Genocide; Linguicide?

By: Abbas Mohammadi

Amir Hassanpour, (the former Assistant Professor in the Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilization, University of Toronto), in his article, ‘The Politics of A-political Linguistics: Linguists and Linguicide’, draws the reader’s attention to two significant categories: a depoliticized academia populated in the West by linguists who have neglected the political linguistic situation of Kurdistan; and a politicized academia in the Middle East supported by the State. In the latter case their suppressive language policies have meant that the Kurdish language has been subjected to harsh measures of ‘linguicide’, which is defined as the eradication of language (Sheyholislami, 2010). The roots of Hassanpour’s argument on linguicide is directly connected to the deliberate genocide committed by States against the Kurdish people in Kurdistan.

Hassanpour, however, values the neutrality of linguistics, but, he strongly argues that by depoliticization, the Western linguistics studies led to highly partisan of politics. To examine this, he uses the linguistics studies of Kurdish language and dialects carried out by McCarus (1958) and McKenzie (1961). Although Hassanpour admires their excellent doctoral dissertations on Kurdish language and dialects, he points out that the majority who studied the Kurdish language in English have kept silent about the suppression and repression of the object of their research by the Turkish, Iranian, and Syrian states.

Hassanpour references a significant case of silence when in 1959, the Turkish Army, the U.S.A.I.D., and Georgetown University initiated a large-scale programme of adult literacy training for recruits in Turkey’s armed services (Bordie, 1978). Bordie, who, Hassanpour describes as a well-known specialist in Kurdish language, failed to write about the event. To illustrate further, he provides the details of this uninterrupted history of negligence and irresponsibility. The Encyclopaedia of Islam (Mackenzie, 1986), Compendium of the World’s Languages (Campbell, 1991), The Encyclopaedia of language and Linguistics, and The International Encyclopaedia of Linguistics make no mention of the violence against the Kurdish language, nor provide precise information, but only give a general picture which reduces the importance of the subject. In other words, neglect and omission have caused this.

On the other hand, for politicized academia he uses his own experiences as strong evidence of suppression. He was raised in a Kurdish family in a Kurdish town and was educated in Persian, a politicized education and language. He recounts at Tehran University, where he studied linguistics (1968-1972), his professors rarely referred to Kurdish, and when they did, it was always called a ‘dialect’ of Persian. Sheyholislami (2012) in support of Hassanpour regarding the situation of the Shah’s regime, ‘Persianization remained the core policy of the central government and its regional and local institutions from the military to education.’ Sheyholislami (2018), however, affirms some significant changes in the status of Kurdish in recent years, by language policies for protection from political deterioration. The states have committed acts of linguicide against minority languages.

Hassanpour, frustrated by academia, especially linguistics, reflected on his personal experience in his doctoral dissertation. He tells of sending five chapters of it to a friend who in his comment says; ‘it isn’t dissertation style…There is anger in what you wrote. Anger against what happened to the Kurds,’ strong emotions in science. While he was engaged with his dissertation, he found a book Bilingualism or Not: The Education of Minorities (1984), where in the book, Tove, briefly recounted the story of how the Turkish embassy in Copenhagen had tried to prevent the teaching of Kurdish to Kurdish immigrants in Denmark and she referred to the language as ‘oppressed’ and ‘forbidden.’ Hassanpour expresses his surprise seeing such a book. He admires Tove’s book which makes effective use of the Kurdish case in her flourishing work on language policy, language rights, and linguistic human rights.

When offering his thoughts on politicized and depoliticized academia, Hassanpour distinguishes between the killing of language by state and the market, to identify how state, academia and globalized market are connected. He explains that the ‘killing’ of hundreds of languages in North America or Australia is mainly the market not states. Yet in the case of Kurd the killer in Kurdistan are states- Iranian, Syrian, Iraqi and Turkey. Furthermore, he uncovers the hidden side of the linguicide and alarm about it that not just in the East, but the case of Kurds is worse in the West. The state and the market in harmony restrain its study through restrictions and poor sources for reading materials including libraries, having no foundation and grants for Kurdish studies. Hassanpour says, ‘none of the Middle Eastern studies departments in European and North American universities offers any Kurdish language courses. The majority teach only the four state languages of the region, i.e. Arabic, Turkish, Persian and Hebrew.’ He directly targets Turkey throughout the article, pointing out that Turkey is a member of NATO and an ally of the West countries. He effectively directs the reader’s mind to Turkey’s destructive influence. Interestingly, followed by the negative role of Turkey on the Kurdish case, Hassanpour, mentions a good position of linguist by resisting the policy and practice of linguicide. He without providing adequate details cites a new study subject area classifying the linguicide and ethnocide as subcategories of genocide (Charny, 1994), a new opening which is significant to the studies of the Kurdish case.

Hassanpour is an Iranian Kurdish leftist thinker who fought for all kinds of Kurdish human and language rights. His works influenced the debate of standardization of the Kurdish language on prevention of standardizing the Central Kurdish dialect in Kurdistan Region of Iraq (part of the Iraqi and Iranian Kurds population speaks with this dialect), which could effectively suppress the Northern dialect (part of Iraqi and Iranian Kurds and almost all Kurds in Turkey speak this dialect). The centralization and standardization of the Kurdish language advantages the Iraqi, Iranian, Syrian and turkey’s cultural policy regarding Kurds (Hassanpour, 1992).

Based on his experiences of politicized academia in the East and depoliticized in the West, Hassanpour suggests that it is necessary for non-native researchers to acquire at least some degree of emotional involvement in relation to repressive states which they have never experienced. He and his Kurdish linguist colleague, Jaffer Sheyholislami, reflected their concerns in a special issue of The International Journal of the Sociology of Language in 2012. The ongoing efforts of Kurdish scholars, politicians and activists in recent years to internationalise Kurdish genocide and linguicide have had positive results to promote Kurdish culture and language. For Example, the eminent School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), the University of London offers two courses in Kurmanji and Sorani.


Sheyholislami, J., 2010. Identity, language, and new media: The Kurdish case. Language Policy. 9 (4) Online. Available at: [Accessed October 2018].

Sheyholislami, J., 2012. Kurdish in Iran: A case of restricted and controlled tolerance. International Journal of the Sociology of Language. 2012(217) online. Available at: [Accessed October 2018].

Sheyholislami, J., 2018. Language and Nation-Building in Kurdistan-Iraq. [pdf] Available at: [Accessed October 2018].

Hassanpour, A., 1992. Nationalism and Language in Kurdistan, 1918-1985. San Francisco: Mellon Research University Press.

International Journal of the Sociology of Language. 2012(217) online. Available at: [Accessed October 2018].