What’s in a name: Linguistic violence in Turkey

A new and good friend of mine at CUNY is from the Kurdish region of Turkey, located in the southeastern part of the country and sometimes called Turkish Kurdistan. I’ve learned a lot about the region – which is really one part of a larger area that extends into Iraq, Iran, and Syria and comprises 30 million people – from her as well as from the news, like many people who have followed the clashes of various local forces with the crush of ISIS across sections of the Middle East as it seeks to consolidate power. ISIS’s success in destroying Kurdish communities, enslaving, raping, mutilating, and executing hundreds of innocent people in their path, is due in part to the fact that the Turkish government, which historically has brutalized, marginalized, and neglected Kurds, has been reluctant to act to strengthen resistance in the Kurdish region, a fact which some argue inadvertently allowed ISIS to gain footholds it never otherwise would have taken.

This history is long and I confess I don’t know it; however, through my conversations with my friend, I am starting to piece together a view of a complex and ancient set of cultures through her personal experiences as a Kurdish woman living in Turkey. She told me today, for example, that in Turkey it was illegal up until only ten years ago for a Kurdish person to name her child with a Kurdish name (although problems have still surfaced as a result of a continuing ban by the Turkish government on the use of certain letters to write Kurdish names, as such orthographic usages were deemed “dangerous”). In and of itself, this may not seem shocking; there have been cases in which governments have prevented their citizens from naming their children certain names which they deem to have the potential to cause the child strife in later life (for an example, read here about an Australian couple that wanted to name their child “4Real” but later elected “Superman” because the government barred them from the former choice).

The problem comes in when we think about the formal proclamation that all names from one ethnolinguistic identity are banned; this becomes, I would argue, a form of linguistic violence. This mandate was part of a fully articulated policy in Turkey to restrict not only the use of Kurdish – which, if spoken, constituted an illegal act until the 1990s – but also the ability of Kurds to define their most private of spheres: the family. These “names which [did] not conform to national culture, moral norms, customs and traditions and which offend[ed] the public could not be given to children” (this phrasing is taken from an article which discusses the controversy around Kurdish naming in Turkey) and thus were outlawed.

In “Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative,” Judith Butler’s chapter entitled “On Linguistic Vulnerability” elaborates the ways in which language positions us as subjects in society (a process termed “interpellation” by Althusser) and, thus, can act to wound us. It’s an interesting, though somewhat abstract concept (which should be the case as Butler is a philosopher and deals in ideas). A clear example can be seen in situations when a racial or homophobic slur, which has power because it has historically built meaning which becomes “ritualized,” is said by one person to another; the speaker is positioned in a particular way by the speech act, as is the hearer, and a form of symbolic violence (e.g., racism, heterosexism) can take place.

I found myself wondering, as my friend told me this about Turkey’s language policy, whether the excision of certain groups of words which are ethnically rooted couldn’t also constitute a form of linguistic violence. To prohibit the performative act of naming a child – which transforms the child into a linguistic subject as well – means to interrupt the very process of a child’s becoming a part of her sociocultural world. Her physical self is intact, but the name her parents choose for her, acting as an invocation of her cultural identity (Kurdish) in their community, is refused; further, only a name taken from the inventory of options from the intervening culture (Turkish) is permitted, thus creating the first form of linguistic violence against her: a violence of theft and supplantation.

This tragedy, the cleansing of identity from newborns in Kurdish communities, must have gone for many years with little comment from wider society in Turkey and perhaps even in Turkish Kurdistan. Though symbolic, this repeated act over generations no doubt splintered many Kurds’ self-view into one that should be rationed and given over to the dominant/occupying force of Turkey. Let’s hope the healing, the reconstitution of the Kurdish identity can find new hope in the preciousness of the name.

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One thought on “What’s in a name: Linguistic violence in Turkey

  1. Pingback: TBT PowerPoint: Critique of “On Linguistic Vulnerability” by Judith Butler – UMass Boston, Fall 2012 | ahead of the hydra

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