Language and Nation-Building in Kurdistan-Iraq

Jaffer Sheyholislami, PhD, Nov 2009

Language has frequently been considered an integral part of nation building. If nation-building has often meant nation destroying,  it has also meant imposing one language while suppressing others.  Since the birth of the French Republic, most language policies have been informed by the nation-state ideology (henceforth NSI), which is used here to refer to the view that a nation must be congruent politically, culturally and linguistically. This is a powerful myth that needs to be debunked if we want to celebrate diversity and uphold linguistic rights for all. 

Jaffer Sheyholislami, PhD, Nov 2009

Language has frequently been considered an integral part of nation building. If nation-building has often meant nation destroying,  it has also meant imposing one language while suppressing others.  Since the birth of the French Republic, most language policies have been informed by the nation-state ideology (henceforth NSI), which is used here to refer to the view that a nation must be congruent politically, culturally and linguistically. This is a powerful myth that needs to be debunked if we want to celebrate diversity and uphold linguistic rights for all. 

Language and Nation-Building in Kurdistan-Iraq

Jaffer Sheyholislami, PhD

School of Linguistics and Language Studies, Carleton University, Canada
Paper presented at the Middle Eastern Studies Association 43th Annual Meeting,
Boston, MA, USA, November 21-24, 2009.

{Please do not quote without permission}


Language has frequently been considered an integral part of nation building. If nation-building has often meant nation destroying,[1] it has also meant imposing one language while suppressing others.[2] Since the birth of the French Republic, most language policies have been informed by the nation-state ideology (henceforth NSI), which is used here to refer to the view that a nation must be congruent politically, culturally and linguistically. Pursuing this policy under the pretext of preventing political disintegration, states have carried out acts of linguicide[3] against non-state/minority languages.  The Kurdish language has been a victim of this policy even though we have noticed some significant changes in the status of Kurdish in recent years.

In Iraq, Kurdish is now an official language.[4] In the Kurdish region, since 1992, Kurdish (the Sorani variety in particular, and Kurmanji in the Duhok province) has been the working language of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), schools and the media.  In addition, languages other than Kurdish are taught in schools and used in the media.  A recent study comparing Kurdish in Iraq and Turkey[5] view such promotion of minority languages such as Turkmani and Syriac in Kurdistan, as a “rare positive example[s]” among nation-building projects in the Middle East, where states have had abysmal records in their treatment of linguistic minorities. For this very reason, the language situation in Kurdistan deserves a more detailed review so that challenges and obstacles to linguistic rights in the region can be identified.

This paper examines some of the language debates that have recently taken place in Kurdistan-Iraq. Most of these debates have been engendered by two petitions submitted to officials in Kurdistan, one was a petition that demanded linguistic rights for Hawrami speakers, and the second was a petition that urged Kurdish officials to declare Sorani Kurdish as the official language.

The paper is informed by theories of nation and nationalism,[6] national identity[7], language policy and planning[8], and linguistic human rights.[9] Methodologically, I draw on the discourse historical approach[10] to analyze over 100 periodical articles, news items, commentaries, interviews, and official documents, produced predominantly in the Kurdish varieties (Hewrami, Kurmanji, Sorani), concerning these debates. I will illustrate that opposing sides of recent debates on the linguistic rights of Hawrami speakers, and the plea for the officialization of Sorani, can be identified as linguistic ideologies that are traceable to language issues occurring in other places and throughout the modern times. At the same time, one can also identify characteristics of the debates that might be unique to Kurdistan. I will conclude that, in spite of KRG’s relatively positive attitude about language diversity and rights, the national state ideology advocated by conservative nationalists remains a potential threat not only to language diversity and rights but also to Kurdistanis’ project of nation building.

Before describing the two petitions and the debates surrounding them, it is important to revisit the importance of language in discourses of Kurdish identity. It is equally important to problematize the myth that there is a single, unified, and standardized Kurdish language. The myth needs to be deconstructed, otherwise its hegemonic dominance in debates over language issues in Kurdistan-Iraq not only supports the erroneous position that Kurdish-Sorani is the only standardized Kurdish variety but it also suppresses critical views on linguistic rights and language diversity in Kurdistan.

Before describing the two petitions and the debates surrounding them, it is important to revisit the importance of language in discourses of Kurdish identity. It is equally important to problematize the myth that there is a single, unified, and standardized Kurdish language. The myth needs to be deconstructed, otherwise its hegemonic dominance in debates over language issues in Kurdistan-Iraq not only supports the erroneous position that Kurdish-Sorani is the only standardized Kurdish variety but it also suppresses critical views on linguistic rights and language diversity in Kurdistan.

Kurdish language and identity

An essentialist view of the connection between a nation and a unique language of its own is not desirable.[11] Kurdistan, as a territorial and cultural nation, has been imagined and defined in terms of a Kurdish language. This is evident in the writings of the poets Haci Qadir Koyi of the late 1800s, Goran of the 1950s and Hemin of the 1970s, as well as in the analysis and research of contemporary scholars of Kurdish studies.[12] It has been suggested that the Kurdish language is arguably the most salient symbol of Kurdish identity, both culturally and politically, because it separates the Kurds from their neighboring nations more readily than any other cultural or physical characteristic. All identities are relational. The discursive construct of a Kurdish language has been one of the most effective ‘othering’ tools in the hands of Kurdish nationalism, cultural or political.[13]

Kurdish diversity

Despite the importance of language as a discursive construct in Kurdish identity, politics, and autonomous movements, the language itself has never been a unifying force in practice. In fact, in recent memories, we do not know of any single Kurdish language per se. What we have is the concept, a discursive construct of such a language that at best refers to a group of speech varieties consisting of Kurmanji (Northern Kurdish), Sorani (Central Kurdish), and Gorani, Hawrami, and Zazaki (Southern Kurdish). These varieties are not mutually intelligible unless there has been considerable prior contact between their speakers.[14] Furthermore, the gulf between Kurdish varieties is widened by the fact that they are written in at least three very distinct scripts: Latin-based alphabet used by Kurds in Turkey (and some Kurds in Syria), Arabic-based alphabet used by Kurds in Iran and Iraq whether speaking Kurdish Sorani, Kurmanji, Gorani or Hawrami.

Despite these differences, until recently, language fragmentations did not pose any problem for Kurdistan’s nationalist movement. Internal differences were hidden away in relation to the sociopolitical and linguistic dominance of “Others”. In Kurdistan-Iraq, until 1992, all Kurdish varieties were almost equally oppressed. They were similar, equal, and united in being non-official and deprived of positive linguistic rights. Linguistic differences, however, started to become a “problem” in Kurdistan South when the “Other,” (i.e. the Baathist regime in Baghdad) no longer threatened the existence of the speakers of all the Kurdish varieties. In the absence of a common enemy, internal differences such as language diversity have started to surface in Hawler, Sulaimaniyeh, Duhok, and Hawraman.

The Case of Hawrami Speakers

The first serious sign of linguistic diversity emerged in a petition submitted by Hawrami speakers to the KRG authorities, which asked that Hawrami speech variety be recognized as a “distinct linguistic minority.” With a population of less than 200,000, and fewer than half of these living in Iraqi Kurdistan, there is justification, by reliable sociolinguistic standards, to consider Hawrami an endangered language.[15] Such a designation should entitle Hawramis to positive linguistic rights[16] granted by the KRG, and this means active promotion of the language through, for example, mother tongue education, providing courses for the teaching and learning of Hawrami, and financial support for the production of dictionaries, grammar books, and other text types in the language. 

In order to grant positive rights, however, it must be determined whether the speech variety in question is a “language” or a “dialect” (of Kurdish).[17] Non-Kurdish researchers such as David MacKenzie[18] believe that Hawrami is not Kurdish and therefore a language in its own right. However, Kurdish scholars, such as Hassanpour[19], have insisted on the Kurdishness of Hawrami not based on linguistic evidence but rather arguing that Hawramis themselves have considered their speech variety to be a dialect of Kurdish.[20] Recently, however, the views of a considerable number of Hawrami speakers have changed.

In 2006, these individuals, who live both in Kurdistan (Iraq and Iran) and diasporas, signed a petition urging the Kurdistan Parliament to recognize Hawrami as a “distinct linguistic minority” and the medium of instruction in the first years of school in the Hawraman region. It is quite interesting to note that although the petition insisted on the Kurdishness of Hawramis as far as national identity was concerned, it referred to Hawrami as a language and not a dialect of Kurdish. The petition seemed to conceive of Kurdistan as a civic as opposed to an ethnic nation, a distinction that is more in line with the conceptualization of those who dismissed outright the demand of Hawramis.[21] Some Sorani writers accused the people behind the petition of being non-Kurdish and un-patriotic, having been encouraged by the enemies of Kurdistan to cause diversity and thus disunity among the “Kurds.”

It would be simplistic to explain these problems in terms of language diversity alone. Most nations are linguistically diverse. The difficulty is conservative Kurdish nationalists do not tolerate linguistic diversity and by extension linguistic rights. They perceive diversity as a prelude to the disintegration of a people and nation. These conservative nationalists who criticize states like Turkey and Syria for suppressing the Kurdish language similar to those states subscribe to the nation-state-ideology. Sometimes the oppressed behaves like the oppressor. This is by no means unique to Kurdistan. It would be almost impossible to find any nation that is not multilingual and in which one group has not made attempts, and sometimes successfully, to impose its own language on the rest of the population. In this day and age, however, it has become more and more difficult, for very good reasons, to insert the hegemony of one single language over other languages or language varieties of the same nation (more on this in the conclusion).

The Case of Sorani Officialization

The Hawrami speakers’ petition triggered the submission of a counter petition, which asked that Sorani Kurdish be declared the official language of Iraqi Kurdistan.[22]  Addressed to Masoud Barzani, the Kurdistan President, the Kurdish Parliament, and the KRG, the petition appeared in the bi-Weekly Hawlatî, Sunday April 20, 2008, and was signed by 53 people who were among the most well-known writers, poets, journalists, and intellectuals of Iraqi Kurdistan.

The petition caused immediate reactions from many parties. The KRG and some other Kurdistan officials, such as Shafiq Qazaz the head of the Akadîmyay Kurdî (Kurdish Academy) in Hewlêr, neither rejected nor endorsed the petition. Instead, they acknowledged the seriousness of the matter and called for more expert studies and deliberation on language planning. In contrast, whereas some officials supported the petition albeit on a personal level[23], there were others, such as the Governor of the Duhok province, a Kurmanji speaker, who dismissed the petition as discriminatory against non-Sorani speakers.

This opposition to the official language petition received additional support from the Union of Kurdish Writers—Duhok,[24] a Kurmanji speaking body, that refused to submit to the demands put forward by the petition.[25] While the Union proposed that there should be a dialogue with all parties concerned, [26] they insisted that children in the Badinan region should continue to study in Kurmanji and that they also should learn Sorani.[27] Similar to Hawrami speakers, Kurmanji speakers of the Badinan region seem to have a democratic and civic picture of the Kurdistan they want to belong to. Not surprisingly, Hawrami speakers also voiced their opposition to the petition for the officialization of Sorani and repeated their own demands for linguistic rights and respect for language diversity in Kurdistan.

Another voice in this debate, pan-Kurdish nationalists, viewed the petition as premature and harmful to the interests of a greater Kurdistan. Adhering to the NSI, they argued that, although Sorani speakers are the majority in Iraqi Kurdistan, they would not be the majority in a greater Kurdistan. The pan-Kurdish nationalists believe that the official language of Kurdistan should be a “unified Kurdish language” based on all Kurdish varieties. Finally, linguistic rights and diversity advocates argued that, as it stands, there are two standardized Kurdish speech varieties: Kurmanji and Sorani.[28] Declaring only one of these varieties as official would mean empowering that variety while disempowering the other. Such a policy would most likely further divide Kurdistan instead of promoting unity. Therefore, rather than declare any speech variety as official, it would be best if attempts were made to foster and celebrate linguistic diversity.

The current situation

Currently the Kurdish Academy, funded by the KRG and headed by Shefiq Qezaz, is studying this issue, whether the Sorani variety should be declared the official language of Kurdistan-Iraq. In 2008, after several meetings, the academy published the views of several well-known linguists and Kurdish academics.  However, there was no consensus on a clear language policy. In preparation for a conference on language matters to be held, the Kurdish Academy has recently been encouraging various linguists and informed observers to document their views for consideration at the conference in the hope that it will be possible to reach some consensus on recommendations for an informed language policy for Kurdistan-Iraq. 

What will the Kurdish Academy recommend? It is doubtful that the Academy or the KRG will find the submissions by pan-Kurdish nationalists realistic, that a language policy should not be designed for only one part but all parts of Kurdistan.  The officials in Hewlêr have demonstrated that the interests of Hewlêr and nation-building in Iraqi Kurdistan take precedence over concerns for a greater Kurdistan.

Moving beyond the pan-nationalist submissions, there are two possibilities. One is that the Academy may accept the petition for the officialization of Sorani. In this case the Academy will be following in the footsteps of the Ankara and Tehran of the 1920s, pursuing the myth that one nation must have only one official language. The second possibility, which is much more realistic and should be welcomed, is that the Academy may suggest that there is no need to declare any Kurdish variety as the official language for at least two reasons. First, Kurdistan does have a relatively common code of communication which satisfies, to some extent, the instrumental function that Ernest Gellner[29] perceived for language in the life of a modern nation. Sorani, for various historical and political reasons, has become that common code without being explicitly and forcefully imposed by KRG. The Academy may realize that the absence of an official language does not make a people less of a nation or political unity less possible (as is the case with the United States). Secondly, they may remind themselves and the KRG that recognizing positive linguistic rights could only strengthen Kurdistan and look to places like Canada where the recognition of linguistic rights of French speakers and Aboriginal peoples (and even new immigrants) have only made the country stronger as a multicultural, multilingual, and civic nation.[30] Finally, the Academy may also realize that, if the first instances of nation-building, such as France and Britain, were successful in ignoring the linguistic rights of minorities, such a strategy is no longer feasible in the age of satellite TV and the Internet. Compared to a few decades ago, let alone centuries ago when the first nation-states emerged, minorities are much more aware of their rights and they have much more means to amplify their voices and concerns.[31]


In conclusion, the KRG has respected the rights of Syriac and Turkomani languages. However, they seem to be reluctant to do the same for other language varieties that have been traditionally called Kurdish. They fear that once Kurdish is considered a group of languages rather than several dialects, the Kurdish people will be divided into different linguistic groups, and the Kurdish nation, as they know it, will no longer exist. This, of course, is not true. First, these language groups have always been separate. Secondly, there is hardly any nation in the world that is culturally and linguistically homogeneous. The concept of homogeneity is, in fact, better suited to ethnic groups than nations. All nations are heterogeneous. Kurdistan is not, and should not be, an exception. Kurdistan has never been a linguistic nation in the sense of German Romantics.[32] Rather, it is a nation built on shared oppression and the will to live together, to borrow from Ernest Renan.[33] Iraqi Kurdistan may no longer experience the ethno-national oppression that it used to, and its existence may depend on the desire and will to live together more than ever. A nation cannot exist in harmony in the absence of a desire or will to live together.

To continue a successful nation-building project, it would be in the best interest of Kurdistan and its citizens if the officials respected the rights of all citizens and groups in Kurdistan-Iraq regardless of how the conservative nationalism defines them (i.e. as Kurdish or non-Kurdish). The recognition of Hawrami speakers’ linguistic rights and the refusal of declaring Sorani as the only official language of Kurdistan-Iraq will be another important factor making the Herêm a truly “rare positive example” in the region where nation-building also means nation destroying. This may only happen if the KRG and the rest of Kurdistan citizens make serious efforts to disassociate themselves from the nation state ideology and instead embrace linguistic diversity. 


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  • [1] Connor (1994).
  • [2] Billig (1995); Bourdieu (1991).
  • [3] Skutnabb-Kangas (2000, p. 312): “Another way of reducing the number of possible nations (and thereby nation-states) is to commit linguistic genocide. This represents (actively) killing a language without killing the speakers (as in physical genocide) or (through passivity) letting a language die … Unsupported coexistence mostly also leads to minority languages dying.”
  • [4] Iraqi constitution (in English), article 4: (Retrieved August 15, 2009)
  • [5] Skutnabb-Kangas & Fernandes (2008).
  • [6] Anderson (1991)
  • [7] Smith (1991).
  • [8] Cooper (1989).
  • [9] Skutnabb-Kangas (2007, 2006, 2005).
  • [10] Fairclough (2003); Wodak et al., (1999/2009).
  • [11] May (2001).
  • [12] Hassanpour (2003), Vali (2003), Van Bruinessen (2000), Olson (2009).
  • [13] Almost all Kurdish political parties have included demands for language rights, for example in the form of education in the mother tongue, in their programs and campaigns. This has proven to be an effective way to illustrate that they represent Kurdish people. However, it is doubtful if the politicians and their parties are truly committed to Kurdish. There are political parties who do insist on Kurdish linguistic rights in their platform but they do very little to promote the use of the language within the ranks of their own organization.  Although Kurdish is one of the official languages of Iraq, the website of the Iraqi President, who is also the leader of one of the largest political organizations in Kurdistan-Iraq, has a partial and incomplete Kurdish section. Except for the Iraqi Embassy in Stockholm, which has an incomplete Kurdish section, no other Iraqi Embassy that has a Kurdish ambassador uses Kurdish on its website. One is tempted to conclude that many Kurdish politicians place the language issue on their agenda not because they are committed to securing language rights for Kurds but because they see this as a convenient way to appeal to the emotion of Kurdish people and to garner greater political support. They know that people care about their language.
  • [14] Hassanpour (1992); Sheyholislami (2008).
  • [15] There are no reliable sources when it comes to the number of Hawrami speakers. My rough estimate is based on the Iranian statistics of 2006, one recent academic paper and personal observations. According to Iranian statistics ( “Paveh”, which is perhaps the largest Hawrami town, has a population of about 20,000. Based on this source Nausud’s population is even less than 20,000; Nausud is not on the list which only includes cities with a population of 20,000 and more. My rough estimate (200,000) is also informed by other estimates like the one by Holmberg and Odden in their article Noun Phrase In Hawrami ( They say, “The number of speakers of Hawrami is unknown, but is probably less than 100,000, possibly less than 50,000.”
  • [16] Wright (2004).
  • [17] Language promotion and enjoying “positive rights” is often preceded by the question: what is this speech variety that needs to be protected or promoted, language or dialect? (Wright, 2004, p. 205).
  • [18] Mackenzie (1961, p. 86). For further on the views of several Orientalists on the matter see Hassanpour (1998).
  • [19] Hassanpour (1998).
  • [20] “So long as people believe that their way of speaking constitutes a language in its own right, there is a real sense in which it is a distinct language. They will probably find ways to ‘perform’ their distinctive linguistic identity for the benefit of others, but ultimately what matters is the ‘imagined community’ of their language…” (Joseph, 2006, p. 27, emphasis in original).
  • [21] Although the typology civic vs. ethnic nation or nationalism has been criticized on several grounds (see Smith, 1998; Billig 1995) it still proves to be very useful in conceptualizing some dichotomies in the discourses of national and nationalism. Ethnic nationalism opens membership in a nation only to those who belong ethnically, for example linguistically or racially.  Ethnic nationalism is said to be exclusive, emotional, and irrational. The first home for ethnic nationalism is believed to be Germany where the Romantics such as Herder and Fichte, “argued that it was not the state that created the nation, as the Enlightenment believed, but the nation, its people, that created the state. What gave unity to the nation, what made it a home, a place of passionate attachment, was not the cold contrivance of shared rights but the people’s preexisting ethnic characteristics: their language, religion, customs, and traditions (Ignatieff, 1993, p. 7). According to Smith (1998), ethnic nationalism has been the most common type of nationalism around the world (p. 213). Conversely, civic nationalism is said to be rational, inclusive and integrative. Within one territory and under the same political unit (i.e. state), civic nationalism accepts everyone who want to join the community voluntarily regardless of their ethnic characteristics (e.g. language, race, religion). This nationalism has been labeled civic, according to Ignatieff (1993), because “it envisages the nation as a community of equal, rights-bearing citizens, united in patriotic attachment to a shared set of political practices and values” (p. 4). Most scholars, who suggest this distinction between civic and ethnic nationalism, view the French Revolution as the prime example of civic type of nationalism. This type of nationalism is said to be dominant also in countries like Britain, the United States, Canada and Australia. Some scholars believe that all nation-states have been ethnic at the beginning, including France, and Britain. Some have evolves into civic nations, but some have stayed as ethnic (e.g. Turkey). In all nations there is a constant struggle between the two civic and ethnic tendencies. Kurdistan is no exception (for more on civic vs. ethnic nation/nationalism see Spencer & Wollman, 2002, pp. 197-217).
  • [22] “To relinquish use of one’s own language to make space for the language of another group is almost always indicative of a shift in power relations” (Wright 2007, p. 204).
  • [23] In an interview with the periodical Rûdaw Dilshad Abdulrahman the Minister of Education in Kurdistan at the time said that on a personal level he would support the officialization of Sorani (Ghazi, 2009). The reasons Abdulrahman presented at length were those that had been laid out in the petition for the officialization of Kurdish Sorani.
  • [24]
  • [25] Ghazi (2009).
  • [26] This position is evident in this statement issued by the Union:
  • [27] Ghazi (2009).
  • [28] Hassanpour (2008):
  • [29] Gellner (1983).
  • [30] In the case of Canada, Monica Heller (1999) has observed: “linguistic minorities are created by nationalisms which exclude them” (p. 7).
  • [31] The Hawrami petition to the Kurdish Parliament makes explicit references to the fact that minorities in Europe enjoy linguistic rights and that they expect KRG to grant Hawrami speakers the same rights. This is a clear indication of the fact that in this day and age minorities are much more informed about their collective identities and rights including linguistic rights. The situation is very different now from the late eighteenth century when the language rights of Gaelic in Britain or Basque in France could be ignored. If earlier modern nation-states were more successful in imposing one language and suppressing other languages in a nation new sates may have much more difficulties to do this and to ignore language rights. For example, many Hawrami speakers living in diaspora are well informed about language rights, something they often enjoy in the western countries they live. These Kurds are in constant contact with their relatives and friends living in Iran or Iraq. Unlike the time of the emergence of the first modern nation-states (the 1780s), the two groups are well connected thanks to digital media. The Hawrami petition reached concerned audiences, Hawrami or otherwise, within hours. Today’s local nationalism can no longer exist without immediate influence from long-distance nationalism. If the Kurds of the 1980s in Iraq had the mountains as their best friends, Hawrami and Behdinani (Badinani) speakers have diasporas and the new communication technologies as their best friends.  
  • [32] Fishman (1989).
  • [33] Renan (1990 [1882]).

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