Kurmanji Kurdish

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Kurmanji, also referred to as “Northern Kurdish” and “Northern Kurmanji”, is the most widely spoken Kurdish language, spoken primarily in Turkey, and in smaller numbers in Iran, Iraq, and Syria.

Estimates of number of Kurmanji speakers range from 8.1m to 20m based on data from Simons & Fennig 2017 (Ethnologue), Shaker (2015, citing Michael Chyet), and  Haig (2002). There is consensus, however, that it is the most widely spoken Kurdish language, spoken by more than 60% of the Kurdish population worldwide (Akin 2011, Shaker 2015).

Kurmanji is the dominant language in southeastern Turkey. According to Sheyholislami (2011), Kurmanji speakers also make up 20-25% of the total Kurdish population of Iraqi, Syrian, Armenia, Central Asia, and Iran. In addition to these areas, there is a Kurmanji speaking Kurdish population of more than half a million people in northeastern Iran and Turkmenistan,  to which they were exiled in the seventeenth century (Thackston, 2006).

Kurmanji grammar differs greatly from that of Sorani, the other major Kurdish language. Its major syntactic differences with Sorani include possessing a rich gender distinction system, overtly marking oblique case for nouns, full ergativity in the past tense, more detailed case distinctions in pronouns, and the absence of the definite article (Sorani /əkə/ and /əkan/).

Phonology

Vowels

Kurmanji Kurdish has 8 vowels (excluding the diphthongs), which correspond almost exactly to the 8 Sorani vowels.

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IPA Orthography Example
i î hîn (still)
ɪ i dil (heart)
e ê lêv (lip)
æ e belg (leaf)
o o nod (ninety)
ɑ a qaz (goose)
u û bûz (ice)
ʊ u qul (hole)

The phoneme /æ/ (written with the letter “e”), has the allophones /ə/ and /ɛ/. It is also closer to /ɛ/ in all environments for many speakers (Thackston, 2006).

Consonants

There are at most 31 consonants in Kurmanji. The main feature distinguishing the Kurmanji consonant inventory from Sorani (and in fact most other Iranian languages) is the presence of unaspirated stops as phonemically distinct consonants. The unaspirated stops are usually accompanied by a slight pharyngealization (Thackston, 2006), and are shown with the IPA symbols /pˤ/, /tˤ/, /kˤ/, and /t͡ʃˤ/. The unaspirated phonemes do not exist in all dialects of Kurmanji. In the Kurmanji spoken in Iran’s north eastern Khorasan region, for example, the distinction is disappearing as a result of Persian influence (Zirak, 2014). The distinction between aspirated and unaspirated voiceless stops is not reflected in writing, except in the Cyrillic orthography for Kurdish.

Like Sorani, the phonemic distinction between the trill /r/ and the flap /ɾ/ exists in Kurmanji. The dark L sound (/ɫ/), however, is absent in Kurmanji. The presence of the pharyngeal sounds /ʕ/ and /ħ/ depends on the dialect. They are usually found in loan words from Arabic. In areas where these sounds do not occur, the glottal stop /ʔ/ and plain /h/ are used instead respectively.

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  bilabial labiodental alveolar postalveolar palatal velar uvular pharyngeal glottal
plosive p (pˤ) b   t (tˤ) d     k (kˤ) g q    
nasal m   n            
trill     r            
tap/flap     ɾ            
affricate       t͡ʃ (t͡ʃˤ) d͡ʒ          
fricative   f v s z ʃ ʒ     χ (ʁ) (ħ) (ʕ) h
approximant w       j        
lateral approximant     l            

The voiced uvular fricative (/ʁ/) does not appear in all dialects and is mostly limited to loanwords. In some dialects a labio-velar voiceless fricative also exists (Gündoğu 2016, Opengin 2012). Voiced and voiceless uvular fricative sounds (/χ/ and /ʁ/) are both represented by the character “x” in standard Kurmanji orthography.

 

Orthography

Kurmanji is primarily spoken in Turkey, and as a result the most widely used writing system for Kurmanji is Latin-based, and shares many traits with Turkish orthography. This is in contrast to Sorani which is primarily spoken in Iran and Iraq, and is standardly written using an Arabic-based script. Cyrillic-based and Arabic-based writing systems for Kurmanji have been developed for Kurmanji as well, but they are not widely used. Many phonemic distinctions found in some Kurmanji dialects are not reflected in standard Kurmanji orthography. The most important among these sound pairs are /h/ vs. /ħ/, /ʔ/ vs. /ʕ/, /χ/ vs. /ʁ/, and the distinctions between aspirated and unaspirated voiceless consonants. The distinction between the trill and the flap is also ignored in many cases in orthography. When it is observed, the trill is indicated by “rr” instead of “r”.

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Letter IPA Example
a ɑ av ("water")
b b bawî ("father")
c d͡ʒ cîran ("neighbor")
ç t͡ʃ çak ("good")
d d dol ("valley")
e æ erzan ("cheap")
ê e êş ("pain")
f f fedî ("embarrassment")
g g gamêş ("ox")
h h havîn ("summer")
i ɪ insan ("human")
î i îro ("today")
j ʒ jar ("poor")
k k ker ("donkey")
l l ling ("foot")
m m maf ("share")
n n neh ("nine")
o o oda ("room")
p p perwaz ("flight")
q q qelem ("pen")
r ɾ îro ("today")
rr r roj ("day")
s s sêwi ("orphan")
ş ʃ şaş ("wrong")
t t taşt ("breakfast")
u ʊ tuf ("spit")
û u sûd ("profit")
v v vîrus ("virus")
w w wek ("like")
x χ xav ("raw")
y j yek ("one")
z z zer ("yellow")

 

Syntax

The most prominent characteristics of Kurmanji syntax are case marking for nouns and pronouns, gender distinction, the presence of the ezafe (which has allomorphs for gender and number), and full ergativity in the past tense (as opposed to Sorani’s so-called ergative constructions in the past tense which do not always behave like true ergatives).

Pronouns

Personal pronouns only have free forms. Unlike Sorani Kurdish and Persian, there are no enclitic pronouns in Kurmanji. Instead, Kurmanji has two different sets of personal pronouns for nominative and oblique cases.

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  Nominative Oblique
I ez min
you (sg.) tu te
he/she/it ew wî (masc.)
wê (fem.)
we em me
you (pl.) hun we
they ew wan

In the present tense the nominative pronouns appear as subjects and the oblique pronouns are used in PPs, possessive constructions (as possessor), and objects of propositions.

Ez xwendekar im. (I am a student.)

Ez wî mirovî dibînim. (I see that man.)

Qehwe ya min e. (It’s my coffee.)

Vê kitêbê bide min. (Give me this book.)

In the past tense, Kurmanji is ergative so the so-called nominative and oblique pronouns do not behave as their names suggest. The nominative pronouns behave as absolutive pronouns in the past, i.e. they are used for subjects of intransitive verbs and objects of transitive verbs. The so-called oblique pronouns play the role of pronouns with ergative case; i.e. they appear as subjects of transitive verbs.

Min çivîkek dît. (I saw a bird.)

 Ehmed ez dîtim. (Ehmed saw me.)

It is worth noting that as the pronouns table shows, third person personal pronouns exhibit syncretism, i.e. they are not distinguished based on gender and number in the nominative case (the third person nominative pronoun is “ew” across the board for all genders and numbers). In the oblique case, however, they have different realizations. Kurmanji nominal case markers follow the same pattern of syncretism as the pronouns.

Nouns

Nouns are usually marked overtly for case and grammatical gender. Each noun is either masculine or feminine, and in most cases the assignment of grammatical gender cannot be predicted based on existing patterns. There is no gender differentiation for plural nouns.

Nominative case is not associated with any particular endings, and nouns in the nominative case are not marked for gender and number either. All nominative nouns therefore look like their dictionary form (even when they are plural).

In the oblique case, however, feminine, masculine, and plural nouns behave differently. The feminine oblique ending is an unstressed ““, the plural oblique ending is a stressed “-an“, and masculine oblique ending is an unstressed “” which is applied only if the masculine noun is already modified, e.g. by the indefinite marker “-ek”. Different endings for the oblique case are shown in the examples below.

Ez jinê dibînim. (feminine oblique)
I see the woman.

Ez jinan dibînim. (plural oblique)
I see the women.

Ez mirovan dibînim.  (plural oblique)
I see the men.

Ez mirov dibînim. (masculine oblique: no ending)
I see the man.

Ez mirovekî dibînim. (masculine oblique with the indefinite marker “ek”)
I see a man.

 

Verbs

Present simple verbs are made using the present stem, preceded by the habitual aspect marking prefix “di” and followed by a personal ending. The verb “to write” is conjugated in the table below.

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English Kurmanji
I write. Ez dinivîsim.
You (sg.) write. Tu dinvîsî.
She/He/It writes. Ew dinvîse.
We write. Em dinvîsin.
You (pl.) write. Hun dinvîsin.
They write. Ew dinvîsin.

The general structure of the present simple verb is very similar to that of Sorani and Persian. The aspect marker prefix “di” corresponds to Sorani /də/ (/ə/ in Sulaymaniyah dialect) and Persian /mi/. Unlike Sorani and like Persian, Kurmanji does not allow any clitics to go between the aspect marker and the verb stem.

The personal suffixes agree with the agent in the present tense. In the past tense, however, Kurmanji’s ergative-absolutive arrangement not only changes the case markings for the free personal pronouns, but also changes the personal agreement suffixes attached to the verb. As a result, the verb agrees with the patient of a transitive verb rather than the agent in the past tense (compare the two tables below).

Kurmanji past simple intransitive conjugation

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English Kurmanji
I came. Ez hatim.
You (sg.) came. Tu hatî.
She/He/It came. Ew hat.
We came. Em hatin.
You (pl.) came. hun hatin.
They came. Ew hatin.

Kurmanji past simple transitive conjugation (different agents)

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English Kurmanji
I saw him. Min ew dît.
You (sg.) saw him. Te ew dît.
She saw him.
He saw him.
Wê ew dît.
Wî ew dît.
We saw him. Me ew dît.
You (pl.) saw him. We ew dît.
They saw him. Wan ew dît.

In the table above, the verb agrees with the patient and therefore does not change as the agent changes. Note also that the agent has the so-called oblique case here while the patient has the so-called nominative case. In the example below, a conjugation based on changing the patient is presented.

Kurmanji past simple transitive conjugation (different patients)

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English Kurmanji
He saw me. Wî ez dîtim.
He saw you (sg.). Wî tu dîtî.
He saw him/her. Wî ew dît.
He saw us. Wî em dîtin.
He saw you (pl.). Wî hun dîtin.
He saw them. Wî ew dîtin.

 

References

Akin, S. (2011). Language planning in diaspora: the case of Kurdish Kurmanji dialect. Journal of Estonian and finno-Ugric linguistics, 2(1), 10-29.

Gündoğdu, S. (2016). Remarks on Vowels and Consonants in Kurmanji. Anemon Muş Alparslan Üniversitesi Sosyal Bilimler Dergisi, 4(1), 57-69.

Haig, G., & Matras, Y. (2002). Kurdish linguistics: a brief overview. STUF-Language Typology and Universals, 55(1), 3-14.

Opengin, E. (2012). Dialectal variation in Kurmanji: isoglosses in phonology and morphosyntax. Handout for 2nd International Conference of Kurdish Studies, Lacito CNRS, Paris 3 – Bamberg University.

Shaker, N. (2015, June 25). After Being Banned for Almost a Century, Turkey’s Kurds Are Clamoring to Learn Their Own Language. Muftah. Retrieved 2 Oct 2017 from https://muftah.org/turkey-kurds-learning-kurdish-ban/#.Wee2Uza9iNi

Sheyholislami, J. (2011). Kurdish identity, discourse, and new media. Springer.

Simons, Gary F. and Charles D. Fennig (eds.).(2017). Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Twentieth edition. Dallas, Texas: SIL International. Online version: http://www.ethnologue.com. (visited 2 Oct 2017)

Thackston, W. M. (2006). Kurmanji Kurdish:-A Reference Grammar with Selected Readings. Renas Media.

Zirak, M., & Skaer, P. M. (2014). Contact-induced Phonological Mergers: Transfer or Approximation. GSTF Journal on Education (JEd), 1(1).