International Mother Language Day: Prospects for Armenian and Kurdish in Turkey

Ahead of International Mother Language Day on 21 February, UNESCO published an Atlas of the ‘World’s Languages in Danger’ revealing 15 endangered languages in Turkey.

Western Armenian: an endangered language in Turkey

Sevan Degirmenciyan is an Armenian philologist and teacher at the Mkhitaryan Armenian High School in Istanbul. Speaking to Agos, a Turkish-Armenian bilingual weekly newspaper published in Istanbul, Degirmenciyan said there are efforts to preserve Armenian but that it is about to lose its role as an everyday language in Turkey.

“It makes me really sad to hear people ask ‘what is Armenian good for?’,” Degirmenciyan, also editor of Istanbul daily newspaper Jamanak, said adding, “Armenian is more important to Turkey’s history than English.”

Degirmenciyan said that nationalist ideology puts pressure on Armenian speakers, “I always spoke Armenian with my parents but when I had to go to military service, I couldn’t call my family since you are forced to speak Turkish there. I preferred not to speak at all.”

“Perhaps it’s not true for the Armenians in the diaspora but in Turkey, Armenian is a very important language because it’s a language of resistance. Speaking Armenian within the borders of Turkey is an act of resistance,” Degirmenciyan said.

The teacher, editor and philologist believes that students gradually stop using the language when they start high school, “they begin to think that they can’t comprehend life with Armenian.” He believes that it is a mistake to correct students in every single moment since it will only discourage them. “We should always encourage them to speak and write, and allow them to make mistakes,” Degirmenciyan said.

Kurdish languages ‘not endangered’ but still suppressed

Kurdish languages are not, according to UNESCO, endangered in Turkey. However, speaking Kurdish in Turkey is often, just like Degirmenciyan describes the act of speaking Armenian, is an act of resistance. A prosecutor in Turkey recently demanded fifteen year sentences for twelve young men who were arrested for singing in Kurdish. On Monday, a student was taken into custody for singing Kurdish and performing a Kurdish folk dance after having been reported by the teacher.

Speaking to Kom News, Derwes Ferho, head of the Kurdish Institute in Brussels, said that “There are almost 50 million Kurdish speakers around the world consisting of not only Kurds but also of Turkmens, Assyrians, Armenians and others. Although the Kurdish language is an ancient and advanced language, and has many dialects, it is in some countries considered as merely a dialect itself,” Ferho said.

“Turkish authorities have denied the Kurdish language for years as part of their assimilation policy. It was prohibited for a long period. Although it is not officially banned anymore, Kurdish people are not allowed to be educated in their mother tongue. Tens of millions of Kurds are forced to learn Turkish or they will be deprived of an official education,” Ferho said from Brussels.