language. Meanwhile, Kazakhs have strongly defended the preeminence of their tongue, although mastery of the language is far from universal even among Kazakhs. According to some estimates, as much as 40 percent of the Kazakh population is not fluent in Kazakh. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

English is not nearly as widely spoken as it is in Western Europe, and even Russia. More and more people, though, especially young people, are learning it. In the cities and tourist industry you will find some people that speak English. In the early 2000s, German outstripped English as the non-Kazakh-or-Russian language of choice in Kazakhstan. Many Kazakhs struggle to learn German as a means of getting ahead. Others were ethnic Germans living in Kazakhstan are people with some ethnic German blood. Most of the people studying German outside Germany are in eastern Europe and the former republics of the Soviet Union. At one time about half of the school children in Kazakhstan were studying in German.

Kazakh Language

The Kazakh language (also called Qazaq) is part of the Nogai-Kipchak subgroup of northeastern Turkic languages. It is heavily influenced by both Tatar and Mongol and is classified as a Turkic language closely related to Nogai and Karakalpak. As the Kazakhs have lived in mixed communities with Russians, Kyrgyz, Han Chinese, Uyghurs, Mongolians and other ethnic groups, the Kazakhs have assimilated many words from these languages.

The Kazakh language belongs to the Northwest or Kipchak Group of Turkish languages of the Ural-Altaic Family. Together with Karalpak and Nogay, it forms the Kipachak-Noay Subgroup of the Kipachak languages. Kazakh has three dialects—Western, Northeastern and Southern. Kazakh is closely related to Uzbek, Kyrgyz, Turkmen, the languages of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan. The other main Central Asian language, Tajik, is a Persian language. Kazakh shares many words and grammar structures with Turkish. It developed from Chagatai, a language used in the eastern Turkish world.

Mongolian, Kyrgyz, Uyghur, Manchu, Uigur, Turkish and other Altaic, Tungusic and Turkic languages are Altaic languages in the Ural-Altaic family of languages. Some linguists believe they are related. Other believe they share similarities because of the borrowing of words by traditionally nomadic peoples. Ural-Altaic languages include Finnish, Korean and Hungarian.

The languages of the Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Mongols and Uyghurs are so similar that they can easily communicate with each other and, in China, often eat and party together when they live near one another. These languages are difficult to learn and speak. Travel writer Tim Severin wrote they sound “like two cats coughing and spitting at each other until one finally throws up.” Some of the more guttural sounds sound like someone is having difficulty breathing.

Written Kazakh Language

Kazakh was first written only in the 1860s, using Arabic script. In 1929 Latin script was introduced. In 1940 Stalin decided to unify the written materials of the Central Asian republics with those of the Slavic rulers by introducing a modified form of Cyrillic. In 1992 the return of a Latin-based alphabet came under discussion, but the enormous costs involved appear to have stopped further consideration of the idea. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

In the past, Kazakhs used the Orkhon and Uyghur scripts. Kazakh Arabic script is variation a script that has been used at least since the 13th century. At that time, under Genghis Khan, the Mongols created a vertical script based on the Uyghur script, which was also adopted by many Turkic-speaking peoples and is related to the alphabets of Western Asia. It looks like Arabic written at a slant. The source of the Uyghur alphabets was the alphabet of the Sogdians, a Persian people centered around Samarkand in the A.D. 6th century. After the introduction of Islam, mant Turkic people such as the Kazakhs adopted the alphabetic writing based on Arabic letters.

The Soviets gave Kazakh a standard literary form and introduced the Roman alphabet and then replaced it with Cyrillic script in 1935. The Roman alphabet made a comeback on signs and printed matter after the break up of the Soviet Union. The Cyrillic alphabet is still widely used. Forty-two Cyrillic letters are used to write Kazakh. After the break up of the Soviet Union Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan agreed to adopt the Latin alphabet in order to make trade easier and improve relations among themselves and the outside world.

In China, the Kazakh written language is based on the Arabic alphabet is still in use, but a new Latinized written form was evolved after the founding of the People’s Republic of China. In 1959, a new writing system was introduced, based on Latin letters, which was not widely embraced. In 1982, the previous writing system was re-adopted, and the new characters were kept and used as phonetic symbols.

Kazakh Versus Russian Languages in Kazakhstan

Official state language is a contentious issue in Kazakhstan. The 1995 constitution stipulates Kazakh and Russian as state languages. Russian is the primary language in business, science, and academia but all citizens are expected to pass a Kazakh language test if they wish to work for government or state bodies. The Non-Kazakh population exerts pressure against requirements for use of Kazakh fo all encompassing official language.

Russian is widely spoken in urban areas and often used by members of different ethnic groups to communicate with one another. Kazakh is spoken more widely in the countryside among ethnic Kazakhs. Most Kazakhs can speak both Kazakh and Russian and many speak Russian as there first language. Both languages are taught in schools. Some emphasize Kazakh, others Russian. There has traditionally been a large variety of both Russian-language and Kazakh-language publications and radio and television broadcasts. But Russian dominates commerce and science.

Even those who are fluent find Kazakh a difficult language to work with in science, business, and some administrative settings because it remained largely a "kitchen" language in Soviet times, never developing a modern technical vocabulary. Nor has there been extensive translation of technical or popular literature into Kazakh. Thus, for most Kazakhs Russian remains the primary "world language." In fact, President Nazarbayev defended making Kazakh the sole official language on the grounds that decades of Russification had endangered the survival of Kazakh as a language. The practical primacy of Russian is reflected in the schools. Despite efforts to increase the number of schools where Kazakh is the primary language of instruction, Russian appeared to continue its domination in the mid-1990s. In 1990 about twice as many schools taught in Russian as in Kazakh. Although institutions of higher learning now show a strong selection bias in favor of Kazakh students, Russian remains the language of instruction in most subjects. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

The issue of languages is one of the most politicized and contentious in Kazakhstan. The volatility of the language issue has been augmented by Russia's controversial proposals, beginning in 1993, that Kazakhstan's Russians be granted dual citizenship. Although Nazarbayev rejected such a policy, the language controversy prompted him to postpone deadlines for implementation of laws making Kazakh the sole official language. Thus, it is unlikely that most adult non-Kazakhs will have to learn Kazakh. Nevertheless, demographic trends make it probable that the next generation will have to learn Kazakh, a prospect that generates considerable discomfort in the non-Kazakh population. The 1995 constitution does not provide for dual citizenship, but it does alleviate Russian concerns by declaring Russian an official language. That status means that Russian would continue as the primary language of communication for many ethnic Kazakhs, and it will remain acceptable for use in schools (a major concern of Russian citizens) and official documents. *

Kazakh Swear Words

Kazakh language swear words and their English translation (Kazakh swear words — English translation): Kotimdi syi — Kiss my ass; Bog zhep, ol — Eat shit and die; Katin bolma — Stop bitching; Anandi sigein — Fuck your mother; Akendi sigein — Fuck your father; Dolbaeb — Thick headed fool; Akmak — Idiot (lit. A piece of wood); Kirtpash — Show-off; Tasak — Polite penis; Bokg — Shit; Kotak — Cock; Am — Cunt; Kot — Asshole; Kot tesigi — An ass; Mudak — An asshole; Akennin katogin sorudi zhaksi koresin — You love to suck your dad's dick; Menin zhumurtkamdi sorshi — Suck my balls; Kirtsin goi — You're a moron. [Source:]

Sigilgen ayizindi zhap, nahui — Shut your fucking mouth, bitch; Kirtpash — Shut up; Sen nege sonshama kizstekesin? — Why are you so gay?; Sen deegeneeraatsin — You're a degenerate; Bliad' — Whore; Bokshil — Shithead; Pidaras — Asshole, dickhead; Ket nahuj — Fuck off, fuck you; Kotakka ket — Fuck off, fuck you; Kozine kotak kirsin — A dick in your eye; Sigilgen urgashi! — Fucking Bitch; Ket kirtpai — Get the fuck away from me; Sikshi minani! — Fuck him!; Senderdin sheshelerindi siktim — I fucked all of your mothers; Loh — Loser; Kizsteke — Faggot; Tasagimdi sorshi — Suck my dick; Senin aken kogildir — Your dad is gay; Sen kogildirsin — You are gay; Sende kotak zhok — You have no dick.

Bitirmegen, sorli — Fucked up (lit. undone); Men seni sikkim keledi — I want to fuck you; Men senin chechendi sikkim keledi — I want to fuck your mom; Bokbass — Shithead; Bokti zhe, urgashi — Eat shit, bitch; Sende zhumurtka zhok — You have no balls; Kugan, suka — Crazy bitch; Ketshi kotke — Go up an ass; Tasak kap — Condom; Prezirvativ — Condom; Bar, sheshendi sik — Go fuck your mom; Suka / sooka — Bitch; Ket nahui — Fuck off; Kotindi zhirtimm kozigdi shigaram — I'll rip your ass and poke out your eyes; Sorshi — Suck my dick; Tollik pidaras — Fat faggot; Zhopoyeb — Ass fucker; Atannin kotagin sorudi koisaishi — Stop sucking grandpa's dick.

Am — Pussy; Sende kip-kishkentai kotak, kansha... bes santimetr ma? — You have a very small dick, how much...five centimeters?; Anannin 77 anasin sigeyin — I will fuck 77 female past generations of your mother.; Senin közin am sizakti — Your eyes are cunts; Kötine kotagim — My dick for your arse; Bok zheme — Do not eat shit (stop talking nonsense); Sheshengning amy — Your moms' cunt (answering a question regarded stupid); Atangning basy — Your grandpas' head (a mild insult); Kizingdi sigein — Let me fuck your daughter; Kotakpas — Dickhead.

Kazakh Names

Most Kazakhs have a first and patronymic name (the father’s name followed by a suffix -ich or –ovich for son of or daughter of, respectively). Many Kazakhs have Turkish, Arabic and Persian surnames with the addition of a Russian ending such as “ov”, “ev” or “in”. Kumar, for example, is a common Turkish name. In Kazakhstan many people have the last name of Kumarov.

The Kazakh have employed a naming system in which father's and son's names are linked. This system has traditionally appeared at the transition period from matrilineal clan system to patrilineal clan system.

Clan loyalty is often more important than religion. Every Kazakh knows his genealogy back at least seven generations. One Kazakh told National Geographic, “If a man cannot name his ancestors for seven generations, he is no Kazakh.” With that knowledge a Kazakh or she can also determine his or her kinship ties to practically every other Kazakh or to the whole world. Large clans with the Middle Zhug are the Kipachaks, Argyns, Naimans, Kere and Uaki. The three large clans in the Younger Zhug are the Bayul, Alimul and Zetyru,

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated April 2016

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