Zazaki – Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

Publish Date: Nov 17, 2015

What is Zazaki?

Zazaki is an Indo-European language of the Northwestern branch of Iranian languages. Throughout recent years the designation Zazaki has been widely accepted. Other names for this language, which developed in the historical region of Dersim in Eastern Anatolia, are Kırmancki, Dımılki, and Kırdki.

Until now, there are several studies on Zazaki carried out by various linguists and Kurdologists. Jost Gippert, Ludwig Paul, Mesut Keskin, Agnes Korn, and Heiner Eichner are some of the linguists who have engaged themselves with Zazaki on an academic level.

Originally, Zazaki was taught in Kurdish or Alevi migrant associations. However, today Zazaki is offered to students and adults in public adult learning schools (Volkshochschulen) in Austria. In these institutions in Vienna, Zazaki is also taught to school children if there is enough interest. There is a Zazaki radio show in Vienna named SOBE, broadcasted for two hours a week on Radio Orange. Furthermore, there are now several children's books written in Zazaki.

The importance of the European Diaspora in the Rediscovery of Zazaki

The original attention to the language was generated by some musicians and songwriters from Dersim. They were forced to leave Turkey and went into exile in Germany after the military coup d'état in 1980. In exile, they found their way back to their roots, seeking the possibility to freely live their cultural, linguistic, and religious identities. They also became acquainted with the political dynamics of the emerging Kurdish movement. The preliminary works for the engagement with their own roots were written in German. When these songwriters and musicians were allowed back to their home country, they started to archive their work in Dersim. All the songs hitherto had been only passed down orally so they recomposed them and presented them to the public. From the mid- 90s, a wave of publication and dissemination of Zaza folk songs began, by musicians from Dersim such as Mikail and Ahmet Aslan, Nilüfer Akbal, amongst others. The rediscovery of Zazaki via music generated great interest also among the younger generations.

A deep relationship between the language and the belief system has been uncovered

Over the course of the last years, it has been noted, that this has to be carried further and that Zazaki has to gain ground on the academic level. The majority of the Zazaki speakers belong to the Alevi faith. The Alevi faith from Dersim is tightly connected with Zazaki. Religious rituals and practices were originally carried out in Zazaki. As a consequence of various assimilationist policies by the Turkish state, it is only now possible to fully rediscover the living practice of this faith. Alevism in Dersim differs from Alevism in the Western party of the country. Metin and Kemal Kahraman are engaged in this area and they seek to share the questions of identity that the people of Dersim have with the wider public, e.g. by producing documentaries like „Gola Chetu“.

The Relevance of Zazaki in Our Time

There are an estimated five to six million Zaza speakers worldwide. Its stronghold is the Dersim region in Eastern Anatolia/Northern Kurdistan (Tunceli, Erzincan, Bingöl, partly Diyarbakır and Elazığ). Many have had to flee the region due to the assimilationist policies of the Turkish state. They fled to the large cities in Turkey and to Europe. One can find people from Dersim scattered all over the globe today. The majority of the Alevis living in the European diaspora are Zaza speakers.

There have been by now several attempts to rescue the Zaza language in Austria, Germany, Switzerland, and Turkey, This has been through various means, such as education and research at some universities, teaching at some primary schools and adult education institutions, artistic performances (music, theater), magazines, children's books, radio shows, internet portals, and the like.

The most important question now is where will these efforts lead? Zazaki has, at the moment, neither political nor economic importance in the world

People engaged with the language estimate the number of Zazaki speakers in Austria to be about three to five thousand people. Yet, it has to be said that the language is not spoken fluently, even among the elderly, as it is not constantly used in everyday life. Speakers lack the necessary practice and very often have to make a considerable effort not to mix in Turkish words and idioms when speaking. In this context, Zazaki speakers welcome the work of the Raa Ma team and are very eager to recollect themselves and transmit the language to their children. The interest in upholding and fostering the language is alive and increasing all the time.

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