Sunday, March 23, 2014


This is a spin-off post to my below Kyiv post. I want to give another example that is not as tinged with current politics.

I spell Kazakhstan "Kazakhstan" even though that spelling is nothing but a legacy of Russian imperialism. In Kazakh, the country name is "Қазақстан." The first and fifth letter in the word is a "Қ", a letter that exists in the modified Cyrillic script used to write Kazakh in Kazakhstan, but not in Russian Cyrillic. The closest Russian letter is a "К", which looks pretty similar but lacks the small tail on the bottom right of the letter.

The Cyrillic "К" makes the same sound as a K in English. The "Қ" represents a sound that does not exist in either English or Russian. In Arabic that sound is represented by a Qaaf (ق) and when that Arabic sound is transliterated into English, it is usually transcribed with a "Q." (A Qaaf, for example is the last letter in "Iraq" and the first letter in "Qur'an"). So really "Kazakhstan" should be "Qazaqstan", but almost no one seems to spell it that way, even though in other Kazakh words the "Қ" is sometimes transcribed as a Q (like the first word in the name of this song). The reason why we spell Kazakhstan like we do is because it is a direct transcription from Russian, that doesn't have the "Қ" or a Q, so Russians just convert it to a "К."

"But wait," you say, "that doesn't explain the 'h' in Kazakhstan." The "h" in Kazakhstan comes from another transcription issue that further shows how much the English word "Kazakhstan" is the product of the Russian linguistic concerns.

In Russian, Kazakhstan is spelled "Казахстан." You'll note that the Russians only transcribed the first "Қ" as a "К." The second "Қ" they turned into an "Х." An "Х" in Russian (and Kazakh) makes a different sound from a "К." It makes that sound that English-speakers associate with the middle-east. Hebrew words with that sound in it often get transcribed with a "ch." Arabic words with that sound often get transcribed as an "kh." But it is a single sound denoted by those letter pairings, like the "ch" in the Scottish "Loch" and denoted in Arabic as a Khaa (خ).

But anyway, why did the Russians stick an "Х" in there when they could have just gone with another "К"? Because the word "Казак" was already taken. In Russian, "Казак" means what we spell in English as "Cossack." Thus they could not just substitute both "Қ"s with "К" without making every reference to Kazakhs look like a reference to Cossacks (and vice-versa). The purpose of the "Х" in the Russian spelling is to distinguish Казак from Казах (i.e. Cossack from Kazakh). "Казакстан" to a Russian-speaker would look like the country of the Cossacks, not the land of the Kazakhs.

So that is why there is an "h" in Kazakhstan. English speakers transcribed the "х" in the Russian spelling as "kh." The only reason the "х" was there in the first place was to prevent Russians from confusing Kazakhs with Cossacks, a concern that should not exist at all for English speakers as our word for "Cossacks" has several other differences to distinguish it from "Kazak." And yet the legacy of that Russian spelling lives on in the English spelling even though the original reason for it does not apply.

So knowing all of this, why am I not insisting upon spelling Kazakhstan as either "Qazaqstan" or "Kazakstan"? Because "Kazakhstan" is the accepted English spelling for the country. The other two spellings (especially "Qazaqstan") would have the potential of confusing readers into thinking that I was discussing some place other than what everyone else spells as "Kazakhstan." Furthermore, as convoluted as it may be, I find the above story to be interesting. Russian linguistic hegemony of Central Asia is, for better or worse, part of the region's history. I don't think there's any point to me going out and trying to correct past orthographic wrongs.

Also, I feel like it is not my place to make these kinds of decisions. The people of the Republic of Kazakhstan can decide on its own if it wants to be spelled "Qazaqstan" or "Kazakstan" in English. They seem to be fine with "Kazakhstan" so I am too.