The Kurdish Language

By: Gerson Falcao

Kurdish is the language of the Kurdish people, an ethnic group without an independent state. The Kurdish people predominantly live in 'Greater Kurdistan,' which in located within the territory of the currently independent states of Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey.

There are approximately 30 million native speakers of Kurdish that includes around 14.5 million in Turkey, 5.6 million in Iraq, 6 million in Iran and around 2 million in Syria. In addition, the Kurds have a large diaspora, which lives most notably in Germany and other parts of the European Union and North America.

The history of the Kurdish language is imprecise because it does not have a traditional writing system and much information has been passed down orally from generation to generation through folklore and poetry.

There are a few exceptions however, with the earliest written Kurdish texts from the 15th century and a popular poem from the seventh century, written in the Gorani dialect.

Like Persian, Kurdish is a member of the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European language family, but whereas Persian belongs to the southwestern sub branch, Kurdish belongs to the northwestern sub branch. With that said, Persian and Kurdish share many similarities, but are not mutually intelligible.

The two most widely spoken dialects of Kurdish are Kurmanji and Sorani. Other dialects spoken by smaller numbers are Hawrami (also known as Gorani) and Zaza. The Sorani Kurdish dialect uses Arabic script while the Kurmanji Kurdish dialect is written in Latin script.

As the Region’s Kurdish-language media has developed and the population has moved, today nearly all people in the Kurdistan region can speak or understand both of the major dialects. This article will focus in Kurmanji dialect.

Kurmanji: The Northern Dialect

Kurmanji is also known as Northern Kurdish or the northern dialect and is spoken predominantly in southeast Turkey, north Iran, Iraq, Syria, the Caucasus and Khorasan regions. It is the most spoken from of Kurdish and mother tongue to other ethnic minorities in Kurdistan, including Armenians, Chechens, Circassians and Bulgarians.

It is also the common and ceremonial dialect of Yazidis people. Their sacred book and all prayers are written and spoken in Kurmanji.

In 2002, the Armenian government ratified the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages and placed Kurdish Kurmanji and the Yezidi language under state protection. 

This resulted in the term Êzdîkî being used by some researchers when delving into the question of minority languages in Armenia, since most Kurdish-speakers in Armenia are from the Yazidi group. 

In 2014, Ergin Öpengin and Geoffrey Haig from the Kurdish Institute, published a study called Regional variation in Kurmanji, a preliminary classification of dialects. According to them, Kurmanji forms a dialect continuum of great variability and six subdialect areas can be identified :

  1. Kurmanji from the northwestern provinces of Turkey.

  2. Kurmanji from the southwestern provinces of Turkey and the Aleppo Governorate of Syria.

  3. Serhed Kurdish or Northern Kurmanji, spoken mainly in southeast Turkey and adjacent areas.

  4. Kurmanji from the southern of Syria, the Sinjar District in Iraq, and in several adjacent parts of Turkey centering on the Mardin and Batman provinces.

  5. Badînî or Southeastern Kurmanji, spoken also in southeastern Turkey and parts of Iraqi Kurdistan.

  6. Anatolian Kurmanji which is spoken in central Anatolia.

Although Kurdish is a unified language that all Kurdish people can understand and speak, it is still a collection of related dialects spread out across the Kurdistan regions with linguistic changes (dialect and subdialect) seen over a geographic distance.

In general, phonological features in Kurmanji include the distinction between aspirated and unaspirated voiceless stops and the presence of facultative phonemes. 

Political and Social Evolution of the Kurdish Language

In Turkey, the Kurdish language was heavily suppressed for decades and was forbidden to speak in public - primarily in government institutions and schools. It was also illegal to print Kurdish language materials and to promote it in any way.

Nowadays, those polices have been relaxed, with Kurds still pushing for certain freedoms - like the right to use the Kurdish language as the language of instruction in regional schools.

Similar situations and circumstances were seen in history in Syria and Iraq where the language was made illegal and its use discourages.

In Rojava, the autonomous region in northeastern Syria, Kurdish and Arabic have been learned in public schools since 2015.

The 2014 Constitution of North and East Syria guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of the press. A diverse media landscape has developed in the region, in each of the KurdishArabicSyriac-Aramaic and Turkish languages of the land, as well as in English.

For decades, the Kurds have lived in multi-cultural and multi-lingual societies and have pushed for the standardization of their language. The traditional Kurdish way of life was nomadic, revolving around sheep and goat herding throughout the Mesopotamian plains and the highlands of Turkey and Iran. As such, the standardization of the Kurdish language has been a challenge as distance and topography made this a difficult task.

In conclusion, the Kurdish language is not a single linguistic entity with the status of a national language. It is a continuum of closely related dialects that are spoken in a large geographic area spanning several independent states and in some of these states forming one, or several, regional sub-standards.


The European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (ECRML) is a European treaty adopted in 1992 under the auspices of the Council of Europe to protect and promote historical regional and minority languages in Europe.

Kurdistan Regional Government:

#Kurdistan #KurdistanTravel #IraqiKurdistan #Erbil #KurdishLanguage

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