Is it ok to entertain children at the expense of linguistic minorities? That was the question I asked myself a couple of months ago when I was watching a kids’ show on Iranian TV. In the show, a performer was entertaining a large group of 5-8-year-olds by clowning around and performing silly tricks. One aspect of his silly, bumbling and supposedly funny act was that he spoke Persian with a phoney Gilaki accent.
Gilaki is one the languages of northern Iran and genetically related to Persian, Kurdish, Talysh, Baluchi and other Iranian linguistic varieties. Gilaki shares most consonants with Persian, but has different vowels. You can learn more about Gilaki here and here.
What does a performance such as the one just described achieve? At one level, it makes children laugh. At another level, it perpetuates ethnic stereotypes and inculcates linguistic ridicule in children. Ethnic jokes heaping ridicule not only on Gilaki speakers but on anyone speaking Persian in a way other than the Tehrani standard are widespread in Iran. It is also a practice that causes widespread resentment among different ethno-linguistic minorities. In this context, one has a right to ask why such linguistic stereotyping should be officially endorsed on state TV and particularly in a show directed at the next generation? Shouldn’t our media serve to overcome ethnocentrism and to unite the nation around our common cultural heritage? Providing entertainment does not provide a license to fan hatred and misunderstanding among people. There is indeed a fine line between humour and racism.