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Let the Kurdish language be

By Dr Sabah Salih,, 14 Aug 2009

Erbil, or Hawler as the locals call it, is where the Kurdistan Regional Government is located. Here the Kurdish that holds sway is Sorani, a dialect also spoken by the region’s majority. But a sizeable minority, mainly in the northwest, speaks Bahdinani, or Kirmanji, a dialect also spoken by Turkey’s 15 million plus Kurds, giving this dialect a significant linguistic edge in the greater Kurdistan.

So what’s the problem? The problem is that there’s a feeling in the air in Erbil, particularly among the political elite, that if money can turn large chunks of the old city into gleaming structures of steel and glass virtually overnight, then why can’t money—also in the name of progress of course—do something as clean and efficient for the Kurdish language?

Sounds stupid, I know, but when money becomes plentiful, as is the case these days in Southern Kurdistan, egos swell with ambition and questionable projects are given the go ahead with little or no consideration for the consequences.

Long, long time ago, human beings learned, sometimes the hard way, that of all human inventions language is the most deserving to be left alone, not tampered with, or muzzled. This is because language is the heartbeat of culture, more intimately connected with the rhythm and substance of a nation’s past, present, and future than any other thing humans are known for. As such, language has always been more the maker of its own rules and protocols than a captive follower of man-made ones. And that’s one reason why dictators and invaders have always been uneasy about leaving language alone; in their calculation, controlling a language can pave the way for controlling a people—a point Muslim imperialism and Western colonialism never forgot to keep in mind.

But power mongers have also known something else: language, being more resourceful than religious and political power, always manages to find ways to get around restrictions. This is because language is the one area in a nation’s space where true democracy always rules.

It has never been in the nature of language to discriminate; in fact, in the eyes of language all linguistic forms—small or large, a complete language or dialect—deserve to be treated the same. In this respect Kurdish language has been exemplary; despite decades of political oppression and invasion, Kurdish has always been eager to welcome new expressions, even from foes.

It’s a great mistake to view this diversity as anything but an asset. Sadly, though, this is not how Southern Kurdistan’s ill-tempered nationalism and emerging free-for-all capitalism see it. The first is after something that has never existed nor will ever exist: linguistic purity; the latter wants a consumer-friendly language that can serve the market efficiently and reliably.

When I asked a self-styled language policeman for a little explanation, he said this: “People in Duhok don’t even speak Kurdish; it’s a crime that they refer to Hawler by its Arabic name Erbil.”

I said, leaving aside that the word Erbil predates Arabic by centuries, thinking this way about the people of Duhok will surely give them reason to think the same way about the people of Erbil. Besides, why don’t you try to do a study as to why the word Hawler has failed to gain a foothold in the Kurdish spoken by the people of Duhok whereas Erbil has had apparently no difficulty getting in? Moreover, if the Kurdish dialect in Duhok has been known to borrow words from other languages, haven’t all the other dialects of Kurdish done the very same thing? Isn’t it also in the nature of every language to borrow from other languages?

No, no, no was his answer. This attitude is not just wrong and undemocratic; it has the potential to tear a nation a part. Rather than helping narrow our nation’s linguistic divide, it will deepen it, giving the speakers of one dialect reason to resent or even hate the speakers of another.

Language ownership has always been communal; it will always be so. Time, commerce, technology, mobility but, above all else, open-mindedness can help language lessen linguistic divide. A sure way to bring about the opposite outcome is to let politics or religion dictate how Kurdish is to be used.

If you find this attempt to force upon language political and market demands to be bizarre, wait until you hear this one. KRG’s Ministry of Education is planning to introduce this coming academic year a dress code for teachers; wearing a white robe will be mandatory for all.

Even slow thinkers can readily see that this makes no sense. When I asked a ministry official for a pedagogical explanation, he said, “It is for the good of the teachers.”

“How so?” I asked.

“It protects their clothes from chalk dust.”

“You mean to tell me that protecting teachers’ clothes from chalk dust is more important than protecting their lungs? Why not just provide teachers with dust-free chalk? It can protect clothes and lungs at the same time. It’s readily available.”

“But, really, what’s the pedagogical reasoning for this?” I asked impatiently.

“It creates a serious atmosphere in class, and that’s good for learning.”

“Based on what? You mean suit and tie, blouse and skirt make teachers look like non-serious people? Besides, has not already been shown that too serious an atmosphere can be quite harmful to the learning process?”

“It’s good for education,” the man said dismissively.

“In what ways?”

“In every way.”

Amazingly, on this matter the teachers themselves have not even been consulted. As one teacher told me, “This is democracy in reverse. Just like the bad old days, the order comes from the top and we’re told to accept it or else.”

Schools in Kurdistan are in a sorry state. They desperately need more and better buildings, smaller class sizes, better equipment, teachers who are judged not by what they wear but by what they do and how well they do it and who have a say in their own affairs. This moronic decision to force upon them an item of clothing that has absolutely nothing to do with teaching is one more reminder how easily political power in Kurdistan can revert back to autocratic and crazy ways just because some dim-witted official thinks he can.

Dr. Sabah Salih is Professor ( of English at Bloomsburg University, USA.

Source: "Let the Kurdish language be"

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