Monday, 9 December 2013

Kurdish and Catalan: A socio-linguistic comparison

When talk of modern day independence movements comes up, Kurdistan and Catalonia always feature heavily. Catalans have recently been seeing a surge in support for independence from Spain, thanks in no small amount to the ever worsening economic situation in that country, but also because of the ever present threat to Catalan language and culture which the central Spanish government represents. Then there is the fact that the Spanish political system was set up by those who inherited power from General Franco's dictatorship without a clear split from the past and, at least in some people's minds, returning to it is only one crisis away. Whilst Kurdistan may be in the same boat in terms of being a nation without a state, the situation itself is quite different. Firstly the 30 million or so Kurds are spread out among four different states, none of which are Kurdish. In Turkey and Iran they are still being oppressed political, economically and culturally, in a way that the Catalans probably haven't experienced for one or even two generations. However, due to the great size and complexity of the entire Kurdish region, I am mostly going to talk about the Iraqi Kurdish autonomous region or South Kurdistan. This region was able to achieve de-facto autonomy after the first Gulf War in 1991 and has enjoyed legal autonomy since helping set up the new federal Iraqi state. What I wish to look at here is the difference between the socio-linguistic situations in Catalonia and South Kurdistan. This means I will be comparing the state of the languages and their outlooks as well as social and governmental attempts to protect them. Finally I will give my own recommendations for what should be done for the best interests of the two languages.

Before comparing the differences it is worth noting the similarities. Catalan and Kurdish are both official languages within their regions; the regional governments, the Generalitat and KRG respectively, carry out their work in these languages rather than the central ones. The people are free to speak their native languages in public and they are both the main languages of education (this is not the case in Turkish Kurdistan, for example, where only a few privately funded and often exclusively expensive schools are beginning to teach in Kurdish [1]). However, this was not the case under the Ba'ath and Falangist regimes which sought to oppress the Kurdish and Catalan minorities by banning the use of the languages in education and even in public. With this in mind it is probably fair to say that both languages are currently experiencing highs of linguistic freedom, but could things be better?

The case is that both languages are still both suffering from problems of prestige to some extent - for comparison, Spanish and Arabic are two very prestigious languages globally, so much so that even native English speakers might dare to learn them. This can also be a problem for the modernisation of a language (and thus the society). Many new, or even old words are borrowed from neighbouring, prestigious languages or English and so is the technology. This means that something as simple as choosing the correct font on the computer has not been fully integrated into either region; so you can walk around the Barcelona metro system and find numerous examples of Catalan words or phrases with incorrect grammar, spelling or punctuation marks (e.g. a free-standing accent used in place of an apostrophe like: digue`m instead of digue'm) or shops in Erbil using Arabic script to represent Kurdish letters which simply don't exist in Arabic because there still is no official Kurdish keyboard - although I was surprised to see that this is only a small problem and most signs are written in good Kurdish. While this might seem pedantic, it can have the effect that the language doesn't seem important enough to warrant the minimal time and effort needed to check such mistakes or find the correct font. It also makes the languages appear to be backwards and not as technologically advanced as the languages from which they are borrowing which is especially important in places like Kurdistan where modernity is seen as extremely important by many parts of society and business.

Despite these crucial similarities, the two languages find themselves in two quite different situations. Although Catalan escaped the grasps of dictatorship 15 years earlier it has remained quite close to the central Spanish government and only has limited autonomy under Spanish sovereignty. The Kurds on the other hand were able to completely break free of Saddam Hussein's control with foreign support after the first Gulf War and the Kurdish uprising. Freed from the Iraqi yoke, the Kurds went about setting up Kurdish language schools and media which has gone uninterrupted to today, so much so that Arabic influence in the region is much smaller than that of Spanish in Barcelona (although there is possibly less difference in small Catalan villages) and many young Kurds really cannot speak Arabic well even if they can understand it. This is in stark contrast with the situation in Catalonia where the majority of people can switch easily between Catalan and Spanish.

The reason for the clear superiority of Kurdish in the region is that the Iraqi government does not have any control over education or media in South Kurdistan so the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) has been able to make Kurdish the sole language of education with Arabic taught almost as a foreign language and actually coming after English in terms of preference (but not availability). Where Arabic was once enforced, Kurdish is now highly encouraged and it seems quite possible for a student to avoid learning very much Arabic at all during her formative years [2]. However, the cases where students study in Arabic only and thus have a poor grasp of written Kurdish are not few. Another key aspect here is that the current Iraqi government cannot change the educational system set up by the KRG and thus cannot force Kurds to speak more Arabic. Of course there is the soft power of media in Arabic due to the vast size of the Arab speaking world, however, there seems to be little will within the Arab world to push the language on the Kurds whilst there is definitely a very strong will from the Kurds to keep their own language - although  this isn't necessarily enough to protect the language, as I will discuss later. Again the situation is different in Catalonia since Madrid is still sovereign and can and does threaten to 'hispanicize' Catalonia [3]. While this is problematic for Catalan, the situation for the Kurds means that, within Iraqi Kurdistan, they can feel secure that their linguistic rights will not be taken away in the near future.

Another important legal difference is that Kurdish is the co-official language of the whole of Iraq while Catalan is only a regional language. This has the benefit for the Kurds that all official state documentation must be translated into Kurdish, a job which most likely will only ever be carried out by a Kurd. Catalan on the other hand is only a regional language under the superior status of Spanish so much so that Catalan is banned from the Spanish parliament [4].

In spite of all of this, the final key difference goes in favour of Catalan. The Generalitat of Catalonia has done much to promote the language and encourage those who come to Catalonia to learn it, for example, courses up to intermediate level are free of charge for residents,they also run free online courses and subsidised exchange programmes and examinations (a link can be found at the bottom of the page [5]). Unfortunately this is something that still hasn't really happened for Kurdish. Although there are independent Kurdish language organisations in France and Germany, so far a government sponsored programme has not been set up, at least not to my knowledge - it's possible that there are plans in the works. A problem that may hinder this type of development in South Kurdistan is the lack of one unified language. Whereas Catalan is quite unified with some regional dialectal differences or simply differences in pronunciation, the Kurdish language group consists of several Kurdish languages (although for political reasons most Kurds refer to them as dialects of one language, but the differences can be quite extreme). Within South Kurdistan the two main groups are Bahdini (a true dialect of Kurmanji spoke in Turkey and Syria) and Sorani which itself has three main (sub-)dialects. Then there is also Hawrami/Gorani which cannot normally be understood by speakers of the other Kurdish dialects/languages. There are also others found in only in Turkey and Iran. This is often seen as a problem for Kurdish unity and a reason for unifying all the Kurdish languages, although this is in itself extremely problematic. Even if the KRG claims that all Kurds in South Kurdistan can understand Sorani and Bahdini [6], the truth is that someone from Sulaymaniyah and someone from Dohuk will have some difficulty communicating with each other. So the problem which arises for protecting the language is which dialect/language/subdialect should the government promote?

The conclusions we can draw from these differences are that Kurdish appears to be in a much better and more secure situation inside Iraqi Kurdistan, however, more has been done to really take advantage of the opportunities to promote the Catalan language. For Catalan to experience the same situation as Kurdish I believe that the Catalan region would need to achieve either full independence or a much increased autonomy from the Spanish state (although the former seems much more likely). For Kurdish the options are appear to be much more attainable, even though there are some problems, mostly in attitudes, which need to be overcome.

One of the primary problems that Kurdish suffers as a language is that many Kurds are not interested in studying their own language. Apart from some honourable exceptions, most people are more interested in studying in order to get a well paying job, i.e. engineering, law, medicine, etc. And when it comes to languages, studying English is seen as much more important, as is the case in much of the world unfortunately. This means that although the Kurdish language is a symbol of kurdishness and thus Kurdish pride, few are make the necessary effort to promote and protect the language which means that the government also has little interest, although complacency on its part is another problem. Since the situation now seems quite easy and beneficial for the language inside of South Kurdistan there is little urgency to do anything about it. However, the KRG is still young and it is unknown what will happen in the next few decades, if history is anything to go by, stability should be hoped for, but not expected. Many smaller languages are losing out to the more dominant languages, and while Kurdish isn't currently under direct threat of extinction, the growth of languages surrounding it; Arabic, Turkish and Persian, as well as English, will be to its detriment. This could be in the form of excessive use of loanwords and calques or a simple loss of prestige for the language which encourages people to learn other, more 'useful' languages. Both of these could be combated with an effective language academy, set up to study the language and monitor new terminology as well as encourage the learning of the language, especially among the immigrant speakers of higher prestige languages such Turkish and Arabic (and of course English). The Generalitat of Catalonia has achieved some significant results in this area with the many immigrants which have been drawn to Barcelona through its own government funded programmes [7]. With the growth of foreign investment in Iraqi Kurdistan, the region is experiencing an unprecedented influx of outsiders who don't speak the language and this will surely only grow. Since the language is not as prestigious as Arabic, i.e. it's not seen to be as useful, few will try to learn the language and those that do will have a very hard time finding good resources - the situation is obviously different with Arabic which has become a very popular foreign language for business as well as culture. I believe a Kurdish language institution could help change this situation for Kurdish.

The second problem which stands in the way of promoting Kurdish effectively is that Kurdish isn't really one language, but a collection of related languages. As stated above, the two main ones are Sorani and Kurmanji within which there are a variety of dialects and accents. These are also both spoken in South Kurdistan along with small numbers of Gurani/Hawremi speakers. So while Catalan has only one standard language around which there are some dialectal differences, Kurdish has at least two standards. At first this may seem like it must split the resources and complicate the issues for any Kurdish language institute, but this is where it is key to look at the bigger picture. South Kurdistan is only one part of the entire Kurdish nation. There are many more millions of Kurds living in Turkey, Iran and Syria speaking a variety of languages and dialects. Now the idea of a language institute isn't just about promoting the languages at home, but also protecting those languages which are being oppressed in the other countries. Kurmanji is the language of Syria and Turkey and thus is much bigger than Sorani and already has had a lot more academic investment, so the work here would be easier. Sorani, due to its dominance in South Kurdistan is easily accessible for any language institute (although the Sorani of Iranian Kurdistan must not be ignored) and is also in dire need of academic attention. The third focus for such a language institute would surely be to protect and promote those smaller Kurdish languages such as Zazaki (or Zaza or Dimli) and Gurani. The aim here is to not let these smaller languages become swallowed up by Kurmanji or Sorani or any of the bigger languages. Many Kurds talk about unifying the languages, but promoting standard (mainly written) Sorani in the South and standard (again written) Kurmanji in the North as secondary languages to the other native languages whilst also encouraging mutual intelligibility through studying in school would allow Kurds linguistic solidarity without letting the smaller languages and dialects be destroyed by a form of linguistic imperialism.

I have briefly discussed the situations of the two languages and shown that whilst similar, they are distinct and thus require different solutions. As I said, Catalan has been promoted well, and the advantage of its partial regional autonomy has been fervently grasped, but it remains under threat from the sovereignty of the Spanish state which has shown itself willing to remove Catalan 'privileges' on several occasions. What the Catalans lack, the Kurds have been enjoying for two decades, albeit under varingly harsh conditions. However, the Kurds have not done nearly as much as the Catalans to promote their language. So the solution seems to be quite simple, they should learn from each other's experiences. Obviously the Catalans are currently seeking independence, which would be good for the language, but they could also see that a more autonomous federal system would benefit the linguistic situation. The Kurds should seek to imitate the programmes created by the Generalitat to promote their own language, with the addition that real efforts should be made to protect the smaller languages and dialects from being absorbed into a Sorani or Kurmanji sphere. The Kurds of Iraq now have the chance to work on behalf of the Kurds throughout the Middle East and considering the growth of 'mega-'languages at the expense of unprotected minorities, now is the time to act.

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4 - (ERC MPs silenced for speaking Catalan in the congress)
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