Kurdish Language Policy in Turkey

Amir Hassanpour

The policy of Republican Turkey since its establishment in 1923, is a typical case of what has been called "linguicide" or "linguistic genocide" (cf. below). Replacing the loosely integrated Ottoman state, Republican Turkey was established as a highly centralized, secular and westernized nation-state based on Turkish ethnic identity. The practice of centralization and Turkisfication led to a number of Kurdish revolts (in 1925, 1927-31, 1930-38) which were severly repressed (cf. Jwaideh 1960:593-640).

Amir Hassanpour

The policy of Republican Turkey since its establishment in 1923, is a typical case of what has been called "linguicide" or "linguistic genocide" (cf. below). Replacing the loosely integrated Ottoman state, Republican Turkey was established as a highly centralized, secular and westernized nation-state based on Turkish ethnic identity. The practice of centralization and Turkisfication led to a number of Kurdish revolts (in 1925, 1927-31, 1930-38) which were severly repressed (cf. Jwaideh 1960:593-640).

Policy on the Kurdish language was based on a more general and long-term aim of changing the ethnic composition of the Kurds, who formed the most numerous and densely populated non-Turkish people in the country. To achieve this end, the Turkish government deported hundreds of thousands of people from Kurdistan to Turkish-inhabited regions of the country, conducted mass executions after each revolt, the resettled Turkish immigrants from Europe in the Kurdish areas in the 1920s-1940s (documentation is available in Rambout 1947; Kenda 1980a:58-68; Bedr Khan 1928). By the late 1930s, all the Kurdish provinces were effectively controlled by the military who, established a police post in every village of some size (van Bruinessen 1984:8).

Forcing the Kurds to abondon their language and become native speakers of Turkish is the primary goal of the language policy. Various methods have been used in the past seven decades to eliminate the Kurdish language.

A. Proscription of the Spoken Use of Kurdish. The ban on spoken languge in public places, government offices and schools was easy to enforce. In the earlier decades, special government officials were charged with enforcing the ban in urban centers. It is known, for example, that even the peasants who brought their supplies to the urban market were liable to a fine of five piasters for every Kurdish words they uttered. A sheep was worth fifthy piasters at the time (Kendal 1980a:83).

Physicl violence and separation from one’s own family were some of the other methods used in Turkish schools to prevent the student from speaking Kurdish. Students were also punished for speaking their language outside the classrooms during the breaks. Boarding schools (Bölge Yatili Okullari) were established in 1964, in order to isolate students for the greater part of the year and to encourage them to forget their mother tongue (skutnabb-Kangas 1981:308-12).

"Symbolic violence" (Ibid., p. 313), e.g., making native speakers ashamed of their language, parents, and origins, has been most intensively carried out against the Kurds. The names "Kurd" and "Kurdistan" were banned and replaced by Dagli Türkler, `mountain Kurd’ and Dogu, ‘the East’. The existence of a Kurdish nation was denied in innumerable articles, books, and speeches while the Turks were exalted, under the new version of Turkish history, as the most valiant and noble race on earth. Under the "Sun-Language Theory" (Günesh-Dil teorist), adopted in 1935, it was claimed that Central Asia, the ancient homeland of the Turks, was the cradle of human civilisation and Turkish was the mother of all languages. Kurds were considered a tribe of Turanian (Turkish) origin which had forgotten its native tongue due to isolation in accessible mountains and by falling under the influence of its Persian neighbours (for a detailed documentation for the theory and its application to the Kurds, c.f. Beshiçi 1977).

The denial of the existence of a Kurdish nation was carried out through falsification of both the history and language of the Kurds. In this connection, the Iraqi ambassador to Turkey (1958-64), talib Mushtaq 1969:374) recalled, in his memoirs, the Turkish claim that Kurdish was a language with no grammatical rules and with a mixed vocabulary of only 8428 words: 

Old Turkmen 3,080
Arabic words used in Turkish 2,000
Zand language 1,240
Modern POersian 1,030
Old Pahlavi 370
Original Kurdish 300
Armenian 200
Chaldean 108
Circassian 60
Georgian 20
Total No. of words used in Kurdish 8,428

In doctrination has been especially intensive in the educational institutions where Kurds are pictured as "bad," "dirty." and "primitive," (Skutnabb-Kangas 1981:310-12). This view has laready made itself felt in the Turkish language. The third edition of The Oxford Turkish-English Dictionary (1984), for example, provides two meanings for K:rt: (ethn.) Kurd; (pej.) uncivilized person."

The proscription of the spoken language included also government efforts to dissuade the Kurds from listening to foreign broadcasts in Kurdish (Kendal 1980a:75). Numerous radio stations were set up in Kurdish towns, which together with the poerful central transmitters provide round-the-clock programs in Turkish (cf. 7.4.4, on broadcast policy).

B. The Prosciption of Written Kurdish. The suppression of written Kurdish has been more successful than spokn Kurdish since it is much easier to control the possession of print or manuscript material by individuals and groups or their circulation in libraries (c.f. 7.2.9). Not only writing in Kurdish but the writing of the name Kurd and Kurdistan in any language is proscribed (the only exception is the word Kürrtçe `Kurdish` used in census reports).

During "liberalization periods" (1967-71, 1975-80), however, a new generation of intellectuals and political activists undertook the publishing of bilingual periodicals, two Kurdish-Turkish dictionaries, one grammar and even a self-censored edition of Khani’s Mem û Zîn. Most of these publications were banned soon after their appearance and their writers and.or publishers were prosecuted on charges of separatism. To cite but one case, an ABC book, Alfabe, published in 1968 (cf. Fig. 30), was banned by courts in Istanbul and Diyabakir two days after its appearance and the writer was imprisoned for four months on charges of separatism and the attempt to form an independent Kurdish state (Xozaslan 1981:3).

Suppression of the language was not limited to the country’s territory. One example will suffice. just before the September 1980 coup, thr Nordic Cultural Foundation in Denmark organized a course in Kurdish for training Kurdish teachers from among the emigres in Scandinavian countries. The purpose was to teach writing, vocabulary, and gramamr of Kurdish and prepare them for teaching Kurdish children living in Scandinavia. "The Turkish Embassy in Copenhagen tried to stop the course by pointing out that participants were still Turkish citizens and were thus not entitled to breal Turkish law, whatever country they were in, and in Turkish law Kurdish is a forbidden language" (Skutnabb-Kengas 1981:279-80; cf., also, Bozarslan 1981, for clippimgs from danish press accompanied by English translations).

The 1980 Coup d”etat Regime

The Turkish regime has made no secret of its intention to eliminate Kurdish ethnic distinction (cf., e.g. van Bruinessen 1984; Nezan 1984; Helsinki Watch 1988). The suppression of manifestation of Kurdish, as well as Armenian or Greek, existence has been extended to such places as the Lufthansa airline office in Istanbil and the American Library in Ankara. An old globe, for example, carrying references to Kurdistan and Pontus had been used as part of a publicity photograph in the Istanbul Rotary Club magazine. This led to a demand of a three-year prison sentence for the company’s Istanbul deputy manager (London Guardian, march 23, 1984). The Turkish embassies in Europe have regularly used diplomatic and other pressures to prevent the participation of Kurdish groups in cultural programs sponsored by European states. Similar pressure on the broadcast media has been socumented.

Increased militarization and political control of the Kurdish provinces has been accompanied by new assimilation programs: "A general campaign to improve literacy in Turkish, and intensive Turkish-language courses were introduced in primary schools. Provicial commanders had their own programs to stamp out the use of Kurdish, at lease in the towns. Traditional Kurdish cloths, which had reappeared in the 1970s, have been banned again" (van Bruinessen 1984: 12).

The armed resistence led by a leftist Kurdish political party, Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan (Kurdistan Workers Party), in the early 1980s has led to massive deplyment of the army in the Kurdish provinces. To prevent the spread of the movement among the rural population, a project of setting up strategic hamlets is being carried out in the rural areas. (14) Another project is the resettlement of thousands of Turkish-speaking Kirghiz refugees from Afghanistan in Kurdistan. The government suggested that the area was chosen because of its similarity to the mountainous homeland of the refugees. Since thee is no shortage of mountainous terrain in the Turkish-speaking regions, the real reason has more to do with Turkification of Kurdistan than considerations of landscape (de Manuelian 1986).

The Impact of Turkey’s Language Policy

The all-round attempt to eliminate the Kurdish people and their language has partly succeeded in thinning out the once densely populated Kurdistan, in Turkifying large numbers of Kurds, and bringing Kurdish national culture (oral and wriiem literature, music, and dress) to the verge of extinction. The harsh metthods of repression have made it difficult for the Kurds to reveal their ethnic identity. A Western student of "political elites," for example, found out that few Kurdish deputies "professed (or acknowledges) an ability to speak Kurdish" (Frey 1965:109). Similarly, a Kurdish official involved in taking the 1965 census observed that many Kurds who were not familiar with Turkish preferred to declare themselves as Turkish speakers to avoid trouble (Kendal 1980a:48).

The impact of repression can be seen even in the census figures (cf. table 16). The increase (10%) in the number of native speakers from 1955 to 1960 can be explained by the relaxation of pressure in 1960, while the sudden drop of 23% in 1955, is related to the return of presure rather than assimiliation which requires at least one generation to be affected (Ibid.O. The increase in the number of speakers of Kurdish as a a "second language’ apparently reflects the success of Turkification. Since Turks do not learn Kurdish, these figures probably refer toTurkified Kurds who have not yet forgotten their native tongue.

Table 16. Census Figures on the Number of Kurdish Speakers in Turkey

Kurdish declared as 1945 1955 1960 1965
Mother Tongue 1,477 1,680 1,848 1,430
Second Tongue ? 681 712 940
Total 1,477 2,361 2,560 2,370

Sorce: Jafar(1976:86)

Another aspect of forced Turkification is the resistance that it breeds. Complains on the slow pace of Turkification have occasionally been expressed by official sources. To cite one example, quoted in Nezan (1984:56-57), the Turkish deputy from Aydin told the daily Cumhuriyet (July 31, 1966) that 91% of the people of Mardin could not speak a word of Turkish; in other major Kurdish provinces the precentages were 87% in Siirt, 81% in Hakkari, 67% in Diyarbakir, 68% in Bingöl, and 66% in Bitlis.

Although the Kurdish language in Turkey is not dead yet, prospects for its extinction do exist. "Language death" has happened and is happenning in all parts of the world (Dorian 1981:1-2) largely due to non-linguistic reasons (Adler 1977:2). In Turkey, the Armenian people and their language were eliminated largely through physical extinction planned by the Ottoman and Republican regimes.(15) Similar methods have been applied to the much larger Kurdish population and, if regional amd international conditions permi, the Armenian experience may be repeated. (16) President Özal’s policy on lifting the ban on spoken Kurdish in January 1991 does not indicate a change in the ideology and politics of the Turkish state. This policy is tactical and is part of the desperate efforts to save the Ataturkist state in the face of a serious economic, political, cultural and ideological crisis. (17)


12. The circumstances under which Be§ikçi conducted and published his research provides insight on Turkish policy. The author, a Turkish sociologist, was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment in 1979, for writing this book. In 1971, he was charged and sentences to 13 years imprisonment for "making propoganda for communism and separatism" in his seminars, lectures and publications. A general amnesty led to his release in 1974. Be§ikçi was released again in April 1981, but rearrested in June and sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment because of a letter he wrote to the president of the Swiss Writers Union in which he exposed the turkish government’s denial of the "reality of the Kurdish nation" (Index on Censorship. Vol. 12, No.1, February, 1983, p. 49; cf., also, "The trial od Ismail Be§ikçi." Kurdish Times. Vol. 1, No. 2, 1986, pp. 5-44). Be/sik/ci was released in 1987. He was arrested again in march 1990, freed on bail in July, tried in September, and was then postponed. After a second case opened against him in 1991 for a new book about the Kurds, Be§ikçi was interrogated, served an arrest warrant, and then incarcerated in Ankara Central Closed Prison. He was released om April 1991 (Helsinki Watch 1991:17).

13-14. Considerable documentation of Turkish government repression of the Kurds in Turkey and abroad is available in the Turkish and international press reports reprinted in Information and Liason Bulletin published by Institute Kurde de Paris since 1983. The first "security village" (önlem paketi), in Dereler in Sirnak, was to accomodate the population of 20 hamlets (Milliyet, April 3, 1986).

15. As early as 1927, the Iranian ambassador to Turkey, Mohammad Ali Foroughi, wrote to the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs that the Turks considered the ethnic heterogeneity of their country "the main reason for their misfortune in the past… and they want to have no element of corruption in their land.. they have exterminated the Armenians in Turkey…. they cannot exterminate the Kurds like Armenians, neither derive them away like the Greek; [the Kurd] is Muslim and Asian and is co-religious with the Turkish citizens and has a numerous population and [thus] has no remedy…" The ambassador, then, proposed measures for Iranian-Turkish cooperation against the Kurdish movement ("Confidential letter," dated November 24, 1927, Yaghmâ, Vol. 11, No. 8, Aban 1337/Oct.-Nov. 1958, p. 346).

16. Turan Günesh, formaer Minister of Foreign Affairs for Turkey, warned the Kurds in a session of the Council of Europe in 1986; "If you have the courage, then claim independence. And we’ll fight. If you think you can defeat the most powerful army in Europe – the Turkish Army – go ahead. And allow me to add that if a number of countries like West Germany,France and England exhibit a little tolerance towards us, we won’t have any trouble liquidating a few million Kurds" (quoted in Kurdish Times, Vol. 1, No. 1, 1986, p. 10).

17. On January 27, 1991, the cabinet of president Turgut Özal decided to submit a bill to the parliament which would allow "the Kurds, concenterated in 13 provinces, to speak-but not write — their language" (Reuters report from Ankara in The Globe and mail, Toronto, February 8,1991). The bill would repeal the 1985 Law No. 2987, which banned the use of written and spoken Kurdish ("Ankara considers authorizing use of spoken Kurdish," Information and Liaison Bulletin, No. 70, January 1991, pp. 2-4). In the parliament, the bill ran into stiff opposition ("A Turkish gesture to Kurds falters," The New York Times, March 12, 1991, p. A4). By August 1991, it was still illegal for Kurds "to speak Kurdish in court or at public meetings or to give their children Kurdish names" (letter by L. Whitman, Helsinki Watch, The New York Times, August 21, 1991). A new "Anti-Terror Law" (law No. 3713) enacted by the parliament on April 12, 1991 further extened the official repression of Kurdish language and culture (information on the impact of this law is provided in Helsinki Watch 1991).

The language bill was a partial response to a political and economic crisis that has undermined the ability of the Turkish regime to rule over the Kurds by normal means (as outlined above). The bill pursued several objectives:

  1. Ankara has failed to stem popular dissent and the resurgent and powerful nationalism in Kurdistan; it has alsofailed to suppress the armed struggle led by PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party). The language bill was in part an appeasement of the Kurds; by promising a reform of the repressive state policy, Ankara hoped to deprive PKK and other leftist parties of the increasing popular support they have been enjoying.
  2. The bill was also motivated by the crisis resulting from the regional disorder caused by the Iraq-Iran war and, especially, the U.S.-led war against Iraq. The regional crisis might have led to the disintegration of Iraq, in which case Turkey would have moved to annex the oil-rich Kurdish regions of northern Iraq. Pursuing such a goal, requires a more liberal policy toward the Kurds, at least temporarily. Turkey will have to win the support of the leadership of Iraqi Kurds (which commands considerable guerrilla forces) on the one hand, and to compete with Iran on the other. Another aspect of this policy is Ankara’s attempt to rally the support of the Kurdish political parties of Iraq, especially the Kurdosh Democratic party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, against the PKK, which has allegedly used the border areas inside Iraqi Kurdistan as military bases. By early 1992, Turkey had achieved the objectives. This cooperation has been reported in Turkey’;s press, e.g., Yesemin Çongar, "Talabani’nin PKK plani," (Talabani’s plan for the PKK), Cumhuriyet HAFTA, 1-7 Aralik (December) 1991, and Semih Idiz, "PKK sorunu demokrasiyle Özülr," (The PKK question finds its solution in democracy) Cumhuriyet, 12 Ocak (January) 1992. The leaders of PUK and KDP, have justified their cooperation with the Turkish regime by referring to the language bill as a radical change in policy.
  3. The bill also addressed the concerns of European Community leaders who oppose Turkey’s genocidal war against the Kurds and Armenians since the early 1920s is well documented, Western powers, the media and many academics generally ignored it and continue to portray the Turkish regime as a Westen-type semocracy. Since the 1980s, however, the European Community has thwarted Turkey’s effort to join the commuinty. This is apparantly due to Turkey’s poor economic performance nad Greece’s (a member of EC) conflict with Ankara. Under the circumstances, Turkey’s stumbling block on road to Europe," Sinday Observer, August 4, 1991, p. 14) for the first time since the late 1920s, when Ankara became one of the West’s military and political bases against the USSR. The bill aims at improving Turkey’s human rights record. 


Amir Hassanpour, "Nationalism and Language in Kurdistan 1918-1985", Edwin Mellon Press, 1992, pp. 132-136;150-152


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