The origions of Kurdish

By D. N. MacKenzie , 1961

In a paper presented at the 20th International Congress of Orientalists, in Brussels, 1938, Professor V. Minorsky1 reviewed all the available historical evidence, and some linguistic, relevant to the origins of the Kurdish people. The subject is germane to the present study, for if the origins of the Kurds were known with any certainty the history of their language might be easier to follow.

It may be as well first to dispose of some of the more far fetched theories in this connexion, for despite Professor Minorsky’s paper many of them live on. A number were listed by the late Basile Nikitine in the first chapter of his comprehensive study on the Kurds.2 Xenophon‘s () have always been the favourite choice of those seeking the progenitors of thc Kurds,3 but we find attempts to link them with the Xalde of Urartu, the Sagarti, or Zikirtu, and even the Guti peoples, always on tho strength of ‘ une consonance plus ou moins évidente avec le nom aetuel de ce people ‘. Xaldi, happily, has been removed from the field, as it is known to be the name of a god and not a nation.4 The other connexions all seem to suffer from inherent impossibility.

In fact tho only evident references to the Kurds in the classical authors before our era would seem to be those of Polybius, Livy, and Stralbo to the Kúptioi, or Cyrtii,5 respectively. The two historians mention them only as contingents of slingers in the armies of Media and Asia Minor, while Strabo, more explicitly, names them as wild mountaineers living in Media and Armenia, but also in Persis. With this solitary exception, all the positive evidence points to the Kurds being a Median people-a view which Professor Minorsky strongly endorses.

If we take a leap forward to the Arab conquest we find that the name Kurd has taken on a new meaning, becoming practically synonymous with ‘nomad’, if nothing more pejorative. Professor Minorsky quotes, for example, the ninth century geographer Ibn Rusta, who described the Lombards as ‘living in the deserts in tents, like the Kurds ‘.1 Today, with the growth of Kurdish nationalism, the name is used to embrace almost all the peoples and tribes living between the Turks and Arabs on the west and the Persians proper on the east. Among Iranian peoples this includes the Lurs and the various Goran tribes. The modern Kurds’ approach to history is also refreshingly simple. Feeling a need for heroic ancestors, and finding the imperial Medes so to speak unemployed, they make no bones about casting them in the role. Indeed, it is now fashionable among them to use a so-called Median era, obtained by adding to our date the figure 612, the date of the conquest of Nineveh by the Medes.

In the face of this blend of little fact and much fiction the linguistic evidence gains in importance. Even here the field is by no means clear, for the celebrated Professor N. J. Marr once hoped to see in the modern Kurdish vocabulary survivals of a ‘primitive Kurdish’ which would be of the K’art, or Georgian, group of the Japhetic branch of Languages.2 All that need be said of such a theory is that it still awaits the, faits réels’ to corroborate it that time was to bring to light. Meanwhile we are at liberty to consider Kurdish as a normal Iranian language. My first task then should be to define Kurdish (Kd.), by establishing the features which distinguish it from other Ir(anian) dialects. Unfortunately I have to admit at the outset that my findings are largely negative, for almost every feature of Kd. has its counterpart in at least one other Ir. dialect.


The Origins of Kurdish
D. N. MacKenzie
Transactions of the Philological Society, pp. 68-86, 1961

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