by Théotime Chabre

Of all aspects of Kurdish culture, one of the more complex is linguistics. While there are multiple Kurdish dialects and other languages imposed by the states where the Kurds live, there are limited ways to communicate across the entire Kurdish nation. Still, the community has developed ways of adapting to these circumstances, providing that linguistic diversity can be enriching rather than crippling.

It’s the 16th of November, 2013, in the city of Diyarbakır in the southeast of Turkey. The whole population seems to have taken to the streets. Tens of thousands are gathered in the city square, standing still, waving both Kurdish and Turkish flags. The heat of summer has gone, letting the city breathe for once, and everybody wants to be a part of history in the making. Masoud Barzani, the leader of Iraqi Kurdistan, is addressing the people of the “Capital of Northern Kurdistan” for the first time, standing side by side with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, prime minister of Turkey at the time, and currently its president.

At the same moment, I am sitting at a table in the Yasam Et Restaurant in Beyoglu, Istanbul, the meeting point of enthusiasts of cheap delicacies from the Kurdish city of Hasankeyf. Focused on the steaming plate of rice and liver in front of me, some five minutes went by before I noticed the religious silence that had descended onto the restaurant. The garson, cooks and customers, like millions of people all around the country, had turned all of their attention to the TV in the upper right corner of the room, listening to every word of Barzani’s speech – or rather to the instantaneous translation. Like their ethnically Turkish compatriots, the Kurds of Turkey had to listen carefully to the Turkish translation in order to follow the speech of the Kurdish leader.

I wondered why Kurdish people, watching a known Kurdish TV channel, would follow a speech by one of the most famous Kurdish leaders, who was speaking about the need to respect Kurdish culture, in Turkish? The answer struck me when I asked the waiter beside me and he explained that they could not understand Barzani’s Kurdish.

The Kurdish people, the ones who regularly make headlines in Turkey, Iraq and Syria; the ones described in countless articles as the “largest stateless nation in the world,” do not share a common language? Skeptical at first, I decide to dig further into the topic in order to grasp the dynamics of Kurdish nationalism.

Language or dialect

Clémence Scalbert-Yücel is the head of the Department of Contemporary Studies at the French Institute for Anatolian Studies. During her many years of fieldwork, she has thoroughly studied the different languages spoken by the Kurdish populations. “This story illustrates the fact that Kurds speak different languages that might not be mutually intelligible. So, when somebody speaks about Kurdish, the person usually refers to a group of languages that share some similarities and are the traditional mode of expression of the Kurdish people.”

Here, I should explain why the choice of the word “language” is important. Scalbert-Yücel’s labelling of the different iterations of Kurdish as “languages” emphasises that they are not derived from a shared source: They have developed in close contact but independently of one another.

But others are of a different opinion. Joyce Blau is a linguist and the chief editor of the publication of the Kurdish Institute of Paris, Études Kurdes. For decades now, she has been working side by side with Kurdish intellectuals committed to pan-Kurdish national ideals and is one of the leading figure of Kurdish standardisation. While she totally agrees with the fact that “all Kurdish dialects share common characteristics not found elsewhere,” she prefers to use the term dialects rather than languages. In her own words, “There is an ensemble that is called Kurdish, and several dialects that live side by side. Until now, there has not been a Kurdish State to unite them – that is why the dialects remain. In the same way, 19th century Frenchmen spoke Gascon or Picard before the unification process spread the language of the region of Paris on the entire territory.”

Calling these idioms dialects assumes that they are bound to be united by a future Kurdish State, which will promote one national language. While labelling different manifestations of Kurdish “languages” stresses the differences between them and the absence of a unique idiom among Kurds, the term “dialects” highlights their common belonging to a group whose linguistic and political unification is inevitable.

In what follows, to avoid confusion, I use the terms “language” and “dialect” interchangeably when discussing idioms that are so independent from one another they prevent cross-comprehension, and use the term “patois” for the ones that are close enough to allow for it.

A divided people

Kurdish languages belong to the large Indo-European family, like most European languages. Closely related to Farsi, they are spoken by approximately 30 million people around the world. Some of them, such as Zazaki in Turkey and Gorani in Iran and Iraq, are restricted to tight geographical areas. Only Kurmanji and Sorani, the two dominant forms, developed into languages of literature and communication outside of their areas of origins. All of these dialects, including Kurmanji and Sorani, share a common heritage but have proved so different that communication between a Sorani and a Kurmanji speaker is difficult and limited to basic conversations. A political speech, like the one Barzani delivered in his native Sorani, would prove too complicated to understand.

“The dialectal differences are ancient and not a product of political influences, but recent national boundaries have increased the differences,” says Scalbert-Yücel. The fall of the Ottoman Empire and the remodelling of the region has incidentally had a huge impact on the linguistic distribution of the Kurds.

Kurmanji, spoken by approximately three-quarters of the Kurds, is the main language among those residing in Turkey and Syria and some parts of Iran and Iraq. Numerous publications attempted to codify it as early as in the 19th century, introducing an adapted version of the Latin alphabet to replace the Arabic script in 1932. It is still used today in Kurmanji publications, literature and media and, among pan-Kurdish nationalist circles, there is almost no debate on the question that Kurmanji, in its standardised version, is bound to become the official language of the Kurdish state-to-be.

But the creation of three separate national entities out of the multicultural Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War prevented language standardisation. Kurds had been offered an independent state by the treaty of Sèvres that planned the dismemberment of the empire. However, the victories of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk over the Allies resulted in the Treaty of Lausanne and the proclamation of the Turkish Republic, which resulted in the division of Ottoman Kurds. A large majority ended up in the new Republic of Turkey and fell victim to strong anti-minority policies. “Everywhere in Turkey, the practice of Kurdish was subjected to a range of punishments. People were fined only for talking Kurdish in the street,” says Scalbert-Yücel, according to whom the nationalist project had to be put aside, for the time being at least.

Because the balance of power in Iraq between the central administration and the Kurds was more favourable to the latter than in Turkey, the Kurdish region of that country soon became the centre of Kurdish cultural production. This introduced a major difference: The dominant language among the Kurds of Iraq is not Kurmanji, but Sorani. The second main dialect of Kurdish, Sorani, is spoken in the north of Iraq and in the south of the Kurdish regions of Iran and is written in an Arabic script.

Today, Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government has enforced a policy of Kurdification in the area under its control. Blau explains that “in the Kurdish autonomous region of Iraq, everything has been translated and Kurdish Sorani has become the official language of administration and education while Arabic is marginalised.” As a consequence, many from the new generation of Iraqi Kurds are monolingual, able to speak only Sorani, conversing with difficulty both with fellow Kurds from Turkey and their Arab compatriots. This development is crucial for understanding the debate on Kurdish languages. Now that Sorani, which is still spoken by a minority of Kurds, has become a strong administrative and literary language, the question of how to go about the unification process has become tougher and more complicated.

“Let us speak our language!”

History has divided the Kurds and pushed away the dreams of nationalists to unify their people under one linguistic banner. For decades, users of Kurmanji and their supporters have been persecuted in Turkey. But political activism in the 1970s gave birth to a multidimensional cultural and political movement, led by human-rights NGOs, political activists and members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), who defended the Kurds’ right of existence as a cultural entity with one main objective: “Let us speak our language!”

Some intellectuals, mainly in exile, dedicated their lives to carrying on the work of standardising and promoting Kurmanji, which had been abandoned in the 1930s. Blau recalls with emotion the story behind the founding of the Kurdish Institute of Paris. In 1983 Kendal Nezan, a young physicist from Silvan in Turkish Kurdistan, founded the Kurdish Institute while in exile in Paris, with the support of Danielle Mitterrand, the wife of then French president François Mitterrand. The main goal was to promote the use of Kurdish and create tools to allow for its teaching. Blau, who has been part of the adventure since the beginning, shares her excitement with me: “We established the Kurdish academy. We have a linguistic seminar that has worked for 30 years to settle standards to write and publish in Kurmanji. Nowadays, we organise reunions all over Europe and even in Turkey!”

Under this combined pressure, the Turkish state started making concessions. In 1991, speaking Kurdish in public spaces was legalised, as was writing and publishing in the language. During the 2000s, the decreasing power of the army made it possible for the government led by the Justice and Development Party to take several small steps further, creating a public channel that started broadcasting in Kurdish in 2009, for example, and voting laws restoring the official Kurdish name of some municipalities in 2012. Nowadays, Kurmanji is taught in a couple of universities and in private institutes. Even more, the pro-Kurdish parties have gained momentum as of late, securing major cities in Kurdish regions. In these cities, they haven’t waited for state authorisation to make Kurdish a de facto official language, side by side with Turkish. While in Blau’s own words there is still a long way to go, all of this was unimaginable some decades ago. Since the rekindling of the conflict between the Turkish state and the Kurdish movement, the “honeymoon” between the AKP and the Kurds has now turned into a quasi-civil war, strengthening these cities’ will of political autonomy.

Blau points out that Kurdish kids still have no other option than to attend school in Turkish, following classes in a language they do not understand since most teachers do not speak Kurdish. And, despite Kurdish’s appearance in public spaces, decades of destructive state policies left their mark on it and impeded its development.

I got to know Mesut Ozan at a reunion of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (or HDP, the main Kurdish political party in Turkey) in İzmir last August. At first sight, Ozan looked like one of those nice salt-and-pepper haired volunteers that give their free time to charity organisations, but with much more vigour. I got swept away listening as he unravelled the story of his life in a fast-paced Turkish articulated in a strong eastern accent, quite different from the Istanbul youngster speech I had been accustomed to.

Ozan has been committed to the ideals of the Kurdish Movement since his youth. He arrived in İzmir for the first time under dramatic circumstances. In 1980, the army took over the government, banned most political parties and arrested tens of thousands in an attempt to shut down all political activity in the country. The putschists drafted a new constitution, describing Turkish as the only mother tongue of the country. After the coup, Ozan was jailed for his active support of Kurdish cultural rights in the infamous Diyarbakır Prison with other political detainees. He was so severely tortured he had to be transferred to one of İzmir’s best hospitals after he was released – on the other side of the country. He eventually stayed in his host city, 1,400 kilometres away from his native Dersim, but closely knitted into the Kurdish community. Now retired, he works with what he describes as “a team of Kurdish socialists and democrats.” He volunteers regularly at the local HDP office.

Forced migrations, to the main cities of the south east such as Diyarbakır and Batman, but also to the megalopolises of the west and the south – Istanbul but also Ankara, İzmir, Antalya or Mersin – have brought Kurds from many different regions together. Unsurprisingly, Ozan is the type of person to use Kurdish whenever possible. However, when asked which language he speaks with fellow Kurds, he says, “Usually, we are using Turkish, because not everybody speaks a Kurdish language and the ones that do usually speak in their local patois.”

“Only a small proportion of Kurds know the standardised version of Kurmanji, mostly educated individuals that learned it by themselves,” says Scalbert-Yücel. No Kurdish language is taught in schools in Turkey, except in certain university departments that opened in the past few years. For many Kurds, living until recently for the most part in rural areas, local identities, and among them the local patois, are predominant.

I went to Evka Bir, a neighbourhood supposed to be inhabited mostly by Kurds, and met Nurullah Okçu, a young vegetable seller, in the market. I explained to him that I wanted to get an idea about where Kurds predominantly live in the city and asked him to give me names of neighbourhoods I should visit. He answered my question in a way that surprised me: “Listen, I will tell you this way: Around Gediz, you’ll find mostly people from Mus. In Kadifekale [a neighbourhood in Izmir], they would rather come from Mardin [a city from the southeast].” He was not telling me where I could find “Kurds,” but where people from some towns were living. Nurullah’s statement, to me, implied that these people might feel Kurdish, but their city of origin, their memleket, is more important to them. In the absence of an organised Kurdish administration, local identities remain dominant over the “national” Kurdish identity.

The same goes for the language. The Kurmanji they speak is not the standard version heard on some TV channels or taught in some private institutions abroad. It’s a local version, a patois, that differs from village to village and neighbourhood to neighbourhood, and strengthens the link to the memleket. The differences between patois are not as strong as those between Kurmanji and Sorani: People from different cities in Turkey understand each other, but they might have to talk slowly. Furthermore, the patois are not usually written, which limits their use.

A symbol of freedom

How, in these conditions, can the Kurds still share a feeling of belonging to one nation? Kurdishness is about more than sharing one common language. “The conscience of sharing a history of collective oppression is also binding the national community,” as Scalbert-Yücel puts it.

Kurdish, as an ensemble of languages, is a symbol of unity for Kurds, even if they haven’t all mastered it. “The linguistic particularity, which has not been recognised nor unified, has been a strong factor of unification for the Kurds, for the ones who could actually speak Kurdish and for the ones who could not alike,” according to Scalbert-Yücel.

In Turkey, this phenomenon is particularly visible among the children of forced migrants. More accustomed to urban standards and more educated, young Kurds are rediscovering an identity their parents had to keep under the surface. Supported by a number of human-rights activists from all over the ethnic and political spectrum of the country, they are carrying their Kurdish identity out in the open, as a manifesto. Although they might not speak standard Kurmanji at home, or any Kurdish language at all, they have adopted it as a symbol. One of the major actions they have taken in the recent years is to insist on using their Kurdish name on official documents and at school. These names usually have meanings deeply enshrined in the decades-long fight for their rights. The Kurdish names are usually recognisable because they use letters that do not exist in the Turkish alphabet, such as x and w.

I met Ezgi Karakus in Istanbul five years ago when I first came to the city. A law student at Marmara University, she was the first person to tell me about Zazaki, a language spoken by around three million Kurds near the region of Dersim in eastern Turkey. Zazaki is quite different from both Kurmanji and Sorani. I directly thought about her when writing this article. I wanted to ask her about her favourite word in the language. Puzzlingly, she sent me a word in Kurmanji, Arjin, a popular name for girls meaning “honourable life.” I asked her why she had not preferred one from her own native language. No Zazaki word, she told me, had as powerful a meaning as the ones she could think of in Kurmanji.

Kurdish is first a symbol of one’s freedom as a people, she adds: “Speaking Kurdish is important to me and to almost all Kurdish people because it represents our liberty. Before in Turkey, people couldn’t speak Kurdish in public even if it was their mother language. Now when I hear people speaking Kurdish in public, it makes me glad, as if they had broken free from their chains.” Since the 2000s and the scaling back of the army’s power in Turkey, the ban on speaking Kurdish in public has been lifted, but the government still keeps tight control over its teaching and use in official matters.

In fact, the lack of standardisation might not even be an issue. Kurdish media and scientific institutes operate in several languages. Rudaw, one of the main source of news from Iraqi Kurdistan, publishes in a five different languages: Sorani, Kurmanji, Arabic, Turkish and English – the language of many Kurds of the diaspora. The younger generation regularly uses English to debate on social networks. The language section of the online forum Roj Bash Kurdistan (“Hello Kurdistan”) is full of subjects such as “Merging all Kurdish Languages” and “Kurdish lessons on Twitter.”

In Turkey, the battle for information from both camps has come to terms with the multilingualism of Kurdish societies. Since the 1990s, MED TV then Roj TV, channels linked to the PKK, broadcast content in Kurmanji, Sorani, Zazaki and Gorani, another Kurdish dialect mostly present in Iran, as well as in Turkish, Arabic and Persian. More recently, the public Turkish Radio and Television Corporation, also known as TRT, has started broadcasting news and entertainment programs in Kurmanji and Zazaki. With TRT Kurdî, the government wanted to show its readiness to engage to a certain extent on the topic of Kurdish rights while at the same time trying to counter the influence the PKK gathered through its own channels.

A message for a multicultural world

The project of Kurdish linguistic unification will probably not manifest in the next few years – it might not happen at all. Throughout history, Kurds have spoken, and keep speaking, other languages alongside their mother tongue. They maintained their identity while taking what enriched them from others.

An old friend comes to my mind. He picked me up while hitchhiking my way out of Diyarbakır and accepted to take me to his village – one of those you find near the roads through the cotton fields of Batman. The locals call the village by its ancient name, Tuşha, but officially it is known by the sadly descriptive Turkish name of “three hills” – Üçtepe – by the government. You couldn’t find a single shop there. Sitting in the guest room, he told me how he stopped going to school as a kid for fear of being beaten for not speaking proper Turkish. Despite this, he would spend hours of his time reading Turkish poetry.

Being able to live one’s own culture in the open is a basic human right. But even more powerful is being capable to reach and seize through layers of oppression the richness of other cultures.

This article was written during the summer of 2015, while the fight between the PKK and the Turkish State were rekindling. Beginning of July 2015, the assassination of two Turkish policemen was claimed by the PKK as a retaliation for a suicide attack that took the life of 33 young volunteers going to Kobane. Since then, the Turkish civil government has launched a massive counterterrorist operation against the PKK, breaking a three-year-long ceasefire. The fightings have progressively evolved in a quasi-civil war in Northern Kurdistan. Put under constant curfews, the civil population is suffering: the war has now taken more than 200 civilian lives.

After spending time in Turkey and Israel/Palestine, Théotime Chabre is now finishing a Master's in Political Sociology on missing people in Cyprus. He writes mainly academic texts, but goes from time to time into journalism and geopolitics.