From: firstname.lastname@example.org (JamesOberg)
Subject: Spell it "Kazakstan"!!
Date: 5 May 1996 12:39:37 -0400
I'm reposting this for general interest!
Note of Interest /// James Oberg /// March 10, 1996
New Cosmonautical Orthography -- I.E., Spell Space Names Differently
The government of Kazakhstan has requested Western nations using the Latin
alphabet to change their spelling of the country's name to "Kazakstan".
This request from Almaty (formerly Alma-Ata) was made to the Secretary
General of the United Nations on April 28, 1995, has been accepted by the
United Nations and, in the United States, by the National Geographic
Society and the federal government's Board on Geographic Names (on July
10, 1995). The request takes effect immediately. The government's
reference adjective is "Kazakstani", while the leading ethnic group is to
be called "Kazaki".
The modified cyrillic alphabet adopted by the newly independent nation
uses both the cyrillic "K", the cyrillic "X" (guttural "kh" sound), and a
new letter which looks like a "tailed K" (it has a cedilla at the end of
the lower right diagonal leg). The standard linguistic transliteration of
these letters into the Latin alphabet is "K", "H", and "Q".
Two of the tailed-K's are used in the new country's newly-respelled name
(as seen on postage stamps and paper currency), so it is thus actually
spelled "Qazaqstan". Because this looks awkward to foreign eyes, the
government requested the special-case one-time-only transliteration of
There is bound to be some confusion since the Russian-language word for
"cossack" is "kazak", and the ethnic Russian "kazaki" in the north of
"Kazakstan" are agitating for autonomy, even independence from the turkic
Qazaqi (or "Kazaki") and anschluss with Russia. We're just going to have
to live with this.
Meanwhile, the Almaty government has also officially renamed Leninsk, the
workers' city for the Baykonur (or often "Baikonur) Cosmodrome, as
"Baykonur". The name "Leninsk" is supposed to disappear from world maps
and documents immediately.
The cosmodrome was originally named "Baykonur" in 1961 as a geographic
deception to misdirect American spy planes to a tiny mining village named
"Baykonyr" hundreds of kilometers to the northeast (the final vowel was
accidentally changed from a cyrillic "yerri" to the cyrillic "u" by a
careless official in Moscow). "Baykonyr" was how the Russian cossack
conquerors (the Russian kazakis) sounded out the pronunciation of the
town's name when they heard it from the original Qazaqi (or turkic kazaki)
The original name of the small train station where the cosmodrome was
actually built is Tyura-Tam, which was carelessly misspelled "Tyuratam" by
the CIA (and mispronounced TIE-YOUR-ATOM by a generation of American TV
newscasters). It's a native qazaki phrase reportedly meaning "Arrow
Cemetery" (inauspicious for a missile base). But unhappy Russian space
workers assigned there played on the syllables and only half-jokingly
called it "Tyurma-Tam", Russian for "It's a prison there".
The original name of the workers' settlement for the cosmodrome was
"Zarya", or "Dawn", and that was the call sign that ground control used
over the radio when talking with Yuri Gagarin in space in 1961. It was
also called "Zvezdagrad", or "Star City", but that name later got bumped
to the cosmonaut training center near Moscow. In Russian the latter town
is Zvyozdniy Gorodok, or "Starry Town", but "Star City" sounded more
grandiose and in the early 1970s the Russians were still in the
geographical misdirection business, so that's how they told the Americans
they wanted the Moscow-area town referred to (in 1983 after Brezhnev
finally died there was a perfunctory attempt to rename it "Breznevsk", but
everybody ignored the decree). Back in Central Asia, near the so-called
"Baikonur Cosmodrome", the settlement had become officially designated
"Leninsk", and nobody ignored that decree.
Meanwhile, since the collapse of the USSR and the independence of former
constituent republics, all place names in Kazakstan have reverted to the
turkic spelling in their newly modified alphabet. So the original mining
village (misspelled "Baykonyr" by the Russian Tsarist conquerors a century
ago) is now called Bayqongyr. This is the correct spelling of the turkish
words "Chief Blondie", a historical figure vaguely associated with the
This meant that the name "Baykonur", the original Tsarist kazak (cossack)
misspelling, was now free for relocation. And by Kazakstani government
decree in December 1995, it was assigned to the city of Leninsk, banishing
Lenin's name from the map of independent Kazakstan.
Western usage of geographical nomenclature is an inconsistent and curious
practice, made more difficult by "foreign" alphabets. Some old names based
on bizarre spellings persist, such as Moscow for Moskva, or even "Russia"
for "Rossiya". But in the case of the space bases of Central Asia, it's
probably a prudent sign of respect for the people who now own the place to
go along with their requests: use "Kazakstan" for the country, and
"Baykonur" for the worker's city next to the "Baykonur Cosmodrome, and --
if you ever find yourself in a dusty mining village hundreds of kilometers
northeast of there -- you better say "Bayqongyr" or the American Embassy
may never hear from you again!
"Geopolitically Correct", National Geographic, November 1995.
Letter to James Oberg from Juan Jose Valdes, Assistent Director of the
Cartographic Division, and Director of Map Editing, National Geographic
Society, Washington, DC, dated Dec 12, 1995,
"Nazarbayev Signs Edict Renaming Leninsk to Baykonur", Moscow ITAR-TASS,
Dec 21, 1995, via FBIS.