In Madina Djuraeva, & Francois V. Tochon (Eds.), Language Policy or the Politics of
Language: Re-imagining the Role of Language in a Neoliberal Society. Blue Mounds, WI: Deep
University Press, 2018, pp. 53-74.
Language Ideologies and the Politics of Language: Azerbaijanis in Iran
Department of English, Salisbury University
Iranian Azerbaijanis or Iranian Turks are the largest minority group in Iran, mostly inhabiting
northwestern provinces. Their mother tongue is Azerbaijani or Azeri which is a Turkic language
spoken primarily in the Republic of Azerbaijan and northwestern Iran. After Persian (Farsi),
which is said to be the first language of over 50% of Iranians, Azerbaijani is the mother tongue
of approximately 24% of the total population of Iran (Bani-Shoraka, 2005). While Persian, as the
single official language of Iran, is dominantly used in education, mass media, administration,
etc., Azerbaijani does not have a particular status in Iran and its use is mainly restricted to
informal domains (Bani-Shoraka, 2005).
Socio-historically, Iranian Azerbaijanis have been subjected to linguistic and ethnic
subordination. Not only has Azeri-accented Farsi been an object of ridicule among non-
Azerbaijanis, but Azerbaijanis (referred to as Turks in this context) are also portrayed as less
intelligent and foolish in some Iranian cultural productions such as jokes (Salehi & Sepehri,
2013). Although they are usually characterized by non-Azerbaijanis as ‘mere jokes’ and one
should have ‘the capacity to take them as jokes’, it is inevitable that the reproduction of ethnic
jokes or other cultural productions in daily interactions constructs social ‘realities’ about a group
of people (in this case Iranian Azerbaijanis), which can be transferred to ‘non-jocular’ contexts
as well (see Naghdipour, 2014). On the other hand, Azerbaijani language and its promotion have
been politically sensitive topics, similar to the two other major minoritized languages, Kurdish
and Baluchi (Bani-Shoraka, 2002; Jahani, 2002; Sheyholislami, 2012). This is mainly because
(1) the language policy of Iran has revolved around the promotion of Persian as the language that
secures national unity, and (2) the dominant discourses around maintaining and promoting
Azerbaijani language are associated with nationalist separatist groups who threaten the unity of
the nation -- despite the fact that the majority of Iranian Azerbaijanis may demand their
‘language rights’ without necessarily identifying themselves with separatist ideologies. As a
result, though sporadic promises have been made by politicians to revitalize Azerbaijani
language rights in recent years, they have almost never been realized due to the political
sensitivity of this topic.
In this chapter, I discuss how the language policies in Iran have affected Azerbaijani
language and its speakers’ language ideologies. More specifically, I will (1) provide an overview
of language policies and the politics of language in Iran in the contemporary neoliberal era; (2)
discuss how these policies along with some other factors have led to diverse language ideologies
among Iranian Azerbaijanis; and finally (3) discuss the challenges faced by Azerbaijani people
regarding their language and identity as well as the challenges Iranian government is
encountering with respect to minority language rights and national unity.
Anti-Western Ideologies, Neoliberalism, and the Language Policy in Iran
Since Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, the political, economic, and social discourses of the
Iranian regime have revolved around anti-Western ideologies (KhosraviNik, 2015; Pesaran,
2008). As a result, Western values and ideologies have been dispreferred and the terms that
could explicitly be associated with such values and ideologies have been considered pejorative.
For instance, the term liberal has been used as a label by political exclusionists in Iran to silence
their opponents through linking their opposite ideas – sometimes regardless of what these ideas
actually are-- to Western values. In economic terms, neoliberalism appears to have a similar
function. That is, although fundamental neoliberal policies such as privatization and competitive
markets --regardless of whether and to what extent they have been implemented-- have been
central in the economic discourses of the Islamic Republic in the past two and a half decades,
they have not been explicitly characterized as neoliberal. In fact, the term ‘neoliberal’ has often
been used pejoratively by the radical fundamentalist opponents of the former reformist
government (i.e. Khatami administration, 1997-2005) and the current moderate government (i.e.
Rouhani administration, 2013-present) of Iran to criticize their economic policies. While making
similar points about the uses of the terms ‘liberalism’ and ‘neoliberalism’ in the Iranian political
discourse, Mehdi Elyasi, the deputy head of the Department of Policy-making and Strategic
Assessment in Rouhani administration, maintains that referring to the economic policies of the
current administration as neoliberal is inaccurate, claiming that in economics there is no such
school of thought as neoliberalism. His claims, be them accurate or not, point to a reality in the
political discourse of the Islamic Republic: regardless of the nature of the policies and actions,
any overt affiliation of them with Western values, ideologies, and policies is discouraged.
Such an anti-Western rhetoric has also been prominent in the areas of education and
culture to highlight the necessity of resisting against the so-called ‘cultural invasion’ of the West
(Fazeli, 2006). For instance, in 2009 the Supreme Leader of Iran called for Islamization of
Humanities Courses in universities in order to defend against what he referred to as the ‘soft
war’, i.e. the flow of Western ideologies, theories, and values across the Iranian society (see
Price, 2012). A similar concern has existed among the Islamic Republic conservatives about the
role of English Language Teaching (ELT) in spreading Western values. In the past two decades,
the tendency to learn and speak English among Iranians has increased dramatically as a result of
globalization. The desire to learn English and benefit from the economic and symbolic profits
(cf. Bourdieu, 1991) it offers has led to an overwhelming rise in the number of private language
schools in Iran (Karimzad, 2016). This growth, however, has less been a result of systematic
policies to privatize foreign language instruction, and instead -- given the old-fashioned and
ineffective language instruction methods and materials in the public educational system -- it has
more been an inevitable response to the demand of the market (Hayati & Mashhadi, 2010;
Karimzad, 2016). This has in fact created a dilemma for the Iranian regime. On the one hand, the
Islamic regime of Iran wants to be a part of the global market and knows that competitiveness in
the era of neoliberal globalization requires learning and using the global language in business
and education (Piller & Cho, 2013; Piller, 2015). On the other hand, its biggest concern is that
the spread of English would in turn result in the spread of Western values across the country. In
order to strike a balance, the Iranian government has attempted to monitor the private institutions
by regulating their business licenses and imposing censorship on the cultural content of the
textbooks. In some cases (e.g., in the city of Tabriz), it has even gone further and has gotten
involved in the teacher selection process of the private schools through interviewing the teachers
especially about their religious and ideological beliefs, which is a common recruitment
procedure in public institutions. The concern about the spread of Western values through English
is evident in the Supreme Leader’s recent criticism of English Language Teaching in Iran. In a
speech in early May 2016, Ayatollah Khamenei criticized the promotion of English, maintaining
that encouraging children to learn English instead of Persian would promote foreign culture
among the youth in Iran.
Persian as the Unifying Factor
The role of Persian language in this regard is indeed interesting. While one of the reasons for the
promotion of Persian by the Islamic regime seems to be resisting against Western influence in
the Iranian society, for the Persian nationalists, promoting Persian is a way to highlight their
Persianness and differentiate themselves from the Islamic identity favored by the regime (for an
overview of the history of Persian nationalism see Kia, 1998; see also KhosraviNik & Zia, 2014).
The point on which these people with two extreme ideologies agree is the role of Persian in
securing national unity, which is guided by the Western ‘one nation-one language’ ideology
(Sheyholislami, 2012). In fact, while in many cases the dominant (Persian-speaking) majority in
Iran may position themselves differently from the domestic or foreign policies of the Islamic
Republic, in the case of the role of Persian language in unifying the nation, they seem to be in
full support of the policies of the government. Such an approach, regardless of its Islamic,
nationalistic, or patriotic motivations, has led to the consideration of multilingualism as a threat
to the national unity and in turn has made it difficult for ethno-linguistic minorities to demand
their language rights.
The first systematic attempts to establish Persian as the language unifying the ethno-
linguistically heterogeneous Iran date back to 1930s when Reza Khan (1925-1941), the first ruler
of the Pahlavi Monarchy, was in power (Bani-Shoraka, 2005). Being inspired by Mustafa Kemal
Atatürk’s (1881-1938) nationalistic policies in Turkey, Reza Khan’s purpose was to turn “the
loosely integrated state into a highly centralized regime” (Sheyholislami, 2012, p. 27). It was at
that time that Persian became the only language of administration, mass media, and education
and all non-Persians were required to learn Persian, as the dominant language of the nation
(Hassanpour, 1992; Bani-Shoraka, 2002). It was also during 1930s that systematic efforts were
made to purify Persian, especially from Arabic words, and coin new Persian words to save it
from the ‘contaminating’ foreign linguistic elements (Kia, 1998). As a result of Reza Khan’s
nation-building process and the fear of political separatism, any language rights demand from the
minority groups was considered to be prompted by political rather than linguistic motivations
(Bani-Shoraka, 2002), thus making it a matter of national unity and security (Bani-Shoraka,
2002). The assimilationist policies of Reza Khan were continued by his successor, Mohammad
Reza Shah (1941-1979), during whose reign, the language rights demands by the ethno-linguistic
minorities were also neglected (Sheyholislami, 2012).
Although the current assimilationist policies in Iran are in fact a continuation of the
policies established during Pahlavi Monarchy, the constitution of the Islamic Republic
comparatively demonstrates some degree of leniency regarding the use of minority languages. In
particular, it acknowledges the existence of diverse regional languages and allows their use in the
press and mass media. However, it is important to note how, and to what extent, these policies
have been implemented so as to have a better understanding whether or not they have succeeded.
Article 15 of the Constitution reads:
The official language and script of Iran, the lingua franca of its people, is Persian.
Official documents, correspondence, and texts, as well as text-books, must be in this
language and script. However, the use of regional and tribal languages in the press and
mass media, as well as for teaching of their literature in schools, is allowed in addition to
Article 15 explicitly introduces Persian as the official language of the country, requiring all
official documents and correspondence to be in this language. As a result, although it does not
forbid the use of minority languages, what happens in reality is that the speakers of the minority
languages do not get the opportunity to experience formal contexts (e.g., written language) in
their mother tongue. In addition, as Sheyholislami (2012) points out, while this article does not
specify the medium of instruction in schools, it can be inferred that since textbooks are required
to be in Persian, instruction must also be in Persian. In the case of Azerbaijanis, the
implementation of this policy has led to the development of certain interactional conventions
among the Azerbaijani students and teachers, especially in the primary and secondary schools,
where they code-switch between Azerbaijani and Persian depending on the interactional roles
they are occupying. That is, instruction-related interactions such as lecturing and question-
answers are done in Persian and non-instructional interactions are usually done in Azerbaijani.
Such voicing shifts (Bakhtin, 1981) illustrate that the students and teachers are primarily
animating two different interactional roles in school contexts, i.e., ‘character’ role versus
‘interlocutor’ role, indexed through their language choices (cf. Koven, 2002, 2007).
Although the acknowledgement of some of the language rights of the minority groups in
the post-Revolutionary Iran can be characterized as a more ‘relaxed’, ‘flexible’, and ‘nuanced’
policy compared to pre-Revolution era (Haddadian-Moghaddam & Meylaerts, 2015; Hayati &
Mashhadi 2010), there are issues with its implementation and success. First of all, the
constitution only specifies teaching of the literatures of the local languages without further
clarifying whether or not the languages themselves could be taught. That said, only recently, in
August 2016, did the government announce that the universities in Azerbaijan and Kurdistan
provinces would offer programs in Azerbaijani and Kurdish language and literature. While this is
indeed a positive move by the government, its effectiveness is subject to careful evaluation in the
future. On the other hand, despite the fact that the establishment of provincial television and
radio channels in local languages can also be considered a positive action, they have not been
received positively by their audiences. Sheyholislami (2012) maintains that the language use in
the state-mediated Kurdish radio and television programs is not welcomed by most Kurdish
scholars who claim that Kurdish language is deliberately being harmed. Zeinalabedini’s (2014)
study on the attitudes of the Azerbaijanis located in Tabriz, the largest Azerbaijani-speaking city
in Iran, toward the language use in the local radio and television programs also shows a similar
dissatisfaction. What the participants in her study particularly point out is that the dialect used in
the media differ from how they actually speak. In fact, the common attitude toward the language
used in the local media is that the speakers mix Azerbaijani with Persian extensively; some even
(jocularly) maintain that only the verbs are in Azerbaijani in their speech. From common
people’s perspective, those who mix Persian with Azerbaijani on the media are mostly
‘pretentious’, i.e., they switch to the prestige code to index power and higher social status (Bhatt
& Bolonyai, 2011; Karimzad, 2016), which might be true to some extent. In fact, in my own
work focusing on patterns of code-switching among Azerbaijani multilinguals (Karimzad, 2016),
I illustrate how power codes, i.e. English or Persian, have relatively more ‘value’ in indigenous
than diaspora contexts since they help the speakers secure the profit of distinction (Bourdieu,
1991). However, the linguistic practices observed on the local media may have other
explanations as well. As mentioned earlier, as a result of the Iranian language policies,
Azerbaijani speakers have always been exposed to formal situations in Persian, be them through
the dominant media or school textbooks. Thus, it is inevitable that, if one experiences, for
instance, the latest political news, sports events, weather forecast, etc., in Persian, they would
mainly recall Persian structures and words when it comes to speaking. In fact, those who criticize
such linguistic practices for being ‘pretentious’ may also construct similar patterns when they are
put in similar formal situations. All in all, while the relatively lenient policies of the Islamic
Republic toward minority languages, compared to the pre-Revolutionary era, should be
acknowledged, what is evident is that they still need to be revisited so as to meet the current
demands of the minority groups.
In the following sections, I will discuss how the current language policies and the politics
of language in Iran along with some other factors have affected the language ideologies among
Iranian Azerbaijanis. I will then conclude by outlining the challenges faced by the Iranian regime
regarding its language policies in the neoliberal globalized world as well as the challenges
encountered by the Azerbaijani varieties spoken in Iran and how the potential solutions proposed
by some can also be problematic.
Language Ideologies among Iranian Azerbaijanis
One of the consequences of the Iranian language policy, which emphasizes the use of Persian in
all formal domains, is that the Azerbaijani spoken in Iran does not have a standard form.
Although the dialect spoken in Tabriz has traditionally been recognized as the standard form of
the Iranian Azerbaijani (Doerfer, 1998) --probably due to its socio-historical and political
importance in the country -- it has not yet been standardized. On the other hand, the
technological developments in recent years have granted Iranian Azerbaijanis access to satellite
television programs, especially Turkish programs, which also plays an important role in this
regard. Bani-Shoraka (2003) considers access to the Turkish satellite broadcasts as one of the
factors that has led to what she calls the revitalization of Azerbaijani language and identity. That
said, the attractiveness of these programs along with the picture being depicted in them of a
modernized Turkey has, in fact, resulted in the emergence of Turkish as a new prestige language
among Azerbaijanis. Mirvahedi (2012) argues that people’s exposure to Turkish through these
programs and their interest in learning it, as a language that can bring about socio-economic
values for them, pose a new challenge for the maintenance of the Azerbaijani spoken in Iran. He
specifically argues that Azerbaijani children’s preference to watch Persian and Turkish
programs, and their reluctance to watch the state-mediated provincial channel make maintaining
their mother tongue extremely difficult. In addition, I argue that the satellite programs broadcast
by Turkey (and the Republic of Azerbaijan) have also had some other language-ideological
effects resulting in what I call self-subordination. That is, the idea that the variety of Turkic
language they are speaking is ‘stronger’, ‘purer’ and more ‘authentic’ than ours—since ours has
been influenced of Persian – leads to devaluing their own language and linguistic practices and
elevating the value of Turkish (or North Azerbaijani) as the norm. Such self-subordination is
motivated by the ideology that there is a single ‘pure’ form of Turkic languages, and that the
variety they speak is closer to it. These factors, i.e., language policies in Iran and their social,
political, and linguistic consequences, the influence of the Turkic-speaking neighboring
countries, and the myth of ‘authenticity’, have led to a variety of language ideologies among
Iranian Azerbaijanis, some of which will be discussed below.
One of the language ideologies among Iranian Azerbaijanis concerns the notion of ‘correctness’.
It is motivated by two main ideas: (1) monolingualism is the norm; and (2) there is a ‘correct’
form of the language that should be used, especially in writing (a prescriptivist view). In
particular, the main concerns for the proponents of this ideology are to, firstly, use the language
as monolongually as possible, and secondly, make sure that the diachronic and synchronic
changes (especially phonological) do not ‘harm’ their language. For instance, the word for ‘is
not’ in North Azerbaijani and Turkish are dəyil and değil, respectively. Given the similarities in
the articulatory properties of /l/ and /r/, this word has diachronically been reanalyzed as dæyir in
many Iranian Azerbaijani dialects including Tabrizi Azerbaijani (Karimzad & Sibgatullina,
forthcoming; See also Karimzad, Shosted, & Peymani, 2015). Having compared this word with
its Turkish and North Azerbaijani counterparts, those who attempt to use Azerbaijani ‘correctly’
conclude that dæyil should be the ‘correct’ form of this word. However, the question that needs
to be answered is, since all languages go through different changes throughout history, how far
should one go back in order to find the ‘correct’ form? For instance, if we take into consideration
the Proto-Turkic form of this word, which is *degül, we realize that it has also gone through
some other changes apart from the change in the final consonant in these varieties. In fact, if we
go even further back, we see that the Proto-Altaic form of this word, i.e. *tagi, does not specify
the final consonant; or in Mongolian language family, another sub-family of Altaic languages,
the Proto form is*deɣüren, with an ‘r’ instead of ‘l’.
Hence, we see that languages undergo
natural evolution throughout the history, and trying to determine the ‘correct’ form of a language
seems to be nothing but a vain attempt.
The other concern for the proponents of ‘correctness’ is the linguistic practices of
Azerbaijanis on Computer-Mediated Communication (CMC). Although the idea that CMC is
ruining languages is not restricted to this community, the case of Azerbaijani appears to be
different in this regard. In fact, given the language policy of Iran which has established Persian
as the language of education, administration and mass media, CMC might be the only venue for
Iranian Azerbaijanis to use the written form of their language (Karimzad & Sibgatullina,
forthcoming). Thus, it is believed that the use of vernacular forms, which enjoy different
phonological alternations, on CMC would cause Azerbaijani speakers to forget the ‘correct’ form
of their language. For instance, in Tabrizi and some other dialects, there is a phonological
process called Compensatory Lengthening. In Compensatory Lengthening, one segment, e.g. a
syllable, is deleted and instead a nearby segment is lengthened (Hayes, 1989). To illustrate,
͡ʝæliɾæm meaning ‘I am coming’ alternates with ɟ
͡ʝæːɾæm, in which the second syllable -li- is
deleted and the vowel æ is lengthened (Karimzad, Shosted, & Peymani, 2015). While the
speakers of the dialects that have such phonological alternations would indeed use both forms
interchangeably, it is not clear to what extent the concerns put forward by the proponents of the
‘correctness’ ideology are valid. In fact, the prescription of certain linguistic forms as the
‘correct’ ones would homogenize different varieties of Azerbaijani in the long run and thus
would result in the disappearance of the unique linguistic properties of these dialects, some of
which outlined in Karimzad, Shosted, and Peymani (2015) and Karimzad (2014).
Linguistic purism and de-Persianization
The other observed language ideology among Azerbaijanis is linguistic purism. According to
Thomas (1991), purism is “an aspect of the codification, cultivation and planning of standard
languages” (p. 12). This ideology aims at preserving the form of a language by getting rid of
undesirable foreign elements (Brunstad, 2003). In Karimzad and Sibgatullina (forthcoming), we
propose that purification be considered as identity work and ‘foreignness’ as a socio-political
construction rather than a mere result of linguistic differences. That is, purification is a result of
practices of distinction (Bucholtz & Hall, 2004a, 2004b, 2005) in which the linguistic elements
associated with the language of them are replaced by the features associated with the language of
us. These purification attempts, we argue, then result in a ‘purer’ or ‘more authentic’ identity
(perceived by the purists) rather than a ‘purer’ language. Given the hegemonic power of Persian
in Iran and the language policies that revolve around what Sheyholislami (2012, p. 21)
characterizes as “Persianization of non-Persian peoples” as well as the historical ethno-linguistic
subordination of Iranian Azerbaijanis, the linguistic features present in Azerbaijani that are
associated with Persian are considered as contaminating foreign elements that need to be
replaced. Thus, the purification practices among Azerbaijani purists can be better characterized
as acts of de-Persianization (Karimzad & Sibgatullina, forthcoming). I make a distinction
between ‘purism’ and ‘correctness’ in the sense that, unlike the former, the latter is less
concerned about ridding of any Persian influence and, in fact, the proponents of ‘correctness’
ideology may often use established Persian loanwords, while the purists would attempt to replace
them with their Turkish or North Azerbaijani equivalents. Thus, ‘correctness’ does not
necessarily pertain to nationalist purist ideology, yet purism often entails ‘correctness’.
Let us consider an example from Karimzad and Sibgatullina (forthcoming) that illustrates
how purism ideologies are linguistically practiced. In the Azerbaijani spoken in Iran, the
common word for the English ‘photo’ or ‘picture’ is æhs (or ækis in some dialects) which is
borrowed from the Persian word æks <
>. Etymologically, this word comes from the Arabic
> which means 'to reverse/reflect/mirror'. Since /ks/ consonant cluster does not
occur in the Iranian Azerbaijani, its pronunciation has been nativized (through consonant
replacement or vowel insertion) so as to comply with the phonotactics of the language. The
purists usually substitute æhs or ækis with şəkil, foto, or fotoğraf. The word şəkil is a common
North Azerbaijani word meaning ‘image, picture’ which etymologically comes from the Arabic
word šakl < > which means ‘shape, form’. This word is used in Iranian Azerbaijani and
Persian (pronounced as /šekl/) to also mean ‘shape or form’. The other words that are used to
substitute æhs or ækis are the North Azerbaijani foto and the Turkish fotoğraf, which are taken
from the English word photo(graph). While none of these words are etymologically Turkic, it is
their association with North Azerbaijani and Turkish that make them sound more ‘Turkic’ thus
more ‘authentic’. The words associated with Persian, on the other hand, reveal the influence of
them on our language and hence index ‘inauthenticity’ and ‘impurity’ (Karimzad & Sibgatullina,
In Karimzad and Sibgatullina (forthcoming), we argue that such linguistic practices
triggered by purism ideology can be best understood in terms of Bucholtz and Hall’s (2004a,
2004b, 2005) processes of distinction and adequation, which deal with how sameness and
difference are discursively constructed and negotiated. In particular, the purists seem to be
replacing the words associated with Persian with the ones associated with Turkish and North
Azerbaijani, regardless of their etymological roots, so as to differentiate themselves from
'Persianness' and highlight their similarities with other Turkic groups. Hence, these practices of
de-Persianization may not contribute to an etymologically ‘pure’ Azerbaijani, yet what it actually
does is authenticate a perceived ‘purer’ ethnolinguistic identity. However, the attitudes toward
such linguistic practices vary among Iranian Azerbaijanis. There are those who praise
purification attempts assuming that such ways of speaking ‘purely’ and ‘strongly’ can help
maintain their language, despite the fact that they themselves may not follow the same patterns.
On the other hand, others denaturalize (Bucholtz & Hall, 2004a, 2004b, 2005) such discursively
constructed identities and argue that this is not how Azerbaijanis actually speak and thus these
identities are artificial (Karimzad & Sibgatullina, forthcoming).
The final ideology I focus on among the relatively diverse language ideologies held by Iranian
Azerbaijanis is what I refer to as speak-your-own-language ideology. This ideology concerns the
preference for a more natural and less monitored use of language. Although monolingualism is
still the norm, code-switching is acceptable as long as it is unmarked (Myers-Scotton, 1993) and
follows the sociolinguistic grammar of bilingual language use in their community (Bhatt &
Bolonyai, 2011; Karimzad, 2016). That is, to the same extent that extensive code-mixing with
Persian is not acceptable, the ‘purified’ versions of the language that incorporate North
Azerbaijani or Turkish linguistic features are also considered inappropriate. The interesting fact
is that the advocates of this ideology can be said to constitute the majority of the Iranian
Azerbaijanis, yet they are the least vocal group. This is in part because, as mentioned earlier, the
extremely politicized discussion of Azerbaijani language and identity in Iran is often associated
with nationalist separatist ideologies. Such an association not only does not weaken the
nationalist ideology, but in practice, by not allowing any alternative middle-ground discourses to
emerge, it empowers the nationalist ideology as the only dominant discourse. As a result, the
nationalists who usually identify themselves as ‘identity seekers’ claim an exclusive authority
regarding what ‘correct’ Azerbaijani is and what constitutes Azerbaijani identity. Their
exclusionist rhetoric and their criticisms of alternative definitions of Azerbaijani language and
identity make those who disagree with them be reluctant to voice their ideas. Yet, it is usually
when someone challenges the nationalist, purist ideologies and practices that speak-your-own-
language proponents voice their ideas by aligning positively with the criticisms. Let us look at
the following example from Karimzad and Sibgatullina (forthcoming):
My dear friend! Mother tongue is not about trying hard to extract 'big' words from here and there and using
them in writing. Writing in mother tongue is very simple.
Through whatever words your mom has talked to you and you learned to speak, it is your mother tongue.
Use the same [words]. Do not put yourself under pressure. Using 'alqış' ('applaud' in North Azerbaijani)
instead of 'chæpih' ('clap' in Iranian Azerbaijani) does not bring about 'authenticity'. Some guy was telling
me, “mənə belə gəlir ki…”! ('It occurs to me that…' North Azerbaijani structure) “indisi Quli bəy gələr”
('Now Mr. Quli will come.' In North Azerbaijani) Boy, speak your own language. Whatever language you
speak out there (outside internet), use the same language here [on Facebook]. Why are you making a fool
out of yourself on Facebook?'
This Facebook post by an Azerbaijani user illustrates how the linguistic practices of ‘pure’
Azerbaijani are challenged. In particular, it sarcastically criticizes those who use North
Azerbaijani words and structures on Facebook while assuming that they make the language more
‘authentic’, and challenges the authenticity of the identities constructed through these linguistic
practices (Karimzad & Sibgatullina, forthcoming). Although, as mentioned earlier, the
nationalist, purist ideologies are dominant because of their authoritative discourses, the speak-
your-own-language ideology can potentially gain power if it is given the chance to be exposed to
Conclusions and Future Directions
Neoliberalism has confronted the Iranian regime with a dilemma regarding its language policies,
specifically the role of English as the global language. On the one hand, Iranian regime wants to
be a part of the global market, which in turn makes learning and using the global language a
necessity. On the other hand, the Islamic Republic has always been concerned about the
expansion of Western values and ideologies in the Iranian society, and the promotion of English
has been regarded as one of the ways such values would spread. As a compromise, the
government has been involved in monitoring and regulating English courses and textbooks so as
to mitigate the influence of Western culture across the country. Apart from that, the language
policies in the ethnolinguistically diverse Iran still revolves around promoting Persian as the
language that unifies the country. The idea that a shared language can unify a nation, however,
has proven to be a mere myth. In fact, what can guarantee unity in multilingual communities is
that the minority groups can have a feeling of being included and respected. While the Iranian
regime has accepted the importance of English in the current neoliberal globalized world, despite
its dominant anti-Western rhetoric, a similar approach needs to be taken vis-à-vis minority
languages. Specifically, politicization of the language rights demands of minority communities
with the fear of separatism not only does not weaken separatist ideologies, but in fact strengthens
them. In other words, association of any discussion of minority language rights with separatism
does not allow alternative discourses of Azerbaijani language and identity – which do not
necessarily align with separatist ideas-- to emerge, leading to the dominance of nationalist,
separatist discourses. The recent establishment of university programs in Azerbaijani and
Kurdish languages and literatures can be considered an unprecedented positive move by the
Iranian government to give minority language speakers a sense of inclusion; however, their
effectiveness is subject to further investigation.
The Iranian language policies, on the other hand, have resulted in the generation of
diverse ideologies among Azerbaijanis, as the largest minority group in Iran. The common
concern for these ideologies can be said to be maintaining their mother tongue, yet the
definitions of mother tongue appear to vary among them. The proposed solution is usually the
establishment of a language academy to standardize Azerbaijani language. However, there are
different problems associated with standardization. First of all, although the discourse of
standardization usually revolves around the idea that the use of a standard language offers
linguistic and cultural unity and is an index of group membership, it is simultaneously used as a
strategy of control, leading to social inequality through excluding ‘substandard’ varieties and
identities (Paffy, 2007). In the case of Iranian Azerbaijani, the diversity of dialects would make
the selection of a single variety as the norm a difficult task, since the selection of any of them as
the standard variety would subordinate other dialects. On the other hand, the experience of
Basque standardization has proven that reconstructing a language which is not necessarily
attached to any dialects/territories would also be problematic because it would be considered
‘unnatural’ and ‘artificial’ by its speakers (Ortega et al., 2014, 2015; Rodriguez, 2016; see also
Haulde & Zuazo, 2007). Finally, while standardization involves prescription of a form of
language as the norm, the question of ‘who has the authority to prescribe?’ is indeed
unanswered. This is why Cameron (1995) calls for a shift from asking ‘should we prescribe?’ to
the questions of “who prescribes for whom, what they prescribe, how and for what purposes” (p.
It is evident that politics of language in Iran has posed different challenges for both the
Iranian regime and the Azerbaijani minority group, especially in the era of neoliberalism and
globalization. In particular, the Iranian regime should revisit the notion of national unity and
determine if the assimilationist policies can still function as a unifying factor, or a different
approach based on respecting and including minority language rights could serve as a more
effective alternative. Iranian Azerbaijanis are also encountering different major challenges.
These challenges concern the questions of what constitutes their identity, how they define mother
tongue, and how they want to maintain it. Specifically, on the one hand, they are faced with the
hegemonic power of Persian, and on the other hand, they are encountering the nationalist, purists
ideologies that attempt to ‘police’ their linguistic behaviors (Blommaert et al., 2009), and, given
the chance, could potentially turn into another hegemony. In addition, the emergence of Turkish
as a new power language that can offer socio-economic profits confronts Azerbaijani language
and identity with another challenge (Mirvahedi, 2012). This issue becomes more complicated
when the neoliberal mentality that speaking Turkish can facilitate migration to Turkey in pursuit
of jobs or higher education blends with the ideology that Turkish is a more ‘authentic’ and
‘purer’ Turkic language than Azerbaijani, leading to important questions among Iranian
Azerbaijanis about their language and identity. I argue that a part of the problem is that the
Azerbaijani spoken in Iran has rarely been approached linguistically and sociolinguistically, and
instead, it has been discussed more by those with political motivations. In order to cope with the
current challenges more effectively, I call for scholarly debates among the experts of language,
culture, and identity so as to render the issue of Azerbaijani language rights into a less politicized
topic. The alternative views language scholars can bring to the discussion would help mitigate
the current political tensions around Azerbaijani language and identity, and would also offer
other perspectives on what mother tongue is and how it can be maintained.
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I would like to thank Yashar Heydari, Behzad Karimzad, Mohammad Farzamnia, Lydia
Catedral, Gulnaz Sibgatullina, and Itxaso Rodriguez for their insightful discussions that
contributed to this work. I also thank the reviewers and editors of the volume for their helpful
comments. All remaining errors are mine.
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