Turkey, land of dead languages

Native languages still suppressed, with many facing extinction in Turkey.

A few weeks ago, two young people speaking Circassian to each other on a passenger bus in the Turkish province of Kayseri were verbally harassed by other passengers, one man in particular.

“This country belongs to the Turks! Everyone is Turkish, do you hear? Everything is Turkish, not Circassian. No second language can be spoken in this country, neither Kurdish nor Circassian... This is a Turkish country.”

In the video, the two young people keep their calm. At this point, another passenger intervenes: “When you speak two languages, the country gets turbulent!” The two young Circassians try to avoid upsetting the angry passengers any further: “It's okay, we get it, it's all right.” After all, regardless of how unacceptable it is, what the man says is the official position of Turkey. He is stating something that we have been living with for so many years.

From the Ministry of National Education to the government agencies, from the streets to the parliament, the same notion is evident: “This is Turkey, you will not speak any language other than Turkish.” Although the two young men chose not to argue with the man who yelled at them “in this country you can't speak a second language,” many others did, and the argument became part of the public debate.

In Turkey, the right to education in one's native language, a basic human right, is restricted not only by law but also by unwritten rules. This process, which began in the early years of the Republic, culminated with the “Citizen, Speak Turkish!” campaign in 1928, and continued with the forming of a repressive environment and policies against minorities, practically turning into something akin to linguistic genocide over time.

In 1999, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared February 21 as International Mother Language Day to promote the right to mother tongue, multilingualism and cultural diversity, to remove legal obstacles to the use and development of the native language and to draw attention to the right to native language education. Although 22 years have passed, the “native language issue” is still not taken seriously in Turkey.

To what extent are the people of Turkey able to use their native languages under these conditions? Which peoples of Turkey have different native languages?

15 languages in Turkey are currently classified as endangered, while another three languages, Cappadocian Greek, [Central Neo-Aramaic] Mlahso and Ubykh language of the Circassian tribe with the same name are already extinct, according to UNESCO's “Atlas of endangered languages.”

These 15 languages are:
•Vulnerable languages (languages that children can speak but in a restricted environment, such as a family setting): Abkhaz, Adyghe, Kabardian-Cherkess and Zaza (Kirmanjki)
•Definitely endangered languages (languages that children no longer learn as a mother tongue at home): Abaza, Hamshen, Laz, Pontic Greek, Romani languages, Suret, which is reminiscent of Syriac, Western Armenian.
•Severely endangered languages (languages spoken by the older generation, maybe understood by the middle generation but not passed on to the third generation): Gagauz, Ladino, Turoyo
•Critically endangered languages (languages that the youngest speakers are grandparents and older, and they speak the language partially and infrequently): Hertevin
•The website Ethnologue, another major source for language studies and directories, reports that 39 languages are currently spoken in Turkey. The list includes Ossetian, Uyghur, various dialects of Arabic, Serbian, and Albanian.

A number of NGOs in Turkey have been making statements, especially on the occasion of International Mother Language Day, calling for an end to prohibitive and oppressive policies on native languages. The necessary political and constitutional measures have yet to be taken to protect and prevent the extinction of the 18 languages spoken in Turkey that are threatened or classified as endangered.

The right to the native language is still hampered by numerous obstacles. In an environment where millions of individuals from backgrounds such as Kurdish, Arabic, Laz, Armenian, Hamshen, Cherkess, Chechen, Syriac are cut off from their family languages and cannot receive education in their native languages, while all anyone thinks of when “native language” is mentioned in Turkey is to cleanse the language of foreign words, especially English or Arabic.

This is what many people still only understand by “native language,” namely the purification of Turkish, which is considered to be the “absolute native language.” As a reminder, last year, HDP [Peoples’ Democratic Party] spokeswoman and Mardin MP Ebru Gunay submitted a motion of inquiry to Turkey's Grand National Assembly to take the necessary steps to implement the mother tongue right for all languages spoken in Turkey, which was rejected by the votes of the AKP [Justice and Development Party] and MHP [Nationalist Movement Party].

The motion, which reads “In order to take the necessary measures to implement the right to native language for all languages spoken in Turkey and to support cultural diversity and multilingualism, I would like to request and propose the opening of a parliamentary inquiry in accordance with Article 98 of the Constitution and Articles 104 and 105 of the TBMM's Internal Regulations,” was barely echoed in the press.

Presented in both Kurdish and Turkish, the Kurdish version of the parliamentary question was returned without even being processed for being “contrary to the internal rules of procedure.” The parliamentary inquiry submitted to the Grand National Assembly of Turkey concerned the following questions, “Why is the Kurdish language, the mother tongue of millions of people, considered a crime? Is there any work being carried out by your ministry for the Kurdish language to obtain a legal status in the country?”

Obviously, “native language” is of concern only to those who have a native language other than Turkish; apart from bilinguals, no one in Turkey sees multilingualism as a wealth; on the contrary, multilingualism remains a threat. It is known that about 20 languages were spoken in Anatolia up until a hundred years ago. The sterility and loss of cultural wealth is evident.

Due to the monistic policies applied for almost a hundred years, the country has become almost a land of “dead languages.” In Turkey, not only Kurdish but all languages other than Turkish are either oppressed or assimilated.

Armenian, Greek, Syriac, Hamshen and Laz are among the most prominent among them. The moment a language is no longer in daily use, it starts walking towards its demise. In short, the “Citizen, Speak Turkish!” campaign is still alive today - they know that a people who do not speak their native language on the street cannot bequeath this language to the next generation, and they do this on purpose.

When people forget their language, they forget their culture and identity, when they forget their identity, they forget their history...

The man on the bus is actually telling people to “forget, forget yourself, forget your identity.”

*A long-time analyst on regional issues, Alin Ozinian holds a BA in International Relations and Diplomacy and an MA in Turkish Studies. She is currently a PhD researcher at YSU's Faculty of Political Science. Ozinian has worked at the Permanent Mission of Armenia to the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) and has served as the Regional Coordinator of International Alert's Caucasus Development Network, based in London, and as a regional analyst for the Armenian Assembly of America, based in Washington DC. She served as press secretary for the Turkish-Armenian Business Council. In 2018, she received the Jampruk Research Award on migration issues, announced by the United Nations Association. Since 2021, Ozinian has been the executive director of the +GercekNews Portal.

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