“Teacher,” Dilek Uygül interrupts. “What is this verb: Pehtin (to bake)?”
Another student had pronounced it differently. Uygül is short and minuscule, but creates a presence in the room by always raising her hand and energetically asking questions.
“Aaaah! Your family would say it this way, but that is not how we are pronouncing it here. You voice the ‘h.’ In Qers, they also say it like you do: Pe’tin!” replies Daniel Barry, the class instructor.
Uygül is pleased that her pronunciation matches that of people in Qers, a city in northeast Turkey. She is from an area on the western side of the country, opposite Qers. Sharing an accent with Qers’ Kurdish population makes the distance between the two places seem smaller.
Interruptions like these regularly punctuate this Kurdish language class. Barry does not mind, though. After noticing one student drop the “t” from a word while another student does not, he cries out in the middle of class, “I just love this!”
The Kurdish students love it too, he tells me. They argue over different word pronunciations, phrases, expressions, newspaper language, and grammatical rules. When they discover similarities or unfamiliar pronunciations or usages, they often crinkle their foreheads.
Barry’s Kurdish students speak with a variety of different regional accents. They were born and raised in an array of cities and villages in Turkey that each have a large Kurdish presence, especially in the southwest. The class includes students from Qers, Mardin, Dersim, Diyarbakır, and beyond – even from İzmir, “the castle of secularism.” It would be almost impossible to reproduce this diversity in a classroom in Turkey.
Sitting in the palazzo CUNY Graduate Center in Manhattan, these students share a single desire: to learn a language that is nearly absent from official and public use in their home country, Turkey. For almost a century, the Turkish government has officially or semiofficially banned the Kurdish language. Most of these students grew up speaking Kurdish under the shadow of these bans, making their knowledge of its intricacies sketchy at best.
Reclaiming Their Language
Turkey has long pursued a policy of assimilation vis a vis its Kurdish population. At times, this policy has taken a violent turn. Beginning in the 1970s and lasting for three decades, the state waged a brutal war against the Kurds, who make up 15 to 20 percent of the Turkish population. The fighting killed approximately 40,000 people on both sides and left an estimated 17,000 missing.
Friction between the Kurds and the Turkish government intensified throughout the 1990s. Both a food embargo and state of emergency were imposed on Kurdish cities and villages, schools were shut down, and fighting raged between Kurdish fighters and the Turkish police, military, and village guards. As a result of these and other state-driven assimilation efforts, Kurds living in Turkey lost nearly all connection to their language, which serves as one of the main signifiers of identity.
In what is likely a response to this unfortunate reality, Kurdish language classes have started to informally spring up across the globe, including in Washington D.C. and some European countries. For many heritage speakers, these classes represent a chance to shed their assimilated identities and embrace their Kurdish roots.
Barry, an American graduate student in phonology at CUNY, started the course at the university with Cevat Dargin, another student in the class. Formally called the Kurdish Language Study Circle (NYC), the first session was held in the fall semester of 2014. The class meets every Friday evening with an average of twenty students attending.
For Barry and his Kurdish students, the arrangement is a marriage of convenience. As Dargin puts it, “Barry knew the grammar, we knew the language.” The class is almost never still or quiet, with deliberations constantly taking place. Together, Barry and his students discuss accentual differences, morphological constructions, and inconspicuous word etymologies. The class moves quickly.
Because his background in the language is more technical, Barry’s knowledge of Kurdish phonetics and grammar are strong. His command of the vocabulary is less comprehensive. “I myself am not a fluent speaker of Kurdish; I have only so far advanced through this class,” Barry tells me, “I am also learning.” Sometimes, he stops the class to ask what a word means or to inquire, “Would you say it this way?”
“What does this mean?” Barry asks, as he reads off the homework sheet projected on the wall.
“How much?” is the collective answer.
Barry ventures a variation in Kurdish, then a second. There is disagreement about the second response. One student – Dargin – says, “I use the second word to say how much something means.”
“You accept that?” Barry replies.
“Yes, we use it,” Dargin says.
Uygül is debating the issue with another student. Two other students start to participate in the conversation. Barry quickly interjects, “This only shows the variety of the language.”
“It’s just very confusing,” one student says.
“I know,” Barry replies sympathetically.
Barry faces the class and makes a small speech that begins: “Part of learning the language fully is learning what doesn’t feel natural to many of you…”
Even though students may disagree, they must settle on a way. That is the only hope for standardizing the language.
The Kurdish language has two standard dialects: Kurmanji and Sorani. Kurmanji is spoken in Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Lebanon while Sorani is found in Iran and Iraq. Kurmanji, the dialect taught in the CUNY class, is not as standardized as Sorani (in Iraq, for example, there is a long publishing tradition among Kurds and a literate reading public), but is undergoing its own slow process of standardization.
Kurmanji is an endangered language, according to Kurdish linguist Michael Chyet, who I spoke with via phone. As he has written in one of his papers, in just ten years “the number of Kurmanji speakers can conceivably fall from several million to one million, and then to a few thousand, and then a few hundred.”
According to Chyet, 60 to 65 percent of Kurds speak Kurmanji. This means almost 19 million out of an estimated 25 to 35 million Kurds use the Kurmanji dialect. However, the Ethnologue: Languages of the World, a catalogue of known living languages, puts the number of speakers at a lower “15 million and decreasing.”
Written Kurmanji is even more at risk than the spoken version. Most Kurdish students in the CUNY class grew up speaking the dialect in their Kurdish/Turkish bilingual homes, but never learned how to read or write the language. For them, learning Kurmanji in its written form is important.
“They have always told us that Kurdish is a spoken language,” Uygül says, “But in class, I am learning grammar and how to read and write, which is very satisfying to me.”
Uygül first came across the Kurdish script in a book she found buried in the dusty stacks of her college library in Ankara. She began to tentatively read it and found she could understand some parts, with the exception of words with letters such as W and Q, which are absent from the Turkish language. “It felt so weird,” she recalls, “I told myself: ‘this is a real language.’”
Like Uygül, Rêzan Altınkaynak, a young Kurd with a thatch of raven-black hair, tells me he has never received formal instruction in Kurdish. He pauses. “I can speak it very well, but I don’t know its characters and I don’t know how to write it. Even – it was illegal to see Kurdish script!”
Nearly all of the Kurds in the class could not openly speak Kurdish while in school in Turkey because of the official ban against the language. For some, like Dargin, the prohibition was even more severe. Dargin grew up in a hamlet tucked away between the mountainous slopes of Dersim (officially named Tunceli) in Eastern Turkey. There, anti-Kurdish state policies hit particularly hard. Kurdish was prohibited from being spoken not only in schools, but also in public. Dargin only spoke Kurdish with his parents, the elderly, and other children his age. Those who spoke the language at his school risked physical punishment.
Bans on Kurdish started in 1923, Chyet explains, when the Turkish republic was established by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Turkey’s first president. The initial legislation outlawing Kurdish dates back to 1924 when parliament passed a decree enforcing a ban on the language.
From the 1920s to the 1950s, the government implemented various assimilationist language policies, ranging from blanket bans on non-Turkish languages and the creation of pro-Turkish language campaigns to efforts at forcing citizens to adopt Turkish names and declaring the “Turkishness” of all citizens in the country’s constitution.
According to Philip Kreyenbroek, a professor of Iranian Studies at the University of Göttingen, the words “Kurd” and “Kurdistan” disappeared from the official Turkish vocabulary, during this time. Instead, Kurds were referred to as ‘mountain Turks.’
The Language Ban Act of 1983, which mandated that only Turkish be spoken in public, was lifted in 1991. In public institutions, such as courts and schools, however, the Kurdish language still remained prohibited from use. To this day, speaking Kurdish is frowned upon, despite reforms aimed at easing the cultural and linguistic restrictions on Turkey’s Kurds, which have been introduced by the country’s ruling AKP party from 2003 onwards.
Many students in the CUNY class, including twenty-six-year-old Demet Arpacık, admit to falling under the spell of assimilation. Arpacık grew up ashamed of who she was. Her grandfather had openly denounced his Kurdish heritage, and she was taught to think of herself as Turkish up until her university years.
As a child, Arpacık used to inform on others who spoke Kurdish and would fervently raise her hand to recite the school vow, which is taken by all primary schoolers every morning to affirm their Turkishness and proclaim their respect and devotion to their country as greater than themselves.
Toward the end of her undergraduate career, Arpacık started embracing her Kurdish identity and telling people she was a Kurd.
For Dargin, it was a long road to discovering and embracing his Kurdish identity, particularly through language. It was not until traveling as an exchange student to the United States in 2005 that Dargin realized he was a part of a minority that was discriminated against in his home country. When he went back to Turkey, things looked very different. “In my last years of university, I turned back and just saw that – it almost took me 10 years to get fluent in Turkish, but I wasn’t able to read Kurdish fluently,” Dargin says.
The Kurds Will Learn Kurdish
Barry draws lines down two wide, greenish chalkboards grafted onto the right side and front wall of the classroom, dividing them up into smaller sections. He announces that it is time for a short class exercise, and directs the students to write three sentences using the verb “want.”
Dargin is among the students he tells to write their sentences on the boards.
The students approach the front of the classroom. Dargin scribbles: Ew dixwazin em Kurdi fem nekin/Kurd dixwazin Kurdistanê azad (bi)kin. The sentence translates: “They don’t want us to learn Kurdish/The Kurds want to liberate Kurdistan.”
When he reads it out load, there is a roar of applause.
Attending this Kurdish class is a political act, Arpacık says. “Everything the Kurds do is political,” she declares. When it comes to learning the Kurdish language, nothing could be more true.