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Political obstacles to orthographic reform

The Kurdish effort to revise the Arabic script was certainly rooted in the inadequacy of the letters to represent the phonemic system of the language. An equally important motivation was, however, the desire of nationalist intellectuals to demonstrate the distinctiveness of Kurdish language and culture. It is this powerful motivation that accounts for the success of the reform conducted by individuals in the absence of any coordination and in the wake of opposition by the Iraqi government.

The Kurdish press provides extensive documentation of the significance attached,  by Kurdish nationalists to adopting an alphabet that was distinctly Kurdish. To give an early example, Haqqi Shaways began his series of 1925-26 articles on the revision of the Arabic script by quoting "a great European learned man" who had said, "Give me a few letters, I will give you a civilization; give me an alphabet and I will give you a great and orderly language." He then argued that the "Kurdish language should remain Kurdish... so that Kurdish tone and pronunciation is not impaired..." To achieve this purpose, he proposed his own revisions (cf. 8.2.I.B and Diyarî Kurdistan, 1925, No. 5, p. 8). In a new section of the magazine entitled "New Writing and Pure' Kurdish," he later wrote under the title "Le nûsîn şêwe da serbexoyî" (Independence in writing and style): "Since the Kurds are not similar to any other nation in historical and social life, they do not resemble others in either language or style Naturally, the basis of their reading and writing, too, will be di Heient And independent" (ibid., 192 No. 13-14, p. 18). Another reformer, Giw Mukriyani (1961:16), has argued that the Arabic script is Semitic, and "Aryan languages" such as Kurdish cannot be written in it.

Trying to confine Kurdish nationalism in all its manifestations, some of the top level authorities in the Iraqi government opposed any modification of the Arabic alphabet. The most influential person in the Ministry of Education, Abu Khaldun Sati' al-Husri, a well-known Arab nationalist, personally offered - persistent resistance.

When Tawfiq Wahby (then a Kurdish officer in the Iraqi Army) was commissioned by the government to compile a Kurdish grammar for the primary schools, he noticed that the Arabic letters did not adequately represent the sound system of the language and decided to use diacritical marks over the Arabic letters. The Ministry opposed this action, arguing that putting diacritics on the Arabic letters of the holy Koran was kufr 'blasphemy' (Wahby 1973a:10). The Kurdish side rejected this argument by noting that the Koran was originally written without diacritics, which were added much later.2 The authorities then commissioned a clergyman, Sidqi (1928), who did riot advocate radical reform of the script. Wahby continued his effort, however, and ordered, at his own expense, new letter-types cast in Egypt, and published his "Kurdish Language Grammar" in 1929. The authorities dismissed the book (Wahby, Ibid.; taped interview, London, July 28, 1976).

The dispute is reported in detail by I Husri in his memoirs (1967:457-74). According to this account, Wahby was one of the four members of a committee formed on the initiative of the Ministry to translate primary school textbooks from Arabic into Kurdish. He told the committee which was chaired by Husri about the necessity of orthographic reform before the books were translated. Wahby defended his proposal for adding 15 new letters and putting diacritics on 11 letters. Husri opposed the innovations, since he believed it would add 40 new letters to the printing presses, and would enormously complicate the reading and writing of Kurdish. He also argued that distinctions between Ill and /1/, for instance, did not require differentiation in writing, by analogy with Turkish (pan 460). However, Wahby and another member of the committee, Abd al-Rahm Salih, insisted on the reform and told Husri that they knew their own language better than he did.

Husri relegated the question to a wider meeting of Kurdish intellectuals, and the question was discussed, through Amin Zaki, Minister of Communications, himself a Kurdish historian, with Prime Minister Muhsin al-Sa'dun. It was decided to invite the opinion of Kurdish experts on Wahby's proposals through formal correspondence. Wahby wrote a detailed report and the committee provided a list of 35 names. When copies were prepared, Husri attached a note asking the respondents to express their opinion on how "to reconcile the reading of the Holy Koran with the reading of Kurdish" (p. 463). Just before mailing the letters, Wahby went to see Husri and found out about the note. He protested Husri's tactic of introducing the Holy Book into the controversy, arguing that the committee had not made that decision. Husri responded that he had raised the question in his capacity as Director General of Education, since the teaching of the Koran was part of the curriculum. Wahby informed Amin Zaki and the prime minister, and Zaki requested a copy of the note. However, Husri had arranged for the early mailing of the envelopes before responding to Zaki's request (p. 464).

When responses to Wahby's proposal came, Husri sent a report to the Minister in which he briefly outlined Wahby's proposed letters, his own detailed rejection of the proposal, and short references to the views of the respondents (pp. 465-556). According to Husri (p. 466), Wahby's proposal included the following:

(a)    the use of the four letters of Turkish and Persian,- i.e.,  پ /p,   ژ    /j,  چ /ç, گ/g, plus the addition of three dots to j  ف /f, to represent v/  ڤ .
(b)    the addition of diacritics over or under four consonants  ت /t,  ب /b,  ل /l,  and ر  /r,
(c) the addition of numerous diacritics over or under  ی /y and   و /w ( ی , ێ , ﻱ , ﯤ , و , ۆ ,  و, , ﯘ) and doubling of  و .

Husri's own criticism was based primarily on the lack of necessity to mark fine distinctions in writing as was the case in Persian, Turkish and English, where one letter represented several sounds. His last point was, however, the necessity of conformity between Kurdish reading and the Glorious Koran" (p. 469). Kurdish, he argued, "used not a few Arabic words" which if written in a form different from those appearing in the Koran would lead to great confusion in the minds of the students. The confusion could not be removed or reduced except by (a) adopting diacritics close to those used in the Koran, (b) writing the Koran according to the proposed Kurdish spelling, and (c) retention of the Arabic words used in Kurdish in their original spelling and restricting the new spelling to pure Kurdish words (pp. 469-70).

The committee had asked the respondents to give one of the following three answers: (1) agree with all the proposed letters, (2) agree with some of the letters and reject the rest, and (3) keep the Arabic alphabet as it is used in writing Persian and Turkish (p. 462).

Although Husri claims that most of the respondents rejected Wahby's proposed reform (p. 465) this is not supported by his brief recounting of each respondent's views (pp. 470-74).3 In fact, of the 25 respondents, eleven accepted the proposed reform, six accepted it with some changes, one accepted the need for reform but did not express an opinion, and seven rejected it. As far as the Koran is concerned, only five of the rejectionists expressed concern. Among the reformist respondents, one called for the translation of the Koran into Kurdish, a bigger sin, according to Islamic principles, than the alphabet revision; others either avoided the Koran issue or did not predict any problem. Two respondents found the solution in adopting the Roman alphabet (cf. 8.2.3).

Husri was removed from the position of Director General of Education in 1927 to teach in the Teachers Training College. Opposition to alphabet reform continued, however. The following quotation from a secret note written by one of the Mandate authorities, Edmonds, is revealing:

The author of an elementary Kurdish A.B.C., already adopted by the [Education] department recently brought out a second edition. Now Kurdish has in addition to the ordinary R & L, aspirated variants of these two letters distinguished by a dot below the R and above the L. Type being now available in Baghdad, the author applied to the Director of Education for permission to use these two letters. His refusal was of course attributed to hostility to Kurdish education and did much harm. How the inclusion of two dots, or even fifty dots, could prejudice the Iraqi State it is difficult to conceive. ("The Kurdish Question" by C.J. Edmonds included in letter, Secret No. S.A.321, by Cornwallis the Secretary to the High Commissioner for Iraq, May 12, 1929, Kurdish Policy File, No. 13/14, VI, pp. 189-99; cf. Fig. 33 for the book’s title- page and first page)

Since the government was not in a position to exercise control over private publishing, the reform was pursued outside of educational institutions, and by the 1950s, it was so popular that the Education department had to sanction the innovations.


  1. Prof. A. Hassanpour, Nationalism and Language in Kurdistan 1918 - 1985, USA, 1992


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