The Impact of Language Politics on Language Use: The Case of Kurdish in Duhok

Baydaa Mustafa & Geoffrey Haig

University of Bamberg

The term Kurdish refers to a cluster of closely related varieties spoken across a large area of the Middle East. Kurdish belongs to the west Iranian branch of the Iranian languages; three main dialect groups are distinguished: Southern Kurdish, Central Kurdish (or Sorani Kurdish), and Northern Kurdish, also called Kurmanji. Kurdish speaking areas are divided between four countries: Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria (Öpengin & Haig 2014, Haig & Opengin, in print). Each country has treated Kurdish under different policies, ranging from prohibition of the language to various degrees of tolerance (Sheyholislami, 2015). However, except for Öpengin (2012) and Ҫağlayan,(2014), little empirical research has been undertaken on the social factors impacting on actual usage of Kurdish. The present study targets language choice and language attitudes among Kurdish speakers in the multi-lingual city of Duhok (Kurdistan Region of Iraq), drawing on the tradition of variationist sociolinguistics instigated by Labov and consistently refined ever since. While the main language of wider communication in Duhok city is the Bahdini dialect of Kurmanji, several languages (Bahdini, Sorani, Arabic, and English) have been used as the language of instruction in education during different periods of time, contributing to the creation of the current multi-lingual community. Historically, the region hosted extensive Christian and Jewish communities speaking varieties of Aramaic and Armenian, but these have been decimated in recent years and are not considered in this presentation. Kurdish speakers in the Kurdistan region of Iraq engaged in the struggle of the language on two levels: The conflict with the Iraqi state to make Kurdish achieve the same official status like Arabic; and the multi-dialectal nature of their own language, which forces difficult choices in education practices, and in terms of prestige assignment (Ghazi 2009). The continued struggle between the two main dialects of Kurdish in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq has recently led to English being adopted as the language of education in schools, apparently replacing Arabic as the second language of the region (Sheyholislami, 2015).

This talk provides an outline of the complex multi-lingual setting of Duhok city, and then presents initial results from a PhD project focusing on patterns of language use across different generations in Duhok, based on more than 100 structured interviews recorded in situ. The focus is on two points: First, to what extent the use of different languages in education have influenced generational differences regarding the language choice. The second point relates to language attitudes, with a focus on preferences for the language of instruction in schools.


Ҫağlayan, H. (2014). Same home different languages, intergenerational Language Shift: Tendencies, limitations, opportunities: The Case of Diyarbakir. Diyarbakir: Diyarbakir Institute for Political and Social Research.

Garrett, P. (2010). Attitudes to language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ghazi, H. (2009). Language standardization and the question of the Kurdish varieties: the

language debate in Iraqi Kurdistan. University of Exeter.

Haig, G. (2007). A note on language politics in Iraqi Kurdistan and their

Repercussions for pan-Kurdish cultural unity.

Haig, G. (2007). Grammatical borrowing in Kurdish (northern group). In Yaron, M. & Jeanette, S. (eds.). Grammatical borrowing in cross-linguistics perspective. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Haig, G & Öpengin, E (in print). Kurmanji Kurdish in Turkey: structure, Varieties, and status. In

C. Bulut (ed.) The Minority Languages in Tur-key. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.

Meyerhoff, M. (2006). Introducing sociolinguistics. London: Routledge.

Öpengin, E. (2012). Sociolinguistic situation of Kurdish in Turkey: Sociopolitical factors and language use patterns. International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 2012(217), 151-180.

Öpengin, E. & Haig G. (2014). Kurdish: A critical research overview. Journal of Kurdish studies 2 (2), 99-122.

Sheyholislami, J. (2015). The language varieties of the Kurds. In Taucher, V.; Vogl, M. &

Webinger, P. The Kurds: History, Language, Religion and Politics. Austria: Austrian

Federal Ministry of the Interior.

Tagliamonte, A. (2006). Analysing sociolinguistic variation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.