If you have ever glanced through the list of the languages in Google Translate, you might have noticed that only one language is listed as having multiple variations: Kurdish!
This begs the question: how different Kurdish Sorani and Kurmanji and from one another, really? If they're so different, why do they have the same name? If they are both "Kurdish", why are they listed as being separate languages?
Here's a quick overview of the two languages/dialects, before we get started:
1. Where the dialects are spoken
The Kurdish language has many dialects, and its two main dialects are the Kurmanji (Northern) dialect and the Sorani (Central) dialect. Of all these dialects, Kurmanji is the most widely spoken. It is spoken in Turkey, Syria, Northern Iraq and Iran, while Sorani Kurdish is spoken in Iraqi Kurdistan and Western Iran.
This brings about a number of "soft" differences between the two languages, sheerly by virtue of the cultures that they neighbor and are thus influenced by. Certain words might be preferred over others, certain phrasings are preferred, and some topics may be approached differently. I say "soft" because these differences aren't necessarily hardwired into the language. They're just a matter of preference/custom
2. Their alphabet:
One immediately visible such differenc is that Sorani Kurdish uses an Arabic-based script, while Kurmanji Kurdish uses a Latin-based script. Consider the sentence below:
- English: The weather is nice today.
Sorani: ئەمڕۆ هەوا خۆشە.
Kurmanji: îro hewa xweş e.
At first glance, Kurmanji and Sorani look like entirely different languages. They are written in different scripts, after all. Furthermore, Arabic-based scripts are read from right to left while Latin-based scripts are read from left to right. This makes it difficult for your eyes to match and compare sentences from the two dialects, even if you can read the Arabic alphabet.
Having said that, while Kurmanji is mainly written via a Latin-based script, Kurmanji is actually a collection of dialects. One such dialect included under the Kurmanji "flag" is the Badini dialect from Northern Iraq, which is typically written with an Arabic-based script. In other words, it's possible to write Kurmanji in both the Latin- and Arabic-based scripts.
When we write Kurmanji with an Arabic-based script instead of a Latin-based one, suddenly Sorani and Kurmanji look much more similar. Here's that same example sentence from above—I've written both sentences out via an Arabic-based script and also included a romanized pronunciation guide beneath.
Suddenly, they look a lot more similar, don't they? They're not identical, no, but they're indeed very similar: much more like separate dialects than separate languages. The same parts are all in the same places, they just look a little different.
(Not all sentences will be quite this similar, but generally speaking, I think that Kurmanji and Sorani are much more alike than they appear at first glance.)
3. Number of speakers:
There is no consensus on the exact number of Kurdish speakers, but it’s generally accepted that there are between 30 and 40 million Kurdish speakers worldwide. Furthermore, around 80% of Kurdish speakers speak the Kurmanji dialect.
Although vast majority of Kurds speak Kurmanji Kurdish, it may not seem like it's the most established dialect/language if you are not from the region. There have been many bans placed on Kurmanji, and it's at the center of many sensitive political conflicts. This meanas that, if you go looking, you'll likely find many more books and media available in Sorani, even though Sorani speakers are actually a minority. This is largely due to the fact that (Sorani) Kurdish is recognized as an official language in Iraq.
By the way—you can study Sorani Kurdish completely for free on Glossika. (Here's why.)
The grammar of Kurmanji and Sorani are quite similar. They are ergative languages, their verbs work in similar ways, and their sentence structures are largely similar. Even so, someone comparing the two languages will immediately notice differences, even with very basic things aspects of the languages.
To be a bit more specific, while Sorani and Kurmanji have many of the same grammatical structures, the Kurmanji versions of these grammatical structures often include additional points of complexity, such as grammatical gender. As such, Sorani is probably easier to learn than Kurmanji.
The following two examples do a good job of showing what I mean. The structure is similar and exists in both languages, but the Sorani version is more streamlined than the Kurmanji version.
Ezāfe (a connecting particle)
Different languages display the grammatical relationships between words differently. Depending on the language you're speaking, these relations might be visible or invisible. Both Kurmanji and Sorani make vsisible something that we don't in English, which are known as ezāfe: a particle that links two words together.
In Sorani Kurdish, ezāfe are quite simple to use. There's only one of them, î, and it just gets placed between the two words in question. To give you a better idea of what I'm talking about:
In Kurmanji Kurdish, however, things aren't so simple. There are multiple ezāfe in Kurmanji. They have grammatical gender (masculine, feminine), can be definite (like the) or indefinite (like a), and can be singular or plural. I won't completely break them down here, but here's a quick image so you can appreciate the difference:
To loosely summarize what you see above:
- a is for singular definite feminine nouns
- ê is for singular definite masculine nouns
- e is for singular indefinite feminine nouns
- î is for singular indefinite masculine nouns
On a related note, nouns have an assigned grammatical gender in Kurmanji, but grammatical gender doesn't exist in Sorani.
Another very visible point of difference between the two languages becomes visible when we look at their pronouns:
- Kurmanji has both direct and oblique pronouns, while Sorani only has direct pronouns.
- Kurmanji has third person masculine and feminine pronouns, while Sorani uses the same pronoun for both genders.
The difference between direct and oblique pronouns is difficult to put into words because you don't use them in English, but there are certain triggers that require you to use an oblique pronoun instead of a direct one. In practical terms, and very roughly speaking: if a sentence starts with a pronoun, a direct pronoun is used; everywhere else, oblique pronouns are used.
Here's a comparison of pronouns in both languages:
Here's a couple examples (I've gone ahead and romanized the Sorani script for you):
As you can see in the above example, the first set of pronouns (the direct pronoun ew) is the same in both languages, but the second set of pronouns (the oblique ones) are different. Sorani does not have oblique pronouns, so it simply uses another direct pronoun. As for Kurmanji, however, things are different:
- Possession is a trigger for oblique pronouns, so we must say wî instead of ew.
- Wî is an oblique pronoun, so its position also changes from the beginning of the sentence to the middle of the sentence.
To get an idea of how different Kurmanji and Sorani vocabulary are, we roughly compared the most common 500 Kurmanji words to Sorani. Only 49 of those 500 words were different, and the majority of them came at the beginning of the list (meaning they were the most common words). For example, 16 out of those 49 words were pronouns!
When comparing Kurmanji words to Sorani words, you'll largely come across three different "types" of vocabulary.
Type 1: Words that are identical
Type 2: Words that are quite similar
Type 3: Words that are different
The majority of Kurmanji and Sorani words are of the first and second type—either the same or similar across both languages. Only a small number of words are actually different... but because the different words happen to be the ones that are most commonly used, it seems like they're everywhere.
If you plan on living in the region, it's important to learn synonyms. Many words have multiple synonyms, and chances are, one of those synonyms will be shared between Kurmanji and Sorani.
Here are a few examples:
Learning synonyms will help you learn both dialects faster and, more importantly, help you to communicate better.
Influences from other languages
Due to its proximity to regions that speak Arabic languages and also due to the influence of religion, Sorani Kurdish has many more loanwords than Kurmanji—particularly loanwords from Arabic languages. As such, if you already speak Arabic, you might find learning Sorani easier than learning Kurmanji.
So, are Kurmanji and Sorani Kurdish really that different?
For a complete beginner or someone who has never studied the other dialect, Sorani and Kurmanji might feel like a completely different language. You might think that it's impossible to communicate with speakers of the other dialect.
Having said that, as a native spaeker of Kurmanji, I can tell you that if you learn some of the most basic and common grammatical differences between the two dialects, and then focus on using shared vocabulary, your ability to understand the other dialect will skyrocket.