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Practice English Speaking&Listening with: The Kurdish Language

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Hello everyone. Welcome to the Langfocus channel and my name is Paul.

Today I'm going to talk about the Kurdish language.

Where is Kurdish spoken?

Well, that's an interesting question.

Kurdish is the language of the Kurdish people, an ethnic group who do not have their own independent country.

They mostly live in the Kurdistan region,

which consists of much of southeast Turkey, northeastern Syria, northern Iraq, northwestern Iran,

as well as some other isolated areas in the former Soviet Union.

Kurdish is the majority language spoken in those areas.

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.

It also includes a Kurdish diaspora living outside of the Kurdistan Region, most notably in Germany.

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.

Persian and Kurdish share many similarities but they're not mutually intelligible.

The history of the Kurdish language is the subject of much speculation.

For much of its history, the Kurdish language was not a written language.

Folk tales and poetry were passed down orally from generation to generation.

With few exceptions, the earliest written Kurdish texts come from the 15th century and later.

There was one known poem from the seventh century, written in the Gorani dialect.

But technically, the Gorani dialect is actually a separate language from Kurdish.

Okay, wait! This is getting confusing. Let me back up for a minute.

What is the Kurdish language? Is it one unified language that all Kurdish people can understand and speak?

No, not really.

It's a collection of related dialect spread out across a continuum, meaning that the language changes gradually over a geographic distance.

There are three main dialect groups of Kurdish: Kurmanji, Sorani and Pehlewani

The most widely spoken is Kurmanji with around 20 million native speakers.

It is the major dialect spoken in Turkey as well as in Syria and some parts of Iraq and parts of Iran.

The second most widely spoken is Sorani, with 6 or 7 million native speakers mainly in Iraq and Iran.

The third most widely spoken is Pehlewani, which is spoken by about 3 million people in some Kurdish areas in Iran and one district in Iraqi Kurdistan

These 3 dialects have a relatively low degree of mutual intelligibility.

So some people consider them to be distinct languages and not just dialects of one language.

The differences between these dialects have been compounded by the fact that the Kurds are spread out across several different countries

and have no central media or school system and haven't had much interaction with the other areas of Kurdistan.

And there has also been some influence from the official languages of the countries where they live.

Kurmanji is written in the Latin alphabet like Turkish, while Sorani is written in a Perso-Arabic script.

Pehlewani is written in either script.

On top of these main Kurdish dialects, or Kurdish languages depending on how you look at it,

there are also some other languages spoken by some Kurds

A few million Kurds speak either Zaza or Gorani, which form a separate sub branch of the northwestern Iranian languages.

They're still quite closely related to the Kurdish dialects and since they are spoken by Kurds,

some people consider them to be Kurdish dialects, for reasons related to cultural and ethnic identity.

Linguistic freedom.

A big part of the story of Kurdish is the desire for linguistic freedom.

In Turkey the Kurdish language was heavily suppressed for decades, it was illegal to print Kurdish language materials.

It was a prohibited language in government institutions and schools and, in public, it was prohibited to speak it.

Even though not everyone followed that rule in public, that was the rule.

These days, those policies have been relaxed but Kurds still want certain freedoms like the right to use the Kurdish language as the language of instruction in regional schools.

There was a similar situation in Syria and Iraq, where the language was made illegal and heavily suppressed.

From what I understand, Iran has not aggressively suppress the Kurdish language

but they have discouraged its use and promoted assimilation to the Persian language.

There is one country where Kurdish is an official language and that is Iraq.

And there is one area where Kurds have official autonomy and that's in Iraqi Kurdistan which is run by the kurdish regional government.

There, Kurdish is the language of instruction in schools and it's used in the media.

Since there are speakers of both Kurmanji and Sorani dialects in Iraqi Kurdistan, the government promotes both of them in schools and in the media.

There was now also another de facto autonomous Kurdish region and that is in Syrian Kurdistan.

It is known as Rojava.

Due to the Civil War, the Syrian government is no longer in control of the area and all restrictions on the Kurdish language are now irrelevant.

Schools have introduced a new Kurdish curriculum, taught in Kurdish.

The form of Kurdish used in Syrian Kurdistan is Kurmanji.

With Kurdish autonomy and Kurdish language schools now existing in both Iraq and in Syria,

the Kurdish language might become stronger and more standardized in the future.

So what exactly is Kurdish like?

Well, that depends on what variety of Kurdish you're talking about.

So let's take a look at both, Kurmanji and after that we'll look at Sorani.

Here are a few interesting features of Kurmanji.

Kurmanji nouns are all either masculine or feminine.

And there are four noun cases.

It is generally an SOV language, though certain sentences are SVO.

Kurmanji has something called ergativity.

Kurmanji has prepositions and postpositions and it also has something called circumpositions.

Let's have a look at the nouns and their cases first.

Kurmanji has four noun cases: nominative, oblique, construct and vocative.

The case endings are different, depending on the gender and number of the noun.

Here's an example with the word for "man"

Now here's an example using the word for "woman"

You may have noticed that the plural case endings are the same for both genders.

Because in Kurmanji, gender applies only to singular nouns, not the plural nouns.

Okay, let's look at some example sentences, including Kurmanji.

Here we'll see that Kurmanji is generally SOV.

This means "I see the men"

So if we translate this sentence directly, it's like: "I - man - see"

"Ez" equals "I" , "mirov" equals "man"

"an" is the oblique case marker and also the plural marker. And "dibînim" is "see"

So you can see that the sentence is SOV, with the object coming in the middle position.

This means "We are Kurdish" or "We are Kurds".

If we try to translate this sentence directly, it's like "We - Kurds - are"

"Em" equals "we", "kurd" equals "Kurd". In equals "are", that's the present tense copula.

Again we can see that this is SOV.

This sentence doesn't actually have an object but it has something called a compliment, which comes in the same position as the object.

Now, why does the noun in the first sentence have an ending on it marked in yellow but in the second sentence there isn't one?

That's because nominative case has no ending in either singular or plural in Kurmanji.

So we only know, it's plural from the context.

And here the context is that the subject is "we". So we know it's plural.

Kurmanji exhibit something called ergativity.

In ergative languages, the subject of a verb sometimes functions as though it's the object of the sentence.

In Kurmanji, this happens when the verb is in one of the past tenses.

The agent, that is the "doer" of the action, is in the oblique case like an object.

And the patient, that is the receiver of the action, is in the nominative case, like a subject.

The verb then takes an ending to agree with the patient.

We would translate this as "I saw him"

But it's more like "By me he was seen".

Literally word for word it's "me he saw"

But the verb ending confirms that he is actually the receiver of the action.

This means "He saw me" or "By him, I was seen"

Word by word it's : "him I saw"

But again, the verb ending confirms that "I" is the receiver of the action.

So here "im" is the ending for the first person singular and that matches the patient of the sentence.

And that's "I" in this case.

I find ergativity quite difficult to wrap my head around. It's not found in most Indo-European languages.

It's found in Kurdish, it's found in Pashto and it's found in some of the northern Indian languages.

Okay, if we want to make that last sentence negative, we simply add a negative prefix to the verb.

This means "he didn't see me". This is an example of how Kurmanji uses lots of different affixes.

Kurmanji has prepositions which come before nouns, phrases or pronouns and post positions which come after nouns, phrases or pronouns.

But it also has circumpositions which wrap around the noun or pronoun.

Or the entire noun phrase. For example:

this means "in front of"

This means "there's a tree in front of our house".

So if we try to read the sentence word by word, it's: "in front - house - our - of - tree - there is"

Now, I don't know if "of" is the part that I should have separated but the point there is that in "front of" is split into two pieces and surrounds the noun phrase.

Now, let's look at some of those Kurmanji sentences again and we'll compare them to some Sorani sentences.

Again here are the sentences for "I see the men",

in Kurmanji:

in Sorani:

Now one difference that you can see is that the preposition is different in the two different languages.

So, in Kurmanji, it's "Ez" that means "I" but, in Sorani, it's "min".

Why is it "min"?

Well, in Kurmanji "min" is the 1st person singular pronoun in the oblique case, like an object pronoun, while "Ez" is the nominative case.

But in Sorani, the pronouns have no cases. So there's just one word and that word is "min".

Another different word here is "piyawekan", which is the word for "man" in Sorani.

That's different from the Kurmanji word "mirovan"

I think this is just an alternate word for "man" in Sorani

I think in Sorani the word "mirov" means "man" more as "a human".

Now both words for men here have the ending "an" but it's actually different in both languages.

In Kurmanji, its' the oblique case plural marker but in Sorani, there are no cases.

So, in Sorani, it's just the general plural marker.

Now the sentences for "We are Kurds"

in Kurmanji

and in Sorani:

Now here again, we can see that the pronoun is different in the two languages.

It's the first person plural pronoun but, in Kurmanji, it's "em" and in Sorani, it'sma"

And, in both languages, we have the present tense copula "in".

The only difference here is the orthography. In Kurmanji, there's a space before the copula.

Now the sentences for "I saw him",

in Kurmanji:

and in Sorani:

These sentences look quite similar. The Sorani sentence has an extra "m" attached to the object of the sentence.

That "m" is actually an affix representing the subject "min".

In a Sorani past tense sentence, the subject is represented as an affix before the verb.

Here the subject is also stated overtly as "min".

But the sentence is possible without that first word. In Kurmanji, it's not like that.

Now the sentences for "he saw me",

in Kurmanji:

and in Sorani:

This example is similar to the last one.

We can see that the pronouns are different in Sorani because Sorani has no case distinction.

And we can see that, in Kurmanji, the verb has an ending that the Sorani verb doesn't have.

In the Kurmanji sentence, an object's suffix is attached to the end of the verb.

In Sorani, on the other hand, a subject affix is added before the verb.

And here are the sentences for "He didn't see me",

in Kurmanji:

in Sorani:

Now, this sentence is basically the same as the last one, except that it's negative.

And we can see that Kurmanji and Sorani use negation in the same way.

Here are the sentences for "There's a tree in front of our house",

in Kurmanji:

in Sorani:

In the Kurmanji sentence, we have a circumposition that wraps around the noun phrase.

But, in the Sorani sentence, there is a preposition that comes before the noun phrase.

And the preposition is totally different.

And the noun phrase itself is also somewhat different.

"mala" means "house" in Kurmanji, while "mall" means "house" in Sorani.

And "me" means "our" in Kurmanji while in Sorani it's "man".

The "ek" after "mall" is an indefinite article which doesn't exist in Kurmanji.

And the "e" is a connector which also isn't used in the Kurmanji sentence

So, as you can see, there are some significant differences between Kurmanji and Sorani.

So, which variety of Kurdish should you learn?

Well, if you're planning on spending some time in the Kurdistan Region, then it would make sense

to learn the variety of the place where you plan to spend the most time.

And, in the future, you can always learn to adapt and speak a different dialect by extension.

Is Kurdish a difficult language to learn?

Well, there are some things like ergativity that are probably challenging for people who have never encountered them before.

But, probably, some of the most challenging things will be the dialectal variation in the language.

And the lack of a single standard language as well as a general lack of learning materials.

On the other hand, from what I understand, if you have a previous knowledge of Persian, that will help you a great deal and learning Kurdish.

And Kurdish people are also all very welcoming and friendly and very enthusiastic about helping you to learn their language.

And that kind of support is always very encouraging.

Okay, the question of the day. For Kurdish speakers:

How easy is it for you to communicate with speakers of other varieties of Kurdish?

And do you consider them all dialects of a single language, or do you consider them distinct languages?

And for people who studied Kurdish:

What did you find challenging about the language?

And, in general, what was your experience with the language? We'd like to hear about it in the comments down below.

Definitely be sure to check out Langfocus on Twitter, on Facebook and on Instagram.

And again, I'd like to say thanks to all of my Patreon supporters for continuing to make Langfocus possible

Thank you for watching and have a nice day.

The Description of The Kurdish Language