The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), an autonomous political entity administering the Iraqi Kurdistan, is celebrating its 20th anniversary as the first lasting Kurdish administrative establishment of the last 150 years. This region is home to an estimated 4-5 million Kurds who share a common identity and culture, but who also speak a great variety of dialects of the Kurdish language. In view of this linguistic diversity, the KRG is facing many difficulties in language-planning and education. Despite the existence of many pioneer works and call by scholars for a practical unified writing system as a measure to meet the dialectal diversity in a well formulated language planing, the issue has become an unfortunate battle filed for Kurdish Face. Since the early 1920s there has been an illusive search for the “superior dialect,” and “preferred writing system” to represent the Kurdish Language in all its forms and dialects, in the region. Doubtlessly, the Kurdish language needs to develop a standard form to offer a common ground to its divers speakers with their myriad local dialects. This paper provides a concise overview of various possible approaches to the language issue in Kurdistan while offering a new solution for creation of a standard Kurdish writing system to suite any electronic medium bridging the Kurdish dialectal varieties.
Keywords: Kurdish, Unified Alphabet, Yekgirtú, Standards, Computational Linguistic
This year marks nearly 20 years of the Kurdish near-independent political rule over Iraqi Kurdistan. This region is home to an estimated 4-5 million Kurds who share a common identity and culture, but who also speak a great variety of dialects.
In the northernmost area of the Kurdistan Region, people speak a Northern Kurdish variety which they variously call Behdíní, Surcí, Hekarí, Shengarí and Sinjarí. In the more southerly areas, one will find a Central Kurdish variety referred to by the names of the subregions or a tribe, such as Mukrí/Mukriyani, Erdelaní, Germíyaní, Soraní, Xoshnaw, Píjhder, Píraní, Wermawe, and Hewlérí.
Further to the south of this region, a South Kurdish variety dubbed as Bajelaní, Kelhirí, Guraní, Zengene, and Kakayí is spoken. Furthermore, Hewramí – believed to be the most ancient form of dialects presently spoken by the Kurds – is spoken along the Iran-Iraq border with its sub-dialects known locally as Bésaraní, Textí, Shéxaní and Hellebjeyí, in addition to Shabaki in Mosul area.    In view of this linguistic diversity, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is facing an enormous problem relating to language planning and education. In this paper, I provide a concise overview of various common approaches to the language issues and then offer a solution for the creation of a standard Kurdish writing system to bridge the Kurdish varieties.
The question of language became critical in the aftermath of WWI, when the double process of ‘nation destroying’ and ‘nation-building’ started simultaneously. The European philosophy of “One nation, One People and One language” reshaped the whole Middle East regions with nearly a dozen new states. The Kurds needed to quickly shape up their diverse multidialectal language and religious community to be able to gain the right to self-determination as one of dozens of nations freed from the Ottoman Empire. As a political argument, the Kurdish political elites and pro-Kurdish voices such as C.J. Edmonds used the language factor to justify the Kurdish cause . The main focus was to mobilise a single dialect monopoly of Babaní (Silémaní) to represent the official language of a Kurdish state.
Now the history repeated itself as on 20 April 2008 in a solely Kurdish prepared formula a new round of controversy on the state of the Kurdish language began when the Kurdish weekly Hawlati (issue No. 415) published a petition signed by a group of 53 of some well known Kurdish writers, authors and academics calling for the Mid-Kurdish sub-dialect of Babaní “Soraní” to become the “Official language” of Kurdistan region in Iraq. The petition was presented to the various bodies of KRG, and to the leadership of the main Kurdish political parties. Yet again, recently, in a similar attempt on 21 Dec 2009, the KRG body of Kurdistan Academy in Hewlér (Erbil) organised a conference on “Official Language of Iraqi Kurdistan”. The organisers had selected and invited guests to discuss a possible statement to formally announce the Mid-Kurdish Dialect (Soraní) as the official language of KRG. Both of these recent attempts share a single outcome, where both failed to achieve their goals. Once again the déjà vu scenarios of the aftermath of WWI recurred and turned the future of the Kurdish language into a political agenda rather than a linguistic debate for an original solution where the multidialectal nature of Kurdish could be celebrated, and a fundamental long-term solution could be sought. The story of the Kurdish nation and the battle for addressing the real issue will continue.
Indeed, no nation needs to have an exclusive language, much less a standard language, in order to exist as a nation. This includes the Kurds. The Kurdish nation with its diversity in culture, history, environment, literature and dialects has existed as long as history has been recorded. The Kurdish nation includes all those who call themselves Kurds, whether they can presently speak the Kurdish language in one or more of its present dialects. Due to various natural or coercive measures employed by the states that presently administer the regions to which the Kurds are indigenous, a large portion of the Kurdish population no longer speak their once native language. However, a language can be one of the most important factors to bring a nation together, and therefore, requires careful preservation and fostering.
In the meantime, those who maintain sentiments for or against nation-state building sentiments are politicising the Kurdish language issue too far and unjustifiably so. Rather than a never-ending political discourse and disagreement, the aspiration of building a nation-state should be addressed by a popular referendum, a body of laws, and by the composition of a constitution and an enactment of the people’s will. Whether the reform of Kurdish language to better serve its speakers helps the disparate segments of the Kurdish nation converge, is independent of the logistics of physically constructing and legitimately establishing the geographical boundaries for a country called Kurdistan.
The Language Issues
The Kurdish language is in need of a practical language policy that allows for a proper time to develop a structure for wider communication cross its dialects. Such a mission would encompass the establishment of certain standards in writing the language and expressing it in its rich cluster of dialects. One way to achieve this is by promoting all dialects of Kurdish but using a single unified writing system. A strong, workable, feasible and popular one will naturally find its way to become a link for all of them. The Kurdish nation has a unique character, and it needs to find a unique language planning which suits a nation with a pluricentric language and demographic diversities.
This is the first time in recent history that Kurds are running their own affairs. The KRG needs to take time, debate and establish a strong and capable institute to explore all the practical solutions. One shall not be afraid to reform and undo the past mistakes found in the relatively short time of Kurdish language planning experience. Kurds can learn from the history and experiences of other nations in the modern world by studying their mistakes and successes in the development of various language planning. The Kurds can develop a viable solution of their own to celebrate their multidialectal language. The Kurdish language planning needs to cover a measured effort to influence the function of Kurdish language-variety within its speech community. The goals of such a language planning should include planning for effective unlimited communication whilst preserving the Kurdish nature.
If I as someone who received no education in my mother tongue —South Kurdish– and a native of south Kurdistan can read a specific article written in Mid-Kurdish or North Kurdish and understand it 100% then where should the debate for language planning put its real effort to create a feasible and workable inter links between Kurdish speakers? If the whole Kurdish writing systems for any dialects were forced to shape based on political circumstances in the aftermath of WWI rather than real field work of social and linguistic research, then where should we make an effort to create an inter link between Kurdish dialects? If the whole issue is solved by educating a generation in writing Kurdish with a single unified alphabet and promoting common vocabulary in any dialects (despite their grammatical differences), then why should we have a battlefield of superiority of this dialect or that dialect?
A reformed unified writing system is a feasible approach
As the language appears as one of the most controversial issues among Kurds, the anti- and pro-reform of Kurdish writing systems are using a variety of arguments against each other. Some have gone as far as calling Perso-Arabic based Kurdish writing systems as a holy script based on religious domination , and others have built a national identity around Turkish-Latin based Kurdish writing system and call that a national symbol for the Kurdish nation . Both sides are looking into this issue as a closed case and dismiss any reform attempts based on personal ambition for Kurdish codification championship. After all, the alphabet is the symbol for functional communication, not national identity. Now one shall identify that as a holy national identity and deny its shortcoming in a wider perspective. Here, there is no race to the national codification championship. It is not the question of which idea or individual “should win,” as long as the Kurdish nation wins at the end.
However, many renowned Kurdish and non-Kurdish scholars have already expressed their views on the suitability of a Latin-based Kurdish writing system for the Kurdish language at large. The elite literati such as Tawfiq Wehbi, C. J. Edmonds, D. N. Makenzie, J. A. Bedir Khan, A.R. Haji Marif, V. Minorsky were, and A. Hassanpour and J. Nebez today are among those who advocated/advocated for a Latin based writing system. Professor Nebez states that “So much more important is the matter of a single, unified alphabet. I was, and still am, of the opinion that the Latin alphabet must be reformed and promoted. The promotion of the writing of the Kurdish language in the Latin alphabet does not mean that it’s writing in the Arabic-based scripts should be completely ignored.” The history of Kurdish codification shows that Latin has been the premier choice of many pioneers  and if it were not for the political pressures in the aftermath of WWI, Kurds would have started an era of writing in a Latin based Kurdish.
There are many shortcomings with current Kurdish writing systems being used. These include workability, cross-dialectal usage, and a lack of International IT-based Standards and representation for Kurdish . To avoid the communication obstacles presented by the existence of various Kurdish writing systems, a standard Kurdish Unified Alphabet (KUAL) or Yekgirtú has been developed by this writer’s organization that is based on International ISO-8859-1 Standards code making and enabled by most common Unicode code presenting. This modern Kurdish (IS) alphabet contained some minor changes in the existing Latin based alphabet and adopted new signs. The new signs were introduced to improve the flexibility of the writing system in Kurdish. This effort was undertaken as part of KAL’s broad endeavour to revive and promote the use of the Kurdish language for the benefit of the new generation of Kurds. The system devised and presented by KAL is simple and adequate for the purpose of communicating via the Internet and any electronic media .
The unified electronic-friendly alphabet can appear in any browser without limitations. The users of the unified alphabet will simply write in their own Kurdish dialect and bridge the diverse Kurdish dialects. The articles will be noted by the name of the used dialect. This will serve to increase curiosity among Kurds to follow a range of expressions in different Kurdish dialects. The unified alphabet will serve the Kurdish community to better understand and appreciate its own complexity. A common unified alphabet will also foster increased understanding of Kurdish national interests. Such an approach needs responsible media to choose words wisely and make an effort to not alienate other Kurdish dialects. The media at this stage of Kurdistan’s history plays a great role in public education. Kurdish media shall work towards a more flexible usage of language and common vocabulary for a better common understanding rather than isolated dialectal based.
Dr. Dilan Roshani is the founder and director of the Kurdish Academy of Language Network, a non-governmental e-organization devoted to Kurdish language research.
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NOTE: This article was presented at “The First KAES Conference on the Kurdish Language”, at UCL, CA, USA on 5th Nov 2010 (click to access)
Roshani, D. (2010), “Nation State building or language planning”, The First KAES Conference on the Kurdish Language, at UCL, CA, USA on 5th Nov 2010 (click to access)