Culture, Sovereignty, and Social Justice: The Shifting Value Horizons of Kurdish-Language Activism in Turkey and North Kurdistan

Author: Patrick Lewis (Independent Scholar, Bulgaria)
Speaker: Patrick Lewis
Topic: “Language Ideologies”
COMELA 2022 General Session


“Linguistic anthropologists have carefully studied the ideological binaries – e.g. ‘authenticity’/‘anonymity’ (Gal and Woolard 1995; Bauman and Briggs 2003) & ‘pride’/‘profit’ (Duchêne and Heller 2012) – structuring modern discourses around language diversity and minority-language activism. In his analysis of anti-Kurdish state policies in Turkey, Üngör (2012) describes how these binaries inform wider divisions within the scholarly community between those who explain minority language decline by pointing to the forces of social mobility and economic development and those who emphasize state-sanctioned cultural or ‘linguistic genocide’(Skutnabb-Kangas 200). At the same time, the ideological features of these binary framings often resemble one another closely and thus speak to a more generalized opposition between conceptions of language as a source of either intrinsic or instrumental value (Gal 2012).

Drawing on two years of ethnographic research with Kurdish-language students and educators in the linguistically mixed, ‘Mesopotamian’ border city of Mardin between 2015-2019, and on the analysis of activist media, this paper explores how competing discourses from within Kurdish-language activism mobilize both of these binary framings in different contexts and for different purposes. Moreover, it draws attention to how these framings are themselves positioned relative to larger ideological value horizons – or discursive ‘problem-spaces’ (Scott 2004) that inform the metrics through which language’s value is assessed as both a means and an end within social life. More specifically, it emphasizes how the two most prominent value horizons informing Kurdish language activism in Turkey and North Kurdistan over the past century– ‘Kurdish culture’ and ‘national sovereignty’ – have begun to shift in response to an emerging value discourse that emphasizes language activism’s role in ‘social justice’ (Heller 2013) and seeks to establish it as an activity also oriented toward anti-racist and feminist outreach and struggles for economic and social equity.

Duchêne, Alexandre, and Monica Heller, eds. Language in late capitalism: Pride and profit. Routledge, 2012.
Gal, Susan, and Kathryn A. Woolard. “”Constructing languages and publics: Authority and representation.”” Pragmatics 5, no. 2 (1995): 129-138.
Gal, Susan. “”Sociolinguistic regimes and the management of ‘diversity’.” In Language in late capitalism: Pride and profit (2012): 22-37.
Heller, Monica. “”Gumperz and Social justice.”” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 23, no. 3 (2013): 192-198.
Scott, David. Conscripts of modernity. Duke University Press, 2004.
Skutnabb-Kangas, Tove. Linguistic genocide in education–or worldwide diversity and human rights? Routledge, 2000.
Üngör, Ugur Ümit. “Untying the Tongue-tied: Ethnocide and language Politics.” International Journal of the Sociology of Language no. 217 (2012):127-150.”

Keywords: language activism, publics, value, Turkey, Kurdistan