Audio Transcript:

MARCO WERMAN: In Turkey, using the letters Q, W and X can land you in jail.

They're considered "non-Turkish letters" and article 222 of the Turkish penal code bans their use.

The measure is based on a law from the 1920s when Turkey switched its language from the Arabic alphabet to the Latin one. The law was meant to stop the use of the old Arabic script. But today, it's being used against Turkey's ethnic Kurdish minority. Matthew Brunwasser reports from Istanbul.

WOMAN: [reciting Turkish alphabet to music]

MATTHEW BRUNWASSER: This is the Turkish alphabet. It has a few letters English doesn't have and it's missing three that English does have: Q, W and X. Authorities in Turkey like it that way. If someone were to use one of the missing letters, they could be arrested. Just ask Kurdish political leader Mahmut Alinak. He wrote an angry letter to the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Kurdish. That letter got him an 18 month prison sentence because it contained Q, W and X.

MAHMUT ALINAK: [speaking Kurdish]

BRUNWASSER: Alinak says that people should be able to use Q, W and X without the threat of criminal prosecution. Better yet, he says, the letters should be added to the Turkish alphabet. That way, Turks would understand the letters when Kurds use them. In Turkey, language laws are not simply a matter of linguistic debate. Twenty-five years ago, Kurdish separatists began fighting for an independent Kurdistan in southeast Turkey. The government crushed all expressions of Kurdish identity, especially the Kurdish language. But today, the government is promoting reconciliation including Kurdish language rights. Kurdish would be allowed in political campaigning and convicts could speak Kurdish while relatives visit them in prison. But "Kurdifying" the Turkish language may be a step too far for public opinion. Henri Barkey, with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says those three letters are unlikely to make it into the Turkish alphabet.

HENRI BARKEY: Formal inclusion is anathema to Turkish nationalists who for many years, and maybe to this day, still believe that Kurds do not exist and they do not have a right to have their language recognized.

BRUNWASSER: Like most important matters in Turkey, Q, W and X are discussed over glasses of strong black tea. We're in the meeting place of the Grey Wolves, a far right Turkish nationalist group. The young men gathered here oppose what the government calls its Kurdish initiative. Mirach Karakalukchu [PH] is a soldier stationed in the restive southeast. He says Kurds who use their own alphabet should be prosecuted.

MIRACH KARAKALUKCHU: [speaking Turkish] Of course they deserve to be in jail. This is a type of separatism. We have letters from A to Z and if a Q or a W is used that's not there, they should suffer the full consequences of that.

BRUNWASSER: Osman Baydemir, the Kurdish Mayor of the city of Diyarbakir, certainly did. He used a W in a greeting card for the Kurdish New Year, Nowruz. In Turkish, it's Novruz. During the trial, Mayor Baydemir asked questions about the court's staffers' use of the internet, according to his lawyer Murharrem Erbey.

MUHARREM ERBEY: [speaking Turkish]

BRUNWASSER: Erbey said his client asked everyone, "Do you log onto the justice ministry's website?" The judge and the prosecutors said yes. Then he asked "What do you type when you go there?" The answer was something like "www dot gov dot TR. Then the mayor said, "Aren't you breaking the law? Every time you type W three times and you go to the site hundreds of times a day. But when W is used in the Kurdish context it's a crime." The case is still making its way through the courts, and while the mayor still faces some 60 other criminal charges in unrelated cases, big changes appear to be in store for what it means to be a Turkish citizen. With encouragement from the European Union, which Turkey wants to join, the government is only reluctantly backing language rights. Henri Barkey of the Carnegie Endowment says the government must maintain its resolve.

BARKEY: The danger for the government is not in following through, but in not following through, because the government has gone out on a limb now, saying they want to introduce a new package of reforms, and they have, as a result, created a huge set of expectations on the part of the Kurdish population. If they go back now on their promise, I think mayhem will ensue. It will be serious, serious divisions in society, and it will be felt at every level

BRUNWASSER: However, expanding the Turkish alphabet is not a solution, according to some grammar specialists here. Turkish and Kurdish, they say, are different languages and their differences cannot be bridged. It would be like adding Chinese characters to American English, they say, just because there are ethnic Chinese US citizens. Turkey doesn't have a language problem, the experts say. It has a democracy problem.

MAN: [reciting Kurdish alphabet to music]

BRUNWASSER: Kurds are hoping that teaching aids like this one for the Kurdish alphabet will be more readily available in schools. And, that at the very least, using these letters won't be a criminal offense. For The World, I'm Matthew Brunwasser in Istanbul.

WERMAN: For more items on language, check out our weekly podcast The World in Words. Just go to The World dot org slash language.