Kurdish is an Iranian language spoken in eastern Turkey, northern Syria, northern Iraq, and northwestern Iran, in a contiguous area known by the Kurds as Kurdistan. It is also found in pockets in the Caucasus, and even in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, as well as in central Anatolia and in Lebanon. The number of Kurds is difficult to estimate; the following numbers are sometimes quoted: 12 to 20 million Kurds in Turkey; 6.5 to 8 million Kurds in Iran; 4.5 to 5 million Kurds in Iraq; 1 to 2 million Kurds in Syria, but by now these numbers may be higher. However, the number of Kurds and the number of Kurdish speakers are not identical, particularly not in Turkey, where Kurdish is an endangered language.

The northern dialect of Kurdish, Kurmanji, is spoken by the Kurds of Turkey and Syria and the Caucasus, as well as in the villages in the hinterland of Urmia in northwestern Iran, and by half of the Kurds of Iraq, where it is known as Bahdînanî. The central dialect is known as Sorani and is spoken by half of Iraq's Kurds (in and around the towns of Sulaimania, Kirkuk, and Arbil), and by the majority of the Kurds of Iran (from Mahabad to Sanandaj [Sinneh]). The southern Kurdish dialects are spoken in the area of Kermanshah. Mention should also be made of the minority languages Zaza (Dimlî), spoken in Turkey, and Gorani (Hewramî), spoken along the Iraq-Iran border region.

Although contact with Semitic languages ( Aramaic) predates the Islamic campaigns of the 7th and 8th centuries C.E., Arabic has had a great deal of influence on Kurdish ever since those momentous events. Arabic, and to a lesser extent Persian, have been the languages of learning, culture, and science as well as religion, and until recently it has been fashionable to pepper one's Kurdish with Arabic (and Persian) words. Consequently, early Kurdish classics such as Ahmed-i Khani's Mem û Zîn are so full of Arabic and Persian vocabulary that they cannot be used as models for modern Kurdish usage. Personal names also manifest Arabic influence. Only since the last decade of the 20th century has it become common practice to name Kurdish children after figures in Kurdish history and folklore, whereas before that period many people had Islamic names. This reflects a rise in Kurdish national awareness. A common social phenomenon is the replacement of an original Arabic name with a new Kurdish name, so that someone originally named Ferhad is now known as Birûsk.


In the realm of phonetics, certain guttural and emphatic sounds are attributed to Arabic influence, such as the gutturals /ʿ/ and /ḧ/ in Kurdish. This is in fact an areal feature, also found in the Turkish of Diyarbakır, Van, etc., e.g. ʿarabaya bin! ‘get in the car!’, raḧatsızlanmak ‘to be uncomfortable’. It may well predate the advent of Arabic (i.e., it may be due to Aramaic influence). Several regional dialects are known for confusing /ʿ/ and /ḧ/, for instance the dialect of Yezidi speakers of Kurmanji, e.g. siḧ et = seʾat ‘hour’ (also in Turkish: saatler olsun = sıhhatler olsun, said to someone who has just had his hair cut, or has just emerged from the hammam); likewise in the Sorani dialects of Arbil (Iraq) and Serdeşt and Şino [Ushnu] (Iran), e.g. ʿAcî ḧalî = ḧacî ʿAlî.

There are instances of hypercorrection, in which gutturals are added to Arabic loanwords originally lacking them, e.g. /ḧ / in deḧbe < Arabic dābba ‘beast’; /ʿ/ in ʿerd < Arabic ʾarḍ ‘earth, ground, land’; and ʿemir < Arabic ʾamr ‘order, command’, in Kurdish a homonym with ʿemir ‘age’ < Arabic ʿumr. This phenomenon is not limited to words of Semitic origin, e.g. ʿegît ‘hero’ < Turkish yiğit; ʿewr ‘cloud’, cf. Persian abr. The /ʿ/ is unpredictable, having vanished in certain loanwords, such as zeyf ‘thin, weak’ < Arabic ḍaʿīf, şayîr ‘poet’ < Arabic šāʿir, but preserved in şîʿir/şêʿr ‘poetry’ < Arabic šiʿr.

Although Kurdish has the fricative /ġ/ (Arabic ġayn), spelled ẍ in Kurdish orthography (e.g. aẍa ‘agha, feudal lord’), in Arabic loanwords it is pronounced as unvoiced /x/ by many speakers, e.g. xelet ˜ ẍelet ‘mistake, error’ < Arabic ġalaṭ, also Sorani [heł]xełetandin ‘to deceive, cheat, dupe’; xeşîm ˜ ẍeşîm ‘naïve’ < Arabic ġašīm; xulam ˜ ẍulam ‘servant boy’ < Arabic ġulām; zext ‘pressure’ < Arabic ḍaġṭ.

The emphatics /ṣ/ and /ṭ/ are of limited occurrence. Neither xelet nor zext (see preceding paragraph) carried over the Arabic /ṭ/. In addition to appearing in words – largely names – that were borrowed from Arabic, e.g. Saliḧ, Ṯayyib, these sounds also occur in words of Iranian origin, e.g. şe (Kurmanji)/şeg (Sorani) ‘dog’, ṭa (Kurmanji) ‘thread’, ṭovik ‘seed’ (cf. Persian toxm + -ik).

The sounds /q/ and /x/ (see discussion of /ġ/ above) are common in Kurdish, even in native Iranian words, e.g. paqij ‘clean’ (cf. Persian pāk), qenc ‘good’, xwe ‘oneself’ (cf. Persian xvīš and xvud), xwar[d]in ‘to eat’ (cf. Persian xvurdan).

Arabic /ḍ/, /ḏ̣/, and /ḏ/ all generally become z in Kurdish, e.g.

/ḍ/: ʿerz ‘honor’ < Arabic ʿirḍ; razî ‘willing, content’ < Arabic rāḍī; Remezan ‘Ramadan’ < Arabic Ramaḍān; zext ‘pressure’ < Arabic ḍaġṭ; zirar/zerer ‘damage’ < Arabic ḍarar

/ḏ̣/: Mezher ‘Mazhar [man's name]’ < Arabic maḏ̣har; weʾz ‘sermon’ < Arabic waʿḏ̣; wezîfe ‘duty’ < Arabic waḏ̣īfa; zerf ‘envelope; adverb’ < Arabic ḏ̣arf

/ḏ/: zikir ‘recitation of the names of God’ < Arabic ḏikr; zilfeqar ‘trusty sword’ < Arabic ḏū l-fiqār ‘name of Ali's sword’; zur̄et ‘offspring’ < Arabic ḏurriyya

Some of the above examples may have been borrowed through the intermediary of Turkish. There are also a few examples of all three being realized as d, which may indicate direct borrowing from spoken Arabic: dêrandin ‘to winnow’ < Arabic ḏarā; derb ˜ zerb ‘blow, stroke’ < Arabic ḍarb; ʿerd ‘earth, ground, land’ < Arabic ʾarḍ; xeyidîn ‘to be angry’ < Arabic ġayḏ̣

In an article on Kurdish proverbs, MacKenzie (1970:110) mentions a phenomenon peculiar to Sorani, the pronunciation of Arabic /ḏ̣/ as velar ł, as an affectation of mullahs “who have been known to inject a fine emphatic Arabic [ẓ] into such plain Kurdish words as minał ‘child’, bełam ‘but’, ełê ‘says’, etc.”. He quotes a proverb containing the form wełîfet, i.e. wezîfe[t] ‘duty’.

Arabic /ṯ/ generally corresponds to s, e.g. beḧs in beḧskirin ‘to discuss, talk about’ < Arabic baḥṯ ‘studying’; espab ‘armor, equipment’ < Arabic ʾaṯwāb, pl. of ṯawb ‘garment’; îsbat in îsbat kirin ‘to prove’ < Arabic ʾiṯbāt ‘proving’; mesel ‘fable, tale’ < Arabic maṯal ‘parable; proverb’. As with /ḍ/, /ḏ̣/, and /ḏ/, this ṯ > s correspondence may also be through the intermediary of Turkish, whereas there are some examples of ṯ > t possibly from spoken Arabic, e.g. meteł (Sorani) ‘riddle’ < Arabic maṯal ‘proverb’; mîratgîr ‘heir’ < Arabic mīrāṯ ‘inheritance’ + Kurdish -gîr ‘taker’.

The tāʾ marbūṭa (-a) is realized in some cases as -e and in others as -et/-at, as in → Persian and → Turkish. Examples of the former include: feyde ‘benefit’ < Arabic fāʾida, ḧîle ‘ruse, trick’ < Arabic ḥīla, miẍ are ‘cave’ < Arabic maġāra. Examples of the latter include: ḧekyat (Kurmanji) ‘folktale’ < Arabic ḥikāya ‘story’; ḧikûmet ‘government’ < Arabic ḥukūma; seʾat ‘hour’ < Arabic sāʿa; siyaset ‘politics’ < Arabic siyāsa; welat (Kurmanji)/wiłat (Sorani) ‘country’ < Arabic wilāya ‘province’; xîvet (Kurmanji)/xêwet (Sorani) ‘tent’ < Arabic xayma. Rarely, both -e and -et occur as variants of the same word, such as wezîfe ˜ wełîfet (affected Sorani form), or tobe[t] ‘repentance’ < Arabic tawba.

An original Arabic long ā is often realized in Kurdish as ê, e.g. ḧ isêb ‘account’ < Arabic ḥisāb; kitêb ‘book’ < Arabic kitāb; liḧ êf ‘quilt’ < Arabic liḥāf; şêwirîn ‘to consult, deliberate’ < Arabic šāwara; xizêm ‘nose ring’ < Arabic xizām.

An original Arabic -m- often becomes Kurdish -v-/-w-, e.g. civat ˜ cemaʾet (Kurmanji) ‘group’ < Arabic jamāʿa; ḧ eravî (Kurmanji) ‘thief’ < Arabic ḥarāmī; silav ˜ silam (Kurmanji) ‘greeting’ < Arabic salām[a]; siław (Sorani) ‘greeting’ < Arabic salām[a]; tewaw (Sorani) ‘complete, finished’ < Arabic tamām. The same correspondence can be seen in native Iranian words, e.g. hev (Kurmanji)/haw (Sorani) = ham (Persian) ‘each other’; nav (Kurmanji)/naw (Sorani) = nām (Persian) ‘name’.


In the semantic realm, categories of borrowing from Arabic include:

i. Change in form, without change in meaning

cemaʾet (Kurmanji) ‘group, assembly’ < Arabic jamāca ‘group, community’; harsim (Kurmanji) ‘unripe grapes’ < Arabic ḥiṣrim; helbet (Kurmanji) < Arabic al-batta ‘absolutely’; ḧekyat (Kurmanji) ‘folktale’ < Arabic ḥikāya ‘story’; kitêb < Arabic kitāb ‘book’; meşiyan (Kurmanji) < Arabic mašā ‘to walk’; mizgeft (Kurmanji)/mizgewt (Sorani) < Arabic masjid ‘mosque’; teqawît (Sorani) < Arabic taqāʿud ‘retirement’; wext < Arabic waqt ‘time’

ii. Compound verbs

These consist of an Arabic noun and a Kurdish auxiliary verb, kirin (Kurmanji)/kirdin (Sorani) ‘to do’. This is not limited to foreign borrowings (e.g. nas kirin ‘to know a person’, where nas is Kurdish). Examples with Arabic nouns include: beyan kirin ‘to declare’ < Arabic bayān ‘statement’; fêm/fehm/feʾm kirin ‘to understand’ < Arabic fahm ‘understanding’; texmîn kirin ‘to suppose, presume’ < Arabic taxmīn ‘estimation, assessment’; xilas kirin ‘to finish; to rescue, save’ < Arabic xalāṣ ‘rescue, salvation’ and colloquial Arabic xallaṣ ‘to finish’. The last example shows that both Classical Arabic and spoken Arabic dialects (Syrian and Iraqi in particular) are sources of borrowing.

iii. Kurdish singular meaning from original Arabic plural

cîran ˜ cînar (Kurmanji) ‘neighbor [sg. or pl.]’ < Arabic jīrān [pl.]; cemawer (Sorani) ‘crowd; group of people’ < Arabic jamāhīr [pl.] ‘multitudes, crowds’; zilam (Kurmanji)/zelam (Sorani) ‘man, fellow’ < Syrian Arabic zilām [pl.] ‘men’ (sg. zalameh). This phenomenon also occurs in Turkish, e.g. talebe ‘student’ < Arabic ṭalaba pl. of ṭālib ‘student’; tüccar ‘merchant’ < Arabic tujjār pl. of tājir ‘merchant’; ukelâ ‘smart aleck’ < Arabic ʿuqalā’ pl. of ʿāqil ‘wise man’.

iv. Change in meaning (Kurdish innovation)

berdêlî (Kurmanji) ‘practice of marrying a brother and a sister of one family to the sister and brother of another family’ < Arabic badīl ‘substitute, replacement, stand-in’; cahil/ciḧêl (Kurmanji) ‘young’ < Arabic jāhil ‘ignorant’; cehş (Kurmanji)/caş (Sorani) ‘donkey foal; collaborator, Kurd who cooperates with the government against his own people’ < Arabic jaḥš ‘donkey foal’; celeb (Kurmanji)/cełeb (Sorani) ‘flock of sheep being led to market’ < Arabic jalaba ‘to bring, fetch, import’; civat (Kurmanji) ‘society; evening social gathering of men’ < Arabic jamāʿa ‘group, community’; deʾwat (Kurmanji) ‘wedding celebration’ < Arabic daʿwā ‘invitation’; feqî (Kurmanji) ‘religious student’ < Arabic faqīh ‘jurisprudent’; feqîr ‘nice, harmless’ < Arabic faqīr ‘poor, indigent’; herikîn (Kurmanji) ‘to flow’ < Arabic ḥaraka ‘movement’; hêrs ‘anger, fury, rage’ < Arabic ḥirṣ ‘greed’; ḧez in: jê ḧez kirin (Kurmanji) ‘to love’ < Arabic ḥaḏ̣ḏ̣ ‘luck, fortune’; îsim (Kurmanji) ‘spell, incantation, charm’ < Arabic ism ‘name’; kulfet (Kurmanji) ‘woman’ < Arabic kulfa ‘lady's maid; standing on ceremony; etc.’; mamik (Kurmanji) ‘riddle’ < Arabic muʿammā ‘literary riddle’; meteł (Sorani) ‘riddle’ < Arabic maṯal ‘proverb’; micewir (Sorani) ‘mosque steward’ < Arabic mujāwir ‘neighboring, adjacent; student at al-Azhar University in Cairo’; mitirp ˜ mirtiv (Kurmanji) ‘Gypsy musician’ < Arabic muṭrib ‘singer, entertainer’; qelp (Kurmanji) ‘counterfeit, fake, false’ < Arabic qalb ‘reversal, inversion, overthrow’ [note that the Kurdish word is an adjective, while the Arabic original is a noun]; qutabî (Sorani) ‘pupil, student’ < Arabic kuttāb ‘Qurʾān school’ + -î; sekinîn (Kurmanji) ‘to stop, stand’ < Arabic sakana ‘to calm down, rest’; sib[eh]ê ˜ subaḧî (Kurmanji)/sib[ḧ]eynê (Sorani) ‘tomorrow’ < Arabic ṣubḥ ‘morning’; şer̄ ‘war’ < Arabic šarr ‘evil, wickedness’; şteẍilîn (Kurmanji, dialectal) ‘to speak’ < Arabic ištaġala ‘to work’; taqî kirdinewe (Sorani) ‘to test, try out’ < Arabic taḥqīq ‘realization, assertion, verification’; weḧş (Kurmanji) [noun] ‘pig’ < Arabic waḥš [adj.] ‘wild, untamed’; xirab (Kurmanji)/xirap (Sorani) [adj.] ‘bad’ < Arabic xarāb [noun] ‘ruins’

iv. Calques from Arabic

pê rabûn (Kurmanji) ‘to undertake, carry out’ < Arabic qāma bi- lit. ‘to stand up + in [preposition]’; [kobûnewe] bestin (Sorani) ‘to hold [a meeting]’ < Arabic ʿaqada [ijtimāʿan] (bestin = ʿaqada ‘to tie’)

v. In the realm of word formation, one remarkable phenomenon is the existence of predictable patterns in Kurmanji, based on Semitic triliteral roots.

Regional influences

In the section on Kurdish language in the Encyclopaedia of Islam, MacKenzie (1954:497b) states that “Northern Kurdish appears to have been somewhat more open to the penetration of Arabic and especially Turkish loanwords”. Arabic words may be found in Kurmanji (= Northern Kurdish) dialects as far afield as Armenia and Azerbaijan, and the same can be said for the neighboring Azerbaijani and Persian languages. Whereas Anatolian Turkish influence is prevalent throughout the Kurmanji subdialects, both in Turkey and beyond, the influence of other neighboring languages can also be discerned in particular regions. In the Northeast (the Serhedan or ‘[Ottoman and Persian] Border’ dialects, spoken in Kars, Ağrı, the Republic of Armenia, and in the hinterland of Urmia in Northwest Iran), Azerbaijani influence can be seen in such words as begem kirin <beyen- ‘to like’, qatix <gatig ‘yoghurt’, kʾok < kök ‘fat’. In the Northwest (Dêrsim/Tunceli, Bingöl, Elâzığ), the Armenian influence is most strongly felt, e.g. [h]avlik < avel ‘broom’, hêlî < hayeli ‘mirror’, as well as the numbers 11–19 deh-û-yek, deh-û-dido, etc., patterned after Armenian dasn-u-meg, dasn-u-ergu, etc. Semitic influence is strongest to the south of this area: Aramaic influence is particularly noticeable in the Bahdinan region of Iraqi Kurdistan, both in vocabulary (mişext ‘exiled, away from home’, xepirîn ‘to dig’) and in the external marking of grammatical gender (yê masc., ya fem., [yê]t pl.) on adjectives and participles (Turkish yê baş î ‘you are well [masc.]/ya baş î ‘you are well [fem.]’). It should be noted that Kurdish influence on the Neo-Aramaic dialects is also quite strong. Arabic influence – in evidence throughout Kurdistan – is most strongly felt in Mardin province of Turkey and the Syrian dialects (the area known as Binxet ‘beneath the line [drawn to separate Syria from Turkey]’), e.g. ʿecibandin ‘to be pleasing, to like’ < Arabic ʿajaba; ştexilîn ‘to speak’ < Arabic ištaġala ‘to work’; neciḧîn ‘to succeed’ < Arabic najaḥa. Arabic influence can also be seen in proverbs from this region, e.g. meymûn çʾeʾvê dya xweda – xezale (Dzhalil and Dzhalil 1972:219, no. 1154) ‘a monkey is a gazelle in its mother's eyes’, a well-known Arabic proverb (il-qird bi-ʿayn immo ġazal). Another example is destê te nikanî geskira tê maçʾkî (Dzhalil and Dzhalil 1972:95, no.329) ‘you will kiss the hand you cannot bite’ (Arabic: īd il mā fīk tiʿaḍḍā būsā, widʿī ʿaleyā bilkasr ‘kiss the hand you cannot bite, and pray for it to break’). By contrast, a version of this Kurdish proverb from the Mahabad region of Iranian Kurdistan resembles more closely the Turkish version, which is kesemediğin eli öp ‘kiss the hand you cannot cut off’, with ‘biting’ replacing ‘cutting off’.

Because the Sorani dialect (Central Kurdish), particularly the Sulaimania subdialect, boasts a literary tradition, Arabic influence on it is often minimized. However, many Sorani speakers use Arabic loanwords in their speech, particularly in Kirkuk and Arbil. There are also Sorani words of Arabic origin which have been changed beyond recognition, such as cemawer ‘crowd, group of people’ < Arabic jamāhīr [pl.] ‘multitudes, crowds’; qutabî ‘pupil, student’ < Arabic kuttāb ‘Qurʾān school’ + -î; teqawît < Arabic taqāʿud ‘retirement’; taqî kirdinewe ‘to test, try out’ < Arabic taḥqīq ‘realization, assertion, verification’.

Kurdish influence on Arabic

With the exception of Arabic dialects spoken in the provinces of Mardin, Batman, Siirt, and Urfa in Kurdistan of Turkey (→ Anatolian Arabic; Vocke and Waldner 1982:xlv–li), where Kurdish is the dominant language, there are very few Kurdish borrowings into Arabic.

What few loanwords exist include: jabas (Arabic dialect of Aleppo, Syria) < Kurmanji zebeş ˜ şebeş ˜ cebeş ‘watermelon’; sarqīn < Kurmanji sergîn ‘dunghill’ < sergo ‘dung’ < ser ‘head; on’ + gû ‘feces’; and possibly kawm ‘heap’ < Kurmanji kom/Sorani ko ˜ kom.

There is a proverb shared by Arabic, Kurdish, and Aramaic: ‘He who knows, knows, and he who doesn't know says, ‘It's a handful of lentils’. It is unknown in Turkish and Persian. The Kurdish form exhibits rhyme: yê zane zane, yê nizane – baqê nîskane. The Arabic lacks rhyme (il yidrī yidrī, il mā yidrī yiqūl kaff [or gaḍbit] ʿadas), which suggests Kurdish origin. This proverb, implying that there is more to the incident at hand than meets the eye, is roughly the equivalent of English ‘if you only knew the half of it’.

Michael Chyet (Library of Congress)

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