The Politics of A-political Linguistics: Linguists and Linguicide

By Amir Hassanpour

By Amir Hassanpour

Writing in early 1999, I feel it is fairly superfluous to question the neutrslity of linguistics or, even, ‘exact sciences’ such as a physics and chemistry. However, the claim to a value-free, neutral or ‘autonomous’ linguistics is still a powerfull one, rooted not only in the positivist-empericist tradition but also maintained by the linguists’ political and ideological preferences, the interests of the discipline, and the historical context under which this area of knowledge is (re)produced and utilized. It may be useful, therfore, to examine the ways in which linguists try to de-politicize their study of languge, and, by doing so, engage in highly partisan politics.

I begin by examining a case – the linguistic study of Kurdish, a language that has been subjected to harsh measures of linguicide. The majority of linguistics who have studied the language have kept silent about the deliberate killing of the ‘object’ of their research by the Turkish, Iranian, and Syrian states. The policy of linguicide, enshrined in the constitutions and laws of these states, has not only denied the Kurds linguistic rights but also seriously violated the academic freedom of linguists in and out of the countries where the language is spoken. An integral element of the policy has been the suppression of academic study of the language, its dialects, geography, and history. However, linguistic studies of Kurdish avoid documenting, let alone protesting, the ways in which this linguicide not only has destroyed the life of a people but also suppressed the descipline of linguistics. It is not difficult to see that this silence allows the machinery of linguicide to operate freely in its killing fields.

Ranking fortieth in the world in terms of the number of speakers (25 to 30 million), Kurdish has been forcibly divided, since 1918, among the neighbouring states of Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. It is also spoken by old and new exilic and refugee communities in Central and Western Asia, Europe, Australia and North America. Linguicide, the deliberate killing of languge – Turkey since 1925, Iran especially in 1925-1941, and Syria especially since 1960s. Even in Iraq, where the language was tolerated as an official ‘local language,’ a policy of Arabization was practised as a means of containing Kurdish nationalism.

The harshest policy of linguicide in our times is probably practised in Turkey, where the entire state machinery is mobilized in order to eliminate the language in both speaking and writing. Under pressure from the European Union, which is reluctant to accept Turkey’s application for full membership of the union, the Turkish government introduced, in 1991, a bill into the parliament in order to legalize the speaking of the language. Today, Kurds are legally free to speak in their native tongue in private spaces, but it would be considered a crime against the ‘territorial integrity’ of the state if a member of the parliament or a political party uses the language in political campaigns, or if the language is used in education or broadcasting. Turkey has also used its network of embassies in order to extend its linguicidal policy to the Kurdish immigrants and refugees in Europe and North America. Turkish embassies in Denmark and Sweden have interfered in the internal affairs of these countries by demanding that Kurdish should not be taught to immigrants and children in schools and day care centres. These practices and the policy of behind them violate European and international covenants such as the Charter of the United Nations(1945), the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948),the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights(1966), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (in force since 1976), the Convention on the Rights of the child (1989), and the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (1995), some of which have been signed or ratified by Turkey.

‘De-politicized’ descriptions of Kurdish

The two major works, in English, on Kurdish language, McCarus (1958) and MacKenzie (1961), do not refer to the suppression of the language in any of the countries where it is spoken. Both were excellent doctoral dissertations based on field work conducted in Iraq. The former is a study of the grammar of the Sorani standard in Iraq. The latter was intended to be a descriptive study of the Kurdish dialects of Iraq and Turkey. Since the Republic of Turkey does not allow linguists to conduct field research on the language, MacKenzie was denied a research permit. However, there is no information in the book about the suppression of the language in Turkey, although the author refers to the closure of the ‘field’ in depoliticized language that reduces it to an accident, a technical problem of communication: ‘It was originally intended to spend an equal period of time in the Kurdish-speaking areas of Turkey and Iraq. In the event, permission not being forthcoming from the Turkish authorities, some ten months were spent in northern Iraq’ (MacKenzie, 1961: xvii). The author notes, later, ‘[a]s it was found impossible to visit eastern Turkey no new material could be obtained concerning the Kurdish dialects of that area'(ibid, xxi).

A significant case of silence is the suppression of an internal study by the Turkish Army. In 1959, the Army, the U.S.A.I.D., and Georgetown University initiated a large-scale program of adult literacy training for recruits in Turkey’s armed services. The rate of failure was high among non-Turkish, especially Kurdish, speakers. In order to investigate the problem, the American educationalists on the team asked for permission ‘to investigate the range of Kurdish dialectsat twenty training sites throughout Turkey’ with the objective stated as ‘the identification of major dialect types, their geographic location, and their relative proportions within the Kurdish-speaking population’ (Bordie, 1978: 207). Data were collected through interviews and by mail. The latter included approximately 5000 short forms sent to teachers at the military literacy centres throughout the country. However, before the researchers were able to process all the collected data, the army confiscated the entire material. Only a few items at the home and office of one of the researchers were spared. Bordie is the only one, to my knowledge (my information derives from correspondence with one of the members of the research team, 20 March 1984), who has written about this event, although in a most ambiguous way. Refering to the 5000 short forms, he writes:’Approximately 1500 forms were ultimately collected. Unfortunately, due to national difficulties, the remainder of the questionnaires ramain unavailable’ (Brodie, 1978, 209). One of the consulatants on the research project, a well-known specialist in Kurdish language, has never written about the event, even in one of his published papers, which is a rather detailed survey of his career as a linguist.

Reference works are expected to provide a general picture of the structure of a language, its genealogy, number of speakers, geographical distribution, history, and status. The articles on Kurdish in The Encyclopaedia of Islam(MacKenzie, 1986) and the Compendium of the World’s Languages(Campbell, 1991) make no mention of the violence against the language. The article in The Encyclopedia of language and Linguistics, noted that the ‘Republic of Turkey untill the late 1980s banned the use of written Kurdish.’ (Kreyenbroek, 1994). This information is not accurate however. Although Kurdish is now used in book and print journalism in Turkey, it is still illegal to write in the language. Most publications in Kurdish and about it are regularly banned and confesticated, and authors, translators, publishers, distributers, and even readers are punished by the state. The article in The International Encyclopedia of Linguistics notes that Kurdish is written and used in education and media in Iraq, but in ‘other countries with a Kurdish populations, publication is eaither negligible or suppressed – except in Soviet Armenia, where it has been encouraged by the state’ (McCarus, 1992, 289).

Linguicide, experience, and theorisation

I have experienced linguicide as a native speaker of Kurdish. Born into a Kurdish family in a Kurdish town, I had to get my education in Persian, the only official language in Iran, a multilingual country where Persian was the native tongue of only half the population. It was illegal to speak in Kurdish in the school environment or to own any writing in my native tongue. Fearing prison and torture of her children, my mother burnt, four times during my life, the few Kurdish books and records we had acquired candesinely. At Tehran University, where I studied linguistics (1968-1972), my professors rarely referred to Kurdish, and when they did, it was always called a ‘dialect’ of Persian. Calling Kurdish a ‘language’ would be considered ‘secessionism.’ By contrast, in the United States where I continued my studies ans wrote a doctoral dissertation on Kurdish. I enjoyed unlimite political and acdemic freedom to conduct research on the language. This freedom was, however, constrained by the conceptual and theoretical limitations of the discipline of linguistics.

While linguists and others had recorded cases of the repression of individual languges, the practice was not yet conceptualised and theorised as an aspect of the unequal distribution of social, political, and cultural power. No introductory linguistics textbook dealt with what I had experienced as a native speaker of a language subjected to state violence. I had to axhaust the excellent resources of the library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in order to find, in the literature on particular languages, the use of concepts such as ‘linguistic genocide,’ ‘language death,’ ‘dying language,’ or ‘language suicide.’ Indeed, I discovered that the ‘Association pour le d’efense des langues et cultures menac’ees’ located in Brussels, Belgium, had, in 1976, presented to the Iraqi government about its Arabization policy in Kurdistan. However, these ideas were not yet integrated, theoretically, into the ‘sciences of language.’

The question of language repression was integral to the topic of my dissertation, ‘The language factor in national development: The standardisation of the Kurdish language, 1918-1985’, which was later published (Hassanpour, 1992). I found a rather obscure publication, Rudnyckyj’s essay Language Rights and Linguicide, published in Munich by Ukrainisches Rechnisch-Wirtschaftliches Institut in 1967. ‘Linguicide’ was the right concept for interpreting the experience of Kurdish under the modernising and centralising states formed in the aftermath of World War I in Western Asia. Cobarrubias (1983) elaborated a taxonomy of ‘official attitudes’ toward minority languages, which included ‘attempting to kill a language’ and ‘letting a language die’ as official policies. This still marginal but evolving conceptual repertoire allowed me to organise my abundant data about decades of repression and resistance. At the same time, Kurdish provided ample evidence for the indispensability of the concept ‘linguicide’ and the need for further conceptual refinement and theoretical advances.

Emotions and science

This opening in the rather closed conceptual space could, however, be slammed shut by academic requirements of ‘neutrality’ and ‘objectivity.’ While the members of my dissertation committee did not complain about ‘researcher bias,’ I was myself concerned. I sent the draft of the first five chapters to a friend, a non-Kurd who had finished a dissertation on the Kurdish language, particularly inviting comments about political overtones in my writing. Some of the comments were (private correspondence, April 10, 1985): … it isn’t ‘dissertation style’, which made what you wrote hard to read. There is anger in what you write. Anger against what happened to the Kurds. Although I suspect this anger gives you the energy to do what you are doing, I wish you could find a way to keep it from dedening and flattening your discussions and analyses… It is so difficult to write about things you care about deeply in that bloodless, academic style. If you have those strong feelings and then you try to push them out of your writing, they sneak in somehow. If it was a problem for me to detach myself from feelings due to having experienced oppression as a native speaker of Kurdish, I think the problem for non-native researchers is for them to access at least some degree of emotional involvment in relation to a repressive system which they never experienced, but one which had killed the ‘object’ of their study, violated their academic freedom in many ways, constrained the development of the discipline of linguistics, and violated the dignity and freedom of millions of human beings.

Soon after receiving the comments from my friend, however, I was pleasantly surprised to see Tove Skutnabb-Kangas’s book, Bilingualism or Not: The Education of Minorities (1984a). The book had just been catalogued and put on the ‘new books’ shelf at the Modern Languages Library of the university. I did not expect any reference to Kurdish in a book on the topic, although I was intersted in knowing what it had to say about standardisation, minority education and minority languages. Literature on such topics was rarely if ever used by theorists or testbook writers in linguistics, and most studies of Kurdish were written by the philologists and linguists intersted in the Middle East. I had never seen any reference to Kurdish in any linguistics textbook, except those dealing in some detail with the Indo-European language family.

In her book, Tove briefly recounted the story of how the Turkish embassy in Copenhagen had tried to prevent the teaching of Kurdish to Kurdish immigrants in Denmark. She referred to the language as ‘oppressed’ and ‘forbidden,’ and made a useful distinction between ‘physical violence’ and ‘symbolic and structural violence’ against languages and their users. Tove’s work encouraged me to dig more deeply into all forms of violence committed by the state against a language and its speakers, writers, readers, and, researchers. I was, at the same time, able to record extensive resistance against physical, symbolic, and structural forms of violence in every arae of language use.

Our knowledge of linguicide and language death has made a great leap forward since the early 1980s. Tove;s work has been indispensable here. She and Robert Philipson contributed the first article on linguicide in a reference work on language (The Encyclopedia of language and Linguistics, Pergamon, 1994). She makes effective use of the Kurdish case in her flourishing work on language policy, language rights, and linguistic human rights. Her writings are permeated by a deep commitment to justice, equality, freedom, and democracy. In an evolving ‘world linguistic order’ which kills one language every two weeks, Tove’s works contribute to our knowledge about the life and death of the miracle of language. Her academic research is inseprarable from her practice of campaigning to save threatened languges, democratise the highly unequal and opressive world linguistic order, and promote and egalitarian distribution of linguistic power. Tove’s life is thus in the tradition of intellectuals such as Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Noam Chmsky who resist the status quo.

Globization, the market, linguicide, and linguists

Language death, an ancient phenomenon, is complex and of multiple origins. In our times the dynamics of decline and eventual extinction is distinguished from previous periods by, among other things, the formation of a ‘world linguistic order,’ the increasing proliferation of new communication technologies, and unceasing globalization. I find it necessary, however, to distinguish, theoretically, between the killing of language by the state and the market, although the two rarely operate independently. The killer is, in the case of Kurdish, clearly the institutions of the state, and the international order that allows it to happen in Turkey, Iran, and Syria. By contrast, the contemporary killer of hundreds of small languages in North America or Australia is primarily the market. While the state, for instance in Canada or the Unted States, does not and cannot prevent a First nation from publishing an encyclopedia or daily paper in its native tongue, the market does so, and always invisibly but ruthlessly. The political and legal freedom to teach in the native tongue or use it in media is almost completly constrained by the dialects of the market.

If Kurdish is killed by the institutions of the state in the killing fields of Kurdistan, the forces of the state and the market combine to constrain its study in the West. I focus here on the academic environment where the theoretical and methodological ilimitations of the discipline enter into complex relationships with the market and the state. The closure of the Kurdish speech area to field researchers discourage students from conducting research on the languagae; it deters, in turn, faculty members from supervising student research not based on field work; in like fashion, research grants cannot be obtained for such topics, nor is the resulting dearth of research conductive to course oferrings; this environment prevents publishers from investing in books and journals on the topic; library collections for Kurdish material are, therfore, necessarily poor. With a few exceptions. none of the Middle Eastern studies departments in European and North American universities offers any Kurdish langauge courses. The majority teach only the four state languages of the region, i.e. Arabic, Turkish, Persian and Hebrew. It is not easy to break out of this vicious circle, which is sustained by the highly unequal distribution of power between a non-state people, the Kurds, and the nation-state system. The Turkish state, one of the worst language killers, is a NATO member, and an indispensable ally of the United States and other Western powers. Linguists are, however, in a good position, theoretically and ethically, to resist the policy and practice of linguicide. Some students of genocide already treat linguicide and ethnocide as subcategories of genocide (Charny, 1994). Silence about the linguicide of Kurdish or other languages is, I contend, a political position which cannot be justified by claims to the neutrality or autonomy of linguistics.


  1. Bordei,John (1978). Kurdish dialects in Eastern Turkey. in Jazayery, Mohammad Ali et al (eds.), Linguistic and Literary Studies in Honour of Archibald A. Hill, Vol. II, Descriptive Linguistics. The Hague:Mouton, 205-212.
  2. Campbell,George(1991). Kurdish. Compendium of the World’s Languages. Vol. 1.London: Routledge, 769-773.
  3. Cobarrubias,Juan(1983)Ethical issues in languge planning. In Cobarrubias, Juan & Fishman, Joshua A.(eds.) Progress in Language Planning: International Perspectives. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 41-85.
  4. Hassanpour, Amir(1992).Natinalism and Language in Kurdistan, 1918-1985.San Francisco: Mellon Research University Press.
  5. Kreyenbroek,Philip G. (1994). Kurdish. The Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics. Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1880-1881.
  6. MacKenzie,David N.(1986). Kurds, Kurdistan. V. Language. The Encyclopedia of Islam. New Edition, Vol. 5. Leiden: E. J. Brill. 475-480.
  7. McCarus,Ernest(1958).A Kurdish Grammar: Descriptive Analysis of the Kurdish of Sulaimaniya, Iraq. New York: American Council of Learned Societies.
  8. McCarus,Ernest(1992). Kurdish. International Encyclopedia of Linguistics, Vol. 2. New York: Oxford University Press, 289-94.

Source: In Rights to Language, Equity, Power, and Education, Celebrating the 60th Birthday of Tove Skutnabb-Kangas, Edited by Robert Phillipson, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, publishers, 2000, pp 33-39.


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