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Classification: Altaic?, Turkic, Northwestern (Kipchak) branch, South group. Kazakh is a member of the Turkic family. The external classification of Turkic is disputed. Many consider it one of the three divisions of the Altaic phylum (the other two are Tungusic and Mongolic). However, the parallelisms between Turkic, Mongolic and Tungusic  are too few, according to others, to support the unity of Altaic. Kazakh belongs to the southern group of the Kipchak branch along with Karakalpak, Kipchak Uzbek, Nogai, and Kirghiz. Karakalpak is a slightly Uzbekicized variety of Kazakh spoken in the Autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan in Uzbekistan.

Overview. Kazakh is a descendant of the language spoken by some Uzbek tribes which occupied the northern steppe region of Central Asia and founded an empire in the 15th century that lasted up to the 18th century. In many ways a typical Turkic language, Kazakh has been influenced at the lexical level by its prolonged contact with the Mongolians and by its incorporation into the Soviet Union.

Distribution. Kazakh is spoken by about 70 % of the inhabitants of Kazakhstan, particularly in the northwestern, eastern and southeastern parts of the country. There are also many Kazakh speakers in neighboring countries like China, Mongolia, Uzbekistan and Russia.

Speakers. Kazakh is spoken by more than 15 million people in the following countries:






















Note: the 2001 census of Kazakhstan records 10.3 million Kazakh speakers, which should be in 2015 (considering the population growth rate) 12 million or slightly more.

Status. Kazakh is the official language of the Republic of Kazakhstan and is strongly promoted by the government. However, Russian is still very important for communication because not all Kazakhs are conversant in their mother tongue and because the minorities of the country do not usually speak Kazakh.


Varieties. In spite of the great extension of Kazakhstan there is little regional variation due to the mobile traditional life-style of the Kazakhs (mainly cattle-breeders) and for historical reasons (deportations, migrations). The standard language is based on the northwestern dialect.

Oldest Documents. Kazakh was an exclusively oral language until the end of the 19th century when it started to be written in the Arabic script.  


Vowels (9):


The symbols are those current in writing in the Cyrillic alphabet; they are followed by their usual transliteration into the Latin alphabet (in brackets), and by their equivalents the International Phonetic Alphabet (between square brackets).

Vowel harmony. It governs the distribution of vowels within a word opposing front versus back vowels. In the first syllable of a word all vowels can occur. If it is a front vowel all the subsequent vowels must be also of the front type. If it is a back vowel all the other vowels must be also of the back type. Thus, all the vowels of a word belong to the same class (back or front) and the vowels of suffixes vary according to the class of vowels in the primary stem. Another type of vowel harmony is based on roundness. It is more prominent with high vowels and decreases towards the end of the word.

Consonants (22):


f is restricted to loanwords where it is often replaced by p. When the velar voiceless stop is accompanied by back vowels (see below) it is realized as [q], when it is accompanied by front vowels it is realized as [k]. When the velar voiced stop is accompanied by back vowels it is realized as [G], when it is accompanied by front vowels it is realized as [g].

Stress: It falls generally on the first syllable but there is also a pitch accent (a rising tone) that falls on the last syllable.

Script and Orthography

Kazakh was written in Arabic script until 1920 when it was replaced by the Latin alphabet which in turn was substituted by a Cyrillic one in 1940. Several new characters were added to the standard Cyrillic used for Russian, bringing the total number to 42. The equivalence of each character in the International Phonetic Alphabet is shown between brackets:


  1. The letters highlighted in color are used only in foreign words.

Suffixes variants. Due to sound harmony all vowels and some consonants of suffixes change according to the preceding sounds. This is indicated with capital letters as follows:

  1. A indicates a low vowel that is realized as e [e] after a front vowel, or  as a [a] after a back vowel.

  2. I indicates a high unrounded vowel that is realized as i [i] after a front vowel, or as ï [ɯ] after a back vowel.

  3. U indicates a high rounded vowel that is realized as ü [y] after a front vowel, or as u after a back vowel.

  4. L may be realized as l, t, or d. M may be realized as m, p or b.

  5. D may be realized as d, t or n. N may be realized as n, t, or d.

  6. G may be realized as g, k, , or x.


  1. Nominal. Suffixes are added to nominal stems to indicate number, possession and case (in that order).

  1. gender: there is no grammatical gender.

  1. number: singular and plural. The singular is unmarked and the plural is marked with the suffix -LAr.

  1. possession:  there are six possessive markers, one for each person and number, which are attached to the noun.

  1. 1s-(I)m

  2. 2s -(I)ŋ

  3. 3s-(s)I

  4. 1p -(I)mIz

  5. 2p-(I)ŋIz

  6. 3p-LArI

  1. case: nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, locative, ablative. The nominative is unmarked; the other cases are marked by suffixes which are subject to vowel and consonant harmony.


  1. Plurals are made by adding the suffix -LAr before the case marker.

  1. comparative and superlatives: superlatives are formed by adding the particles or asa before the adjective, comparatives are made by adding the suffix -rAk to the adjective or with an ablative construction.

  1. pronouns: Kazakh has personal pronouns for the first, second and third person, singular and plural. They are declined in all the six cases like nouns (with minor differences).


  1. It has six demonstrative pronouns which mark two deictic categories (this and that): bul, osï, mïna ('this'); ol, sol, ana ('that').

  1. The reflexive pronoun öz is used attributively in its bare form but when functions as a pronoun it requires a possessive suffix. e.g. özim ('myself').

  1. adverbs: words having an adverbial sense have no specific morphological characteristics, nouns with case suffixes can act as adverbs.

  1. Verbal. A finite verb form has a verbal stem + tense-aspect or mood marker suffixes + personal marker (possessive or pronominal). The possessive-based personal markers are used in the simple past and the optative-imperative, those of pronominal origin elsewhere. Negation is done by adding MA after the stem.


  1. The 2nd person plural -sIŋdAr is made by adding the plural suffix to the singular one; -sIz is a polite form and -sIzdAr is even more polite.

  1. person and number: 1s, 2s, 3s; 1p, 2p, 3p.

  1. tense-aspect: present, simple past, habitual past, aorist, imperfect, perfect, pluperfect.

  2. Tense and aspect (progressive, habitual, perfective) are intimately connected. A general present is formed with the root plus the present marker -A, followed by pronominal personal markers:

  1. uš-a-dï ('He flies')

  2. root-present marker-pronominal personal marker (3s).

  1. An imperfective present, expressing an ongoing event, is formed with the suffix -(I)p + the auxiliaries otïr, žür, žatïr, tur + the personal markers (the 3rd person has zero marking):

  1. kör-ip tur-mïn ('I am seeing)'

  2. root-tense/aspect marker auxiliary-pronominal personal marker (1s).

  1. The marker for the simple past is -DI which is followed by possessive personal markers:

  1. kör-di-m  ('I saw')

  2. root-simple past marker-possessive personal marker (1s).

  1. The aorist, whose marker is -Ar, has a prospective or future meaning:

  1. kör-er-miz  ('We will see')

  2. root-aorist marker-possessive personal marker (1p).

  1. The imperfect, perfect and pluperfect are constructed with the aid of the past copula particle edi which can also serve to form habitual and counterfactual verb forms. The imperfect uses the same suffix and auxiliaries as the present imperfective. The pluperfect marker is -GAn, the counterfactual marker is -(A)r, and the habitual past marker is -UwšI.

  1. mood: indicative, optative-imperative.

  2. The optative-imperative has its own set of personal endings:

  1. 1s -(A)yIn

  2. 2s    ø

  3. 3s -sIn

  4. 1p -(A)yIK

  5. 2p -(I)ŋIz, -(I)ŋdAr

  6. 3p -sIn

  1. non-finite forms: infinitivesparticiples, converbs.

  2. Infinitives are formed adding the suffix -(Uw) to the verbal root with drop of stem-final high vowels: oqï  > oquw ('to read').

  1. Participles convey many different tense, aspect and modal notions. Adding to the root the suffix -GAn a present or past participle is formed. With the suffix -AtIn a participle is formed which refers to habitual or future actions.

A converb ending in -(I)p serves to join clauses, the -A converb (-y after vowels) is employed in complex verbs, the -GAlI converb signals purpose.


Kazakh, like all Turkic languages, has a basic Subject-Object-Verb word order which, nevertheless, can be changed to highlight a certain topic. It is head final, modifiers preceding their head. It employs postpositions (corresponding to English prepositions, but placed after the words they interact with) to specify and precise syntactical relations established by the grammatical cases. It has few conjunctions which are imported from Persian and Russian. Comparisons can be made using the ablative case. The marker MA, placed after the predicate, is used to form yes/no questions. Relative and complement clauses are left-branching.


The core of the Kazakh lexicon is constituted by Turkic Kipchak vocabulary. It has loanwords from other Turkic languages and from Persian and Arabic (entered through Tatar and Chaghatay), Mongolic and Russian.

Basic Vocabulary. Words are written in the Cyrillic script; their equivalence in the International Phonetic Alphabet is given between brackets.

Key Literary Works. Forthcoming.

  1. © 2013 Alejandro Gutman and Beatriz Avanzati                                                                               

Further Reading

  1. -Introduction to Kazakh. J. R. Krueger. Indiana University Press (1980).

  2. -Kazakh and Karakalpak. M. Kirchner. In The Turkic Languages, 318-332. L. Johanson & É. Á. Csató (eds). Routledge (1998).

  3. -The Kazakhs. M. Brill Olcott. Hoover Institution Press (1995).

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