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Turkey offers to end a ban on Kurdish-associated letters of the alphabet

Here’s a guest post from Istanbul-based reporter Dalia Mortada

Kurds make up about 20% of Turkey’s population – around 15 to 20 million people. But until the early 1990s, it was illegal in Turkey to use Kurdish in public.

Turkey went even further by banning several letters of the alphabet – X, W and Q – because they are associated with the Kurdish language.

The taboo against these letters has been fading, and now the Turkish prime minister is proposing an end to the ban.

Turks have long flouted the ban because, even though these letters are not used in traditional Turkish words, they are common in words loaned from English and other languages. “These letters have been used widely in the Turkish society,” says Welat Zeydanlioglu, founder of a research group called the Kurdish Studies Network.

“You have like one of the biggest TV channels, like Show TV, that has a ‘w’ in its name, and you have major companies that use these letters. It’s when Kurds have used them when using their language that they have been persecuted.”

One example was in 2007, when the mayor of a city in southeastern Turkey sent out a greeting card wishing citizens a Happy “Nowruz”, the Kurdish and Persian New Year, or first day of spring. That’s with a “w”, as opposed to the Turkish spelling, “Nevruz”, with a “v”. A case was brought against him for using the illegal letter, but later dropped.

There are also plenty of Kurdish language instructional videos on YouTube.

Recently, Kurdish has become more commonly seen and spoken in Turkey. Many popular musicians sing in Kurdish. There are Kurdish TV channels, and even the Turkish state broadcaster, TRT, has a channel that airs solely Kurdish content. The channel’s website is in Kurdish and the illegal letters appear all over it.

But learning Kurdish is much more restricted. Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city, has only a couple of Kurdish language institutes. The reforms announced this week would expand language classes somewhat, but only in private fee-paying schools.

Many Turkish commentators have welcomed the moves as progress in a fledgling peace process. Kurdish rebels declared a ceasefire earlier this year after a 30-year struggle.

But Kurdish leaders are saying the proposed language reforms do not go far enough.

Gulten Kisanak, co-chairwoman of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), an opposition party sympathetic to Kurdish issues, said it was an insult to Kurds to tell them they could learn their mother tongue only if they paid for it.

Zeydanlioglu agrees. “It is difficult at this stage to tell the Kurds they have to pay to teach their children their own mother tongue,” especially after decades of what he calls a “linguicidal” policy in which Turkish authorities sought to eliminate the Kurds’ ethnic identity by eliminating their language.

Today, Kurdish kids who enter school often do not know what is happening around them because they do not speak Turkish at home. International human rights groups have reported that Kurdish children have been held back because of discrimination against their mother tongue. In some cases, kids having trouble with Turkish are designated mentally unfit and sent to special education centers.

Meanwhile, Kurdish has been associated with ignorance and its linguistic development has stagnated, says Zeydanlioglu. “The main dialect, Kurmanci, is a very dire situation,” he warns.

“Although certain things have improved, but it’s not passing on to the next generation because there are no avenues for it to evolve like all the other languages.” The problem for the continued evolution of the Kurdish language is that it’s not just a language. It’s also a symbol of the Kurds’ desire for autonomy and, for many, independence from Turkey.


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Translating disaster and disastrous translations

In this podcast, Carol Hills and I pick a few stories that had previously passed us by. We dust them off and turn them into out Top Five Language Stories of the month.

5.Translating Iceland’s economic collapse into English. Iceland isn’t exactly an opportunity-rich environment for job-seekers — unless you’re an Icelandic-English translator.  There are a handful Brits, Americans and Canadians who live in Iceland, often married to Icelanders. Some are now extremely busy translating complex financial documents,  most of which make depressing reading at least as far as the Icelandic economy is concerned. The translators find themselves translating back into English expressions that in some cases had only recently debuted in Icelandic:  collateralized debt  obligation  (skuldavafningur, also known as skuldabréfavafningur), payment mitigation (greiðsluaðlögun), winding up board (slitastjórn) and other linguistic markers of a nation’s meltdown.

4. Bad translations rule.  So, outside of Iceland at least,  translation remains hit and miss — mainly miss, thankfully. Mexican President Felipe Calderon recently visited President Obama in Washington, but their joint appearance before the world’s media turned into a translation amateur hour. Calderon’s translator, apparently a sub for the regular guy, rendered Calderon’s clear Spanish into murky English.

In Shanghai, that murky English known as Chinglish is in danger of vanishing. Local leaders hosting Expo 2010 don’t want their city to be the setting for mirthful photo-exchanges of all-too-literally translated expressions. Beijing tried cleaning up its Chinglish ahead of the 2008 Olympics. Good thing there are so many other cities in China, and so much more Chinglish.  One Chinglish expert — a German as it happens —  told the New York Times that beneath the flowery craziness of Chinglish lurk clues about Chinese language and culture.

Above is a picture I snapped at Beijing’s (old) airport in 2006. Without  the documentation, this fine example Chinglish might have become extinct.

Another great place to find bad translations is at the Eurovision Song Contest.  This is the über-cheesy music competition that many Europeans hate to love.  Songs from each of the competing nations go up against each other, and an international panel of judges decides the winner.  The podcast has done segments on the Eurovision here and here. This time round, we focus on the magnificently mangled English coined by the lyricists of Moldova’s 2010 entry, as described here.

3. A language for communication with extraterrestrials.  Not English, not Spanish, not even Globish. No, none of these languages is good enough for extraterrestials. The thinking, or my excessively simplified version of it, is that the aliens, when they come are likely to be brainy. I mean, they will have actually made it here. So, we may need to put our best linguistic foot forward. Hence, a language of  electronic beeps that would indicate — in a more scientifically precise way than, say, English does — just what we humans are capable of.  That was the proposal of National Security Agency cryptologist Lambros Callimahos 40 years ago. Stephen Hawking, meanwhile, thinks that if aliens do visit, they might not be too friendly.

2. Arizona moves against accented schoolteachers. The state of Arizona’s  Department of Education is requiring that all schoolteachers teaching English Language Learning speak grammatically and without too heavy an accent.  That’s yet another controversial move in a state that is being cast as the most anti-immigrant place in America.

1. People with animal names. Costa Rica’s new president Laura Chinchilla is one of millions of people worldwide who after named after animals. Interestingly, chincillas do not live anywhere near Costa Rica: they are Andean creatures.  (just as people called Lion or Lyon don’t all come from sub-Saharan Africa). Still chinchillas are super-cute, for rodents at least. So, the name might have done its bit to get Laura Chinchilla elected. And yes, there is a facebook group for people with animal last names.

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