Living languages and the politicization of Kurdish by Engin Gülbey*
GRAPHIC: KADİR DİNÇER
It had been only four years since the transition to the Latin alphabet in Turkey. It was a state of mobilization and transition; the people were unable to adapt to the new alphabet and former scholars were trying to learn Latin letters as though they were new students.
This revolution in the Turkish language inspired Jaladat Ali Bedirhan, a Kurdish intellectual. In Damascus, where he was in exile because of his family, he started a Kurdish magazine, named Hawar, on May 15, 1932. Jaladat Ali Bedirhan, grandson of Bedirhan Paşa, the head of the district of Botan, published Hawar in both the Arabic and Latin alphabets. This dual alphabet system was a stage for Bedirhan, who thought that Kurdish should adapt the Latin alphabet. From its 24th issue onwards, Bedirhan decided to publish Hawar only using the Latin alphabet. The alphabet change which was imposed by a top-down revolution in the Turkish language was carried out silently via a humble magazine in Kurdish.
It has been 80 years since this story. During this period, Kurdish has been transformed from a prohibited language to a language whose publication and use is being encouraged by the state. Had this change in the state’s approach and the transformation that this language has gone through taken place 80 years ago, Kurdish would have become a respected instrument and language among linguists; but would it still have become a tool for a political separatist ideology?
Unfortunately, the Kurdish language has become part of political and ideological polarizations. Relying on the inherent problems of the Kurdish language and the right to use of native language, this language has been made part of uprisings and of violent resistance. This unfair treatment towards Kurdish is no different than the attempts of the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK) to use children in street demonstrations, knowing that the police will not take action against them. Sadly, like symbols of childhood and motherhood, the Kurdish language is being used to legitimize violence in Kurdish society. To secure social and popular support, children and young people are turned into militants and Kurdish into a language of separatism.
Issues leading to politicization of Kurdish language
There are some major issues that have led to the politicization of the Kurdish language: the origin, alphabet, dialect and dictionary. Even though these four areas are perceived as problems relevant to literature and history at first sight, when such matters as ideology, politics, security, conflict and freedoms are involved, the fervor associated with the political discussions becomes more visible.
One of the discussions on the Kurdish language relates to its origin. Even though it is argued that the Kurdish language is part of the Indo-European linguistic family, in the subgroup of Indo-Iranian languages, there is no generally accepted argument on this matter. For instance, some argue that the Kurds were originally Pishdadians and that therefore the Kurdish language is originally based on the Pahlawi language which the Pishdadians used. Pahlawi was originally the Avestan language, the language in the holy script of Zarathustra. And once Avestan is referred to as the origin of Kurdish, and the Pishdadians as the ancestors of the Kurds with Zoroastrianism as their initial religion, the bases for building a nation are identified.
When building a nation and laying down the groundwork for separatist views, in addition to imagining a history and future, it is also essential to ensure that the members of that nation believe that they belong to a culture and a civilization that is distinct from other cultures and civilizations. The association of the Kurds with the Turks, Arabs or any other race poses a problem for those who imagine a separate nation. At this point, the approach suggesting that Avestan or the Pishdadian language is the origin of Kurdish is a great opportunity for the politicization of language. It should also be noted that supporters of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the KCK subscribe to this idea and base their policies on this assumption.
The second problem with the Kurdish language is relevant to the alphabet, which also concerns the current discussions. Some refer to nine different alphabets that the Kurds have used; the most common of those today are Latin, Arabic and Cyrillic. The Kurds live in four different countries plus small communities of Kurds in former Soviet republics. For this reason, the Kurds are unable to properly communicate in the written language. For instance, the popular dialect in northern Iraq is based on the Arabic alphabet. The dialect used in the Turkish lands is based on the Latin alphabet. The Kurds in Armenia were allowed to use an alphabet other than Cyrillic in August 2010. To address the difference between the alphabets, the Democratic Society Congress (DTK) sponsored a meeting in Diyarbakır in March 2012. The purpose of this meeting was to reach an agreement on a common alphabet and to ensure unity among the Kurds in different locations. At this point, an agreement on the Bedirhani alphabet, which could be referred to as the Kurdish alphabet in Turkey, could make constructive and positive contributions towards unification among Kurds.
It is meaningful that the Bedirhani alphabet is the alphabet of the Kurds in Turkey; the PKK/KCK, which is uncomfortable with this alphabet, argues that it is inadequate and that five more letters should be included. With this move, they actually want to get rid of the influence of Turkish on the alphabet and make it controllable by the PKK. Turkey’s concerns about the alphabet are focused on three letters. In fact, the difference is on five letters rather than three. There is no ğ in the Kurdish alphabet; and the Turkish alphabet does not have ē, q, x and w. And if the three letters that Turkey refuses to accept (x, w, q) are left out, the remaining is the Latin alphabet used in the Turkish language; in the frequently used Latin alphabet, the letters x, w and q are used. The approach taken in which these three letters are rejected creates an image of the cult hypothesis that the Kurds are actually Turks. In reality, the fact that Kurdish is spoken perfectly well with the addition of the three letters to the Turkish alphabet is an indication that the Turks and Kurds have similar sounds and emotions even if their languages are part of different linguistic families.
Disputes over dialects
Thirdly, the current discussion on the different Kurdish dialects should be addressed. The existence of different dialects in the Kurdish language is not a problem; it is in fact a sign of diversity. Kurmanji, Sorani, Gorani and Lorani are the main dialects of the Kurdish language. It is also possible to extend the list; but what matters is the survival of the dialects. It is known that Kurmanji is the most frequently used dialect. The development and survival of Kurmanji, which could also be referred to as Kurdish in Turkey, is essential for the use of Kurdish, an indispensible right of Kurdish citizens in Turkey. The problem with a dialect is the attempt to make one specific dialect dominant over others. Zaza, which is argued to be a Kurdish dialect, is the obvious victim of the politics of imposition. Those who would like to see the Zaza people on their side in the Kurdish issue argue that the Zaza language is a Kurdish dialect and that the Zaza people are actually Kurdish. By this, they actually rely on political pragmatism. This policy of imposition would culminate in the disappearance of the Zaza language.
Fourthly, the issue of a dictionary should be discussed. In a country of multiple languages, the actual source of the languages other than the official one is a dictionary. A dictionary is the reflection of the attempt by the Turkish people to communicate with the Kurdish people. Without a dictionary, you cannot understand the Kurds, the Zazas, the Circassians and the Georgians. At a time when people are trying to understand each other in the world, it is a shame that the state has not yet sponsored a dictionary of a language that many people speak in this country. The void is being filled by ideology-based dictionaries which make the language a tool of separation and division. Those who conclude that the Islamic faith among the Kurds is the real reason for their rejection of separatist views and the main source of politicization of these four issues believe that the Kurdish language would become independent if the Islamic notions and structures were removed from the language. The structures and entities that destroy all opposing and critical voices to become the one single representative of the Kurds pursue the same policy for hegemony in the language as well. The current goal is to build a Kurdish nation through a language as the outcome of a new religion that was visibly detached from Islam under the hegemony of the Avestan and Pishdadian languages.
In the final analysis, despite all attempts to politicize the cultural minority rights in the Kurdish issue, the actual matters should be addressed regardless of violence and politics. The cultural minority rights include the attempt to promote and sustain Kurdish and other languages. The best response to those who claim to be the true representatives of the Kurds would be the realization and implementation of new and constructive policies to ensure the use and survival of the Kurdish language.
*Engin Gülbey is a researcher with the Ankara Strategy Institute.