Tuesday, September 01, 2015


Probably no one else cares, but I think it's interesting that Kazakhstan's new regional airline is called "Qazaq Air." "Qazaq" is how the name of the "Kazakh" people and language should be spelled, and "Kazakhstan" really should be "Qazaqstan." It is only an accident in the country's colonial history that the country and people have their current spelling.

I think I went through this before, in Kazakh the word "Kazakh" is spelled "Қазақ". It is hard to see the the first and last letters are not a regular "K" rather they have a little tail at the bottom of their right leg. That's because in Kazakh that first and last letter makes a slightly different sound, the sound that the letter ق makes in Arabic. That Arabic letter usually gets transliterated as a "Q" (think the first letter in "Qur'an" or the last letter in "Iraq").

But in the Kazakh's case, the transliteration was being done by Russians and the Russian language has no Q ("Iraq" in Russian is "Ирак", which is "Irak" if transliterated to Latin script). So Russians would have been inclined to write a word that sounds like "Qazaq" as "Казак." But they couldn't do that because the word "Казак" was already taken (it's the word we write as "Cossack" in English). So instead, they transliterated it as "Казах", the X as the end being the voiceless velar fricative that all the guidebooks always say sounds like the "ch" in "loch" when pronounced by a real Scot (but I think more people associate the sound with middle eastern languages). That X in Cyrillic gets transliterated by English speakers as "Kh." Thus, the original "Қазақ" became "Казах" in Russian which became "Kazakh" in English.

If Kazakh had taken a different path, through a language that uses the "Q" to transliterate the sound in the original language, we would be writing "Qazaq" for the people and "Qazaqstan" for the country. And that would be better because the transliteration gives us a better idea of how those words are actually pronounced by native speakers.

So it is interesting to see an airline, originally called "Air Kazakhstan," decide to go with the better transliteration in their new name.