Friday, 14 March 2014

Translation: A standardised language is the soul of a country


This article does not in any way represent my own opinion. I have chosen it because it discusses something that interests me and I wanted to practice translating a long text from Sorani Kurdish to English. I also think that this article can give an insight into one of the views held on the matter of standardising the Kurdish language, however, I personally suggest you take most of what is said here with a large dose of salt. The writer of the original text claims to use a scientific method when dealing with the issue of a standardised language, but his arguments are riddled with flaws, inaccuracies and bias. I find myself on quite the opposite end of the argument and regard his suggestions here as even somewhat dangerous. That said, please do read it and maybe learn something about what is quite a big issue in Kurdish culture at the moment. In time maybe I will write my own response to it.

Writer: Yunis Hemed Reshîd

A standardised language is the soul of a nation

Any national group that sees itself as a modern nation must possess, aside from a territory, a standard, unified language and their own writing system.Without this they would be just like all those hundreds of tribes and groups all over the world, like those in Africa or the Amazon rainforest where the people can understand each other in their different languages, but are linguistically backwards and cannot be compared with Arab, English and Chinese speaking nations. There is a very simple reason for this - they do not have a standardised language and writing system.

The situation that the Kurds, in all four Kurdish regions, now find themselves in - freedom to speak Kurdish in North Kurdistan (Turkey) and the liberation of West Kurdistan (Syria), along with the rapid advancements made in technology and this new global village, especially since the creation of the internet - is calling out for a unified Kurdish language. History will not wait for us if we cannot achieve this in time; we will be a people with two languages, a catastrophic conclusion for our scattered, stateless nation.

Although the Kurds have several different dialects, the reasons are in reality based in history, politics and a lack of statehood. Kurmanji and Sorani have become the two main divisions in the Kurdish language. All attempts to unify or bring these two dialects together thus have been unsuccessful, but this should not be a cause for dismay. There is indeed a basic grammatical difference between the two languages*, not just different words and some people think they should be the two standards, but a people with two standard languages become two nations.

Although countries like China and India have many more dialects than the Kurds, and despite populations of about one billion, they have just one universal alphabet. Therefore any attempt to utilise more than one standard alphabet must end up splitting a country in two, and save some national sentiments, there will be no common ground between the two; newspapers and books in Sorani will just be for Sorani speakers and those in Kurmanji will be for Kurmanji speakers.

It is crucial to realise that when people speak about standardised language, more often than not, they are referring to the writing system and the alphabet rather than the spoken language. There are, however, a few experts and linguists who think that a standardised language causes others dialects to die out, but this is far from the truth. Standardising a lnagugae means creating a unified alphabet with only the smallest impact on the spoken language. Powerful languages like English or Arabic have different dialects, but they just use one writing system.

Two conferences on language were held last year, in Erbil (Kurdish: Hêwler) and Diyarbakir (Amed), but they were unable to solve the issue or to maintain a unified language. So now there are two options in front of us: Kurmanji or Sorani. The most important responsibility we have here is to decide upon what we should do next; what should be the measure for determining which of the two is the most suitable? Are both languages equally advanced enough to be a modern scientific language which is relevant for this century and can suffice in all different social situations? Now the biggest and most key issue is whether to make the Sorani Arabic script or the Kurmanji Latin script the standard alphabet.

Contradictory arguments and justifications are often given by the north and the south (i.e. the Kurmanji and Sorani speaking areas respectively) regarding the better suitability of one over the other. Therefore the best method to nominate one is to evaluate, analyse and clarify the positives and negatives of the two alphabets in a scientific and linguistically unbiased way, void or any sentiments or local patriotism.

Kurdish is a branch of the Indo-European language family and Persian is the only neighbouring language with which it shares a relation, which is why the two languages have had such a large influence over each other. Similarly, with the arrival of the Turks to the region and after the islamification of the Kurds, both Arabic and Turkish began to have a certain influence over Kurdish since they were the dominant majority languages and we were not. Arabic and Turkish both come from different, non-Indo-European, language families, thus their influence over Kurdish has been mostly superficial without any substantial changes to the grammar. The impact of these languages consists mainly of the introduction of Arabic and Turkish words into Kurdish. However, since Persian shares both a linguistic relation with Kurdish as well as a large geographical border (with Sorani specifically), it has had a much more profound influence on a syntactical and grammatical level. According to some intellectuals, Persian may have even come under Kurdish influence; but while this may be true, it is no longer that relevant - that would have been in the past whereas Persian now possesses its own standard alphabet and language which is studied at university.

The script used in Sorani is what the great Kurdish poet Nali (1800 - 1856) first wrote in and which was later developed by the Baban principality (about 1649 - 1850) in the city of Sulaymaniyah (Silêmanî). Most Kurdish literature has been written in this dialect since the fall of the Ottoman Empire. The existence of a standard script has become a national necessity and it is not possible to talk of a system of modern leadership and Kurdish state institutions without a unified script, therefore we have to choose between the Arabic alphabet or the Latin one. A large number of Sorani speakers have, in the past, called for full backing of the Arabic script and to ban the use of the Latin script. In their opinion the Arabic writing system is the best and most suitable system for Kurdish.

Regarding suitability, both writing systems could be made to fit without much hassle, so judging the Arabic script as the best and only solution is false and an exaggeration. The Arabic letters such as 'eyn (ع), ħa (ح) and gheyn (غ) are superfluous in Kurdish as these phonemes did not originally exist in Kurdish. The specifically Sorani letters trilled 'R' (ڕ) and dark 'L' (ڵ) have not provided any simplification, only trouble. The Persian alphabet is the closest to Sorani Kurdish and not only does it not contain the written letters 'ڕ' and  'ڵ', but it also lacks the written vowels 'ê', short 'e' and short 'o' (ۆ ێ ە respectively), and this language has served as a formal and educational language for several centuries. One unusual thing about the Sorani Arabic alphabet is that no other alphabet, be it European, Arabic or Turkish, has worried so much about finding or coming up with a few strange written symbols, as if they do not understand that phonetics and orthography are two separate parts of language, not a jumbled mixture. The sounds of the trilled 'R' (ڕ), untrilled 'R' (ر), dark or velarised 'L' (ڵ) and the light 'L' (ل) exist in all the Arabic, Turkish, European and Persian languages, but they have never thought of distinguishing them in writing since it confuses more than it simplifies things. Children learn these sounds before going to school and any reader can differentiate them depending on the context of the sentence. For example in Arabic, billā has a light 'L' and wellā has a dark 'L', but both are written the same [...]**. In French the world 'Renault' is pronounced 'ren-o' and the word 'Peugeot' is pronounced 'perj-o'. French children, just like children all over the world, learn how to make sound from their parents at home, not from grammar books and dictionaries. Only if and Arab or Korean, for example, intended to learn French, would they have to overcome the problems of phonetics and grammar. Similarly, the English word 'century' is pronounced 'sensh-ry' and the word 'vision' is pronounced 'vizhen', meaning that having more symbols is no necessarily evidence of a language's advancement. Something else which is unique to Sorani is the quite high proportion of Persian loan words that it has, although having foreign loan words is normal and there is not one single language in the world which has not borrowed words, even the Holy Qor'an contains several Persian words.

It is possible to take these Persian words in Sorani and replace them with Kurmanji ones in order for Kurmanji speakers to be able to understand them. However, this is not in order to 'purify' the language as is the case with some writers and intellectuals who continually cut up and piece together the most bizarre terms in order to avoid using their Arabic equivalents. They think that they are advancing the language, but in all honesty, this is only reducing normal people's ability to understand the written language. As for those strange, fabricated words appearing in normal newspapers - only the writers themselves can understand them.

Although the Kurmanji dialect was subjected to a methodical genocide by Turkish fascists after the fall of the Ottoman Caliphate and although speaking Kurdish was considered a crime until recently, Kurmanji was the first Kurdish language in which the great Kurdish poet Ahmedi Khani wrote his masterpiece Mêm û Zîn. This great work, aside from its linguistic significance, can clearly be seen as the foundation of Kurdish state-building and the issues it deals with such as the lack of unity, independence and a national state are still alive and relevant today. Now, several centuries later, we are in need of a standardised language. In the north it is a century since the Latin alphabet was introduced by the Bedirkhan family and even though not that much literature has been written in it, anyone, without having to be a specialist, can take a look at this writing system and conclude that this dialect and alphabet are a lot more conventional and systematic than Sorani in several ways; in terms of grammar for example, the pronouns, subjects and objects are not mixed together like in Sorani. It has grammatical gender unlike Sorani, Persian or Turkish and unlike Sorani it also has a future tense. A word or phrase which in Sorani might have ten syllables, in Kurmanji might only have six or eight. As stated already, it has much fewer Persian words. Sorani has many more separable words and pronouns and the other syntactical parts of speech like the subjects or imperatives are put between these separable words in Sorani and so become mixed together. All this means that the language in its written form is weak.

Before discussing the alphabet, it should be known that Sorani is not even the only dialect in the south and east, there is also Harwami, Gorani and Luri. In fact, Sorani has not even been able to standardise itself and has not become the language of college or university education. Even now we do not have a correct writing style and everyone can just put the spoken word to paper as they please, thus Sorani ought not be seen as a particularly advanced and pure language. The literary importance of Sorani should be noted for its protection of Kurdish culture and identity and immeasurable national importance. However, from a scientific assessment it is not a modern or advanced language. Therefore those of us in the semi-autonomous region, as well as the other regions, are in need of a standardised language, sooner rather than later. The justification that Sorani should become the standard because more has been written in it is a feeble justification. All the archives and books could be scanned into a computer and later transcribed in the Latin script in order to be taken advantage of. Kurmanji, on the other hand, is the dialect throughout the north and west and in parts of the south and east (the Shekak tribe), aside from the Zazaki dialect which has no more than three million speakers. Again, I am speaking here about the alphabet, not the spoken language. The Latin alphabet originates from Greek and Greek, like Kurdish, is part of the Indo-European language family. Nowadays the majority or the world's inhabitants use the Latin script. The Turks replaced their Arabic writing system with the Latin script as part of their wide-sweeping process of westernising their society. For Kurds, however, this process is only for the necessary to form a unified script, nothing more. Even countries like Vietnam and Somalia, which have no connections to Europe, have chosen to use the Latin script. So using the Latin script to serve the Kurdish language does not have to mean that we should fear our culture becoming westernised.

Kurds have always had to emigrate or flee from oppression and today several million Kurds from all four regions are outside of Kurdistan, the majority of them have settled in the west and thus use the Latin script. They cannot be expected to start using a new alphabet. In short, Kurmanji has the largest number of speakers who are all familiar with the Latin alphabet. If we say that many Northern Kurds do not know Kurdish, then we should be the ones who help them, because at least we can speak Kurdish and can easily learn the Latin script. However, demanding that those whose mother tongue has been banned for so long learn Sorani and the Arabic writing system is unreasonable. The Kurmanji dialect is spoken in all the four regions of Kurdistan as well as by former Soviet Kurds. Kurmanji and the Latin script can also reap great benefit from the hundred years of experience of the Turkish language, such as the adoption of scientific terms, all of which have been taken from European languages. The lack of a language standardisation programme is simply playing into the hands of the Turkish state which even today refers to the Kurdish Regional Government as the Northern Iraqi administration while in Turkey the state Kurdish channel, like a wolf in sheep's clothing, aside from providing programmes in Kurmanji and Zazaki, also reserves a spot for Sorani and uses the Arabic script. So we should ask ourselves whether the Turks are more worried about our languages than we are or whether it is a trick and by broadcasting in these three dialects they are really just trying to send the message that the Kurds are not one nation with different and distinct languages. It cannot be long until they start broadcasting in Hawrami, Gorani and Luri too.

Today Sorani has a national and historical responsibility; if the decision is not taken to make Kurmanji and the Latin script the standard, it will be to our detriment and will pave the way for other regional languages to demand formal recognition of their dialects. The standardisation of Kurmanji and the Latin script would not present any great difficulties; the differences between Kurmanji and Sorani are less than those between Modern Standard Arabic and the Egyptian dialect yet Egypt is the dynamo of Arabic culture. So we can, by all means, carry on using our Sorani dialect in all cultural areas like drama, theatre and music, just not in the written form, after all, writing is the work of writers and poets and they will have no problem writing in the Latin script. It is worth noting that even a hundred years ago a great poet, Haji Qadri Koyi, tried to manifest Ahmadi Khani's dream, but since our liberation we still have not managed to achieve anything similar. While making boastful claims about having our own Kurdish government and seeking independence, we still are not ready to choose a Kurdish dialect as our standard to replace English or Arabic.

* The original article freely jumps between using language and dialect as they were synonymous whilst avoiding the issue of whether they are indeed different languages or just dialects, although this is often an arbitrary distinction.
** Here the author wrote that the English word 'brock' (?) has a trilled 'R' (which does not exist in standard English) while the word 'bring' is pronounced with an untrilled 'R'. I removed it from the translation since is not only factually highly incorrect, but also confusing for the text.


  1. Very interesting stuff. It's cool to see the debate on Kurdish language planning firsthand.

    I'm with you on his viewpoint being flawed and dangerous. Of all the authoritarian, centralist garbage, this sentence takes the cake:

    "Without this they would be just like all those hundreds of tribes and groups al over the world, like those in Africa or the Amazon rainforest where the people can understand each other in their different languages, but are linguistically backwards and cannot be compared with Arab, English and Chinese speaking nations."

    And this view doesn't get debunked often enough:

    "but a people with two standard languages become two nations."

    If we consider a 'nation' to be a primarily political community, then Norway and Switzerland both stand as refutations of this idea.

    What is the dominant tendency in southern Kurdistan, as far as you can tell? Do people tend to think like the author of this article, are they in favour of maintaining two standards, are there people in favour of a composite standard...?

  2. To be honest, I never came across anybody talking about this issue while I was there, I think most people think it's not at all a priority at the moment. I'm planning to translate some more articles on the subject, hopefully giving some different and varied opinions.
    I should read up more on this topic in general (language and identity), do you have any recommendations? I think I might re-read that Catalan book you gave me too.