Language is the vehicle that we commonly use to exchange ideas in our shared environment. In short, language is one of the keys that unlock the human mind. However, language is not the sole criterion that reveals our beliefs and identity, but one of the most important.
It often binds the speakers of it together, harmonizes their communication, imparts a feeling of affinity, and can become the foundation for the creation of a new nation based on the simple sharing of a language.
There are numerous cases in history that the identity of a nation has survived the loss of its language, while there are similarly other cases that evidence the reverse. In short, the importance of a common language– like other primary binding factors of culture–ought to be evaluated in the context of a given nation and not in generalities.
Take the case of the Irish nation as an example. How were the Irish affected after the loss their language to English? Did they lose their culture; their identity? Indeed, none were affected, and in fact became stronger in face of the clear and present danger of assimilation.
Roughly half of the Kurds in Turkey speak only Turkish. But the same half also forms the most active sector in the Kurdish national struggle in that state and the source of most violence in that context. While the loss of language does not predicate the loss of common identity among people, conversely, nor does a common language by itself dictate a common identity.
The Croatians, Serbians and the Bosniaks share the same language, and yet, they are so diverse in their national aspirations and identity to take up murderous arms against each other for generations. In their case, religion is their national binding glue. One could easily argue that throughout the ages, religion has always outperformed language in this role. Islam and Christianity REQUIRE a change of identity at the time of conversion. A Muslim becomes part of a new nation, “the Umma” (the nation of believers), to the exclusion of all other national identities (branded at the time as “Sha’ubiyya” or factionalism).
Until the French Revolution that advanced language as the primary, if not the sole element of national identity in the West, all European Christians were part of the “Christendom.” If they were Catholics, then their rulers were ‘accredited’ by the Pope in Rome, because technically they were all part of the same kingdom of Christ, formed his nation, and were ruled by his vicar, the Pope.
Kings and princes were but ancillaries to the absolute power that resided in Rome. If they were the Orthodox, the Patriarch bestowed the same identity on their mass of followers. Using language as the identifier was the remedial invention of the French Revolution when the Pope following the expropriation of the church’s assets by the revolutionaries excommunicated that state and its people.
Having been thrown out of the fold of the Christendom and the Christian nation, the revolutionaries proposed that the French form a nation of their own, distinct from the Christian nation. How was a Frenchman be defined and what was his identity following the excommunication?
The revolutionaries argued that they should be defined by the only element left in common among them: their language. This is taken by the historians to be the source of the current, language-based ‘ethno-nationalism’ that has ripped the world asunder in the past two centuries and created over 200 countries and numerous “national liberation” movements bent on creating even more.
One could ask: What were these “nations” doing before the advent of the French Revolution and the ensuing ethno-nationalism? Well, they were parts of a greater entity: their religion’s kingdom. Looking at the world histories and literature before the French Revolution, one is hard pressed to find more than one or two isolated cases referencing the language as a national glue, or even as an important factor in that regard.
Language is the vehicle of the thought, not the thought itself. Vehicles can be changed over time, without harming the thought. Man’s identity is his thoughts not his tongue.
For instance speaking English does not make a person an Englishman, or being conversant in Spanish renders a man a Spaniard. However, it can, if the intellectuals and the mind-molders of a society or societies say so and work at it.
In the past two hundred years, of the 386 German-speaking states, 382 joined to form a united Germany. Four did not, and remain independent today despite their common language. Twenty-eight states joined to form France, some actually not French speaking at the time of their joining. In the past one hundred years, the Arabic speaking intellectuals have been trying to form a single Arab identity among the speakers of that language, where none had ever existed before.
They have achieved this to a large extent, by standardizing the Arabic languages (many too far removed from one another to be called a dialect) and inculcating a sense of belonging among all its speakers. The Kurds are a nation that for eons have been defined by their life-style of mountaineering: individualism, freedom, nonconformity, and atomism. Language had NEVER been the identifier of a Kurd, as they have and still are conversant in many dialects, which like Arabic, are so far removed from each other to form languages. Like all other aspects of a Kurd, as they have and still are conversant in many dialects, which like Arabic, are so far removed from each other to form languages.
Like all other aspects of ones identity, it is imperative to preserve ones language. But, losing it does NOT change the person’s identity. There are a myriad other aspects that preserve the person’s identity. Keep those, and the loss of language would mean unfortunate, but not lethal. Today’s world, however, is largely the by-product of the trends set by the French Revolution: A nation needs a common language and often defined by it.
The odd and inaccurate term, “ethnolinguistic groups” presupposes the language to define the ethnicity. No one wants to argue with that self-evident fallacy today, because it seems to be “done deal” in the minds of most everyone. And yet, it does not take an expert to see this simply is not true. Despite the evidential fallacy of the language-based identity of the people, it is how the international institutions commonly recognize a “nation”–by its common language.
Creating or fostering a “national language,” that many already be there is, therefore, of utmost importance in the debate that a given nation actually exists. This has become more evident in the context of modern revolution in communication, requisition a common vehicle to facilitate the education and foster the culture of developing and vibrant nation. Kurds are not an exception to this.
In fact, entities that oppose the existence of a Kurdish identity or nationhood have shown a great proclivity in the course of the past century to attack and try to eliminate its language. This is most evident in Turkey. In a country like Turkey where the French paradigm, the language–Turkish, defines the ethno-national identity of the citizens, permitting, much less fostering a fundamentally different langua
fostering a fundamentally different language (Kurdish) would be a sacrilege. From the start of the Turkish Republic and its constitution of 1925, Kurdish language, along with all other vestiges of Kurdish culture and identity were criminalized and banned. The said ban is still in enforce, although no longer officially, to the present day. This policy has included, among others, legal restrictions on the use of Kurdish names; the renaming of nearly all historic geographical names: cities, towns, villages, rivers, mountains, etc; bans on Kurdish speaking or singing in Kurdish, ergo its teaching and learning.
In fact the use of several letters of alphabet peculiar to Kurdish has also been criminalized in that state. These acts are intended to forcibly assimilate the Kurds into the Turkish pool. To achieve this end, the government planners in Ankara–a country that defines its own identity by a language– have falsely assumed that the prime target of attack on Kurdish identity should be primarily to eliminate its language.
Apparently, the lessons of the British in Ireland, or the Russians in Poland that achieved the reverse impact of actually heightening the nationalistic feelings of those to ancient nations has been largely missed by the Turkish planners. Today, the issue is not whether language is the sole or a primary guardian of the Kurdish identity, but its role in fostering a vibrant and growing culture and facilitating education and the economy that requisites the creation and promotion of a single standard and sophisticated vernacular for high level communication and education to guarantee this future.