`Speak Turkish, Speak Plenty`: nationalism, identity and conflict over language in Erdogan’s Turkey

By Uygar Baspehlivan
First published in King’s College’s “Strife Blog”

News today are rife with articles and analyses of Turkey’s renewed conflict with Kurdish secessionists in its South Eastern province. However, what we have not seen reflected on the media are the cultural implications of this reignited conflict over the Kurdish minority. Specifically, the Turkish government’s project towards limiting Kurdish language from the public space. This policy of linguistic exclusivity is not new, but rather makes sense in the context of a hundred-year state-led project. Erdogan’s new nationalism and the aftermath of the 15th of July coup brought novel conditions and problems that warrant fresh analysis. This article will look at how the linguistic policies of Erdogan’s government since 2013 have seen a renewed attempt at enforcing Turkey’s linguistic nationalism and will deliberate its further implications for Turkey’s ethnolinguistic minorities.

Ever since the late 19th century, language has grounded and feed Turkish nationalism’s most basic assumptions, justifying a project to put language under the state control and disseminate the same standardized language to the public as a means of consolidating the nation’s homogeneity.[1] In Ataturk’s, and later Kenan Evren’s statist linguistic policies, establishing the fabricated Turkish language as a primary referent of identity and deploying it as a means to produce a sense of the nation has become a central objective of the state. The extension of state-produced language to the Anatolian space naturally necessitated the assimilation of the region’s many local languages and dialects. Numerous historical languages were lost in the process, from Laz to Circassian. One of the resisting languages has been in a conflict of survival for almost a hundred years; Kurdish.

In 1924, under a policy named the `Eastern Reform Plan`, Kurdish citizens of Eastern Turkey were forcefully moved to other regions of Turkey so as to divide the Kurdish populace, thereby preventing a linkage of space and communal language. Being denied an open public space to speak their language, Kurdish citizens would be assimilated and their language would be lost, reifying Turkey’s linguistic homogeneity. This policy of linguistic assimilation would be consolidated and institutionalised with the 12 September 1980 coup where Turkish is constitutionally declared as the official state language and the publishing and spreading of written material in any other ‘native language’ is banned. The term `native language`, in this instance carries a significance in it that should not be neglected. As with the cases of Basque and Sicilian, when a language is not carried onto succeeding generations as a native tongue, its extinction becomes almost inevitable.  Attempting to eliminate the `native` status of Kurdish and making Turkish the only spoken language in the state, is effectively denies Kurdish identity and consequently a Kurdish future. The walls of Diyarbakir’s famous E-type prisons bear a slogan that perfectly exemplifies this era of linguistic identity conflict: `Speak Turkish, Speak Plenty`.[2]

When Recep Tayyip Erdogan first rose to power in Turkey in 2002, his promises on minority reform and specifically legislation on language were hopeful at first. Albeit restrained and certainly reluctant, several reforms were made in accordance with the expectation of the EU accession process. These included allowing TV programmes in minority languages and facilitating the learning by Turkish citizens of minority languages. However, as expected, there were several setbacks to these alleged reforms. The decision to allow TV programmes in minority languages were accepted only on the condition that `there would be no children’s programmes, no minority language teaching programmes, and that all programmes would be subtitled or simultaneously translated into Turkish.`[1] In the decision to disallow linguistic education programmes, one can clearly observe the recurrence of the `native language ` problem carried on from Evren’s policies. The learning of Kurdish by children was perceived as a threat to the nation’s linguistic homogeneity. The condition of simultaneous translation similarly indicates a reluctance to allow exclusive Kurdish-speaking zones.  Therefore, we can argue that the limited reforms – which were important nevertheless- came with severely constraining conditions. A free space was created but put under the direct regulation of the state and its linguistic policies.

Today, after the 15th of July coup attempt, in the extended period of state of emergency, we see the return of Evren’s and Kemal’s more explicit linguistic nationalist policies. AKP’s short period of Kurdish tolerance, which ended in 2014, when Kurdish political party HDP won seats in parliament and precluded AKP’s road to a majority. Following the re-ignition of the PKK-Turkish army conflict in the Southeast, Erdogan’s rhetoric took an unambiguously nationalistic tone. This spelled bad news for the linguistic gains the Kurdish communities made in the last decade. The state of emergency saw many Kurdish language TV channels and newspapers being shut down, restricting the public’s access to the language. The reason for these acts are presented as disseminating propaganda for the terrorist group PKK. In this decision, we witness an act of identity-making invested on language. This establishes a direct link between the Kurdish language and terrorism. As a result, people speaking the language- aka the Kurds- are indirectly and symbolically linked to war and terrorism. Recent events suggest that the Kurdish language is being inscribed in a normative dimension. In other words, as it is the language spoken by `terrorists`, the language and the overall linguistic group becomes `evil`, which produces the perfect conditions for a total domination of the linguistic space by the state –and here the state of emergency is a key discursive and practical facilitator.

These acts designed to capture linguistic space were supplemented by the return of denialist policies –not of denying the very existence of the Kurdish language like in the 1930s, but the denial of its officiality, its legitimacy-. In 2013, at the very start of AKP’s nationalist turn, we observe instances of Kurdish phrases being excluded from official documents.  When HDP Member of the Parliament Hasip Kaplan, for instance, used several Kurdish words in his speech on budget plans, the official transcript stated; `here the speaker used several words that are not Turkish`[2].  Similarly, when he used a famous Kurdish idiom, it was recorded as `a saying in an unknown language`[3]. Besides inscribing the language a normative quality, the nationalist turn in post-2013 Turkey included taking the minority language out of Turkish political discourse, effectively denying and proscribing political agency if expressed in Kurdish.  Ergo, to exercise political agency, – one of the central assets of citizenship- it became, symbolically, compulsory to conform to the linguistic expectations of the nation.

Policies to prevent Kurdish from becoming a `native language` persist in Erdogan’s new nationalist Turkey. State policies are not simply directed towards the assimilation of the political wing of the Kurdish movement, but the assimilation of its culture, denying the space for community to flourish. In service of this policy, many Kurdish Culture Centres were shut down.[4] But more peculiarly, and certainly in line with policies pertaining to `native languages`, in February of 2017 day care centres funded by the Diyarbakir municipality called `Zarokistans` were suddenly closed down by means of an executive decree.[5] This decision can be interpreted as the continuation of an on-going project of delimiting the capacity for Kurdish to be cultivated as a `mother tongue`, thereby denying cultural/communal affiliations to transpire between the Kurdish minorities of Turkey. Presumably, by reducing the number of people who would know Kurdish `by birth`, any sense of Kurdishness as established by language can be undermined.

Erdogan’s new nationalist Turkey has brought back Kemal’s linguistic nationalism. It sees the retraction of minority rights reforms made under Erdogan’s own leadership and pursues a re-enactment of Ataturk and Evren’s statist nationalism. In representing Kurds as the primordial Other of the Turkish nation –not all Kurds of course, but Kurds that defy `us`– disciplining the minority language becomes a means to promote and enforce homogeneity. In the examples discussed, ranging from limiting the political visibility of the Kurdish language to seemingly minor acts such as closing down day care centres, we can observe Turkey’s return to nationalist policies that govern language as a means to ensure that Turkey’s modern existence and future are predicated on only one identity.



[1] Senem Aslan, “Citizen, Speak Turkish!: A Nation in the Making”, Nationalism and Ethnic Politics, Volume 13, 2, (2007), 245-272

[2] İsa Tekin, “E-Tipi Hilton Diyarbakır Cezavi – Türkçe Konuş Çok Konuş”, (Ankara: Peri Yayınları, 2012)

[3]  I.N. Grigoriadis, “Türk or Türkiyeli? The reform of Turkey’s minority legislation and the rediscovery of ottomanism”, Middle Eastern Studies, 43:3, 426.

[4] http://t24.com.tr/haber/kurdistandan-sonra-kurtce-kelimeler-tutanaklardan-ayiklandi,245861

[5] Ibid.

[6] http://www.yeniozgurpolitika.org/index.php?rupel=nuce&id=65459

[7] http://www.agos.com.tr/en/article/17730/zarokistan-closed-down





Uygar Baspehlivan is a Graduate of International Relations at King’s College London. His research interests include nationalism, critical theory, identity politics, language, and film theory.

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