Kurdish Language

For much of its history, Kurdish culture took refuge in the privacy of family life and the countryside, where it remained possible to preserve the language, music, religion and beliefs, oral literature and the specific customs and beliefs, which form the specific Kurdish cultural identity. The Kurds’ dream of unifying Kurdistan goes hand in hand with unifying the Kurdish Language. The Kurdish language in its various dialects is an important expression of their ethnic identity and distinguishes them ethnically and nationally from their many neighbors. Today, there are between 25 and 35 million speakers; by 2020 it is estimated there will be 60 million Kurdish speakers. Kurdish belongs to the Iranian branch of the Indo-European language family; it is most closely related to the various dialects of Persian, to Pashto spoken in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to Baluchi spoken in Pakistan.

However, Iranian rulers and research on the Kurds have always used this linguistic factor to claim that Kurds are Iranian. It is an attempt at the assimilation of Kurds into the geopolitics of the Iranian state, in which language is used as the determining criteria. Kurdish language may have grammatical, syntactic, or nominal relations with Persian. However, this relationship cannot be a determining criterion to disregard Kurdish as an independent language, and to regard its dialects as separate languages.

As a member of the Indo-European language family, Kurdish is not related at all to Turkish, a member of the Ural-Altaic language family, or to Arabic, a member of the Semitic language family. The similarity between Kurdish and the Iranian languages, and its dissimilarity from Arabic and Turkish, can readily be seen in the following chart showing words for the numbers from one to five:

English                    Kurdish                    Persian                      Pashto                       Arabic                         Turkish
one                            [yek]                           [yak]                           [yaw]                         [wahad]                          bir
two                            [du]                             [du]                            [dwa]                        [ithneyn]                          iki
three                          [se]                             [se]                             [dre]                         [thalatha]                         üç
four                           [chwar]                       [char]                          [tsalor]                      [arba'a]                           dört
five                            [penj]                          [panj]                         [pindze]                    [khamasa]                       beş

*The Turkish numbers are listed in Turkish spelling. The Kurdish, Arabic, Persian, and Pashto numbers are given in phonetic notation, signified by enclosure in brackets.

The Kurdish Dialects

There are two main dialects of Kurdish and three or four minor dialects. The major dialects are the northern, or Kurmanji, and the southern, or Sorani. These dialects are mutually intelligible: A speaker of one of them can usually understand a speaker of the other, although a Sorani speaker from a remote area might have to listen a little harder at first to a Kurmanji speaker due to differences in syntax, and vice versa.

Kurmanji is spoken by the northern Kurds living in Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and the countries of the former Soviet Union; it is also spoken by the Iraqi Kurds down to the Greater Zab River and by Kurds in the northern part of Iran. Traditional Kurdish literature is in Kurmanji. Kurdish written in a roman alphabet tends to be Kurmanji; it is the dialect spoken in Turkey, where the Kurds learn to read and write in the modern Turkish alphabet. Kurmanji is spoken by the greatest number of Kurds.

Sorani Kurdish is spoken by Iraqi Kurds living south of the Greater Zab, and by the Iranian Kurds living in Kordestan Province. Sorani Kurdish is typically written in a modified Arabic script; such modern literature as exists in Kurdish is usually in Sorani, because there has been more opportunity to publish in Iraq than in other countries in recent times.

As is the case with most other minority languages, the modern dialects of Kurdish are heavily influenced by the official languages spoken around them. The Kurdish in Turkey, for example, contains a large number of Turkish words; the Kurdish in Iraq contains an overlay of Arabic vocabulary, and so on.

Phonology: Consonants

  p b  
t d 
k g
t͡ʃ d͡ʒ 
f v
s z
ʃ ʒ
x ɣ
ħ ʕ
  l ɫ1  

 Please note: voiceless consonants precede their voiced counterparts in above chart.

1. Just as in many English dialects, the velarized lateral does not appear in the onset of a syllable. Additionally, in some dialects, the velarized lateral changes to a /ɾ/ in women's speech.

2. /k/ and /ɡ/ are strongly palatalized before the close and mid front vowels (/i/ and /e/) as well as the rounded high front allophone ɥ of the phoneme w, closing on /t͡ʃ/ and /d͡ʒ/.   Kurdish has the following consonants roughly like their English counterparts:
[b] as in boy                 [h] as in how                 [t] as in toy
[ch] as in choose          [j] as in juice                 [v] as in voice
[d] as in day                 [l] as in loose                [y] as in yes
[f] as in fine                 [m] as in mice               [z] as in zoo
[g] as in go                  [n] as in nice                 [zh] as in pleasure
[p] as in put                 [w] as in want    

Dissimilarities to English:

Kurdish also has the following consonants that English does not have:

[x]: like German ach

[gh]: like [x] only pronounced with the vocal cords vibrating

[r]: like the Spanish or Italian [r]

[q]: a k pronounced very far back in the mouth



Back unrounded
Back rounded

Similarities to English:

The Kurdish vowel system is almost the same as English:

[i] close to the vowel in bit

[i:] close to the vowel in beet

[e] close to the vowel in bet, in some dialects closer to bat

[e:] close to the vowel in bait

[a] close to the vowel in box

[u] close to the vowel in put

[u:] close to the vowel in boot

[o] close to the vowel in boat

Kurdish vowels contrast in quality; they often carry a secondary length distinction that does not affect syllabic weight. This distinction appears in the writing systems developed for Kurdish. In the roman systems, the long vowels are usually spelled with a ^ over them. In the Arabic script, the long vowels are represented by symbols, and the short vowels are not represented at all. The three “short” vowels are /ə/, /ɪ/, and /ʊ/ and the five long vowels are /a/, /e/, /i/, /o/, and /u/.The Arabic-based Kurdish alphabet is written from right to left and does not make a distinction between capital and small letters.


The most basic difference between Kurdish and English is word order: In Kurdish the usual order is subject–object–verb, in contrast to the English word order of subject–verb–object. This difference and others can be seen by comparing the word-by-word translation of the following sentence with the idiomatic English translation.*

[Beg digali: chand a:gha:lara:n ku digali: Pa:sha: ru:nishtin zadi: dakhwan.]

Bey with several gentlemen that with Pasha they sit meal is eating “The Bey is eating the meal with several gentlemen who are sitting with the Pasha.”

*This example, from a 1913 grammar of Kurdish, illustrates the point, and also clearly reflects the Ottoman Empire that the grammar's author was dealing with. A “bey” is an important man.


Original Contributors: Nancy D'Urso and Lindsey Lester, Winter 2011

References and Resources