6 Facts About Kurdish: Illegality, Alphabet and Speakers

The Kurdish language is spoken by around 20-30 million people who live in or have descended from the Kurd people of Kurdistan. This area is within the borders of various modern countries, including Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.

There are technically three Kurdish languages (Kurmanji, Sorani, and Xwarîn), but on official documents they tend to just be referred to as Kurdish. It’s one of the official languages of Iraq along with Arabic.

The language has become symbolic of the Kurdish fight for independence and cultural freedom, as people who have suffered claim their autonomy again.

A Few Facts about Kurdish

1. The Kurdish languages are Indo-Iranian in origin

Their family tree is shown below, following only the branches that lead to modern Kurdish languages. Languages with crosses marked next to their name are now, sadly, extinct.

2. Different governments have been different levels of oppressive to the Kurds in their countries by regulating their language

  • In Iraq, Sorani Kurdish is an official language
  • In Syria, Kurdish publications are technically illegal (though this isn’t enforced due to the ongoing civil war)
  • In 2002, Turkey made Kurdish illegal for broadcasts and education.
    • As of 2006, private channels were allowed to air Kurdish tv, but never cartoons or educational programs, and only for 45 minutes a day or four hours a week.
    • In 2009, a state-run television channel began to broadcast 24/7 with the support of the Turkish government, and tv restrictions began to relax in general
    • In 2010, some areas of Turkey began religious writing and official document printing in Kurdish alongside Turkish, including marriage licenses and road signs. However, local government officials faced trials for allowing this.
    • Until 2013, names containing X, W, or Q (which exist in Kurdish but not Turkish) were not allowed.
    • Since 2012, Kurdish has been an elective at public schools after previously only being available in private schools.
  • In Iran, Kurdish is used in some local media and broadcasting, but is never used in schools.
  • In Kyrgyzstan, 96.21% of Kurds speak Kurdish as their first language, as do 88.7% of Kurdish Kazakhstanis.

3. There have historically been four different alphabets used for Kurdish

The Cyrillic script alphabet and the Armenian-based script are now defunct. Modern Kurdish is written in either Latin script called Bedirxan (or Hawar), or in a Perso-Arabic script called Central Kurdish.

  • Central Kurdish is mostly used in Iraq and Iran
  • Hawar is mostly used in Syria, Turkey, and Armenia. There is also a developed form called the Kurdish Latin alphabet which incorporates several sounds that exist in Central Kurdish but not in Hawar
  • Until 2013, several Kurdish letters did not exist in the Turkish alphabet and were therefore banned. Kurds were not allowed to have their names in their own native spelling until very recently.

The alphabets are as follows. There are a few variations elsewhere.

Hawar / Latin KurdishCentral KurdishSounds likeHawar / Latin KurdishCentral KurdishSounds like
A aاAssumptionŇ ň orNg ngنگRinger
B bBowlO oۆBold
C cJellyP pپPile
Ç çچChipQ qQatar
D dDogR rRoad
E eRedŘ řorRr rrڕGorilla
Ê êەLayS sSun
F fFrogŞ şShine
G gGoldT tتTop
H hHoldU uUnder
Ḧ ḧحGlottal h like sharp hatÛ ûووLoot
I iىBitÜ üۊTutor
Î îىBeeV vڤVery
J jژTreasureW wWill
K kکKinX xخLoch
L lلLondonẌ ẍعLike gh in Scottish Gaelic ghuth, or the γ in Greek gála 
Ł ł
orLl ll
ڵ‎PillY yیYet
M mMightZ zزZebra
N nNight

4. In general, the word order in Kurdish languages is SOV (subject object verb).

An English sentence like “the reader reads the article”, which is in SVO structure, would literally transliterate as “the reader the article reads”. Modifiers in Kurdish sentences always go after the nouns that they are modifying.

5. There are around 30 million native Kurdish speakers in the world today

As well as in the Kurdistan, Anatolia, Caucasus, and Khorasan regions, Kurdish is also spoken in the Kurdish diaspora. Several diasporic countries include:

  • Russia, where many Kurds moved to escape Turkish persecution in the 20th century
  • Germany, mostly made of of Kurdish immigrant workers from Turkey in the later 1960s and rapidly increased numbers since then.
  • France, mostly immigrant workers and then Turkish fleeing refugees from the 1970s onward, as well as recent Syrian Kurds
  • Sweden, the largest number of Kurdish political refugees
  • Finland, mostly both immigrants and refugees from Turkey and Iran
  • Netherlands, same as above
  • United Kingdom, mostly those seeking freedom in the 1980s
  • Canada, because of the Iran-Iraq War, the Gulf War, and the ongoing Syrian Civil War
  • United States of America, as above. Especially prominent in those fleeing Saddam Hussein’s rule in Iraq.
  • Australia, generally migrant workers or refugees in the 1960s-80s
  • New Zealand, as above
  • Japan, generally shepherding villagers from southeast Turkey. In general, refugees have been unsuccessful here.

6. Kurdish was completely illegal in Turkey until 1991

This followed the 1980 Turkish coup d’état. Kurdish was also discouraged or outright disallowed in several other areas of Kurdistan. Since 1970, there has been an autonomous Kurdish state in Iraq, self-ruled by the Kurdish Iraqi people in the area. This was reconfirmed and solidified again in 2005.

Final Thoughts

In a world with simultaneously increasing global unity and individual identity, the situation of Kurdish culture is of extreme interest. The Kurdish language is imperative to the Kurds who want their identity to be recognized as it should have always been – and learning about it promotes cultural awareness.

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