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Joyce Blau l'éternelle chez les Kurdes

Hamit Bozarslan
Clémence Scalbert-Yücel

The Future of the Kurdish Language: an Egalitarian Scenario

Michael L. Chyet

Texte intégral

Seretay îş hemû yekbûne,
ewîş nabê heta her birînê ke le diłda bê sarêjî nekey
[The basis of all work is unity,
and this cannot be until you have healed every wound in your heart]
Şukrî Fezlî

1Regarding the question of whether to choose Kurmanji or Sorani, or to create a hybrid of the two, it has always been clear to me that there is a third option: Kurmanji and Sorani should be treated equally.

2It pains me to see Kurds who are literate in other languages, but who have not learned the Kurdish orthography, either in Latin or Arabic script. I envision teaching these to all Kurdish children, as a national treasure, and as part of their Kurdish identity. I was pleasantly surprised to discover a few years ago that Kurd-Sat (the TV channel of the PUK) was using the Latin orthography in its broadcasts (including ç & ş!). The power of television to familiarize people with things they are initially unfamiliar with should not be underestimated.

  • 1 I have drawn up a chart for the Library of Congress which shows the correspondences between the thr (...)
  • 2 In doing research for this paper, it has become clear that there are [at least] two competing Yezid (...)

3I envision an educational system in which all Kurdish children – throughout Kurdistan – are educated equally in both Kurmanji (in Latin orthography) and Sorani (in Arabic and Latin orthography). There is also a third alphabet, Cyrillic (the « Russian » alphabet), which was used in the lands of the former Soviet Union: today that is gradually being replaced with the Latin orthography. Notice that I use the word orthography rather than alphabet. There is a simple one-to-one correspondence between the Latin, Arabic, and Cyrillic orthographies, and all three work equally well for both Kurmanji and Sorani.1 I should point out that there is also a little known Yezidi alphabet2.

4The Kurdish educational program that I speak of would be part of a larger process, engendering mutual tolerance, and acceptance of difference in general. Mutual respect for each other’s dialect, and genuine curiosity about how that other dialect differs from our own, should be part and parcel of such a program. Let us follow in the footsteps of Hejar (‘Abd al-Rahman Sharafkandi; 1921 or 1922-1980 or 1981), a Sorani poet from Mukriyan, in Iranian Kurdistan. During his career, he produced important editions of the works of the Kurmanji classical poets: Feqîyê Teyran (ca. 1590-ca. 1660); Melayê Cizîrî (1570-1640); and Ehmedê Xanî (17th cent.).

5Imagine a generation of young people with a thorough knowledge of both Kurmanji and Sorani! There is no need for a hybrid of the two: this would naturally occur, without any interference from politicians untrained in linguistic matters. One can see it already happening: for example, Sorani words like çapemenî (meaning « the press ») and derbirrîn (to express) have now become common in Kurmanji: this was not true as recently as the 1980s. By the same token, the Kurmanji words heval (friend, comrade), dever (region) and bizav (political movement, effort) – all three with a « v » – are now used in Sorani. History has brought the two dialects into contact with each other. Thanks to Kurdish television, radio and the Internet, there is now constant exposure to dialects and to words previously unknown to large segments of the population.

6During the 16 years during which I compiled the first edition of my Kurmanji-English dictionary, it was apparent that the language was in flux. When I first began it in 1986, there was a clear distinction between Kurmanji and Sorani. By the end, around the year 2000, the walls between the two dialects were becoming increasingly porous. I ultimately found it necessary to include words in use by Kurmanji speakers that only a decade earlier would not have been known to them.

7Seeing Kurmanji and Sorani as equal partners is not merely a linguistic matter: it is also a social matter. During the mandate period in Iraq (1920-1932), the British insisted that Sorani be the only Kurdish dialect taught in Kurdish schools, which engendered a fair amount of resentment among Kurmanji speakers. Choosing one dialect over another – or, to put it differently, imposing one dialect on a population which speaks another – is guaranteed to cause dissent. An awareness of attempts to divide the Kurds is an important motivation for inculcating in Kurdish children everywhere a feeling of national cohesion. The language issue can be a very dangerous weapon – an instrument for divisiveness – in the wrong hands.

8Some people have suggested using Arabic or German as a pattern for handling the multiformity of Kurdish. Both Arabic and German have a standardized written form (fuṣḥa for Arabic, and Hochdeutsch or « high German »). My response is: this scenario has only limited relevance for Kurdish. The German standard language had such stylists as Martin Luther (1483-1546) and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) to thank for its successful spread, as well as a very different degree of literacy and education from that which has pertained in Kurdistan.

9Each language has its own history and context, and the Arabic linguistic situation does not fit the Kurdish context. The language of the Quran has endowed the Arabic written language with a special status that has no counterpart in Kurdish (or in any other language, for that matter). Although the spoken form of all languages differs to some degree from the corresponding written form, Arabic reflects this diglossia (from Greek, meaning « two forms of one language ») more pointedly than most. As a rule, all literate Arabs know how to read and write fuṣḥa, the written standard which is largely the same from Morocco to Iraq. In addition, for the purposes of oral communication, everyone speaks his or her local dialect. Most people have a clear idea of what is fuṣḥa and what is not.

10The diglossic situation of the Arabic language could serve as a useful model for Kurdish speakers in a different way. A standardized form of Kurmanji is already in the process of being hammered out, although not everyone is in agreement as to what should be included in the standard language, and what should not. Written Sorani is much further along the road to standardization, based on the dialect of Sulaimania, with some adjustments (see below). A Kurdish educational system would help Kurdish speakers to distinguish more easily between the lexical and grammatical forms of the standard language on the one hand (whether Kurmanji or Sorani), and of their spoken dialect on the other.

11For those who still insist that a hybrid language should be created by combining Kurmanji and Sorani into one admixture, consider the following:

  1. Kurmanji nouns have two genders (masculine and feminine), and two cases (direct and oblique); the Sorani of Sulaimania and Kirkuk has neither gender nor case, whereas the Sorani of Erbil and Mukriyan does have some traces of both gender and case;

  2. Each of the two dialects forms the passive voice of the verb differently. Let us take as an illustration the sentence: « The boy was seen ». In Kurmanji one would say: Kur hat dîtin, using hat as an auxiliary verb, plus the infinitive dîtin. In Sorani one would say Kureke bîn[d]ra, adding the passive suffix -ra to the present stem -bîn-;

  3. Moreover, Kurmanji has no « definite article », i.e., no word for the, whereas Sorani has the suffix -eke in the singular, and -ekan in the plural;

  4. Whereas Kurmanji has two sets of independent personal pronouns, one in the direct case (ez – tu – ew – em – hûn – ew) and the other in the oblique case (min – te – wî [masculine]/wê [feminine] – me – we – wan), Sorani has one set of independent pronouns (min – tu – ew – ême –êwe – ewan) and a set of pronominal suffixes (-[i]m – -[i]t – -î/-y – -man – -tan – -yan);

  5. Kurmanji has a separate future tense (e.g., Ez ê bibînim= I will see), distinct from the present tense (e.g., Ez dibînim= I see). By conrast, Sorani uses the present tense for both present and future meaning (e.g., [Min] debînim= I see or I will see).

12Which one of these diverse forms would be chosen for this hybrid language? I can tell you as a teacher, with many years of experience teaching both Kurmanji and Sorani, that this endeavour would create more problems than it would solve. It would be a confusing and forbidding hodge-podge, doomed to failure.

13There are several dual-standard languages: Norwegian (Bokmål and Nynorsk), Albanian (Gheg and Tosk), and Armenian (Eastern and Western), among others. The cases of Serbo-Croat (including Bosnian) and Hindi-Urdu are even more apt for comparison, as each is written in more than one alphabet, with a clear one-to-one correspondence between them. Hence, the treatment of Kurmanji and Sorani as equal partners is not a uniquely Kurdish situation, nor is such multiformity unknown elsewhere.

14Although I am not a proponent of combining Kurmanji and Sorani into one hybrid language, there are ways that the two dialects can be brought closer together. This may be considered a pedagogical issue in teaching Kurdish, both to native speakers and to foreigners. In situations where one dialect presents multiple forms to choose from, it is necessary to consider the forms that exist in the other dialect, in order to calibrate the dialects, i.e., to bring them closer.

15Let us begin with an example from the field of morphology. The indicative mood of the present tense of Kurmanji verbs features a prefix di-, e.g., di•bînim= « I see », di•froşim= « I sell ». The Sorani counterpart displays variation: in Mukriyan (Iran) and Arbil (Iraq), the prefix is de-, e.g., de•bînim and de•froşim, whereas in Sulaimania and Kirkuk (Iraq) and Sinneh (=Sanandaj, Iran), it is e-, e.g., e•bînim and e•froşim. Over the past 20 years, written Sorani has been preferring forms with de- to those with e-, even among writers from Sulaimania, whose dialect serves as the basis of written Sorani. By preferring Sorani de- over e-, mutual intelligibility between the two dialects has been enhanced.

  • 3 Other words displaying regional variation are Kurmanji words for: mushroom, spider, bat (the animal (...)
  • 4 Reşo Zîlan (1989): Svensk-Kurdiskt Lexikon (Nordkurdiska)= Ferhenga Swêdî-Kurdî (Kurmancî). Stockho (...)

16In the realm of lexicology, let us look at Kurdish words for the broom3. In Sorani, the word gesik or gisik is quite widespread. In Kurmanji there is a great deal of regional variation, with borrowings from Arabic (melkes < Arabic miknasah), Aramaic (kinoşe) and Armenian (avlêk, as well as siq•avêl [large broom for sweeping out a barn] < Armenian avel), not to mention bermalk, şicing, sivnik, sizik, cerîvk, sirge, and gêzî, among others.4 The richness of Kurdish history is no doubt reflected in such lexical variability: nevertheless, with such a plethora of words to choose from, the task of choosing one seems daunting. Or does it? Do any of the Kurmanji forms resemble Sorani gesik? As a matter of fact, one does: gêzî. Kurmanji gêzî and Sorani gesik are clearly cognate, and I would argue that mutual intelligibility would be achieved by designating gêzî as the standard term for « broom » in Kurmanji, since it has a close Sorani equivalent. Moreover, the Zaza word is gezi, and the Gurani word is gizî.

17To take another example, let us consider the Kurdish equivalent of « to say ». In Kurmanji the infinitive is gotin. In Sorani, there are multiple forms of the infinitive: wutin/witin in Sulaimania and Kirkuk; kutin in Mukriyan; and gotin in Erbil. By choosing gotin as the standard or preferred form, we are taking one small step toward unifying Kurmanji and Sorani. Local dialects are the hallmark of a living language. If my suggestion were adopted, I would encourage people in Sulaimania and Kirkuk to continue using wutin/witin in their spoken language, and those in Mukriyan to keep on saying kutin. However, in formal speech and in writing, I would suggest using the form gotin. Likewise with words for « broom »: I am not advocating discarding the dialect words bermalk, avlêk, melkes, etc. I would hope that people would continue using them in their respective regions, and pass them on to the next generation, as well as knowing the standard word gêzî. This would approximate the aforementioned diglossic situation in Arabic, whereby everyone speaks a local dialect, but the standard written language is largely the same from the Maghrib to the Fertile Crescent (or from Adıyaman to Akre, in the case of Kurmanji).

18In all three examples thus far, one dialect displays little variation, while the other dialect has much variation: by looking at both dialects together, I am proposing a method for narrowing down which of many forms will bring the two dialects closer together – a concomitant of standardization. Here is what we have discussed:



« I see »


debînim (ebînim)

« broom »

gêzî (avlêk, bermalk, cerîvk, kinoşe, melkes, etc.)

gesik (gisik)

« to say »


gotin (wutin/witin, kutin)

19The next example – once again in the realm of morphology – will show that it is not always as simple as choosing the one form among many which agrees with the single form in the other dialect. Let us consider the past participle. In Kurmanji, we form the past participle from the infinitive (e.g., dîtin= « to see », dan= « to give ») by removing the -[i]n ending (dît-, da-), and replacing it with for consonant stems (dîtî= « seen ») and -yî (Behdinani -y) for vowel stems (dayî= « given »).

  • 5 D.N. MacKenzie (1961-62): Kurdish Dialect Studies. London, Oxford University Press, v. 1, p. 97, §2 (...)

20In Sorani there are three regional variants.5 In Arbil and Rewanduz, near the dialect boundary between Kurmanji and Sorani, the past participle is formed as in Kurmanji (dîtin > dîtî; dan > day). In Sulaimania, Kerkuk and in Mukriyan, the ending is -û (or -uw) after a consonant and -w after a vowel (dîtû, daw). In Sinneh (Sanandaj) and Warmawa, the ending is - after consonants and -ğ after vowels (dîtiğ, dağ). The three variants are:


Sul., Mukr.


« seen »




« given »




  • 6 Ismaïl Kamandâr Fattah (2000): Les dialectes kurdes méridionaux : étude linguistique et dialect[o]l (...)

21The form in - is transitional to Southern Kurmanji or Kirmashani,6 and is not widely known outside of those areas. The form in -î is perceived by most cultivated Sorani speakers as backward: imposing it on the robust written tradition represented by the forms dîtû and daw might cause just the sort of divisive backlash that we are seeking to avoid. The dialect of Arbil and the dialect of Mukriyan agree on many points: both form the present indicative with the prefix de- rather than e-; both preserve the oblique case and two genders for nouns; both lack the demonstrative em (this), using only ew (that). However, when it comes to the past participle, Mukriyan shares with Sulaimania and Kerkuk the forms in -û and -w. These regions collectively constitute the majority of Sorani speakers, in addition to reflecting the established written standard already in use. Something that is thriving should not be undermined (or as we say in English: If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it!).

22When the root of the present tense is of different origin from that of the infinitive, we have what is called a suppletive form. To illustrate this, let us look at the verb dîtin « to see ». In both Kurmanji and Sorani, the present tense is from the suppletive root bîn-: dibînim (« I see » in Kurmanji), debînim (« I see » in Sorani). In many Sorani dialects, bînîn can be heard alongside dîtin as the infinitive. Because dîtin exists in both dialects, and because bînîn is not in use in Kurmanji, clearly dîtin should be favored as the standard form.

  • 7 Zaza vajenã (vaj-) is from the same root, which is cognate with Latin vox, vocis = « voice ».

23Another verb with a suppletive form of the present stem is gotin « to say ». In Kurmanji, one finds several variant forms (all are for « I say »): dibêjim, divêjim, diwêjim; dibêm, divêm, diwêm; dêjim. The form dibêjim has already been chosen as the standard form, so we need not bother about choosing one.7 In Sorani, the form is dełêm in Sulaimania, Kerkuk and in Mukriyan; Arbil commonly converts -ł- into -r-, and derêm is the predictable reflex of dełêm. In Sinneh (Sanandaj) and Warmawa, the form is êjim (presumably <e-[b]êj-im). The form bêj- per se does not exist in Sorani, although êjim seems to hearken back to it. There are nouns formed using -bêj, both in Kurmanji and Sorani: a « singer » is stran•bêj (stran= « to sing » and « song ») in Kurmanji and goranî•bêj (goranî= « song ») in Sorani. Furthermore, the reciter of such romances as Mem û Zîn and Xec û Siyabend is called deng•bêj (deng= « voice »). Hence, the standard present tense of gotin is dibêjim in Kurmanji, but dełêm in Sorani, although I have recently heard some Sorani-speaking Kurds in Europe using the form debêjim. In any case, we can point to the use of -bêj in goranî•bêj and the subjunctive bêjim in Sinneh (Sanandaj) and environs.

24In these brief examples, I hope I have given the reader a taste of what is involved in standardizing a language. Several factors must be taken into account: the linguistic data of a wide number of dialects, and sociolinguistic information, as well as a realistic expectation of what forms would be acceptable to their intended users. It thrills me to see how much of the work is already in progress as of this writing. The Sorani choice of debînim rather than ebînim, and the Kurmanji choice of dibêjim rather than dibêm, divêjim, etc. are sparkling examples of a process already under way.

25Trying to sidestep the issue of the multiformity of the Kurdish language would be a tactical error. I most emphatically encourage not going down that path. Rather than creating a hybrid language, or imposing one dialect, I recommend teaching both dialects, and focusing on standardizing both of them. This is merely acknowledging what is already happening.

26I have not forgotten the minority languages of Kurdistan: Zaza in parts of Kurdistan of Turkey; Gorani/Hawrami in parts of Iraqi and Iranian Kurdistan; Sureth and Turoyo – the Neo-Aramaic dialects of the Christians of Kurdistan; and Turkoman in the Kirkuk region. An egalitarian educational system would have to provide education in these minority languages on a local level as well.


1 I have drawn up a chart for the Library of Congress which shows the correspondences between the three orthographies: A similar chart appears in my dictionary, Michael L. Chyet (2003): Kurdish-English dictionary= Ferhenga Kurmancî-Inglîzî. New Haven, Yale University Press, p. xxxix-xl.

2 In doing research for this paper, it has become clear that there are [at least] two competing Yezidi alphabets! One of them, as well as a text in it, can be found in: Nāmah-i farhang-i Īrān / girdāvarandah Farīdūn Junaydī. (Tihrān :Intishārāt-i Bunyād-i Nīshābūr, 1365-1368 [1986-1989, v.1 1989]), v. 2, p. 225-228. A similar listing of the Yezidi alphabet can be found at these websites: « Alfabeto Yezidi » ( and « L’écriture Yezidi: L’alphabet » ( Please note that both of these lack diacritical marks, thereby failing to differentiate S from Ṣ and Š, and the like. The other Yezidi alphabet can be found in the following: 1) at the back of Musa Anter’s Kurdish-Turkish dictionary: Kürdçe-Türkçe sözlük (Istanbul, [Yeni Matbaa], 1967), 168 p.; 2) at this link:

3 Other words displaying regional variation are Kurmanji words for: mushroom, spider, bat (the animal), to name but a few.

4 Reşo Zîlan (1989): Svensk-Kurdiskt Lexikon (Nordkurdiska)= Ferhenga Swêdî-Kurdî (Kurmancî). Stockholm, Statens Institut för Läromedel, p. 128 [kvast]; Michael L. Chyet op. cit.

5 D.N. MacKenzie (1961-62): Kurdish Dialect Studies. London, Oxford University Press, v. 1, p. 97, §213.

6 Ismaïl Kamandâr Fattah (2000): Les dialectes kurdes méridionaux : étude linguistique et dialect[o]logique. Leuven, Peeters, p. 386.

7 Zaza vajenã (vaj-) is from the same root, which is cognate with Latin vox, vocis = « voice ».


Bibliothèque du Congrès, Washington

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