Turkey’s history as a corridor and a prize for migrating and trading peoples – whether nomads, refugees or conquering empires – has made it, in the words of etymologist Professor George Hewitt, a “linguistic treasure-trove”.
But if more is not done to save these languages, it could become a linguistic graveyard.
Unesco has classified 15 languages spoken in Turkey as “endangered” and criticised the country for not doing enough to save them.
But language – and linguistic and cultural identity – has often been an explosive issue in modern Turkey, where many Turkish speakers view any diversification of Turkey’s “Turkishness” as a threat to the integrity of the nation state.
One of the languages on the endangered list is Laz.
Laz was spoken by a people who originally lived in the Black Sea region – an area that also includes parts of modern Georgia.
The various forms of this tongue are known as Kartvelian.
It has no shared roots with Turkish, Arabic, Persian or Russian.
In fact, apart from its Georgian cousin dialect, Mingrelian, it seems to be a unique relic of antiquity.
Although the Laz empire – known for centuries as ‘Colchis’ – was wide ranging and successful, it was a trading culture with a primarily oral tradition.
By modern times, it had no recorded written history or alphabet.
But, that all began to change in the 1980s, when Laz was ‘rediscovered’ by European linguists – a movement that has been picked up and carried forward by a small number of Laz intellectuals.
But the survival of the language hangs in the balance.
Still spoken by villagers in the mountains, these days it is not so much under threat from a controlling Turkish central authority, as from the pervasiveness of modern culture and complacency on the part of many of its speakers.
Among the many Laz we met and spoke to in Turkey’s northeast region – where most Laz live today – there is an intriguing mixture of defiance and denial.
On the one hand, there is tremendous pride in the Laz community’s self-sufficiency and its historic ability to ride out the empires that have washed through the region – including Ataturk’s modern Turkey – surviving more or less intact.
Almost every Laz we met at some point told us that violence was the “wrong way” to ensure survival.
“If you fight the state, they will crush you,” a restaurant owner told us. “But if you don’t resist them, then you can do what you want.”
Like every other ethnic group in Turkey, the Laz keep a leery eye on the Kurds, whose long and bloody fight for cultural rights has divided the country for more than three decades.
|It took self-taught linguist Ismail Bucaklisi five years to co-compile the first Laz dictionary|
Many Laz people in the northeast of the country defend the centralisation of culture in Turkey as “necessary”.
“If you gave every ethnic group education in its own language, this country would fall apart,” they told us.
But those living among other Laz speakers do not see what those who have left the region do: The relentless erosion of the language.
“The moment when I realised the Laz language was endangered was when I went back home from Istanbul a year or two after I started university, and saw that children were no longer speaking Laz,” explains Laz linguist Ismail Bucaklisi, a co-compiler of the first Laz dictionary, published in 1999.
“The Laz language was not taught to them and they were spoken to in Turkish.
“As the years went by, I saw in the villages that children spoke Laz less and less, and when I asked them a question in Laz, they would respond in Turkish.
“When I asked people why they spoke in Turkish to their young children – when my generation used to speak in Laz to us – they said that there was no reason, it was a reflex.”
Bucaklisi suspected that it had a lot to do with Turkish being perceived as the language of commercial success and modernity.
Emerging cultural movement
At the time, he was studying English literature at Istanbul University, but Bucaklisi quickly became absorbed in an emerging Laz cultural movement.
While many recognised the danger the language faced, those trying to save it had few tools to work with and no state support.
In fact, in the early days, the very opposite was true.
Bucaklisi was one of the publishers of a Laz magazine called Ogni, which was prosecuted by the Turkish state in 1994 for ‘spreading separatist propaganda’.
But, the court – in a move that surprised many – found in favour of the magazine.
Bucaklisi became a “collector of words” and a self-taught linguist in his spare time.
The Laz dictionary he co-compiled took more than five years to put together.
‘Dreaming in Laz’
At a private adult language course in Istanbul, where both beginners and fluent Laz speakers meet to brush up on their grammar and written Laz, the attendees talked about their reasons for coming.
“My relatives talk among themselves in Laz, laughing, enjoying themselves,” says Salma Ari, a university student.
“I can’t understand what they are saying, and that really hurts. My mother speaks fluent Laz – I felt I could not communicate with my mother in her own language.”
“I dream in Laz,” explained Orhan Sapan.
“It’s the writing I have problems with, but if I had been taught Laz in school then I wouldn’t need to be here.
“If the language ends, then the culture dies too.”
Emi Celik, the only non-Laz in the class, said: “A language and a culture doesn’t only belong to its own people – it belongs to all the world. We should all do our part to help it survive.”
It is not lost on some of the Laz, that the battles fought by the Kurds are finally paying cultural dividends.
|Laz is still spoken in mountain villages in the far northeast corner of Turkey|
Kurds have a state-funded TV channel, as well as many private ones, and in the past year universities have started to offer courses in Kurdish language and history, which was unthinkable only five years ago.
But a Laz group was turned down when it applied for support for a national Laz TV channel and now it is suing the government in a bid to obtain one.
The danger posed to Laz comes not just from cultural marginalisation, but from the cacophony of stimuli from the electronic media and internet.
Without a younger generation learning Laz, it is almost certainly doomed.
Primary and secondary education in Turkey is entirely in Turkish, and the curriculum is inviolable. Teachers who introduce unregulated ‘ethnic additions’ are removed from the job.
Informed guesses now put the number of Laz speakers in Turkey at around 200,000 – not enough to ensure its survival.
“The more areas a language is used, the more secure it is,” explains Bucaklisi.
“Laz should be taught in schools. There should be theatre in the Laz language, documentaries in Laz, movies, television ….”
But, there is one area in the public domain where the Laz have achieved something akin to dominance – the kebab shop.
In Istanbul and other Turkish cities, a significant number of kebab shops, bread bakeries and pide restaurants are owned by Laz families.
But while most Turks are aware of the ‘Laz doner mafia’, it is just seen as good business. Successful Laz families have yet to play a public role in defending their language and culture.
“Laz language needs to regain its status for Laz people to hold on to it. In Turkey those speaking Laz, or speaking Turkish with a Laz accent have been humiliated for decades. Laz were told it was a language that had no value,” Bucaklisi says.
And it is time, he believes, for role models to emerge.
“Prominent Laz people in society, social actors should resume using the language, so that Laz people understand that their language is important, meaningful, and precious.”