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A Brief History of the Turkish Government's

Language Planning Policy for Kurdish

Aiden Carter
November, 2015

Introduction
The relationship between governments and languages is complex. The success of one is
often seen as coming at the expense of the other, and in most cases this leads to government
attempts to control and direct the development of languages. Turkey is no exception to this
pattern, having embarked on a rigorous, intentional campaign to promote Turkish as the sole
language of the republic. This campaign has been remarkably successful, and linguists
worldwide have long praised the effectiveness of Turkeys approach to standardizing,
simplifying, and equalizing the Turkish language.
However, less attention has been given to the effect these policies have had on the
Kurdish language. The research that has been done does little to paint Turkey in a positive light.
The treatment of Kurdish speakers and the future of the Kurdish language are issues that now
stand at the center of many negotiations between Turkey and outside powers, especially the
European Union. This paper aims to give an overview of the policies and practices that have
marginalized Kurdish since the founding of the republic and how these have begun to change in
the last two decades.

Who are the Kurds?


It is impossible to truly understand the complex history of the Kurdish language in
Turkey without first examining the socio-political context of Kurds themselves. While the issues
are far too numerous to cover in a paper focused solely on the Kurdish language, they do provide
a necessary backdrop.
The Kurds are a distinct ethnic group found primarily in regions of Turkey, Syria, Iraq,
and Iran. During the final years of the Ottoman Empire, the Kurds were just one of many
minority groups the coexisted with Turks. Despite centuries of coexistence, [the Kurds still]

possessed undeniable public presence as a distinct group within the Ottoman Empire, with their
own political and cultural organisations, and their use of Kurdish, as well as the existence of
their homeland Kurdistan, was never in question (Haig, 2004, p. 123).
Since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire there have been various attempts by Kurdish
groups to establish their own nation state, or at least a region of autonomous rule within another
sovereign nation. Separatist movements in Syria, Turkey, and Iran have all been brutally
opposed, and only in Iraq has a degree of independence been reached with the establishment of
the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region in the north of the country. The longest running separatist
movement in Turkey, the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party), began in 1984 and has continued its
armed struggle against the Turkish government for the past 30 years. Any discussion related to
the Kurdish language in Turkey will inevitably tie into some aspect of the PKKs armed struggle,
despite the fact that it do not represent the interests and aspirations of all, or even most, Kurds
(Marcus, 2012).

What does Kurdish even refer to?


While Kurdish and Turkish have interacted for centuries, they are completely unrelated
and mutually-unintelligible. Turkish in an Altaic language, whereas Kurdish belongs to the IndoEuropean language family. There is no single, unified Kurdish language spoken anywhere in the
Middle East, and many speakers of Kurdish cannot understand speakers from other regions. In
that sense it may be more accurate to refer to Kurdish as a language family rather than an
individual language. For instance, in Turkey there are two major varieties spoken by Kurds:
Kurmanji and Zaza. Some native speakers describe the two as being like French and Italian
and hence not dialects of the same language, but totally distinct languages (Izady, 1992, p. 17).

There is still vigorous debate as to whether different varieties of Kurdish should be


classified as dialects or languages and, as there is no agreed-upon distinction between a language
and a dialect, it is not a debate that is likely to be settled soon (ODriscoll, 2014). It may be that
the classic saying, a language is a dialect with an army and a navy, is appropriate in this case.
However, since the Turkish government treats Kurmanji and Zaza as if they were one language,
and for the sake of simplicity, this paper will use the term Kurdish to refer to any variety
spoken by Kurds in Turkey (Cemiloglu, 2009).

The Turkish Governments Policy


Almost every nation that is not completely monolingual has a set of policies governing
the usage and promotion of languages within its borders. In addition to this, many nations
actively engage in language planning, defined as efforts to influence the behaviour of others
with respect to the acquisition, structure or functional allocation of their language codes"
(Cooper, 1989, p.45). Turkey is famous for its attempts at reforming Turkish to make it more
standardized, accessible to the masses, and free from outside influences. This aspect of language
planning is commonly known as corpus planning.
From the very beginning, the Turkish government has made its goal abundantly clear: it
wants the Turkish language to be the primary language of all Turks, and the only language used
in the public sphere. This should not be surprising, as Dicle Cemiloglu explains:
Many [nations] regard a shared first language as a means for greater economic and
political cooperation between citizens. The creation and adoption of such a language is a
means by which a nation imagines itself but its implications on other languages spoken
within the boundaries of the same polity can be disastrous.
Governments attempting to establish a uniform language across the nations often engage in
mass literacy campaigns, promotion of education in the official language, and other means to

accelerate linguistic convergence, and mandatory military service often acts as an important
promoter of linguistic uniformity (Cemiloglu, 2009, pp. 12-13). The language reform in Turkey
provides us with numerous examples of this type of behavior. Ataturk himself, the founder of the
republic, closely supervised the development of the new Turkish alphabet and went on trips all
over the country to lead the mass literacy campaigns. Turkey also makes use of the mandatory
military service tactic described by Cemiloglu.
While the Turkish language reform was primarily concerned with corpus planning, the
Kurdish language has been most affected by status planning. Status planning refers to attempts
by the government to influence which languages are used in which contexts, and the level of
prestige attributed to them (Haig, 2004). While the use of Turkish has been firmly established in
the constitution and reinforced by the government for decades, the Kurdish language has been
subjected to a variety of repressive measures, some subtle and others dramatically overt. In
examining the governments treatment of Kurdish, we must look at three different time periods:
1923-1991, 1991-2010, and 2010-2015.

1923-1991: From the foundation of the republic to the end of the Kurdish ban
From the very beginning of Turkeys existence minority languages have been viewed in
the framework of security. The Ottoman Empire had accommodated a large variety of different
languages, but during its dying years the Empire was racked by minority uprisings and revolts.
Early Turkish policy-makers, remembering these nationalist conflicts, took a different approach
and officially adopted monolingualism in the name of national unity and indivisibility. The
early Kurdish uprisings only helped reinforce the Turkish governments vision of a Turkey
unified by a single language and free from ethnic conflict (Cemiloglu, 2009, p. 20).

Amidst literacy campaigns and the Turkish language reform, the government continued
to push the ideal of Turkish as the sole language of the republic. There were even numerous
attempts to proclaim Turkish as the root of all human languages, most iconically represented in
the Sun-Language Theory. While laughable now, these attempts reflect the governments
attempts at Turkification and the central role the Turkish language played in this process.
The Turkish government did not overtly target Kurdish at this point. Rather, it promoted
Turkish to the exclusion of all else, and all other languages were forbidden in both the public and
private spheres. The government recognized the existence of various religious minorities and
acknowledged their right to use their mother tongue, but it simply refused to give the Kurds
minority status. Kurds, the government argued, were Muslims, and as such were not to be
considered a minority. This policy meant that requests for special status or language rights could
simply be ignored, because the Kurds did not technically even exist. All references to Kurds and
Kurdistan were scrubbed from public usage and replaced by mountain Turks and the East.
Kurds were described as being Turks who had been deceived into thinking they were a different
ethnicity due to years of isolation, and whose language had been corrupted by Persian. Haig
(2004) gives this assessment of the official standpoint on the Kurds:
Ever since the founding of the Republic, Turkeys political elite have systematically
attempted to deny that Kurds as an ethnic, linguistic and culturally independent people
exist within the territory of the new state. At times bizarre arguments have been
employed to dismiss the fact that within the states boundaries there are millions of
people with distinct cultural roots and whose native tongue is not Turkish. They have
been declared "Turks", albeit linguistically and culturally primitive versions, for example
"mountain Turks".
This lack of an overt policy of repression towards the Kurds and their language that
nevertheless succeeded in marginalizing them is sometimes called invisibilization (Cemiloglu,
2009; Haig, 2004).

The lack of a clearly laid out, public policy does not mean the government did not
attempt to completely suppress the use of Kurdish. In fact, many have argued that there were
systematic attempts at doing just that. By the late 1930s, all of the Kurdish provinces were placed
under military control, and the usage of Turkish in public was strictly enforced, to the point that
peasants who sold items in the urban market would be fined for every word of Kurdish they used
(Chaliand, 1993). There were also forced relocations of Kurdish speakers to Turkish speaking
areas of the country, a policy that continued for over a decade. In 1964, the government
established boarding schools that were meant to educate Kurdish children in Turkish from an
early age while separating them from their communities, and the military government of 1971
restricted the use of Kurdish even further (Kangas, 1981). Non-Turkish names were forbidden,
parents who gave Kurdish names to their children were prosecuted, and the Language Ban Act of
1983 proscribed the use of any language but Turkish in the public sphere. This effectively made
speaking Kurdish a constitutional treason, and every government building in the southeast
sported a sign reading: It is strictly prohibited to speak any other language than Turkish
(Cemiloglu, 1993, p. 40). This was the last straw for many Kurds, and the 70s and 80s saw the
emergence of several radical groups, of which the PKK became the most dominant and
influential.

1991-2010: Shifting policies under zal and Erdogan


The late 80s saw the emergence of one of Turkeys most important political figures:
Turgut zal. By the time he became president, the violent uprising of the PKK had been going
on for several years and had cost tens of thousands of lives, as well as causing enormous material
damage. The PKK, and by extension the Kurds, could no longer be ignored in the political
sphere. zal made history by being the first Turkish politician to admit that the governments

policies of assimilation and repression had failed. He recognized the reality of the Kurdish
problem and attempted to take steps to end the conflict, the most tangible one being the
repealing of the Language Ban Act in 1991. While seen as more of an appeasement gesture, the
PKK responded by declaring a peace initiative. zal admitted that the Kurdish problem had
arisen because of the governments repressive policies and violation of democratic rights, and he
suggested social, political, and cultural solutions in addition to the military operation against the
PKK. For the first time in modern Turkish history, the Mountain Turks became Kurds again
(Efegil, 2011; McDowall, 2004).
This hopeful period was brought to an abrupt end when zal died of a sudden heart
attack - so sudden that it is now believed he was poisoned. The peace process never got off the
ground, and the government did not take any concrete steps towards improving Kurdish rights
until 2002. It was then that the AKP, the Islamist Justice and Development Party, swept into
power. The AKP advocated implementing measures suggested in a 1991 report, including:
the end of punitive measures upon local people, ensuring regional economic
development, the improvement of human rights, development of the Kurdish culture, the
establishment of a Kurdish institute, the free publication of Kurdish newspapers and
journals, the formation of local parliaments, decreasing the central governments powers
and allowing the free use of the mother tongue.
Prime Minister Erdogan then made a landmark speech in Diyarbakr, the unofficial capital of
Kurdish Turkey, where he admitted the governments responsibility in causing the Kurdish
problem and promised to work towards greater toleration of local cultures within the framework
of Turkish unity (Efegil, 2011).
Some of these goals were met. In 2009 the first Kurdish TV station began broadcasting,
and the first message was Prime Minister Erdogan saying best wishes to TRT 6 -- in Kurdish.
This attitude shift is even more dramatic when juxtaposed against the case of Leyla Zana, the
first Kurdish woman to be elected to parliament, who was sentenced to 14 years in prison for

saying the last line of her swearing-in oath in Kurdish (Cemiloglu, 1993). However, the
government has consistently emphasized that economic development is the priority for the
region, not cultural rights. The argument is that if Kurds had better infrastructure and more
wealth, the PKK would lose its support base. Aliza Marcus sharply disagrees, arguing that while
Erdogan needs to make some accommodations to the Kurds, this doesnt mean, as some
Turkish commentators still insist, better economic opportunities for Kurds. Rather, peace can
only be achieved by ending the judicial assault on nonviolent Kurdish activists operating in the
legal, democratic sphere (Marcus, 2012, p. 21).

2010-2015: The fall of the AKP


The hope that Erdogan and his AKP party brought to the political scene has long since
drained away. While Erdogan claims he wants to solve the Kurdish problem...hes put forward
no plan and offered no process and as a result, after almost ten years in power, he has little if any
credibility on this issue (Marcus, 2012, p. 17). The AKP dominated in Kurdish regions for
years, but support for Erdogan has been cut in half over the past decade. Millions of Kurds have
flocked to the HDP, a left-wing Kurdish party that won representation in parliament in 2015.
The disillusionment with the AKP seems to be rooted in what Kurds see as failed
promises and mixed messages. There is a 24-hour Kurdish TV station, but many see it as merely
a government-run propaganda instrument (Erdim, 2009). Private Kurdish courses were offered
for the first time, but they all shut down due to lack of demand, ostensibly caused by a
combination of high prices and being restricted to students who had already completely eight
years of Turkish primary school. A Kurdish language and literature program was opened at a
university in 2011, but enrollment was limited to 300 students and hence was seen as an act
with no real significance to the Kurdish education of the Kurds, but rather a method used to

placate the European Union and the Kurdish organisations that had been calling for Kurdish
language education in Turkey (ODriscoll, 2014, p. 280; Tatekin, 2014).
Additionally, political oppression of Kurdish activists is still rampant. While Erdogan
may be allowed to speak Kurdish on national television, Kurdish activists campaigning for more
rights are consistently jailed and prosecuted. The accusation is usually that they are connected to
the PKK, and hence their activism is framed as a national security issue. In Diyarbakr in 2011,
152 Kurdish activists were placed on trial for alleged connections to the PKK, and among the
accused were elected mayors, human rights workers, lawyers, womens activists, and top BDP1
officials (Marcus, 2012, p. 18). One reason the trial has dragged on so long is that many of the
defendants will only give their testimony in Kurdish, and the judges will only accept testimonies
in Turkish. The government makes no distinction between those who are actual PKK
operatives, those who knowingly give their support to PKK dictates, and everyone else,
including, again, journalists (mainly Kurdish ones) documenting all this.
The states logic is that:
because these activities reflect PKK goals and interests, then the defendants must be
taking orders from the PKK. What the states case misses is that the defendants dont
need to take orders from the PKK. They share the same interests, the same over-all goals,
and the same support base. (Ibid, 2012, p. 19)
Over eight thousand individuals have been arrested since 2009 as the government has
increasingly attempted to crack down on the PKKs perceived activity in the political sphere. No
longer confined to guerilla warfare in the mountains, the government sees the PKK at work
everywhere - even in places it is not.

The HDP, the current pro-Kurdish party represented in parliament, is the successor to the BDP.

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Conclusion: The Future of Kurdish in Turkey


Kurdish language rights have come a long way since the founding of Turkey. The
government has shifted its policy from denying the existence of Kurdish, to violently proscribing
its usage, to admitting its mistakes and, ostensibly, encouraging basic reform. But many see the
reforms of the past 20 years as nothing more than appeasement tactics aimed at weakening the
PKK and improving Turkeys relationship with the European Union. Given the way the
government has continued to crack down on Kurdish activists and refused to consider primary
education in Kurdish, this is not hard to believe.
The Kurdish language in Turkey is at a crossroads. In Ireland, Gaelic was almost wiped
out after decades of government oppression, and attempts at reform and revitalization were too
few and too late to reverse the process of linguicide. The sheer number of Kurdish speakers in
Turkey, between 10% and 20% of the total population, and the historical resilience of Kurdish
mean it stands a chance of survival. But decades of repression have taken their toll, especially in
the public sphere. While Kurdish is spoken in homes in Turkeys Kurdish regions 70% of the
time, that number drops to 60% in the neighborhood and less than 50% in the work and
marketplaces (Gncelleme, 2008; ODriscoll, 2014). The biggest issue is that many Kurdish
children are becoming increasingly comfortable with Turkish and unable to speak Kurdish
fluently, something that is almost inevitable given the almost total lack of education in Kurdish
and the dominance of Turkish in the public sphere.
The coming decades will decide the fate of the Kurdish language. The Turkish
government will have to choose between linguistic diversity and its policy of homogenization, a
policy that has been embedded in the constitution since the foundation of the republic. But the
fate of Kurdish is intricately interwoven with the development of Kurdish regions in the

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southeast of Turkey, the peace process with the PKK, and, ultimately, stability in the Middle
East. Kurdish can no longer be ignored.

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