Idioms and geopolitics

Idioms and geopolitics

The identity of a community or a country is defined by some elements. Language is one of those and an important one. Languages go through changes, through time, the conflicts, the environmental variations… 7000 languages are identified around the world. Some minorities even speak languages that apparently do not «deserve» to be translated with Google Translate. Languages can unify as much as it can exclude. In some parts of the world, strange phenomenon happen. Belgium, which is a quite small country, for example, has three official languages: Dutch, German and French. The people have a capital city in common, but speak different languages, have a different way to express themselves, different expressions, cultural heritage, and traditions. How to run a country with three languages?

Likewise, the Catalan language in Spain is a pretext of misunderstanding and disputes between the Catalan and the Spanish speakers. It suffered from censure and ban under Franco until the 60s. After being marked by this experience, the language is now used in universities but is still struggling to appear in the justicial system, using Castilian Spanish. In the best case, different languages manage to survive and «live» together, but in worst situations, they agonize and disappear. According to the online magazine Slate, one language disappears every 15 days, in the world. Out of 7000 languages, circa 2500 are in danger of disappearing, either because they are spoken in a minority, or because other languages take the hegemony… Who can judge how a language is valuable for a community? Which are the consequences of losing this cultural and historical heritage?

To give a famous example, the Kurds were forbidden to speak their own language in Turkey. For this community «without a country», the languages and the traditions are part of the history, culture, and heritage. What we call Kurdistan is divided into four countries, Iran, Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. Without an official territory, Kurdish people probably would at least enjoy an official language. According to the estimations, they are between 30 and 40 million persons. The origin of their presence in the region date of the 7th Century B.C when their ancestors, the Medes, a Persian civilization conquered the region. They do not consider themselves as Arabs and speak another language, closer to Persian. Until now, the Kurdish people suffers from persecutions in each country and fights for a better life with more rights and independence. Turkey has known a century of discrimination, ultranationalist and repressiveness. Kurds have been oppressed for a long time, in terms of the practices of their traditions and languages. Nowadays, other languages as Turkish cannot be considered as mother tongue in Turkey and the Kurdish people is suffering from a linguistic genocide. The use of some characters of the Kurdish alphabet can be considered as a crime. It has been forbidden to name a child or to call someone with a name containing the letters Q, W or X. A doctor explains in an article that her lack of knowledge about the Kurdish language, her own mother (or heart) tongue, was a problem to communicate with her patients. This ignorance of her own «mothertongue» is due to the interdiction of it by the Turkish government since she was born. 

Now the situation is getting better and Turkey lifted the ban in 2013: the country has to show its openness if it wants at one point be accepted as a member of the European Union. Under the same principle, Nûdem Durak, a Kurdish artist living in Turkey was recently arrested and imprisoned for singing and teaching Kurdish folk songs and for transmitting the cultural Kurdish heritage to children of the community. She is trying to keep connected with the past. Her future is uncertain now and she is judged illegally because the work she does is considered as a promotion of the «Kurdish propaganda». Censure or suppression of the media diffused in Kurdish, interdiction to call a baby with an original Kurdish name, imprisonment of artists. Like other languages, disappearing unnaturally, the Kurdish language is exterminated by a pretended stronger instance. Such an extinction of a language, whatever it is, implies symbolic violence. Make people quiet by depriving them of their mother tongue is an attack on freedom of speech.

And the consequences of the legal or illegal ban on a language creates a kind of confusion for children sharing a «Turkish life» at school and a «Kurdish life» at home. With this «colonisation of mind», these children could not express themselves properly in their own languages because it was forbidden at schools for example. By being part of cultural identity, languages evolve according to the conflicts and geopolitics. The Yiddish, as another example, had been a victim of an attempt of genocide, at the same time as its speakers, in the 40’s. Before the Shoah, this Ashkenaz idiom was spoken by more than 11 million. Not all of the multi-ethnical countries reserved the same to their minorities. In Morroco, for example, the Berber language is recognized as an official language and considered as common property to all of the Morrocans, since the 2011 Convention. Even some TV programs are diffused in the Berber language to facilitate its learning for all.

This is non-exhaustive. Outside of the Middle East and North Africa, it exists a lot of cases… In France, in Ukraine, in China… In a couple of years, some languages will vanish. Some of those will disappear or evolve because spoken by less than 0.1% of the population or in very remote areas. The commerce and globalization is also a cause of troubles for the languages. By the way, a new language is emerging in order to facilitate commerce: «esperanto». The article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights enforces that «Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression». Banning a language is banning the freedom of expression.


Image source:

Elise Giroud

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