Ji: Kovara Kanîzar, hejmar 6



Emîr Hesenpûr

Lexical Modernization

Modernization has embraced all aspects of vocabulary, although it can be traced more conveniently in the specialized lexicons or, to use a more appropriate term, registers that have evolved especially since the 1920s. A “register” is a variety of language defined according to its use in special social situations. In Hallidayan linguistics, it is a variety characterized “according to use.’ It is distinguished from regional or social dialects, which are varieties defined according to the characteristics of the user. According to Halliday (1976:5-6), the existence of social dialects reflects the hierarchical form of the social structure. The existence of registers reflects the variety of human roles and actions and, in particular, the social division of labor.

A. Early Registers

Throughout the centuries, specialization in knowledge and experience evolved throughout the centuries in the agrarian society of Kurdistan and was transmitted from generation to generation through the use of terminologies appropriate to each area of expertise. These terms were created and/or borrowed by illiterate farmers and artisans who taught their apprentices informally and on the spot.

The primitive registers often pejoratively called “jargons,” are small in size and extensively overlap with non-specialized vocabulary. For example, the water mill has provided a register of at least 96 terms arid no less than 13 proverbs and proverbial phrases (figures calculated from terms collected by Fattahi Qazi 1972; 1972a). Baking bread, traditionally a female household activity, has furnished about 95 terms and 21 proverbial phrases and idiomatic expressions mostly based on the word nan ‘bread’ (cf. collected terms in Fattahi Qazi 1973). The primitive loom, still popular in Kurdistan, provides 86 terms and twelve idiomatic expressions (cf. terms collected by Fattahi Qazi 1983). The only dictionary of agriculture (Qaradaghi 1972) which includes also the registers of non-agricultural crafts lists some 7,000 items selected from (lie compiler’s unpublished general dictionary of 30,000 words. Thus, agricultural terms make up about 23% of the general vocabulary of Kurdish.

In the intellectual field, religion and literature each developed registers that draw heavily on Arabic and Persian. Islam’s prohibition on the translation of the Koran and the obligatory use of Arabic in prayer and other religious rites have likely contributed to the limited size of the religious lexicon. The more abstract and specialized terms in theology and jurisprudence are, thus, Arabic loanwords and limited in usage to the clergy. In the more practical domains most of the terms are of native coinage, e.g., nwêj (kirdin) ‘(conduct) ritual prayer’, niwêjjî beyan, nîwro, êware, shêwa, xewtinan ‘morning, noon, afternoon, evening, night prayer’, de nwêjî ‘minor ritual ablution’, bredeniwêj ‘slab reserved as place of niwêj’, rojû girtin ‘to fast’, bang ‘call to niwêj’ and many more. In the realm of literature, poetry has furnished a more extensive stock of native and borrowed words.


B. New Registers

Against this background, new registers of administration and law, elementary science, the humanities and social sciences developed after 1918, primarily as a result of officialization of the language, i.e., its use in education, mass media and administration. Unlike the Western industrial societies, these registers were not a product of a new, social and geographical division of labor within Kurdish society, although processes of social and economic development became a contributing factor later.

Borrowing from Arabic, Persian and Turkish was at the beginning the main source for providing new terms. Gradually, however, the borrowed terms were purified and new terms were coined, as is illustrated by the following examples from two selected fields.

Administration. The administrative use of the language (cf. 7.6.0) has furnished both a register and style of official correspondence and advertising. The following are examples of the old loan-terms (Arabic words in Kurdish pronunciation) and their new equivalents (some of the coinages include loan elements, e.g., serbaz and quttib):


‘(to) administer’
‘(to) found, institute’
‘chief, head’
‘petition, complaint’
‘house, office’

The terms are mostly lexicalized and used in the press, official correspondence and broadcasting.

Science. The early scientific terms of school texts are dealt with in Besides secondary school textbooks translated in the 1970s and early 1980s, the Kurdish Academy’s terminologies (cf. 7.6.1) provide hundreds of coinages that have yet to find application, e.g.:

rarrewî gerrokayetî
Azmûnî Têkxistinewey Mînesota
temperamental types
Minnesota Mechanical Assembly Test

One outlet for terminological creation and usage in the 1980s is the popular scientific articles written and or translated in the Iraqi journals Roshinbîrî No and Karwan (cf. 7.6.1). The following terms, for example, were coined by the writer of an article on “The Glacial Age Man” (Roshinbîrî No, No. 111, 1986:43-63):

Caxî Bestellek
Serdemî Baranî Mezin
Mirovî ballarrêk
Glacial Stage
Great Interglacial Age
Homo erectus

The writer of an article entitled “Laser and Maser” (Karwan, No. 44, 1986, 68-74) has coined the following terms:

gewrandinî tav
infrared radiation
light amplification

These popular science articles number around twenty per year. Although dictionaries of scientific terms have appeared (cf. 8.4.5), the absence of college level education and textbooks is a prohibitive factor.


  1. The Problem of Lexicalization

Which terms get general acceptance and become part of the vocabulary?
Lexicalized terms happen to belong to registers that have been frequently used; they include neologisms in domains such as politics, literary criticism, grammar and administration. Many of these terms are already part of the active vocabulary of those who are literates, especially in their writing.

Grammatical terms provide an example of the lexicalization process. Reviewing three grammatical studies published in Kurmanji and Sorani in 1956, Bois (1960) demonstrated enormous chaos in terminology. Two decades later, we find a striking degree of unification of new terms, coined mostly on the basis of English terminologies rather than traditional loans from Arabic. The following examples are popular coinages:

‘grammar’ (rê- ‘road’ + ziman ‘language’)
‘noun’ (native word for ‘name’)
‘adjective’ (awell ‘companion’ + naw ‘noun’)
‘verb’ (native word for ‘actin, deed’)
‘verb” (awell + kirdar)
‘vocal cords’

Political science terms have also been lexicalized due to their frequent use in the press and broadcasting, e.g.:

xebatî cînayetî
rêbazî siyasî
‘to organize’
‘class struggle’
‘political line’
‘international ‘

Obviously, usage is largely determined by extralinguistic factors. Kurdish, like other “modernizing” languages, is capable of developing large stocks of terms while continuing to have lexicalization problems. Some of the more advanced South Asian languages provide a similar experience. Malay, for example, created some 71,000 terms in ten years, while about 350,000 technical terms were collected for Hindi. Similar stocks were also provided for Tamil, Telugu and other languages. Social and political obstacles do, however, prevent their effective use (Maloney 1978:12-14). Non-linguistic limitations on the use of terms in Kurdish are examined in 7.6.1.


Lexical Purification


To many Kurds, the most visible feature of the standard norm is its purified vocabulary in both prose and poetry which, compared with the 46.4% loan load of the 1920s-1930s, carried only 4.4% in the 1960s (cf. Table 57).

The Foreign Element. Kurdish has been in contact with several languages and has been enriched by borrowings throughout the centuries. There has been intensive interaction with Arabic, Persian, and Turkish as the official languages of states ruling over Kurdistan, as neighbouring languages and, in the case of Arabic, as the language of a common religion. Armenian and Assyrian, both neighbouring languages, have also affected the Kurdish language, especially the Kurmanji dialect (cf. Map 1).

In the absence of etymological studies, it is not possible to calculate the ratio of native elements to loanwords that are in general use or fully nativized. A rough idea may be gained, however, from borrowings marked in Wahby and Edmond’s (1966) dictionary (calculations are of author):

Native Words
945 (13.8%)
716 (10.4%)
100 ( 1.4%)
73 ( 1.0%)
56 (0.8%)
6,841 (100.0%)

It must be noted that the total number of native words in the dictionary is about 30,000, most of which are compounds and derivatives listed under the main entry (cf. Fig. 42). Thus, the figure 6,841 represents the main entries excluding affixes. The European loans came, mostly indirectly through Arabic and Persian, from English, French and Russian. A survey of 100 European loans revealed only two abstract words (milwên ‘million’ and nimre ‘number’), the rest belonged to administration and objects (e.g., efser ‘officer’, polîs ‘police’, caket ‘jacket’, bomba ‘bomb’, mikrob ‘microbe, germ’, istikan ‘tea glass’, lampa ‘lamp’), or miscellaneous items such as domîne ‘dominoes’, cek ‘check’, bilêt ‘ticket’, etc.

The influx of loans from Arabic and Persian into Sorani has been unprecedented in the post-1918 period. This is due in part to the extension of state power over all parts of Kurdistan, which has led to (a) the provision of more schooling in Arabic and Persian, (b) the intensive use of the mass media in the two dominant languages, and (c) the disadvantaged position of the language.


The Kurdî Petî (Pure Kurdish) Movement

Purism is known to be one linguistic expression of nationalism. The divided nation and nationalism of the Kurds provides insight on the dynamism of linguistic change resulting from purism.

Purification can be traced back to the 17th century works of Ahmadi Khani and Ali Taramakhi (cf. 4.2.2 and In his grammar of the Arabic language, Taramakhi, for example, used naw ‘name’ and gaz kirin ‘to call’ for Arabic grammatical terms ism ‘noun’ and nida ‘interjection’ (Alani 1984:57). Early journalism, too, demonstrates concern with Kurdization of borrowed letters and words. It is, however, after World War I that purification appears most strongly as a manifestation of nationalism.

The efforts of the purists of the 1920s was based on the assumption that the language had an unrecorded rich vocabulary and could be self-sufficient in meeting new needs if all the lexical resources were utilized. A reader opposed to orthographic reform wrote to Dîyari Kurdistan (No. 16, 1926, p. 10) that Kurds had forgotten most of their native terms due to the frequent use of Arabic and Persian. “It is necessary,” he wrote, “to search for these unused Kurdish words and to keep our words and writing apart from those of the others so that we do not need anyone else’s terms.” A language reformer, Shaways, wrote in a special feature, “New Writing and Pure Kurdish,” in the same journal (No. 15, 1926, p. 12): “It is necessary to give the Kurdish language the color of our consciousness and spirit; we should not adorn the Kurdish language with Arabic and Persian speech but, rather, plait it richly and colorfully with the treasures of our own sweet words. ”

Language reformist Wehbî believed that Kurdish was not handicapped (‘ajiz) as far as general lexical items were concerned. He found, however, that the vocabulary could not meet the demands of modern science, art and technology. In translating military instruction pamphlets for the autonomous government of Shaikh Mahmud, he replaced the Arabic terms with Kurdish counterparts as much as he could (Wahby 1973a:9-10; cf., also, 7.6.0), although the terms included large numbers of loanwords. Other writers, especially thosewriting in the press, gradually wrote in what they called Kurdi pett, i.e., ‘pure Kurdish’.

In 1926, the Kurdish Scientific Society arranged a writing competition in Kurdî petî. The purpose was to make it known to the world that Kurdish was an old and orderly (rêk û pêk) language not in need of other languages (Jiyan, December 2,1926, p. 3). Soon, a “Committee for Weeding the Kurdish Language” (Komelley Bijarî Zimanî Kurdî) was formed, aimed at finding native words to replace borrowings (Jiyan, December 9, 1926, pp. 1-2). Although the society and its committee became inactive, the Pure Kurdish movement went on uninterruptedly in both the print and broadcast media.

World War II introduced hundreds of new words and concepts into non-European languages. Although the War brought Kurdish book publishing to an end, it introduced broadcasting and one war-time propaganda journal in Iraq. The challenge of lexical innovation, exerted through the Arabic language media, was successfully met by translators, writers and broadcasters who belonged to the purist movement.

Two journals left their mark on the future development of the language. Gelawêj, the most celebrated magazine, announced as its prime aim “weeding the Kurdish language, revival and bringing to life of Kurdish literature by protecting and collecting the old literature and by providing opportunities for publishing new literature and translating beautiful works and good foreign books” (Vol. I, No. 1, p. 2). As of May-June 1942 (Vol. 3, No. 5-6), Wahby contributed lists of Kurdish equivalents for Arabic terms and words. The editor explained that the purpose of the new section, Ferhengî Gelawêj (Gelawêj Dictionary), was to “give power to writing in pure Kurdish” and “to clean up the vocabulary” (Ibid., p. 94). The following examples are from Nos. 5-6, 9-10, 11-12, 1942; No.2, 1943 (Arabic loanwords are Romanized in their Kurdish pronunciation):


Loanword Proposed Kurdish Replacements
آن/an ‘time, moment’
احفاد/ehfad ‘descendants’
اختراع /ixtira’ ‘invention ‘
اقتدار/iqtidar ‘power’
اكتریت/ekseriyet ‘majority’
تجارت /ticarret ‘trade’
جزیره/cezîre ‘island’
دنیا/dinya ‘world’
زمان/zeman ‘time’
سری/sirrî ‘secret’
سعر/si’r ‘price’
تروت/serwet ‘wealth’
صلح/sulh ‘peace’
بالخاصه /bilxase ‘especially’
احصاأانفوس/ihsa ‘ulnufûs ‘census’
اتحاد/ittihad ‘unity’
ادراك/idrak ‘realization’
ابدی/ebedî ‘eternal’
اقلیت/eqeliyet ‘minority’
kat (native)
newe (native)
dahênan (semantic extension)
twana, yara (Persian)
zorbeyeti (loan translation)
bazirganî (Persian loan)
dirge, durrge (dialect loan)
gêtî (Persian loan)
dem (native)
nihtênê (native)
nirx (Persian loan)
saman (Persian loan)
aştî (native & Persian)
betaybetî (native)
serjImar (calque, based on Persian)
yeketî, yekgirtin (native)
peypêbirdin (native)
cawîd(an) (Persian), nemir (native)
kemayetî (loan translation)

Two tendencies are already apparent-purifying nativized loanwords (e.g., dinya, zeman, ebedi) and de-Arabizing even by introducing new loans from Persian (cf, Wahby and later Huzni Mukriyani contributed also to Dengî Gêtî Taze which carried many articles, both original and in translation, with appended lists of neologisms. According to Wahby, the neologisms (about 1000 in 1942) were widely used by translators and purists. A contemporary observer, Edmonds (1945: 187), wrote that Wahby’s work was “consciously or unconsciously followed by writers in the other periodicals and by broadcasters on the Baghdad and Sharq-al-Adna wireless” (cf.

Trends in Purism

As is the case in other languages, Kurdish purism has manifested conservative, moderate and extremist varieties. The success of the movement has already eliminated the conservatives who were a minority. A representative example of the conservative position is a letter quoted by Gelawêj (Vol. 1, No. 1, 1940), in which the writer complained about confusion caused by unfamiliar neologisms and unfixed coinages (e.g., three equivalents for the Arabic loan kelime ‘word’ in one article published by the journal).

Extremism. The dominant trend has been extremism, especially since the 1960s. This extremism manifests itself in two directions. First., fully nativized Arabic loans are being purified, e.g.:

Nativized Words Coinages
qellem ‘pen’
shi’r ‘poem’
kelime ‘word’
xet ‘line’
kitêb ‘book’
nesir ‘prose’
zeman ‘time’
edeb(iyyat) ‘literature’
honrawe, hellbest
perrtûk, perraw
‘dem, kat

The politics of this extremism is rooted in the conflict between Kurdish nationalism (Kurdayetî) and the two states of Iraq and Iran. ‘The Kurds of Iraq living under the direct pressure of repressive Arab governments and under the domination of the Arabic language react linguistically by purging Arabic loanwords, replacing them with new borrowings from Persian, the official language of the neighbouring, albeit equally repressive, state–Iran. Examples abound in Wahby’s lists cited above and in the most recent literature by Iraqi Kurds, e.g.:

Persian Word Kurdish Form
قشنگ/qashang ‘beautiful’
سرپرستی/sarparasti ‘ supervising’
سپاس/sipas (kardan) ‘(to) thank’
سپیده/siptdi ‘dawn
پوزش/pûzish ‘apology’
پزشك/pizishk ‘physician’
آمار/amar ‘statistics, census’
ورزش/varzish ‘exercise’
تندرستی/tandurustt ‘health’

In the same vein, European terms are preferred to Arabic ones in the various proposed terminologies, including those of the Kurdish Academy. This anti-Arabic attitude became known in the 1980s, and the General Directorate of Kurdish Education (Berêweberêtî Gishtî Xwêndinî Kurdî) decreed in 1986 that foreign words and idioms (Latin, Persian and other) should be avoided and, instead, Kurdish or, if unavailable, Arabic words must be used (Bimar 1986:299).

The Iranian Kurds, on the other hand, show a tendency to purify their Persian loans by replacing them with, among others, Arabic words. For example the Persian loanword فشار /fishar ‘pressure’ is replaced by the Arabic loan zext (ضغط/daght). Most striking is the fate of zulm, which is an Arabic word and is widely used in both Persian (zulm) and Kurdish. Because it is treated as a Persian word, Iranian Kurds tend to replace this loan with an Arabic synonym غدر/ghadr, which is rarely used in Persian. Interesting to note, the Persian loan supas (cf. Wahby’s list above), has gained acceptance among Iranian Kurds due to its naturalization and unrivalled use among Iraqi Kurds. A similar trend of anti-Turkism can be documented among the Kurds of Turkey who prefer to borrow form West European, Persian and Arabic languages. The Kurds of Iraq and Turkey usually justify their borrowings from Persian by pointing out the common “Indo-European” affiliation of the two languages. The Kurdish nationalists of Iran tend to ignore or downplay this genetic linguistic connection.

Extremism has led to the popularization of grammatically and lexically unacceptable neologisms. A well-documented case is the place-name Berrwarî, a region in Kurdistan, used as a noun, berwar, to designate ‘date’. The story is told by Zebîhî (1977:61-62):

… in 1943 in the city of Tabriz, I was busy printing the [clandestine] magazine Nîshtman. I had received from Syria the Kurdish newspaper Roja Nû. It carried an article under which was written “Berwarî – R.R. 1943” followed by the writer’s name. At the time, it was the habit among Iranian [Persian] writers or poets to put down at the end of their composition the word [in Persian] bi tairikhi … ‘Dated … ‘ followed by the day, month, and year of writing. Comparing the two, Berwarî and bi tarikhi matched. Without knowing that Berwarî was the name of a region … I took it for tarikh … ‘date’

Zabihi further recalled that, overjoyed with the discovery, he undertook to use the word, whether necessary or not, in whatever he printed. Unaware of its origins, Iraqi Kurds disseminated the neologism in their publications.

Opposition to extremism has occasionally been expressed in the press. Abdulla (1962: 16-20), for example, warned that Kurdish books had become unintelligible to the extent that readers found it easier to read Arabic books. He was especially critical of purging nativized Arabic loans and their replacement by Persian or European loans. The poet Hejar (1974) argued that the purists were “molesting” (ser û gwêlak şikandin= instead of “cleaning” (xawên kirdinewe) the language. Providing a detailed list (pp. 291-320) of Arabic borrowings from other languages to prove that borrowing was one legitimate source of lexical enrichment, he called for an end to purification of nativized loans. Another poet, Hemin (1983:44) castigated “the coinage of ugly, cumbersome and non-original words by the selfish and urban word-coiners (wishe datash).” Both poets were born in the villages of the Mukri region, and both are excellent prose writers and translators.

The Spoken Language. The impact of purification on the spoken and written language has been uneven. According to, Rojî Nwê (Vol. 4, No.2, July 1961, pp. 38-39), the written language had been sufficiently purified, while the speech of the educated urban population carried a heavy load of Arabic. The writer warned that the influx of Arabic words was even heavier than before, especially among employees in government offices where the official language was, in practice, Arabic. In Iran, where native tongue education is not allowed, the situation is similar. Zhiyan (1972:360-61) found that Kurdish-Persian bilinguals in Mahabad used about 30% Persian and 15% Arabic and Turkish loans when they were asked to give the Kurdish equivalents of 3,000 selected Persian words.

It seems that as long as monolingual native tongue education is not available and the Kurdish reading and listening public depends on the dominant languages, this situation will continue to prevail.

The Gap Between Theory and Practice. Much of the lexical reformbefore the 1970s was carried out by individuals who were not familiar with linguistics. Kurdish grammars composed by Iraqi Kurds did not deal with word-formation, although affixation received attention for the first time in 1958. Three grammars published outside Iraq, Kurdoev (1957:293-99), McCarus (1958:82-91) and MacKenzie (1961: 140-49), had each devoted a chapter to word-formation, but it was not until the 1970s that linguistically trained native speakers began to study the subject. The first work on word-formation in Kurdish appeared in 1977 (Marit).

The reformers devoted most of their efforts to replacing loan items by “pure” words found in the speech of the illiterate native speakers. Coining was, however, inevitable, and it was done largely through the efficient method of “analogy” (qiyas) based on the coiners’ intuition and whatever linguistic insight they had gained from their knowledge of Arabic, Persian, Turkish or, occasionally, European languages.

The reformers were not aware of the dynamism of lexical change in language generally, or of the potential of the numerous morphological and semantic resources in the Kurdish language particularly. Thus, although the purists were fearless modernizers, they acted as conservatives in the innovative use of morphological features such as affixes, or in forming new derivatives or compounds not permissible “analogically.” The Kurdish Academy was apparently the first to experiment with the innovative use of grammatical features.

In 1976, the Kurdish Academy proposed the use the of verbal suffix -andin for the English -ize in verbs such as “synchronize” (e.g., heman ‘syn-‘ + kat ‘chron’ + -andin → hemankatandin) or the use of Kurdish -ekî and -etî for the English -ive and Kurdish -etî for English -ity in order to coin words such as xoyekî ‘subjective’ and xoyekîyetî ‘subjectivity’. The Academy sought legitimacy by pointing to the practice of major languages, particularly English, which has used even obsolete Latin and Greek features to expand the vocabulary (KZK 1976:9-10). There is evidence to claim that the innovations tend to be accepted. The word nirxandin ‘evaluate’ (nirx ‘price, rate, value’ + -andin ‘-ize’) is already used in non-Academy publications.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s