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Particularly provocative to mainstream Turks is the use of Kurdish in official settings. In 1991, Kurdish lawmaker Leyla Zana was vilified for adding a few words in Kurdish to her oath of office. She later served 10 years in prison, convicted of belonging to a Kurdish armed group, a charge she strongly denied.

The unyielding stance on language was evident again in November, when dozens of Kurds, including elected mayors, went on trial on charges of having links to a rebel group. When one started to read a statement in Kurdish, his microphone was turned off and Turkish media quoted the chief judge as saying the defendant was speaking in an “unknown language.”

The government points to steps it has taken to expand the use of Kurdish, including radio and television broadcasts, letting politicians campaign in the language and allowing prison inmates and visiting relatives to speak it.

Kurdish is not taught in schools, but private instruction is no longer illegal. Last year, a university in Mardin city offered the first graduate studies program on the Kurdish language.

But Selahattin Demirtas, chairman of the Peace and Democracy Party, is impatient.

“From now on, we will not wait for the state to make legal arrangements,” he recently told reporters. “The menus in the restaurants should be in two languages. The names of shops should be written in two languages.”

Perihan Yilmaz is a 27-year-old minority rights activist in Ankara, the Turkish capital. Though not Kurdish, she’s interested in the subject but had a hard time finding texts and grammar books. Fellow students were so taken aback that she pretended she was studying Greek.

“Kurdish language is perceived as a challenge in this society, even today,” she says.

Most Kurds are scattered over four countries and enjoy varying levels of freedom. Kurdish and Arabic are official languages in Iraq. Iran recognizes Kurdish as a regional language but keeps a tight lid on Kurdish political activism. Syria imposes harsh restrictions on the language.

Emrah Kilic’s parents spoke only Turkish to their children and moved west, away from the Kurdish heartland, to the Mediterranean city of Antalya, where Mr. Kilic runs a hotel and is married to an ethnic Turk. “People get surprised when I tell them I am Kurdish,” he said.

“The least of my parents’ concerns was identity, or language,” he said. “We never talked politics in the house, and still we never do. They chose to merge with the rest and I respect the decision.”