Even as a native to the English language, I find ‘power’ difficult to define, it stirs a cloud of emotions more so than it does a coherent definition in my mind. Especially in connection to language, as I, and many first generation immigrants, struggled in the battle between our mother tongues and the language we were raised with in countries beyond our homeland. Nevertheless, ‘power’ can be defined as the ability to cause effect or influence, which language is undeniably capable of. Language and its influence can be acknowledged in its utility as a tool of communication, as a facilitator for building communities which then creates a collective identity. This is emphasised with language’s crucial role in music, literature and history, which formulate a collective memory and instil values of the community. Strengthening the identity of a community occurs alongside the strength of the collective language’s presence. Language and its power are therefore evident. The Social Identity theory validates the importance of personal identity being drawn from the communal identity and so language is vital to not only the collective, but then to the personal identity also.
The system recognises this indelible ability for language to dominate the collective and personal identity. In England it prescribes an “English only” social rule in public and across schools, against all those who dare to know another language. In Turkey, during the criminalisation of the Kurdish language, the state sentenced Kurds to prisons in which they endured horrific torture. Today, it punishes Kurdish children who speak their mother tongue. In Iran, teachers are sentenced to years in prison for the crime of giving a Kurdish lesson to children. Interestingly, through a combination of soft-power, such as cultural influence (e.g. music and film) and harsher strategies, (establishing colonial educational institutions in the Autonomous region of Southern Kurdistan), the system has exercised its power to influence the society in the region to turn their nose up at their own language. They begin to associate Kurdish with being uneducated, those that know only Kurdish are confined to the lower ranks of society, whilst those who know English or Arabic for example, are elevated to the well-educated echelons of society, bound for a bright future. This is the real-life impact of systems influencing society, in other words, enacting their power to mould society to their interests. To assimilate Kurdish society to the point of no return by affecting the very connotations of our language.
The loss of collective identity
To relate back to language as a foundation for the collective identity, through linguistic assimilation, the system fractures collective identity and effectively breaks down the community. The community no longer associates its identity with its original language, generations who can read in their mother tongue, no longer concentrate their effort in passing on the tools to the next generation, leaving them at the mercy of the state. When those future generations then inevitably don’t possess the tools to read or write in their mother tongue, as the system intended, the community loses its collective identity and the personal identity is broken. The assimilated youth identifies with their oppressors language more so than their mother tongue, as generations are shaped by the system, the community is altered to continue according to the system’s needs rather than on the basis of nurturing the community and allowing it to continue according to its original values and culture. The same story repeats itself across Kurdistan, India, Catalonia and America as just a few examples of this assimilation, yet the weight of its tragedy never lightens.
I’m writing in English, a language that belongs to a system of world-wide Imperialism, a language I can write in better than my mother tongue. I was taught that English was the language of literature with a capital L, that its importance was indisputable, that it is a language which paved the way to an educated future, in which I would be accepted. Simultaneously, it was insinuated to me through many years in the education system, that those of us who spoke a language other than English, German, Spanish or French at home, couldn’t claim the same cultural richness for our “at-home languages”. That’s key: the system ensures that these languages are confined to the home, never allowed to reach the light of day, for fear that we would be overheard and our inferiority as Kurds in the West would once again be brought to the forefront of our minds. How can an ethnicity’s collective identity be healthily maintained in a reality whereby accessing education, healthcare, state support and many other services required for simply living at an acceptable standard, are all under the condition of forfeiting your native tongue? Of course it’s not an overnight exchange, but the state understands that assimilation is a matter of time. Today you send your child into the arms of the state education system, generations later, your grandchildren cannot speak your language, if you’re lucky, they’ll be able to understand it.
Our language has anti-state sentiments
When considering all the effort the system exerts into its assimilation process; educational systems, films, music, healthcare and necessary services that require the use of the system’s language to navigate, the mind naturally wonders: why? What is all of this conniving for? We can surmise that it’s for the system’s interest of continuation, for an extended workforce that identifies with the culture of the system which engulfs them in Capitalism, for a larger population to exploit and tax as they leave behind foreign values of communal interest. Rêber Apo explains, “the elite that wants to rise to power will firstly have to win over the hearts and minds of the masses”. The system achieves this by offering an alternative identity based on the state’s preferred language to the disenfranchised population surviving in a system which looks down on them, which teaches them to loathe their original identity; their original language, rendering them hungry for acceptance from the system. For ethnicities whose languages are associated with a society typically hostile to state authority, such as the Kurdish people, the history of prohibiting our language across Kurdistan was a tactful move to divide the people into fragments to be assimilated by various states. These states manipulated us into a weaker existence, an existence where we don’t assign the proper worth to our language, the foundation of our literature, music, history and much more. An existence where we are for the most part willing to claim that our language “doesn’t bring us many opportunities, so why bother?”, where we should be asking “Why does our language not bring us opportunity?”. If we asked, we would know that there were strong and proud anti-state sentiments, based in resistance, which existed in previous Kurdish-speaking generations that lead to the repression of our mother tongue by our invading occupiers.
To conclude, the connection between power relations and language lies in the vitality of language itself, its irreplaceable value in a collective identity and as a result, its importance to the personal sense of self. When this personhood on an individual level is interfered with by the state, it shakes the foundations of the communal existence and culture. In reality, it tears communities apart, it undoes the love of the individual for the community and for their heritage, it makes the individual susceptible to being used by the system, who has no regard for the society’s interests, unlike the individuals who form a community which is strong in it’s shared identity, rooted in their original language. In this respect, the system ruptures and assimilates the community in order to create the ‘individual’ according to capitalism, who is weaker on their own and who has lost themselves in the pursuit of seeking acceptance from their oppressor.