Hefty Dictionaries in Incomprehensible Tongues: Commensurating Code and Language Community in Turkey

In this article, I consider one aspect of the larger linguistic–political project of rendering Kurdish an “equivalent” language in a world of standard languages: the material contours of text artifacts, and their commensurating capacities. In Turkey, where Turkish has long been the sole officially sanctioned code of public life, the project of asserting equivalence takes place in no small part as a function of an increasingly textualized and widely circulating Kurdish. Inserting Kurdish, both spoken and printed, into ever more arenas—disrupting the expectations of which code goes with which context—has become a central plank in a Kurdish political project. Yet relatively few people actually read the texts in question. The circulation of largely unread Kurdish texts allows us to investigate how material qualities of text objects—shape, sheen, heft, etc.—contribute to the assertion of particular forms of linguistic commensurability. I examine how textual forms anchor affiliations of loyalty and allegiance to language community, even without necessarily transforming speech practices and norms of pragmatic usage. In the Kurdish project of commensurating codes, the circulation of textual artifacts—stacked newspapers, glossy street signs, hefty dictionaries, paperback novels—works to signal the presence of the genres they are presumed to contain. At least three commensurating processes are at play here: between spoken Kurdish and its textual equivalent; between “Kurdish” and “Turkish” as the orienting codes of their respective language communities; and between “Kurds” and “Turks” as members of those communities, participants in a fiercely contested struggle over sovereignty and resources. At stake in these assertions of linguistic equivalence—the normative purchase of a would-be newly commensurate Kurdish—are politically and socially consequential mappings of groupness, polity, and political legitimacy.