Kurds make up about 20% of Turkey’s population - around 15 to 20 million people. But until the early 1990s, it was illegal in Turkey to use Kurdish in public.
Turkey went even further by banning several letters of the alphabet - X, W and Q - because they are associated with the Kurdish language.
The taboo against these letters has been fading, and now the Turkish prime minister is proposing an end to the ban.
Turks have long flouted the ban because, even though these letters are not used in traditional Turkish words, they are common in words loaned from English and other languages. “These letters have been used widely in the Turkish society,” says Welat Zeydanlioglu, founder of a research group called the Kurdish Studies Network.
“You have like one of the biggest TV channels, like Show TV, that has a ‘w’ in its name, and you have major companies that use these letters. It’s when Kurds have used them when using their language that they have been persecuted.”
One example was in 2007, when the mayor of a city in southeastern Turkey sent out a greeting card wishing citizens a Happy “Nowruz”, the Kurdish and Persian New Year, or first day of spring. That’s with a “w”, as opposed to the Turkish spelling, “Nevruz”, with a “v”. A case was brought against him for using the illegal letter, but later dropped.
Recently, Kurdish has become more commonly seen and spoken in Turkey. Many popular musicians sing in Kurdish. There are Kurdish TV channels, and even the Turkish state broadcaster, TRT, has a channel that airs solely Kurdish content. The channel’s website is in Kurdish and the illegal letters appear all over it.
But learning Kurdish is much more restricted. Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city, has only a couple of Kurdish language institutes. The reforms announced this week would expand language classes somewhat, but only in private fee-paying schools.
Many Turkish commentators have welcomed the moves as progress in a fledgling peace process. Kurdish rebels declared a ceasefire earlier this year after a 30-year struggle.
But Kurdish leaders are saying the proposed language reforms do not go far enough.
Gulten Kisanak, co-chairwoman of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), an opposition party sympathetic to Kurdish issues, said it was an insult to Kurds to tell them they could learn their mother tongue only if they paid for it.
Zeydanlioglu agrees. “It is difficult at this stage to tell the Kurds they have to pay to teach their children their own mother tongue,” especially after decades of what he calls a “linguicidal” policy in which Turkish authorities sought to eliminate the Kurds’ ethnic identity by eliminating their language.
Today, Kurdish kids who enter school often do not know what is happening around them because they do not speak Turkish at home. International human rights groups have reported that Kurdish children have been held back because of discrimination against their mother tongue. In some cases, kids having trouble with Turkish are designated mentally unfit and sent to special education centers.
Meanwhile, Kurdish has been associated with ignorance and its linguistic development has stagnated, says Zeydanlioglu. “The main dialect, Kurmanci, is a very dire situation,” he warns.
“Although certain things have improved, but it’s not passing on to the next generation because there are no avenues for it to evolve like all the other languages.” The problem for the continued evolution of the Kurdish language is that it’s not just a language. It’s also a symbol of the Kurds’ desire for autonomy and, for many, independence from Turkey.