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Romanization of the Kurdish alphabet

Another alternative to an inefficient Arabic-based Kurdish alphabet has been the adaptation of the Roman script. The use of Latin letters for writing Kurdish dates back to the 18th century, when Europeans began to a studying publish literary and folkloric texts.  Most of the alphabets were, however, adapted for transcription, rather than for normal writing purposes. This is true even in the case of the “standard alphabet” for Kurdish proposed by K.R. Lipsius (1863: 136-137). The popularization of alphabets in Kurdistan was almost impossible, since most of them did not become known to even the native intellectuals.

Interest in Romanization had, since the late 19th century, become apparent among a number of nations which used the Arabic script. Soon after World War I, a number of Kurdish Intellectuals raised the question of changing the alphabet (Rondot 1935:6-1). In Iraq, the Department of Education, under authority of the British Expeditionary Force in Mesopotamia, was interested in popularizing a form of the Roman alphabet for Kurdish. A booklet, Kitab i Awalamin i Qiraat Kurdi (The First Kurdish Reader), compiled by two teachers from Sulaymaniya assisted by two British officers, was published by the Department in 1920. Before long, the British authorities decided to put an Arab government in power in Baghdad, which was interested in the integration of the Kurds and, as a result, the Romanization effort was abandoned (cf. 5.1.0 to 5.1.4 on the language policy of the period).

The Kurds themselves, however, continued their effort to Romanize the script. Arguments for the change were based mostly on the drawbacks of the Arabic script in writing Kurdish, but other reasons were occasionally given. A writer in Diyarî Kurdistan (1925, No. 11-12, p. 11), for instance, referred, among other things, to the "revival of our nation" through closer association with the West. He also claimed that the Kurds were an "Aryan nation" and their language was also "Aryan." "That is why," he wrote, "I do not believe that the letters of a Semitic language which are products of "Semitic spirit and stock" (rûḧ û 'irq) will be of use to us" (p. 9). This racist explanation of linguistic/orthographic phenomena reflects, in part, the conflict between the Kurds and the Arab regime put in power by Britain in the 1920s (cf. 5.1.3 to 5.1.7;,, 7.5.1 to Kurdish nationalists wanted to remain distinct from the dominating Arabic language and culture, which was now closely tied to the ruling power in Baghdad. Support for Romanization was quite widespread among the literati including even the clergy. According to a memo (Secret, No. D.O.S./218, written by the Administrative Inspector of Mosul Liwa and addressed to the Advisor, Ministry of Interior, Baghdad, March 5, 1932), the majority of Kurdish delegates who attended a government-sponsored meeting to select the dialect base of the Kurdish language (cf. 6.2.0) favored the use of the Roman script: least five of [the nine] delegates expressed themselves as strongly in favour of the use of Latin characters [two delegates were not present in the meeting; cf. 6.2.0]. These delegates included 2 from Dohuk, 2 from Shaikhan and Muhammed Ibn Shaikh Bahauddin of Amadia. The latter however influenced by his brother Shaikh Ghiyath ud Din and fearing that Arab patriots might object to his advocating the use of Latin characters, eventually declined to state this request to the Mutaserrif [governor]. (F. No. 13/14, Vol. XII, Kurdistan Policy, p. 2).

In spite of or, to be more exact, because of the popularity of Romanization (cf., also, 8.2.6), the Iraqi government and Britain rejected the demand as a manifestation of separatism. Individuals did, however, continue their struggle for promoting the script. Following a version proposed by Edmonds (1931, 1933), Tawfiq Wahbi presented his alphabet in Xondewarî Baw in 1933. In Syria, the Badir Khan brothers used a phonemic alphabet with diacritics for Kurmanji which was quite similar to the system adopted for writing Turkish in 1926 in Turkey. The Wahby system was closer to English spelling in that it used digraphs ch, sh, gh, iy, rh, lh and uw to represent ç, ş, ẍ, î, ř, ĺ  and û.

The Kurdish press, e.g., Jiyan (Vol. 10, No. 449, July 20, 1935 and Gelawêj (Vol. 4, No. 4, 1943, pp. 38-40), was interested in popularizing Wahby's version although the Badir Khan variety was being increasingly preferred (cf., e.g., Gelawêj, Vol. 4, No. 7; Vol. 5, No. 2, 1944). By 1957, when Jemal Nebez published his Badir Khan-based alphabet, the new writing system was far from being used in printing and writing. (Giw Mukriyani, another Romanist, made the last efforts on its behalf by publishing two ABC books in 1960 and 1972.

Opposition to Romanization came from various sources at different times. The strongest and most effective opponent t was the Iraqi government, which rejected alphabet reform or change as an expression of Kurdish particularism or "separatism." Among the Kurds themselves, opposition came from two sources. A conservative group opposed Romanization because of either religious considerations or their links with the central government (Nebez 1957:35). The religious opponents chanted En ' Latînî ye, Ladînî ye ' This Latinization is irreligiosity' (Nebez 1976:86). The second group included the Communist Party of Iraq and leftist nationalists such as the poet Goran. The former attacked, in their newspaper Ittihad al-Sha'b in 1959, efforts for Romanization which had gained fresh momentum after the fall of the monarchy. According to Nebez (who was a target of criticism to which he responded in the journal Saw,' al-Akrad), the Communist Party considered the Romanization campaign detrimental to the "national unity of Iraq" (Nebez 1976:86). Kurdish intellectuals were in favor of the eventual change of the writing system, but they found the timing inappropriate. Khaznadar (1971:7) remembers that Goran argued, "Let's first get schools and then we will say which alphabet we want."

In the early 1930s, the Roman script was tried virtually simultaneously in the USSR, Syria, and Iraq. In Syria, the political activists who had fled the persecution of the Kemalist regime in Turkey together with the local intellectuals used the Roman alphabet in journalism and book publishing, especially in the 1930s and during the World War II years. Since education in Kurdish was not permitted, the script was used only within the intellectual circle of Damascus. Its impact was, however, felt beyond the Syrian borders even after Kurdish was proscribed in Syria in the early 1960s. In fact, the Badir Khan or Hawar (name of a magazine published in this script) alphabet was accepted, with minor changes, by the Kurds of Turkey in their underground and semi-legal (1960s- 1970s) literature and by the emigre press and publications. It is also used by other Kurds whenever they need to switch to a Latin script (the Romanization used in this dissertation is based on the Hawar alphabet).

The first book published in Kurdish in the Soviet Union in 1921 was in the Armenian script, apparently because the majority of Soviet Kurds lived as a minority in Soviet Armenia. The script had already been used in 1856, 1857, 1872, 1891 and 1911 in the translations of the Gospels into Kurmanji Kurdish by missionary groups (North 1938:200). When publishing in Kurdish resumed in 1929 in the USSR (cf. 7.2.6), a Roman alphabet was adopted, which continued to be used in schools and publishing until 1939. After World War II, a Cyrillic script replaced the Roman. The Cyrillic alphabet added to the further fragmentation of the language. In 1958, the Kurdish Students Society in Europe (with members from Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria) asked the Premier Nikita Khrushchev to allow the adoption of the Roman script by Soviet Kurds (cf. While the alphabet was not changed, it is obvious that the Roman script was used more often in linguistic studies and folkloric texts after 1960. For example, the introduction and entries in Kurdo(ev)'s important Kurdish- Russian dictionary (1960; cf. 8.4.8) appeared in the Roman alphabet. During the perestroika years, the Kurds of the USSR demanded the adoption of the Roman alphabet (cf. chapter 5, Note 22). After the disintegration of the USSR in late December 1991; the Kurdish newspaper R'ya Taze published in the Republic of Armenia continued to use the Cyrillic script (February 1992). However, the change seems to be inevitable.


  1. Prof. A. Hassanpour, Nationalism and Language in Kurdistan 1918 - 1985, USA, 1992
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