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Status of Kurdish Liquids

By Khasrow F. Almasi, Central Washington University, May 2010

Abstract; The status of liquids in Kurdish has not been established yet. Some consider them as distinctive phonemes; still others see them as allophones.

Kurdish native speakers pronounce each of the sounds /l/ and /r/ in two different ways. They are simply called light realization and heavy realization of the sound. Are these different realizations in contrast to establish the two sounds as phonemes or in complementary distribution to establish them as allophones? Another question, whish this article is focusing on, is whether the sound /r/ is in either realization articulated as a flap or are both realizations trills?


According to Hayes (2009), “Liquids are the sounds that have the characteristic acoustic quality of l-like and r-like sounds” (p. 8). Kurdish has two liquids, as shown in Table 1.

Table 1: Sorani Kurdish Liquids

Liquids Word-initial Word-medial Word-final
/l/ lanik /lanək/ ‘cradle’ mela /mæla/ ‘cleric’ gul /gʊl/ ‘elephantiasis’
/r/ rêwi /rɛwi/ ‘fox’ pêrew /pɛro/ ‘program’ pr /pr/ ‘full’

If you read the words given in Table 1, you will find out that the /l/ sounds in the three words are not pronounced the same way. The same is true about /r/. Kurdish linguists have noticed the difference and have, therefore, modified the orthographic forms of these different realizations, i.e,, dark /ɫ/ is distinguished from light /l/ using a caron. The same symbol is used to distinguish heavy /r/ from the light /r/.These different realizations are called light and heavy /l, r/ in Kurdish. Heavy /l/ is pronounced the same way as velar /ɫ/. How about the two realizations of /r/?

Flap or Trill

Some Kurdish linguists have mistakenly labeled the two realizations of /r/ as a flap /r/ and a trill /r/.The fact is, however, that neither of the r-like variations in Kurdish is a flap. Both variant realizations are trills. A flap /r/, which is typical of American English, is articulated by retracting the body of the tongue during which a single contact is made between the tip of the tongue and the alveolar area. In the articulation of trills, the airstream causes the articulator to vibrate and there is more than more than one single contact.

Phonemes or Allophones

According to Catford (1988), “Phonemes are the minimal sequential contrastive units of the phonology of languages” (p. 198). By contrastive, he means what current linguists call distinctive. Two phonemes are distinctive when they distinguish one word from another in meaning. A sound segment, which is a phoneme in one particular language, may not be a phoneme in another language. For example, /p/ and /b/ are distinctive phonemes in English because /park/ has a different meaning from /bark/. They are not distinctive phonemes in Arabic, though. According to Allophones are “sounds that are perceptibly different but do not distinguish words” (Celce-Murcia, Brinton, & Goodwin, 1996, p. 37). In other words, allophones are not contrastive or distinctive. They are different realizations of the same phoneme based on the phonological environment. For example, /p/ is aspirated in English when it is realized syllable-initially. The aspiration does not lead to a different meaning, however. So aspirated /p/ in English, which is phonetically transcribed as [ph], is an allophone of the phoneme /p/.

Linguists usually use minimal pairs to put distinctive sounds in contrast and establish their status as distinctive phonemes. According to O’Grady, Archibald, Aronoff, and Rees-Miller (2010), “A minimal pair consists of two forms with distinct meanings that differ by only one segment found in the same position in each form” (p. 61). In English, Thus, the examples of /bæt/ bat and /bæd/ bad form a minimal pair (i.e., changing the sound at the end of the word) which shows that the sounds /t/ and /d/ contrast in English. A contrast can occur elsewhere, for example, /θay/ thigh and /ðay/ thy also form a minimal pair (i.e., changing the sound at the beginning of the word) which supports the contrast between /θ/ and /ð/. Contrastive sounds that occur in the middle of a word is also possible. For example, /mɛʃəɹ/ mesherand /mɛʒəɹ/ measure also form a minimal pair which shows that the sounds /ʃ/ and /ʒ/ contrast in English.

If two sound segments of a particular language, while occurring in the same position within minimal pairs, do not lead to different words with different meanings, they are allophones.

As mentioned earlier, Kurdish /l/ is realized as light /l/ or dark /ɫ/ in different words, and /r/ as a light trill /r/ or a heavy trill /rr/. Some Kurdish linguists believe that light /l/ and dark /ɫ/ are allophones. Others have considered them distinctive phonemes. They have not agreed on the status of r-like liquids, either. Some believe they are allophones, but some others recognize them as distinctive phonemes and call them a trill /r/ and a flap. Let’s take a look at some examples given in Table 2.

Table 2: Contrastive Minimal Pairs: /l/ vs /ɫ/ and /r/ vs /rr/

Liquid Minimal pairs in contrast
/l/ vs /ɫ/ pele /pælæ/ ‘hurry’ pele /pæɫæ/ ‘stain’
çil /tʃəl/ ‘forty’ çil /tʃəɫ/ ‘branch’
gul /g ʊl/ ‘elephantiasis’ gul /g ʊɫ/ ‘flower’
hêl /hɛl/ ‘tea spice’ hêl /hɛɫ/ ‘line’
kal /kæl/ ‘hill’ kal /kæɫ/ ‘buffalo’
/r/ vs /rr/ bere /bæræ/ ‘front’ bere /bærræ/ ‘rug’
pere //pæræ/ ‘develop’ pere //pærræ/ ‘page’
ker //kær/ ‘donkey’ ker //kærr/ ‘deaf’
werîn /wærin/ ‘fall’ werîn /wærrin/ ‘bark’
cîr /dʒir/ ‘rubber band’ cîr /dʒirr/ ‘undercooked’

As can be seen in Table 2, the light /l/ is in contrast with dark /ɫ/ because when they occur in the same position within the same phonological environment, they distinguish words, i.e., they result in words with different meanings. The same is true about the two /r/ sounds. I have used the symbols /r/ for the light /r/ and /rr/ for the heavy /r/ to distinguish them from the flap /ɾ/.the two realizations of /r/ in the same position within the same phonological environment results in words with different distinctive meanings. This simply means that the two realizations of /l. r/ are distinctive phonemes, and they should be incorporated in the chart of consonants of Kurdish language distinctively as shown in Table 3.Table 3: Kurdish Consonants

Manner of   Place of articulation
articulation Bilabial Labidental Alveolar Alveopalatal Palatal Velar Uvular Pharyngeal Glottal
Stop p    b   t    d     k    ɡ q    
Nasal m   n     ŋ      
Fricative   f    v s    z ʃ    ʒ   x    ɣ   ħ    ʕ h
Affricate       tʃ    dʒ          
Liquid     l     ɫ      
Trill     r rr          
Glides w       y        

Note. Modified from International Phonetic Association, IPA, (1996). 

As you might have noticed, the two /r/ sounds differ from each other with regard to their place of articulation. The light /r/ is articulated with the tip of the tongue raised toward the alveolar, but the heavy /rr/ is articulated with the tip of the tongue raised toward the alveopalatal area.


Kurdish has four distinctive liquids. The two realizations of /l/ and /ɫ/ are two distinctive phonemes because the occurrence of them in the same position within the same phonological environment results in words with different meanings. The same is true about the two realizations of /r/ and /rr/. They are distinctive phonemes in the sense that their occurrence in the same position within the same sequence of sounds leads to words with different meanings. Moreover, it is concluded that both /r/ realizations in Kurdish are trills. One is a light alveolar trill, but the other is heavy alveopalatal trill.


  1. Catford, J., C. (1988). A practical introduction to phonetics. New York: Oxford University Press.
  2. Celece-Murcia, M., Brinton, D. M., & Goodwin, J. M. (1996). Teaching pronunciation: A reference for teachers of English to speakers of other languages. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  3. Hayes, B. (2009). Introductory Phonology. West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell. International Phonetic Association. (2005). Reproduction of the International Phonetic Alphabet (Revised to 2005). Retrieved from
  4. O’Grady, W., Archibald, J., Aronoff, M., & Rees-Miller, J. (2010). Contemprary linguistics: An introduction. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s.

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