The Kurdish language(s) and Kurdish Identity

“Kurds don’t have a language. They only have 400 words.”

This is the kind of nonsense I would expect from the village idiot, but in fact it was said to me when I first arrived in Istanbul in 2001 by one of the top businessmen in Turkey. I was not totally surprised, because I had encountered such prejudice before when I was head of a small school in the Caribbean.

I was standing outside of a bank that fronted on the water of the harbor of Willemstad. Two black men were arguing with great animation about the stock market, and what they were speaking  was not Spanish and not Portuguese but Papiamento. Papiamento is a melodious creole language, a blend of Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch spoken by the descendants of slaves in the Dutch Antilles. A Dutch friend of mine expressed the opinion that Papiamento was not a language - just some babbling used by the natives. Like the businessman in Istanbul, he was blinded by social and political prejudice. Even though it was spoken by about 80% of the population in Curaçao, it was not allowed to be used in schools until very recently.
Education in Mother Tongue

Linguists have long known that any language used by a society can describe fully the universe in which it is spoken. Eskimos may have no words for tropical trees or water skis, but they can describe several different types of snow.

The Kurdish language is used as the language of instruction in more than twenty universities in Iraq, and I know from personal experience it has more than 400 words. At base it is an Indo-Iranian family of dialects related to Farsi (Modern Persian). But because of the division of the Kurdish people among Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran and because written literary Kurdish is a relatively recent development, there is no standard Kurdish language. One may develop soon from the Sorani dialects of Northern Iraq where literacy in Kurdish has long been fostered in schools. It may take longer for the Kurmanci dialects in Eastern Turkey where the language was actively suppressed until very recently.

And yet, for the most part, to be a speaker of Kurdish is to be a Kurd no matter what the dialect of location of the speaker. There are some exceptions to this rule. Ocalan, the founder of the revolutionary PKK in Turkey, was not fluent in Kurdish at the time that he became politically active. He, like a number of Kurdish intellectuals, had been educated in Turkish. On the other hand there are a small number of Kurdish speakers who identify themselves as ethnic Turks.

These exceptions aside, it is the Kurdish language that is the predominant element in the development of Kurdish ethnic and national consciousness. In general Kurds recognize each other as Kurds if they speak Kurdish, though they are not always able to communicate: speakers of such major Kurdish dialects as Sorani   and Kurmanji cannot understand each other easily without some study. These dialects are in a relationship to each other as Dutch is to German. But in spite of the turbulent history of the modern-day Kurds, these dialects unite rather than divide them.

Kurdish is defined as a spectrum of many dialects that blend into each other geographically and linguistically, no one of which has emerged as a dominant Kurdish tongue. This will occur now that the written language is flourishing in Iraq and permitted to develop in Turkey.

The situation of the Kurdish language is in flux just as the situation of the Kurdish peoples is in flux. But one thing is certain, the Kurds will never disappear. For decades the Turkish government denied the existence of a Kurdish ethnic nationality. That situation can never return. The question now is, what is the Turkish ethnic nationality? That will be addressed in a later article.

Livingston T. Merchant - February 14, 2012


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