Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Hawleri Sorani Kurdish

I've been living in Kurdistan for about two months now and have really got into studying Kurdish. As I have explained in other posts, the Kurdish dialect (or language) that they speak in Iraq and southern Iran is called Sorani. The standard dialect of Sorani is based in the east of Kurdistan, around the towns of Soran, Sulaymaniyah (Slêmanî in Kurdish) and down to Kirkuk. In some ways this is the cultural and linguistic capital of the region. The speakers there sum for a much purer Kurdish without all the Arabic and Turkish loanwords and calques. This is also seen as some sort of standard of Sorani Kurdish and thus is the style that other Sorani speakers will imitate when trying to speak formally or correctly. This can be compared to RP in England. 

This is also the dialect that the written standard is based upon and so books especially academic books and this few which are written for learners of the language rely heavily on it. Therefore there is little accessible information for a non-native about the other dialects. 

Because I am living in Erbil, or Hewler in Kurdish, the variety of the language that I hear every day, Hewleri, is completely different from that written standard which I am studying at home. I intend to outline a few of the major differences between the Hewleri and 'standard' varieties of Kurdish, mainly in terms of pronunciation, as this is something which I haven't found anywhere in English. Since this information is based upon my random encounters with native speakers rather than proper research, full accuracy shouldn't be expected.

The first difference one might notice between Hewleri and standard Kurdish is that the former seems to employ more Arabic words than the latter - this is the result of a concious effort to remove Arabic words from the language, similar to what was carried out in Turkey and Iran at around the same time, but with seemingly greater success. I think the reason why this exiling of Arabic loans had less effect in the Erbil region is because of the slightly more cosmopolitan make up of the city. Unlike Sulaymaniyah, Erbil is not surrounded by mountains and has always been much more accessible to different groups. There are large groups of Arabs, Turcomen and Chaldean Christians, many of whom seem to favour Arabic over Kurdish, possibly because Kurdish is the language of the immediate oppressor.

The Hewleri pronunciation took me a long time to get used to and still gives me many problems when trying to recognise the words I have learnt written down being spoken by local native speakers. There seems to be a general softening or palatalisation of several consonants. I'll outline some of the changes below:

  • First of all the [ک], a simple 'K' sound normally and pronounced thus in every situation in standard Kurdish, is often pronounced more as a 'CH' or /tʃ/ sound before certain vowels. These vowels seem only to be the long 'î' and the long 'ê'. Thus [پیاوەکی تر] - 'another man' - which would be pronounced 'pyawekî tir' in standard Kurdish, with a hard 'k', is pronounced as 'pyawechî tir' in Hewleri. The other vowels don't cause the 'k' to change, but there seems to be a case of the 'w' sound being bypassed or simply dropped between a 'k' and a long 'ê' which then changes the pronunciation of the 'k'. Thus [لە کوێی] - 'where are you' - which in standard Kurdish would be 'le kwêyî' becomes 'le chwêyî'.

  • Similarly the [گ], which matches the hard 'G' in Latin script and which doesn't exist in Arabic, is also affected by the palatalisation. This hard 'G' becomes a soft /dʒ/ (like the English 'j') before the long 'î' and 'ê'. So the word [گیان] - meaning soul or life - is pronounced as 'giyan' in standard variety, but as 'jiyan' in Erbil, similar to its Persian counterpart. As with the 'k', the 'w' is also a special case and so the word [گەێ] - ear - is normally 'gwê' but becomes 'jê' in Hewleri, thus here the 'w' is just dropped entirely.

  • The letter [چ] which represents the sound 'ch' like in English, but in Hewleri seems to be pronounced with more of the tongue touching the palate. I'm not an expert in phonology, but I think the IPA equivalent would be /t͡ɕ/. Although it's difficult for me to explain in writing, thinking of the sound between 'ch' and 'ts' (as in 'cats') might give you some idea of it. This also seems to be a constant shift not dependent on vowels. So the words [کچ] -girl- and [چی] -what- are pronounced something like /kətɕ/ and /tɕi:/ respectively.

  • The letter [ج] which normally represents the English 'j', sometimes transcribed as 'c' as in Turkish, also undergoes a pronunciation change in Hewleri and become /dz/, similar to the 'ds' sound in 'gods'. This change is also constant and not affected by position. Thus the words [جار] -time- and [برنج] -rice- are pronounced as 'dzar' and 'birindz' rather than the standard 'jar' and 'birinj'.

  • There is also a dark 'L' in Kurdish, like in the English word 'dull' and written as [ڵ]. This is sometimes pronounced as an 'R', but I'm not sure how wide-spread this shift is and how consistent it is among those who do use it. A common example is the word [ماڵ] meaning 'house' in Kurdish and normally pronounced as 'mall'. However some Hewleri speakers will say 'mar'. This is a point of fun for standard speakers since 'mar' ([مار]) in standard Kurdish means 'snake'. Similarly the word [وەڵام] meaning 'answer', pronounced 'wellam' sometimes becomes 'weram'.

  • Finally a big difference which is probably more grammatical than phonological is the different ending for the 3rd person singular in present tense verbs. In standard Kurdish most verbs end in '-ê' or '-êt' (always the latter before verbal suffixes) depending on their root. So the word for 'he knows' is [دەزانێ] or [دەزانێت] - 'dezanê' or 'dezanêt' respectively (the latter being the more formal or written standard). However, in the Hewleri dialect this becomes '-î' as in [دەزانی] 'dezanî'. The slight problem is that this is also the form for the 2nd person singular, although since the endings for 2nd and 3rd person plural are already the same this isn't very surprising. If context doesn't make the meaning clear, there are always the personal pronouns which can be used to clarify it.

As you can see there are some obvious, although maybe only superficial, differences between Hewleri and standard variety Kurdish. There are obviously far more than I can go over here, but as a learner of the language these pronunciation shifts provide a few obstacles for connecting what you learn from written resources with what you hear in the street as well as causing problems when you have to decide how to pronounce the language yourself. Nevertheless these obstacles are not insurmountable and definitely add a certain charm and variety to the language.

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