Keynote Speech Jaffer Sheyholislami - fhe

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Keynote Speech Jaffer Sheyholislami


The Kurdish Language and National Identity: Achievements and
Jaffer Sheyholislami
Language and National Identity
Without getting into the endless debate over the differences between language and dialect, I
language as a system of sounds or signs that enable social beings to communicate with
each other for various purposes: exchange of information, access, produce and preserve
knowledge, connect past, present and future, build relationships, observe and interpret the
world, and finally, construct and imagine identities, including national identities. For me,
“national identity denotes shared feelings of belonging to a cultural or national group, but at
the same time it denotes differences from other groups and national identities.”
Language has enjoyed prime importance in the emergence and existence of national identities
for a very long time
3 because it plays three fundamental roles in the emergence, maintenance
and transformation of national identities: Representational, instrumental
4, and constructivist.5
Representational role: The representational role of language is important because for
most people, especially minorities, language is one of the most salient markers of group
6 This is true in the case of Kurdish.7
Instrumental role: Language also plays a significant instrumental role. Kymlicka and
Straehle (1999) suggest that “democratic politics is politics in the vernacular. The average
citizen only feels comfortable debating political issues in their own language” (70). In other
words, citizens’ participation in the cultural, social and political life of a community depends
on the degree of their access to their language.
Constructivist role: Language, the mother-tongue, is crucial to the construction of
both individual and collective identity. All nations and national identities “are imagined into
being by people alone, that is, discursively, through language.”
8 In the case of most national
identities, even those that have not held language an essential element of the nation. (e.g., in
the case of France) language has always been employed to construct all other components of
national identity from territory to flag and other symbols of that identity.
9 As Billig (1995)
puts it, “[t]o have a national identity is to possess ways of talking about nationhood” (8), and
as Fishman has stated: “The essence of a nationality is its spirit, its individuality, its soul. This
soul is not only reflected and protected by the mother tongue but, in a sense,
the mother
tongue is itself an aspect of the soul
, a part of the soul, if not the soul made manifest”
(Emphasis in original).
This study
Kurdish has played all these roles but not to the extent that state languages are able to. For
example, it is still not possible for the speakers of Kurdish varieties to employ their language
in many domains, especially education, in places like Turkey, Iran, and Syria (after the
Turkish invasion of Rojava).
However, in Bashur, Kurdistan South, the situation has been quite different. Kurdish,
especially CK, started its standardization process, at least in the 1920s, if not earlier, gained a
regional formal status in 1931 (i.e., Local Languages Law), and was developed to a medium
of instruction in the school system by the 1970s and 80s particularly in the provinces of
Sulaimaniya and Erbil.
10 Since 1992, Kurdish has been the main official language of KRG,
and since 2005, it has been recognized as one of Iraq’s official languages. Given the positive
rights that Kurdish has enjoyed in Bashur, and given the focus of this conference, we should
ask this question:
Has Kurdish played its role in solidifying Kurdish identity in southern
Kurdistan, and how
? This investigation is important if we believe that national identities are
in crucial ways discursive and linguistic constructs. Studying the Kurdish language, in this
case, should provide a window into studying Kurdish national identity.
To tackle this question, I draw on one of the broadest and most commonly used frameworks
in applied linguistics, namely language policy and planning (Le Bianco 2013). This
framework enables us to look at Kurdish from six angles: status, corpus, acquisition, domain,
attitude and prestige.
Kurdish status been enhanced, since 1992, in South Kurdistan? Status planning (SP) involves
designation of the status and function of languages (e.g., official, national, banned, etc.).
The first constitution put in place by Kurds themselves (1992) designated Kurdish as the
official language of Kurdistan while it recognized other languages including Arabic,
Turkmen and Syriac languages.
The 2005 Iraqi constitution took one step further and declared Kurdish as one of the
official languages of the country.
However, there are challenges:
o There has not been any explicit stance on distinct Kurdish varieties that see
themselves different from CK. Badini has established itself as the second official
variety of KRG, in the province of Duhok, due to its community’s political
leverage. However, Hawrami speakers’ demands for language rights, e.g., MTE,
has been ignored.
o KRG does not have a policy on non-KRG languages, especially English (and
Persian, Turkish, etc.) when they clearly threaten the status of Kurdish:
§ Kurdish is replaced by English in 2015 as the medium of instruction for
math and sciences from kindergarten. The decision is reversed in 2019
after much opposition from Kurdish activists and teachers.
§ A student in a Turkish-owned school (Ishk) was told that she could not
say that there are millions of Kurds in Turkey who speak Kurdish.
§ A professor on the campus of an English-medium university in Hawler
was told he was not allowed to speak Kurdish on that campus.
§ There are numerous language signs in Kurdistan on which either
Kurdish is totally absent or is overwhelmed by English or other
These are examples of downplaying the status of Kurdish on its own territory. This could be
interpreted as a sign of undermining Kurdish identity.
Has the corpus of Kurdish been developed and modernized? Corpus planning (CP) involves,
at least, adoption of a variety, adoption of a script, “purification,” elaboration, modernization
and the promotion of literacy.
15 According to Spolsky & Lambert,
a language’s claim to official recognition is clearly bounded by its state of cultivation,
for it is difficult to use an unwritten language in schools or an unmodernized language

to teach science. In many of these countries, the over- whelming primary concern is
corpus management, in particular the development of a written form of the languages,
the promotion of literacy among the public, modernization by developing new
terminology, the staging and duration of language instruction at the various levels of
the educational system, and the preparation of teaching materials and teachers.
Variety selection: Instead of one, two varieties have been standardized and are in use in
KRG. This is a strength on many levels: respecting language rights, protecting minoritized
varieties, and contributing to language diversity a salient characteristic of globalization,
multiculturalism and pluralism crucial features of a new world order.
Neologism and “purification”: CK has made progress with new vocabulary and
in significant ways to the extent that it might be safe to suggest that CK
written language has fewer non-native lexicon (i.e., Arabic) compared to Persian which to
this day depends heavily on Arabic. Most of these efforts are owed to two groups:
individuals like Tofiq Wahbi, Jamal Nabaz, Hejar and more, and Kurdish media which
have enjoyed an exponential growth in the past two decades. Although “purification” of
language might be a sign of strengthening Kurdish national identity, because it makes
Kurdish different from the dominant languages in the region, it has also been perceived as
a way to weaken the ability of Kurdish to render concepts in some literary and science
Grammar influence: Despite significant conscious efforts by individuals and institutions
to make Kurdish vocabulary and orthography different from Arabic, Persian and Turkish,
less attention has been paid to preserve Kurdish linguistic features beyond the vocabulary
level. For example, Kurdish literati (not the ordinary people) happily incorporate syntactic
elements of Arabic into Kurdish.
Orthography: Despite several attempts to reform CK orthography there are still some
challenges, but they are not detrimental to the language or its ability to play its role in the
maintenance and reconstruction of Kurdish national identity.
Promotion of literacy: Spoken language is created, maintained and transformed by the
speakers of the language from all walks of life. We acquire our spoken language without
much efforts. Written language or literacy, however, is a technology coming with a set of

skills that need to be learned and thus taught. Literacy has also been intertwined with the
establishment and existence of modern nations and nation-states. As Spolsky & Lambert
note, “it is difficult to use an unwritten language in schools or an unmodernized
language to teach science” or to put up signs to direct traffic in a city like Sulaimani
or Erbil with a population of around one million.
Improvements can be made to CK:
o CK may still not be ready to be used for teaching math and sciences. However,
it will be if there is less reluctance to use Arabic terminology.
o Kurdish texts are riddled with grammatical, spelling and stylistics (e.g.,
punctuation) mistakes, even those published by the Academy, universities and
their professors, and the Ministry of Education, let alone texts published by
media outlets, businesses and the city (e.g., street signs). From the perspective
of long-time language activists, literary figures and language teachers such as
Abdullah Pashew, Amir Hassanpour and Farhad Shakely. These shortcomings
are perceived to have implications for Kurdish national identity. For example,
Farhad Shakely writes: “Today, the vast majority of those who write produce
texts in a language that is awful. They are neither competent in their grammar
or orthography nor in the aesthetics of language. They lack a sense of
Kurdishness, “micazî Kurdewarî.” These writers dishonor the Kurdish
language and they inflict an utmost insult on the Kurdish culture and Kurdish
o Even though numerous bilingual dictionaries (mostly English-Kurdish) have
been published in recent years, CK still lacks a comprehensive Kurdish-
Kurdish dictionary.
Has Acquisition of Kurdish been successful in South Kurdistan? Acquisition planning is the
determination of what languages of a community are going to be taught and what languages
will be the media of education (Cooper 1989; Tollefson 2018-Oxford handbook of LPP)
Kurdish is the medium of education in all public schools (except for 2015-2018 when
English was the MI for math and science). A recent study of the perception of Kurdish

students in four schools in Hawler, conducted by a PhD student, indicate that most
students are happy with the quality of the language of their textbooks. Yet, many
observers and professionals are of a different opinion. This discrepancy is alarming to
say the least.
Teaching Kurdish language and literature in most cases is out-dated. The emphasis of
language acquisition continues to be on teaching grammar rather than encouraging and
enabling students to employ Kurdish for expressing their feelings and thoughts, to
express and reshape their identities and imaginations and to be able to act within
different genres and styles.
In private schools, which often have English or other language as their medium of
instruction, they usually have one Kurdish language and literature subject. It is
possible that most graduates from these schools may not be able to use their own
mother-tongue properly in a society where they are supposed to be future leaders in
arts, industry and politics. This does not portray a hopeful image for the future of
Kurdish identity.
Has there been successful attempts to use Kurdish in all social domains? Domain expansion
for any language could play a decisive role in enriching the vocabulary and communication
capabilities of a language.
In many areas CK has made notable strides: literature from poetry to plays and fiction,
journalism and media production, religion, and education (except for math and science
where improvement is warranted). But there are places where language planning is in
need. In 2019, Tariq Janbaz, a lawyer, who has written on language policy in
Kurdistan, expressed his dismay at the state of language used to render laws. In his
view, the Kurdistan Parliament should be able to write its bills and laws in Kurdish,
rather than writing them in Arabic first and then translating them back into Kurdish.
Attempts still needs to be made to make Kurdish a truly official language in Baghdad.
Recently Kurdish MPs from the Iraqi national assembly complained that they still
cannot conduct parliamentary debates and discussions in Kurdish. This will elevate
the prestige of the language, not to mention the fact that it will increase the ability of

many Kurdish MPs who find themselves more competent in Kurdish than in Arabic.
This will not only enhance Kurdish identity, but also democracy in Iraq. It will also
create jobs for interpreters and translators.
Has language planning in Kurdistan brought prestige to the language? Prestige planning
underlines the way people with social prestige (authors, artists, spokespersons, politicians)
elevate the prestige or esteem of a language. In South Kurdistan most prominent authors,
poets, artists and politicians use Kurdish. CK is the de facto official and formal language in
this case even for those politicians whose mother-tongue may not be CK/Sorani (e.g., Badini).
However, Badini speakers from these groups use Badini when they are in the Duhok
Kurdish speakers of these groups, however, should and could use Kurdish more often
outside Kurdistan, for example when they visit neighbouring countries, nations
outside the Middle East and at international gatherings such as the UN. I can never
forget the feeling I had when for the first time President Jalal Talabani spoke Kurdish
at the UN. After some complaints from Kurdish twitter accounts, President Barham
Salih started using Kurdish in his tweets. In his recent speech at the UN, he also used
Kurdish which angered some Iraqis, but it made many Kurds happy and proud of their
language and heritage. When a Kurd with social prestige uses the language, Kurdish
identity is enhanced in important ways. It is rather unfortunate that several politicians
and Kurds in high places do not have twitter accounts in Kurdish but only in Arabic
and English (e.g., Mr. Masoud Barzani).
Discourse and attitude
From an attitude planning perspective, all the issues discussed above, in other words, what
status is given to languages, how language are developed and elaborated, and how they are
taught or learned affect people’s attitudes toward languages including their own (Ting
There can be little doubt that even those who are critical of language use in Kurdistan
are quite proud of seeing their language standardized, have an official status, and is

employed to govern, to render dreams and to train future generations’ thinkers and
responsible citizens. However, further negligence about the status of the language and
its use and development may change this attitude. It is not surprising that there have
been those who have not only suggested to switch to English, or Arabic, in schools but
have suggested to declare English as the official language of KRG. If nothing else, the
recent events in Rojava has taught us that Kurdish identity even when it is deemed
safe continues to be under threat. Thus, we need to remind ourselves that language is
the most enduring and safe sanctuary for the Kurds; even more important than the
mountains. Mountains can be bombarded or perhaps razed to the ground, but language
will exist as long the speakers are around, and we continue to dream in them.
Language is our everlasting home. Therefore, we need to look after it.
Although Kurdish still faces many challenges (e.g., the lack of a standard orthography, lack of
functionality in some domains such as law and medicine, losing ground to English in some
domains, complaints about the literati’s negligence in their use of the variety), CK is a young
but full-fledged and standard working language in Iraq. A proactive language policy is needed
so that appropriate institutions can face the challenges mentioned above, especially in the
domains of education, public administration, language landscape and media. Le Bianco
(2013: 1) states: “
Human intervention to shape and direct both form and use of language must
be as old as language itself, while by contrast the academic field analyzing conscious policy
making or deliberate planning is very recent. Human societies have always been multilingual
and language planning, whether overt and conscious or covert and implicit in other activity,
has always existed.”
22 With that, I would like to repeat my call for a robust language policy
and planning in KRG. A 21
st century LPP will have “direct and substantial consequences for
society, economies, education, and culture” including language rights, human rights, nation
building, and undoubtedly Kurdish national identity.

1 Draft prepared for the International Conference “The National Identity of the Kurds in a New World Order”.
University of Sulaimani, October 29-30, 2019. (Please do not quote without permission:
2 Sheyholislami 2011: 12.
3 Fishman1989; Edwards 2009.
4 Joseph 2004.
5 Sheyholislami 2010, 2011.
6 Kymlicka and Patten 2003: 15; Phillipson, Rannut and Skutnabb-Kangas 1995: 7).
7 Kreyenbroek and Allison 1996: 1; McDowell 2004: 9; Vali 2003: 100, as cited in Sheyholislami 2010.)
Teb’î shekkerbarî min Kurdî eger înşa deka
تەبعی شەک ە کر بار ی من کرو دی ئەگەر ئی شنا دکە ا
îmtîhanî xoye meqsudî, le ‘emda wa deka
ئی م تح ان ی خ ۆیە مقەسوودی ، ل ە عمە دا وا دەک ا
(If my poetic talent writes in Kurdish
It’s on purpose, it wants to test itself) (Nalî, 1976, p. 577, my translation, as cited in Sheyholislami, 2011, p. 80.)
8 Kamusella 2018: 4.
9 Bishop and Jaworski 2003; Sutherland 2005; Wodak et al. 1999.
10 See Sheyholislami (Forthcoming).
11 Tollefson 1992; Cooper 1989.
12 i) Kurdish shall be the official language of the Kurdistan Region.
ii) Official correspondence with the federal and regional authorities shall be in both Arabic and Kurdish.
iii) The teaching of Arabic in the Kurdistan Region shall be compulsory.
iv) The Turkmen language shall be considered the language of education culture for the Turkmen in addition to
the Kurdish language. Syriac shall be the language of education and culture for those who speak it in addition to
the Kurdish language. (Emphasis added)
13 The first section of Article 4 of the 2005 constitution reads:
The Arabic language and the Kurdish language are the two official languages of Iraq. The right of Iraqis to
educate their children in their mother-tongue, such as Turkmen, Assyrian, and Armenian shall be guaranteed in
government educational institutions in accordance with educational guidelines, or in any other language in
private educational institutions. (Iraq’s Constitution, p. 4)
14 Sheyholislami 2017; May 2018: “nation-states can and should move beyond the historical preoccupation with
linguistic homogeneity, arising from the politics of nationalism, in order to adopt a more plural and inclusive
approach to minority groups. Continuing to ignore such demands, as we have seen, is only likely to escalate
them, not least because minority groups are far less quiescent about the injustices attendant upon their longstanding
cultural and linguistic marginalization as the price of civic inclusion in the (monolingual) nation-state
model.” (p. 13)
15 Fishman 1977; Haugen 1953.
16 Spolsky & Lambert 2013: 568.
17 Hassanpour 2015.
18 See Raspardekanî Konfiransî Berew Renusêkî Yekgirtûy Kurdî. Hawler: Kurdish Academy.
19 Shakely 2011.
20 Janbaz 2019.
21 Ting 2003.
22 Le Bianco 2013.

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