Kurdistan: Toward a Cultural-Historical Definition – Kurdish Language

By Kamal Mirawdeli, March 1993

A strong expression of the antiquity, cultural continuity, and distinctiveness of Kurds is the Kurdish language itself. There have been several theories and assumptions regarding the Kurdish language: its independence, origins, and mode of existence. It was not only ignorance, as Edmunds has rightly asserted (Edmunds, 1957:7), which made some Western colonial travellers in Kurdistan in the 19th century describe the Kurdish language as a corrupt form of Persian or a motley of Persian, Arabic, and Turkic language.

By Kamal Mirawdeli, March 1993

A strong expression of the antiquity, cultural continuity, and distinctiveness of Kurds is the Kurdish language itself. There have been several theories and assumptions regarding the Kurdish language: its independence, origins, and mode of existence. It was not only ignorance, as Edmunds has rightly asserted (Edmunds, 1957:7), which made some Western colonial travellers in Kurdistan in the 19th century describe the Kurdish language as a corrupt form of Persian or a motley of Persian, Arabic, and Turkic language.

Prejudice and hostility toward the Kurds also had a role in drawing those writers to these ignorant conclusions. That the peoples who inhabited Kurdistan since antiquity- such as the Gutis, the Zagrosian Elamites, the Karduchi, and the Medians- had their own language, which were different from both the language of the plain people in the south of Mesopo- tamia and later from the Persian, is well substantiated by evidence of ancient inscriptions and historical descriptions. We touched upon some of these in the presentation of archaeological, genealogical, and historical discourses on Kurdistan.

There is no doubt that all ethnic groups and communities which inhabited Kurdistan or were in close cultural and military exchange with it have historically contributed to the genesis and development of the Kurdish language in the same way as they have contributed to the ethnic formation of the Kurdish nation. However, it has been established that “from whatever language it (the Kurdish) may have derived, it has certainly in many respects, undergone an individual and peculiar development of its own” (Fossum, 1923:6). This peculiar independent development was both protected and facilitated by the physical mountainous character of Kurdistan. It was this factor which in particular, enabled the Kurdish language to survive but remain little affected by the waves of Arabization which Islam triggered in the Middle East from 7th century onwards. The great Muslim thinker and historian Ibn Khaldun provides a clever theoretical insight and historical description of this Arabization process, which we wish to quote here for its scientific and historical value. He writes (The Muqaddima, 1987:294): “The dialect of urban population follows the language of the nation or race that has control of (the cities) or has founded them. Therefore, the dialects spoken in all Muslim cities in the East and the West at this time are Arabic… The reason for this is the fact that the Muslim dynasty gained power over foreign nations. Religion and religious organisations constitute the form of existence and royal authority, which together constitute the matter for religion. From is prior to matter. Religion is derived from the religious law which is Arabic, because the prophet was an Arab. Therefore, it is necessary to avoid using any language but Arabic in all the provinces of Islam. This may be exemplified by “Umer’s prohibition against using the idiom native among the non- Arab dialect, and the language of the supporters of the Muslim dynasty was Arabic, those dialects were avoided altogether in all its provinces. Because people follow the government and adopt its ways, use of the Arabic, the (foreign) nations avoided using their own dialects and language in all the cities and provinces. The non- Arab languages came to seem imported and foreign there.”

Ibn Khaldun clearly expounds on the decisive roles of both power (the state) and religion in the Arabization of non- Arab Islamic nations. The Kurds were not entirely immune from the impact of this powerful dual force. Following the Arab conquest, the Islamic tradition replaced the pre- Islamic traditions in Kurdistan. This had a great effect on the Kurdish language and culture. Islam introduced literacy into the Arabic language as the language chosen by Allah to convey the message of Islam. And the Islamic law and Quranic studies became the only domains through which one could get educated. In order to replace the pre-Islamic traditions and “propagate the new faith in a language previously unknown to the populace, individuals had to be trained who would read and write in Arabic, and were able to interpret and put into practice religious laws. These men, known as Mullas (Mela, in Kurdish), were local Kurds trained in schools which formed part of the mosque system. The earliest Kurdish poets came, invariably, from the ranks of the Mullas.” (Hassanpour, 1991:47). The result of the state Arabization of literacy in Kurdistan can be observed in massive numbers of books and manuscripts written by Kurdish scholars in Arabic on various subjects of Islamic tradition including Quran, Hadith, Islamic law, Arabic language and grammar, history, and so on. However, this was the case with very small literary elite of the Kurdish society. Otherwise, the Kurdish population as a whole retained its linguistic and cultural character. Popular poets, singers, and story- tellers continued to enrich and develop the Lyrical and epic traditions of Kurdish folk poetry. Even in terms of religion, some pre- Islamic religious communities and traditions survived and continued in Kurdistan. The Yezidis, for example, continued to say their prayers and write their traditions in Kurdish despite continued oppression over many centuries. Also Zoroastrian traditions were preserved in Kurdish in the Gorani dialect in Hawraman. Furthermore, the Kurds added their own stamp to the Islamic faith. In the same way as the Persians created Shiism, Kurdistan created Sufism. The most famous Sufi orders (tariqat) in Kurdistan are Qadiri (founded by a famous saint, Sheikh Abdul- Qadir al- Gailani: 1077-1161), and Naqish- bandi (founded by Muhammad Baha- ud- Din of Bukhare:1317-1489) (Edmunds,1957:62ff).

But unlike the Shiites, the Kurds, perhaps to their own disadvantage, have never developed their Sufi orders into a religious ideology that promotes Kurdish national power and hegemony.

The Kurdish language belongs to the northern group of Iranian languages. In contrast to modern Persian which falls into the south western groups (Edmunds, 1957:7). The Iranian languages in turn, belong to Indo-European languages. Bildisi in Sharafnama (1981), in the 16th century, divides the Kurdish language into four dialects: Kurmanji, Luri, Gurani and Kalhor. This classification is still valid. However, political circumstances and the socio-historical development of Kurdish society have naturally changed the position of these dialects within the mainstream of spoken Kurdish, on the one hand, and in relation to the standard Kurdish, on the other.

Now the Kurds refer to their language as Kurdi and use Kirmanji to identify the variations of the main geographical dialects of Kurdistan. Thus, Hama Khorsid (1983:14-28) distinguishes four dialects on the basis of their geographical distribution and linguistic use:

The North Kurmanji (or Kirmanji): spoken by the Kurds of Turkey, Syria, Armenia and by the Kurds of the districts of Dihok and Zebar in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The Middle Kurmanji (which is also called Sorani): spoken by the Kurds of Iraqi Kurdistan and the majority of Kurds in Iranian Kurdistan.

The South Kurmanji: Hama Khorshid includes within this group the sub-dialects of Faili (orginal Luri), Bakhtyari, Mamasanni, Kalhuri and Laki. Thus, it is widely spoken “along the south-eastern region of Kurdistan (Luristan), extending from the high road between Khanaqin-Malaye on the north down to the north-eastern coast of the gulf.”
The Gurani, which includes the subdialect of original Gurani, Hawrami, Bajilani and Zaza.

The original Gurani is spoken by the population of Karan, Zahaw and Jwanro (Iran) as well as some Kakais of Tauq and some tribes of Zangana near Kifri (Iraq). Hawrami is spoken in Hawraman and the Pawa mountains (Iraq-Iran). Bajilani is a dialect scattered east of Mousl (Shabak tribe), Zahaw and near Khanaqin and Quratu, Hurain and Sshekhan (Iraq). Zaza is one of the branch dialects of the Gurani, but it is located outside the Gurani dialect region very far away to the north, inside the region between Mush, Kharbot (Elazig) and Erzingan in northern Kurdistan: i.e, it is concentrated in the region between the Euphrates tributaries, Murat Su and Furat Su, to the point of their meeting south of Musheer Dagh mountains, within the Dersim region (Hama Khorshid; pp. 31-32. Minorsky; 1943;76).

This classification by Hama Khorshid represents a comprehensive account of the Kurdish dialects and their geographical distribution. There are two main issues related to the dialectical variations of the Kurdish language: the mutual intelligibility of the dialects and the development of a standard written Kurdish.

The differences between the dialects are at times greatly exaggerated. This is often the result of ignorance or having very little contact with or knowledge of the language and the dialects. Major Noel, having himself mixed with the Kurds and becoming familiar with their dialects, reveals the ignorance and inaccuracy underlying this exaggeration when he writes (Noel: 1919: 9):

“It is often said that the Kurdish language is nothing more than a patois which varies from valley to valley. It is true that the language of S.E. Kurdis- tan, i.e., Baba Kurdi, is considerably different from Kurmanji, but it is untrue to say that variations of Kurmanji show very fundamental differences. I have with me men from the Bohtan, Diarbekir, and Hakhari. All of them can well understand and make themselves clearly understood in the extreme west of Kurdistan. They would only have to remain here for a few weeks to be perfectly at home with the language. Such differences as exist are chiefly due to changes in vowel sounds. For example, I have heard the word for mother- DYK, DY, DA, DI (Y being pronounced as Y in TRY). This is, of course, somewhat puzzling to a foreigner who has not got his ear attuned to the various sounds. His aptitude to magnify unduly the differences between the dialects is further increased by the fact the words that do alter are adverbs, prepositions, and other words which are being constantly used. For example, for the word “now” we have “AISTA” at Sulaymaniya: “NHA” in the Hakkari, and “ANGOH” in western Kurdistan. Other variations are, “AISTA HA” “ANEKA,” “NIKA” and “HENU- KA”. Therefore, anybody with a good grounding of the dialect could very easily and rapidly pick up another dialect by memorising a brief list of the common words which differ.”

If, as Noel has rightly observed, only a few weeks are enough to make a Kurd from a distant region of the farthest north of Kurdistan feel at home with the dialect of another region at the extreme west, then it would have clearly been possible to minimize the differences and develop a standard Kurdish language in a very short time indeed, had the Kurds had their own state or even opportunities to use and study in their own language. This takes us to another important issue, which is the standardization of the Kurdish language. Fortunately, this topic has been the subject of a thorough scientific study by Amir Hassanpour, whose doctoral thesis on the subject (University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign, 1989) represents the first comprehensive research into the historical background, political context, and the cultural- linguistic process of the standardization of the Kurdish language. He produces the most clear and authoritative statement regarding this important subject. Hassanpour’s approach has the benefit of a global scientific vision of the issue and his ability (in terms of language and background as a Kurdish intellectual) to have access to variety of sources and references which match his vision. This has enabled him to produce a work of a great scientific value which, I believe, will become a classic in its field.

The main thrust of Hassanpour’s study is his explanation of the historical process by which the Sulaymaniyah sub-dialect of the Sorani/ Middle Kirmanji dialect could develop into a standard Kurdish language in Iraq, and be adopted as such in Iran. He has studied both the linguistic and non- linguistic changes that have taken place within the Kurdish speech community since the language was first used in writing in the 15th century. He produces, for the first time, a wide range of very well- classified and coherent data about different aspects of the use of Kurdish in classical poetry, press and journalism, books, education, broadcasting, local administration, and other cultural manifestations such as theatre and cinema. And on the basis of rigorous historical documentation and scientific arguments, he identifies numerous significant changes in the political context, social base, and cultural environment, as well as the structure and function of the Kurdish dialects since the end of the 19th century and, in particular, in the post- 1918 period which led to the emergence of the Sulaymaniyah sub-dialect. This subdialect, which first became dominant under the Baban dynasty, emerged as the standard Kurdish language in Iraq after achieving official regional status in the newly created state of Iraq (Hassanpour, 413-415).

While Hassanpour acknowledges and establishes the spectacular development of Sorani/Middle Kirmanji as the dominant standardized Kurdish, he explains that this historical development has not happened yet within the Northern Kurmanji subdialects. Neither has Sorani, for obvious political reasons, became a realistic option. Kurmanji has been held back by the linguicide policies of the states of Turkey and Syria. It is in exile in Europe that, in the last few years, the Kurmanji- speaking Kurds of Turkey, the main force for promotion of this dialect, have started a trend toward unifying the three current variants of Northern Kurmanji (Yerevan, Syria, and Turkey), drawing on the standardization efforts of the Kurds of Syria (1930-1946) and the Soviet Union. In conclusion, Hassanpour rightly defines the current state of the Kurdish language as being bi- standard with the Middle Kurmanji/Sorani dialect being at a much more development state.


This article is extracted from

Kurdistan: Toward a Cultural-Historical Definition

Presented at The International Conference
The Kurds Political status and Human Rights
Georgetown, Washington, D.C
March 17-19-1993

Reprinted by
The Kurdish Information Centre