Any attempt to study or describe the history of the Kurdish (Kd.) language(s) faces the problem that, from Old and Middle Iranian times, no predecessors of the Kurdish language are yet known; the extant Kurdish texts may be traced back to no earlier than the 16th century CE. For the study of the evolution of Kurdish, these 400-odd years are not really relevant; one therefore has to try to reconstruct the earlier stages of Kurdish by comparing the available Kd. data to those from other Iranian languages and dialects, past and present. The synchronic relation of Kurdish to other modern Iranian languages may then be translated into a diachronic, genealogical model. Both the synchronic and diachronic levels of analysis, of course, go hand in hand, since the postulation of relevant (synchronic) isoglosses presupposes a certain knowledge about their historical (diachronic) significance.

The position of Kurdish among modern Iranian languages and dialects is not easy to define. Many dialects of Kurdish are still imperfectly known, as are many other modern Iranian dialects to this day. The picture that may be drawn of the evolution of Kurdish is further obscured as a result of the continuous migration of Iranian peoples, and accordingly by many contact, areal, and loan phenomena among Iranian languages, above all by the far-reaching influence that Persian has exerted on most Iranian languages throughout its history. One of the universally accepted (but indeed also questionable) findings of Iranian dialectology is that, since Middle Iranian (MIr.) times, the Iranian languages may be divided into an eastern and a western subgroup; to the latter belong Persian, Kurdish, Balōči (see BALUCHISTAN iii. Baluchi Language and Literature), and all other Iranian languages and dialects that are spoken in present-day Iran (e.g., Gilaki, Tāleši, etc.). For a further, more detailed sub-grouping of the West Iranian (WIr.) languages there exists no commonly accepted dialectal or genealogical model that would do justice to the variety and complexity of these languages.

History of studies. During the earlier phases of Iranian dialectology, i.e., until ca. 1900, the Iranian languages and dialects were mostly grouped on geographical terms. From the West Iranian languages, only Persian, Kurdish, and Balōči were known relatively well; from the other WIr. languages, many were spoken in central and northwest Iran, i.e., approximately in the area that corresponds to most of ancient Media, and were accordingly subsumed summarily under the heading of “Median” (e.g., Geiger und Kuhn, I/2, p. 413; Hübschmann, p. 115). This changed only at the beginning of the 20th century, when so many documents in various MIr. languages were found in Central Asia that put the study of Iranian linguistics on a totally new basis.

Among these documents, those written in Manichean Middle Persian (ManMP.) and Manichean Parthian (ManPth.) were of particular importance for the study of WIr. dialectology. Parthian proved to be clearly distinct from Middle Persian; while the latter underwent several characteristic phonetic innovations (as compared to Proto- and Old Iranian), Parthian was more conservative phonetically. Some of these conservatisms are also found in various modern non-Persian languages and dialects. Since Parthian was spoken in the north of the region where WIr. languages were spoken, it was labeled the “prototype” of “NW-Iranian (languages and dialects)” in the MIr. period (in contrast to MP. as a representative of “SW-Iranian”). The modern non-Persian languages and dialects that are spoken in Iran—except a small number from southern Iran—were accordingly called “NW-Iranian” (the first time possibly by Mann, p. XXI). The label of “NW-Iranian” was used summarily, and negatively, in the sense of “different from Persian,” in quite the same way as “Median” had been used earlier. Paul Tedesco, in his pioneering work on the dialectal distinctions between Middle Persian and Parthian (Tedesco, 1921), saw various connections between Persian and Kurdish, and occasionally also Balōči (e.g., on pp. 193, 255). His sub-groupings of West Iranian, however, are mostly made ad hoc, often based on one feature only, even subject to frequent change (e.g., p. 253), and already implicitly question the very concept of NW-Iranian.

The next important step in the study of the history of Kurdish, and of WIr. dialectology in general, was taken by MacKenzie (1961b). In his paper, MacKenzie developed a sophisticated dialectological model (not using a tree diagram) according to which Kurdish, following a select number of isoglosses, was relatively close to Persian (p. 75). In effect, this questioned the “traditional” view holding that Kurdish, because of its differences from Persian, should be regarded a “NW-Iranian” language (p. 79). Also in 1961, MacKenzie published his dissertation on the dialects of Kurdish (including their sub-grouping), which has remained a standard reference (MacKenzie 1961a, 1962).

Although our database considering the Kurdish language, and Iranian dialects in general, has been considerably extended since 1961, one must say that for the development of a genealogical model concerning the evolution of Kurdish, no major advances have been made since D. N. MacKenzie (1961b). Gernot Windfuhr (1975) corroborated the close relationship between Persian and Kurdish, and also Balōči; Pierre Lecoq (1989) provided a welcome analysis of various phonetic and other grammatical features. He also pointed to a closer connection of Kurdish to the dialects of Central Iran, without, however, giving a picture of the genealogical development that would really go beyond the one that was provided by MacKenzie. Paul (1998b) attempted to complement the dichotomic sub-grouping into “NW” vs. “SW” dialects, which continues to be accepted, with another model, where each language takes a position on a scale of “NW”- vs. “SW”-ness. Agnes Korn (2003) further elaborated the “scalar model” by distinguishing two (or three) historical phases of “scalarity.”

Considering the lack of historical data and the preponderance of areal, loan, and substratum factors, it is not certain if it will ever be possible to write a comprehensive historical grammar of WIr. languages. Such a grammar would, strictly speaking, be the necessary prerequisite for an adequate description of the history of Kurdish. The following attempt at presenting the most important and well-known facts concerning the evolution of Kurdish should be considered as another preliminary step for writing such a historical grammar.

Definition of the Kurdish language.” “Kurdish” is not a firm and standardized linguistic entity with the status of an official or state language. On the contrary, it is a continuum of closely related dialects that are spoken in a large geographic area spanning several national states, in some of these states forming one, or several, regional substandards (e.g., Kurmanji in Turkey; Sorani in northern Iraq). There is much debate, therefore, about the very question of what the Kurdish language is, of which parts it is composed, and whether there is only one Kurdish language, or maybe more than one. To understand the problem of the definition of the “Kurdish language” properly, one must take into consideration both linguistic and non-linguistic factors; the very positions that are taken by scholars and Kurds about this question are strongly influenced by certain cultural, political, and other factors and viewpoints.

Linguistic factors. On purely linguistic grounds, it is quite clear what belongs to the “Kurdish language.” Of those languages that have been claimed to be Kurdish, Zazaki (spoken in eastern Anatolia) and Gurani (spoken in SW Iran and NW Iraq) clearly do not form part of the Kurdish language. Many phonetic, phraseological, and syntactic similarities notwithstanding, the linguistic boundaries between Zazaki and Kurdish on the one hand, and between Gurani and Kurdish on the other, are very clear. The analysis of historical phonology leaves no serious doubt, either, that Zazaki and Gurani are two West Iranian languages that had been quite distinct from Kurdish originally, but have influenced the latter, or have been influenced by it, over a long time. With Lori-Bakhtiāri (see BAḴTIĀRI ii), the situation is different. There do exist transitional dialects between (Southern) Kurdish and Lori-Bakhtiāri, and Lori-Bakhtiāri itself may be called a transitional idiom between Kurdish and Persian. Linguistically, however, it does not make very much sense to call Lori-Bakhtiāri a “Kurdish dialect.”

The picture is again different for Laki, which shares so many features with Southern Kurdish that it is possible to consider Laki a dialect of Kurdish. This is, however, not imperative: it would seem natural that the exact boundaries of the “fringes” of any large dialect continuum are open to dispute, and that they will have to be defined following individual, or partly idiosyncratic, criteria. In the following, the “core” of Kurdish will be defined as the Northern (Kurmanji), Central (Sorani), and Southern dialects of Kurdish (e.g., that of Kermānšāh), excluding Laki unless otherwise stated.

The question of the unity of Kurdish is more difficult to answer than that of its constitutive parts. The dialectal differentiation of Kurdish is so strong that communication between two monolingual speakers of any two dialects of N- and S-Kurdish respectively would be, to say the least, difficult. Since there is no unifying band of a Kurdish “standard language” common to the various countries where Kurds live, the past decades have seen the evolution of regional written standards in some of these countries, in part using different scripts. This could be seen as a possible starting point for the evolution of several, if closely related, Kurdish languages (based on the respective dialects of Kurmanji and Sorani) in the future.

Non-linguistic factors. At the moment, most speakers of N-, C-, or S-Kd. dialects, and even many speakers of Zazaki or Gurani, would consider their mother-tongue(s) as “varieties of Kurdish” and would not hesitate to think of it as a unified whole, even if the uniformity is impaired by political or other boundaries. Why is this so? Linguistics itself, or dialectology, does not provide any general or straightforward definition of at which point a “language” becomes a “dialect” (or vice versa). To attain a fuller understanding of the difficulties and questions that are raised by the issue of the “Kurdish language,” it is therefore necessary to consider also non-linguistic factors.

Most speakers of Kd. dialects, and also many speakers of Zazaki or Gurani, “feel Kurdish,” form (more or less) one ethnic group, the “Kurdish,” community, and show varying degrees of further ambitions at attaining some form(s) of cultural autonomy or political self-organization (often against the statal conditions under which they live). The “Kurdish ethnic identity” is blurred by various cultural, religious, and political frictions but it makes their bearers consider the extant linguistic, social, and political boundaries between their dialects as “artificial” boundaries between the parts of an—imagined—unified Kurdish language. The various degrees of political, cultural, and social pressure exerted on Kurdish in countries like Turkey or Syria have further contributed to the creation of a romantic self-image of the Kurdish language among those who consider themselves as Kurds.

The ethnic unity of Kurds, although problematic in itself, continues to be one important non-linguistic reason to consider the constituents of the Kurdish dialect continuum indeed as dialects of “one language.” The same cannot be true, of course, for Zazaki and Gurani, which remain firmly outside Kurdish on linguistic grounds. For them, speaking of their native language(s) as “varieties of Kurdish” can be true only in an ethnical/political sense. To make this clear, it would be better to speak of their native languages as “Kurdish languages,” even if this is at odds with the concept of unity of language and ethnicity to which most modern societies in principle adhere.


Any attempt to reconstruct the evolution of Kurdish should start from historical phonology, which continues to provide the most reliable basis for such an investigation. In the following, the evolution of Kurdish will be documented chronologically, following the most important sound changes that are relevant for the evolution of Iranian languages.

The oldest isogloss within the Iranian languages, separating Old Persian (OP.) from the other Old Iranian (OIr.) languages (as far as they are known), concerns the development of the Proto-Indo-European (PIE.) palatal velars *ḱ and *ǵ. These turned into the Proto-Iranian (PIr.) sibilants *ś and *ź and later to OP. ƒ (> MP. h) and d, respectively, as against Av. s and z. Kurdish does not share the “SW” development of OP. (and later, of MP. and NP.), but, like most other “NW” dialects, the more conservative Avestan one (e.g., Kd., Bal. zān-, Av. zān-, but OP. dānā-, NP. dān- “to know”; Kd., Bal. āsk, NP. āhū “gazelle”; Kd. deh “ten,” as against NW Zaz. des, is a NP. loan).

For another pre-OIr. sound change, PIE. *tr/*tl > PIr. *tr > OP. ç, Av. θr, Kurdish joins the SW side; cf. Kd. xāwus “barefoot,” āvis “pregnant” (< *xwa-aoθra- and *ā-puθra- respectively; cf. OP. puça- “son”), as against NW forms like Zaz. (-)wirwā “barefoot” and āwirā “pregnant” respectively.

For the sound change of PIE. *ḱw > PIr. *źw- > OP. s, Av. sp, the Kurdish evidence is not unequivocal. The two Kd. words hesp “horse” and s(i)pī “white” do show the NW sounds, but as the same or similar NW sound changes are already found in MP. (asp, (i)spēd), they may be early NW borrowings (via Persian) and do not necessarily represent genuinely Kurdish developments. The only secure SW *ḱw-form of Kurdish, se(g) “dog,” may likewise be a Persian loan, this time in its proper SW form. The parallel sound change of *ǵw > OP. z, Av. zb yields Kd. zimān “language,” where the -m- represents an “irregular” development from NW *ziwān < *hizwān-, but again MP. i/uzwān shows the same (borrowed) NW sound change. The “un-Persian” appearance of the three Kd. words hesp, spī, and (especially) zimān seems to speak in favor of a NW development of Kd., but there can be no certainty about this, and this sound change accordingly should be treated with due reserve.

To the oldest stratum of sound changes that have been discussed so far, one may add the development of PIr. *sč in the word Av. pas-ča, OP. pasā (> Pth. paš, MP./NP. pas) “after, behind,” where Kd. pāš (from PIr. *pas-ča > *pašča > *pašš(a)) shows the NW development (Bal. also has paš); strictly speaking, the NW change of *sč > š is not yet visible from the OIr. data. Since this is a combinatory sound change and is met in one word only, it should not been given the same weight as the changes of *ḱ, *ǵ, and *tr/*tl.

For the next sound changes to be considered, isoglosses do not show up before MIr. times. In Proto- and Old Iranian (Av., OP.), PIE. *g⁽ᵘ⁾⁽ʰ⁾ preceding a palatal vowel usually yields j, but in MP. and Parthian it develops further to z and ž respectively. As in the case of PIE. *ḱ and *ǵ (see above), Kurdish shows the more conservative Parthian, and thus NW, development here (e.g., žin “woman”; cf. Pth. žan, NP. zan). The unvoiced velar PIE. *k⁽ᵘ⁾ preceding a palatal vowel develops similarly, in postvocalic position, to SW z and NW ž (e.g., NP az, Kd. ži “from” < *hača). Certain NW-Ir. languages have, with j, preserved a still older state (e.g., Zaz. jinī “woman”).

For a number of other sound changes, Kurdish shows the SW development of NP.: PIE. *d(h)w- > NW/SW b-/d-; cf. Kd. der(ī), NP. dar, as against NW languages like Pth. ber, Zaz. (-)ber “(house-)door” (for OIr., see Av. duuar-, OP. duvara- “door”). Balōči probably follows the NW, as may be seen from the word pitī/iptī “other” (from *dwit-iya-; cf. MP. did, Pth. bid “other”; see Korn, 2003, p. 52).

The same holds for PIE. *sw- > PIr. *hw- > MP. xw-, Pth. wx-; cf. NKd. xwendin “read,” xwārin “eat” ~ Classical Persian xwāndan, xwardan. The initial cluster xw- has proved to be unstable in both Kurdish and Persian, partly replacing the -w- by a velar vowel, or losing it altogether (cf. forms like Kd. [dialectal] xundin “read” or xārin “eat,” and contemporary NP. xāndan, xordan), but this represents a more recent development from a common *xw-. Several NW idioms also show “SW” xw- (e.g., Sangesari xuor- “eat,” Semnānī xuāke “sister”), but others show simplifications of the PIr. group *hw, either through delabialization (> Tāleši h-), deaspiration (> Gur., Bal. w-), or an amalgamation of *hw- to f- (Sīvandī, Xūrī). It should be noted that the Pth. spelling wx- probably represents, not a cluster of two sounds, but rather a “devoiced, aspirated w” (as in modern Welsh) that may be regarded as a possible predecessor to some of the modern outcomes of *hw such as w- and f-.

In a manner similar to *sw-, Kurdish seems to show the SW development of *tw- to h- (as against Pth. f-); cf. *čatwāra- > *čaθwāra- > MP./NP. čahār, Pth. čafār, NKd. čiḥār (the ḥ for h is secondary; CKd. čwār is probably from Gurani), while certain other NW idioms show labials, like “w” in Zaz. čewres “forty.” Since this sound change is met in one word only, and the Kd. word may even be a NP. loan, it should not be given much weight.

The development of PIE. *rd(h) and *rǵ(h) > PIr. *rd/*rź seems to provide another example of a SW development of Kurdish, but it remains difficult to account for in the various Iranian languages and especially in Kurdish, since words have been borrowed in many directions. Because of the sound change of PIr. *ź > OP. d, both *rd and *rź merge into OP. rd (cf. θard- fem. “year,” vardana- neut. “town”) but remain distinct in Avestan (sarəδa- “year,” vərəz¯əna- “settlement”). In Middle Persian, OP. rd (from both *rd and *rź) yielded a lateral or lingual sound that is rendered as /l/ in Zoroastrian MP. and, later, New Persian, and as /r/ in Manichean MP. (with compensatory lengthening of a preceding -a-; cf. ZorMP. sāl “year,” wālan “settlement”; ManMP. sār “year,” sārār < *sara-dāra- “leader”). In Parthian, likewise, *rd > /rδ/ or /r/ (cf. Pth. zirδ “heart,” sārār “leader”).

In modern W-Ir. languages and dialects, *rd is variously realized as /l/ in NP., N-Kd., Gilaki, and most Central Dialects; as velarized /ḻ/ in most dialects of Central and S-Kd. and (certain dialects of) Gurani; as /r/ in the C-Kd. dialect of Arbil, in (certain dialects of) Gurani, and in Tāleši; and as trilled /r̄/ in Zazaki. Balōči seems to be the only W-Ir. language that has preserved *rd in its original form, although this is shown by the relatively slim evidence of only one “poetic” word, zird “heart” (see Korn, 2003, p. 53). Gurani has a preverb hur “up” (< Av. ərədwa), but ziḻ “heart”; if one considers the latter as a Kd. loan (in its “true” Kd. form, as against new-Kd. diḻ, which is from NP.), /r/ could be taken as the “true” Gurani development of *rd.

Considering all these forms, one should bear in mind that in Old Persian and Avestan, as probably in Old Iranian in general, there was no /l/ sound at all (PIE. *l having been merged with *r); the outcome of *rd in the various W-Ir. languages therefore filled a “gap” in the phonetic system, which allowed a certain amount of fluctuation in the realization of the newly established sound.

PIr. *rź appears as /rz/ in Parthian and various modern NW-Ir. idioms (e.g., Pth. burz, Zaz. berz, Tālešī barz “high”). In Gurani, *rź seems to yield a simplified /z/ (following a lengthened /a/) in some cases, which may be regarded as the “true” Gurani development (e.g., Gur. āz- “let, allow”; māzī “spine”). In Kurdish, *rź appears as /l/, /ḻ/, or /r/, showing the same dialectal distribution as *rd; the few Kd. words with rz < *rź may be explained as NW loans, e.g., harzin “millet,” possibly < NP. arzan “id.” (which, in its turn, is a NW loan). It would be natural to assume that the development of *rź to Kd. /l/, /ḻ/, or /r/ went through the intermediate stage of *rd; this, however, is at odds with the rule that in Kurdish, plain PIr. *ź (< PIE. *ǵ(h)) developed not to d but to z (see above). It has accordingly been assumed that in Kurdish, *rź became /l/ (etc.) without passing through the intermediate stage of *rd (see MacKenzie, 1961b, pp. 77 f., with reference to Tedesco). Maybe this could be explained by assuming that PIr. *rź had not yielded only /rz/ or /rd/ in OIr. times, but also, in Proto-Kurdish, another variant “in between” like *r(d)z, which remained susceptible to the influence of the Persian change of /rd/ > /l/.

Trying to attain a unified picture regarding all these forms and difficulties, one could surmise that it is less the specific form of the outcome of *rd and *rź that defines whether a given dialect is SW or NW—the forms having been quite flexible since MP. times —but rather the identical development of the sounds *rd and *rź that gives a dialect a SW appearance with respect to this feature.

The sound change of PIE. *y- > NW/SW y-/j- does not show up before the MP. period. It is unusual in the sense that the “SW” form of j- affects many dialects and languages—such as Kurdish, Balōči, and Zazaki—that would normally be considered NW (but not Gurani; examples: OP. yauwiyā “channel,” NP. ju(y), Kd. ; Gur. yawa “barley,” NP. jow, Kd. jeh, Zaz. jew; Pth. yawān “young,” NP. javān “id.,” Kd. jiwān “beautiful”). This “irregularity” has led Korn (2003) to question the validity of this sound change for W-Iranian dialectology, assuming that it is so universal it could have occurred in various W-Ir. languages independently from each other. Korn herself, however, points to Iranian loanwords in Armenian, such as jatuk “sorcerer,” that show the sound change of *y- > j- to be of relatively old age, certainly older than the voicing of the intervocalic tenues (e.g., VtV > VdV) that already characterizes Middle Persian. It may well have occurred already in OIr. times, when W-Iranian is likely to have still formed a mutually intelligible dialect continuum; but it may have started from some non-Persian language, only later affecting (pre-Middle) Persian. It is well possible that the sound change of *y- > j- “crossed over” some older isoglosses and left unaffected only a few remote or isolated dialects.

The next sound changes to be discussed appear also in the Middle Iranian period, but for various reasons they are more problematic, or less important dialectally, than those of the pre-Middle period that have been discussed so far. The PIr. voiced stops *b *d *g (< PIE. *b(h) *d(h) *g(h)), in postvocalic position, yield the semivowels w (< *b, *g) and y (< *d, *g) in MP., and the glides β δ γ in Parthian; cf. MP. nēw “good” (< *naiba-), Pth. aβyāδ “memory” (< *abi-yāta-); MP. bōyestān, Pth. bōδestān “garden”; MP. bay, Pth. baγ “god”; MP. murw, Pth. murγ “bird.” For some MP. words, especially in ManMP., this development goes one step further, the glide becoming a glottal stop or being deleted; cf. ManMP. a'ōn “so” and če'ōn/čōn “how” (as against ZorMP. čiwōn, čiyōn), or (late) ManMP. dēr “long” (as against dagr in “early” ManMP., and ZorMP.), MP. ēr “down, below” (< *ayr < *adara).

In most modern W-Iranian dialects, the voiced stops have likewise become semivowels, or been merged into long vowels; cf. NP. sawār, Kd. siwār “rider” (< *asa-bāra-); NP. zīr, Kd. žēr, Zaz. jēr “down, below” (< *hača-adara), NP. bayōg, Kd. būk, Zaz. veyvi “bride” (< *vadū-kā- or *vaduvā-[?]), NP. būstān “(rose-)garden”; Kd. rōn, Zaz. ruwen “oil” (< *raugna-; NP. rouγan is a NW loanword, but see the SW form of MP. rōyn “id.”), NP. čūn, Kd. čōn “how, as.” Balōči goes its own way here, fully preserving the OIr. voiced stops (e.g., Bal. ādenk “mirror”; cf. NP. āyīne; Bal. rōgan “oil”).

Comparing words like Kd. rōn “oil” with NW forms like Zaz. ruwen, Tāleši ruan, or Semnāni ruvun, it seems that Kurdish is more innovative, but there are also Kd. counter-examples that preserve a glide /w/ from *g, e.g., Kd. derew “lie” (cf. MP. drō, NP. [< NW] dorūγ). Indeed it is not clear if Kd. rōn is from *rōyn or *row(i)n, and Zaz. words like āyām “weather” (cf. Pth. āγām “time”) show, with a -y- < *-g- as in MP. rōyn, that it may be difficult to define what the “true” SW or NW outcomes of *-g- are. It should be borne in mind also that the sounds w and y are quite unstable, and sound-changes like that of *b *d *g > w, y are quite universal in general linguistic terms; therefore they do not necessarily show a causal connection even if they happen in two closely-related languages at about the same time. This phonetic feature should thus not be given too much weight here.

The voiceless OIr. stops *p *t *k, in postvocalic position, undergo a voicing process on their way to MP. and Pth., yielding b d g (which in Pth. may already have been pronounced as fricatives, i.e., β δ γ). Balōči is again the most conservative modern Iranian language with respect to these sounds, preserving the original unvoiced stops unchanged. In most other modern W-Ir. languages, the (MIr.) voiced stops (and the respective fricatives) undergo further changes, becoming glides (w, y), or vanishing altogether. NP., although rather innovative in other respects, is one of the very few W-Ir. languages that has preserved the MP. state of affairs, i.e., the postvocalic voiced stops (cf. Av. xšapan- “night,” Bal. šap, MP./NP. šab, Kd. šev, Zaz. šew; Av. maxšī- “fly” (< *makšī-), Bal. makisk, NP. magas, Kd. mēš, Zaz. mēs).

For Kd., as for some other NW-Ir. languages, the difference between PIr. voiced and voiceless stops may get blurred during this process; e.g., for *t *k, Kd. shows (as for *d *g [see above]) either y, w, zero, or a hiatus-deleting -h-; cf. Kd. jihē “separate,” bēhīv/bēyv “date(-palm),” mehīn “mare” (cf. NP. jodā, bādām, mādiyān); mēš “fly,” sōnd “oath,” nihēr- “look,” čiyā “mountain” (cf. NP. magas, sougand, negar-, [MP.] čagād; for the last word, NP. [see above] shows an irregular -k-). In Kd. āgir “fire” (cf. MP. ādur), the -g- probably represents an “irregular” hiatus-deleter. A look at various dialects of Gurani serves to show how unpredictably *t may “perform” even within one single language; cf. Gur. vāham/bāyam “almond,” māīni/mahān “mare,” er/āwir/āyir “fire.”

For postvocalic PIr. *p, Kd. has usually /v/ or /w/ (according to the dialect); cf. NKd. rovī / CKd. rēwī “fox,” thus distinguishing it from /w/, the outcome of *b (see above). For the sound change of *b > Kd. w, however, there are very few secure examples, while there are examples of *p > (*w >) /u/ in CKd., viz. CKd. nūstin, NKd. nivistin “sleep” (cf. MP. nibastan “lie down, sleep,” < *ni-pat-), CKd. sūk, NKd. sivik “light, easy.” It is therefore not certain that the outcomes of intervocalic PIE. *p and *b are really to be distinguished in Kurdish. Summing up, one can nevertheless state that the development of the PIr. voiced and unvoiced stops connects Kurdish rather with NWIr. than with SWIr.

PIr. word-initial *fr- has been preserved by Kd. and NP. with an epenthetic vowel; cf. Kd. firōš-, NP. forūš- “sell,” while certain other NW-Ir. languages show forms like wur-, har- (Gur. wuraš- “sell,” harmāna “work,” < *framāna-), or plain r-, e.g., Zaz. roš- “sell.” Balōči again does not go along with SW, but has š- (šawašk- “sell”), which probably goes back to a devoiced r- that had been developed from *fr- via *hr-. Although *fr- is regularly preserved as such in MP. and Pth., the word hrēstag “apostle” that occurs in some ManMP. texts as a (rare) variant of frēstag “id.” shows that the development of *fr- > hr- must have started already before the MIr. period in some NWIr. dialects (from which ManMP. must have taken over the word).

The Kd. sound change of *nd > (*nn >) /n/ in words like Kd. genim “wheat” appears already in Man. (but not Zor.) MP., and a great number of modern dialects attest to its broad geographical reach; cf. Zaz. genim, Sivandi ganem, Sangesari gannum, Lāri ganom. The number of WIr. dialects that preserve *nd here, however, is likewise high; cf. NP. gandom, Semnānī gandum, Harzandī gundom, Vafsī gandew, Bal. gandīm. Although this sound change appears to be old (at least pre-MP.), it does not follow any kind of NW/SW-logic, and seems to have worked areally and “cross-dialectally.”

The sonorization of the sibilants /s/ and /š/ (mostly to /ž/), and the palatalization of /z/ to /ž/, before the nasal /n/, seems to be widespread in Kurdish. The sonorization of /s/ (to /z/) before /n/ is already characteristic of Parthian. The range of possible developments of *sn, *šn, and *zn in various Iranian languages may be shown by such groups of etymologically cognate words as Av. yasna- “sacrifice,” InscrPth. mazdēzn (< *mazda-yazna-) “Zoroastrian,” MP./NP. jašn, Kd. ježn “feast”; Pth. gazn “treasure,” MP./NP. gišnīz, Kd. gižnīz “coriander” (see Henning). Although in these cases, as for Kd. bežn “stature” (NP. bašn “id.”), the Kd. word may be considered a Persian loan, this is hardly possible for Kd. āžnā “swimming” (Av. snā-, Pth. snāž-, MP. šnāz- “to swim”) and jinēw “abuse” (< *d(i)žnēw < *duš-nāma(n)-, NP. došnām).

This sound change seems to be shared by Gurani (āžnās- “know,” tažna “thirsty”), but the situation in Zazaki is unclear (there is āšnāw- “hear,” but for the noun “swimming” there are divergent forms like āsnā and āzne in various Zaz. dialects). Balōči loses the *-š- before *n (gēnīč “coriander,” tun(n) “thirst”); the cases where it has ž (užnāg “swimming,” gužnag “hungry”) must accordingly be considered loanwords.

The nasal /m/ also causes sonorization of a preceding sibilant in some cases, but the situation is more complicated. The OIr. cluster *šm, following a vowel, must remain unconsidered, as it yields w/v in Kurdish (see below) and /m/ in many NWIr. languages (Zaz. čim, Bal. čam(m) “eye”); Kd. dižmin “enemy” must therefore be a loan from NP. dušman with a more recent sonorization of the /š/. The cluster *zm also loses its sibilant in Persian and certain WIr. dialects, but not in Kurdish; cf. *aizma- “fuelwood” > MP. ēmag > NP. hīme, but Kd. ēzing (id.) (< *ēz(i)m; the MP. variant ēzm is a NW loan). The cluster *sm is sonorized in Kurdish ((h)ežmār “number,” ¿ezmān “heaven”), but these may be more recent NP. loans (< NP. šomār, āsmān). A sonorization of a Kd. sibilant occurs not only before nasals, but also before other voiced consonants (e.g., Kd. dižwār “difficult” < *dušwār, or mižūl “busy” < Ar. mašγūl, with loss of the γ), and the last example shows that this was a more recent, post-Islamic process. Altogether, it is not clear to what extent the voicing of Kd. /s/ and /š/ before /m/ and other voiced consonants is to be connected with the (apparently older) voicing and palatalization of /s/ and /š/ before /n/.

The following sound changes do not—from the available evidence—occur before the NIr. period. The change of postvocalic *-m > -v/-w (N-/C-Kd.) is one of the most characteristic features of Kurdish (e.g., in Kd. nāv/nāw “name”). It occurs also in a small number of other WIr. idioms like Vafsī and in certain N- Balōči dialects, and has been said to occur also in some isolated ManPth. words (e.g., hāwsār “similar”). The existence of the Pth. examples of *-m > -w, however, has recently been questioned (cf. Korn, p. 57, fn. 21, with further references). The relatively late (certainly post-Islamic) date of the sound change is also shown by its frequent occurrence in Kd. words of Arabic origin, e.g., silāv “greeting.” The Vafsī and N-Bal. changes of *m > v may be likewise explained as independent developments, or through more recent (areal) influence from Kurdish (especially in the case of Vafsī, which is spoken in an area relatively close to that of Kurdish).

Other words, such as Kd. čāv/w “eye” and tōv/w “seed,” show that the sound change of *-m > -v/-w must have followed those of postvocalic *-šm and *-xm > -m, both of which characterize most modern NWIr. languages (cf. Zaz. čim, Gur. čam, tōm, as against NP. čašm, toxm). The combined sound changes of *-šm and *-xm > -v/-w may be said to be exclusively Kurdish.

The sound change of PIr. *x- > Kd. (aspirated) k- in words like Kd. ker “donkey” or kenīn “laugh” is shared by Bal. (cf. kandag “laugh”), but here, as in certain East Iranian languages, it is paralleled by a similar development of the other fricatives *f and *θ, and is therefore probably independent of the Kd. change.

The preservation of the OIr. affricate č- in Kd. čūn “to go” (< *čyu-), as against š- in forms of this verb in other WIr. languages, has been quoted as the second “exclusive” Kd. historical phonetic feature (besides *-šm, *-xm > Kd. -v/-w [see above]) by MacKenzie (1961b, pp. 71 f.). It is possible, however, to discard this feature, by assuming that Kd. č- is the result of a coincidence of š- and the Kd. present indicative prefix d(i)-/da/t-. This would entail a process where this prefix, owing to the high frequency of present indicative forms in language usage, is first amalgamated with the present stem of (proto-Kd.) *š- to *č-, and then assimilates the š- of the past stem, as well. Compare the possible stages of this process as shown by the infinitive and the present stem in TABLE 1.

Present indicative forms like Kd. di-čim “I go,” etc. (cf. stage no. 5) would then represent a historical “doubling” of the prefix d(i)-. Since there are CKd. dialects with a present prefix a- instead of d(i)-/da (not being a simplification of the latter), čūn would be a NKd. loanword in them; it should be noted that in several CKd. dialects there is yet another verb for “to go,” showing forms like rōīn (etc.), that may represent the “original” CKd. form of the verb.

The most common explanation of Kd. č- “to go” as a preservation of *č- would be supported by the existence of forms of the verb “go” with affricates in some Eastern (but not Western!) Iranian languages, e.g., Khotanese tsu- “go.” The new explanation that is presented here gains support from two sides. Firstly, it helps to explain why in certain Kd. dialects, present indicative forms of the verb “to go” actually occur without prefix, as a plain č- (this is implied in MacKenzie, 1961, p. 180, n. 1, saying that “with čôn `go' particularly the affix [d(i)-] is frequently inaudible”). This would represent the fourth of the five stages of the process as illustrated above. Secondly, the W-Ir. dialect of Vafs, geographically lying not far away from Kd. and also sharing the characteristic sound change of *-m > -v/-w with it, has the forms basse “he went” and ačču “he goes” (see Moḡaddam, p. 114.), which would show another intermediate stage of the above process, more or less representing stage 3 (with the minor discrepancy of having /s/ instead of /š/).

The sound change of word-initial PIr. *w- (before āŸ) > Kd./NP. b- (cf. Kd. , NP. bād “wind”) is post-MIr.; cf. MP. wād “wind.” Since Balōči has gw- (gwāt “wind”) and all NW-Ir. dialects w- or v- (e.g., Zaz. “wind”), this relatively recent feature adds to the changes common to SW-Ir. and Kurdish. SKd. w- ( “wind”) may be explained through Gurani influence.

The groups of *ft and *xt that are still preserved in MP. and Pth. (e.g., MP./Pth. kaft “he fell,” Pth. wāxt “[he etc.] said”) are simplified to t in many NWIr. languages and dialects, e.g., Kahaki, Sivandi vāt, Semnāni bāt “he said”; Kahaki, Sīvandī kat, Semnānī ket “he fell.” In some languages, however, the group *ft retains the labial fricative or at least a reflex of it; cf. Xwānsārī (Ḵʷānsāri) kift, Zaz. kewt “he fell” (but *xt > t; cf. Xwāns. [Ḵʷāns], Zaz. vāt). Kurdish appears to belong to the latter group; cf. Kd. sōtin “burn” and pātin “cook” (from *xt), and (C- and some N-) Kd. kewtin (or, in one dialect, keftin) “fall.” There are, however, also forms like ket “he fell” in various NKd. dialects, or paḥtin (< *paxtin?) “cook” in the NKd. dialect of Zākho. Anyway, even if the representation of *pt and *xt is not absolutely clear or dialectally homogeneous in Kurdish, it is certainly “more NW” than in Balōči which has preserved both the clusters *p and *k (the latter with metathesis in some Bal. dialects; cf. Bal. kapt “he fell,” retk/reht “it was poured”). This shows that the “core” of the simplification of the clusters, although lying in the NW, did not affect Balōči, which agrees well with the relatively late date of this feature (which accordingly is not very significant dialectally).

Another sound change may be mentioned that is interesting to discuss, but does not seem to provide a significant isogloss, either. The prefixing of an “unetymological” x- to words beginning with a vowel in PIr., which is common already in MP. in words like xāyag “egg,” xēŸšm “anger,” or xirs “bear,” seems to have been realized “halfway” with h- in Kd.; cf. hē(l)k “egg,” NKd. hirč “bear” (but cf. CKd. wurč). The Kd. words hēšīn “blue” and hevīr “dough,” however, where the corresponding Persian x- is original (cf. MP. xašēn, Av. axšaēna-; NP. [< Arabic] xamīr [ḵamir]), suggest that Kd. h- may likewise be a secondary development from earlier Kd. *x- (dating from post-Islamic times, since xamīr [ḵamir] is an Arabic loan; PIr. *x- would have yielded Kd. aspirated k- [see above]). Words like Kd. xurme “date” and xāv “raw,” with x- as in NP., would then be more recent NP. loans, and the word xāv would show that the Kd. development of *-m > -w/-v is still later than that of *x- > h-.

From MP. words like ēč “(not) any” and ōš “consciousness” (< *aiwa-či(t), uši-), it becomes clear that the MP. prefixing of x- has not affected all the initial vowels of PIr. words. Both words are aspirated in NP. and Kd. (hīč, hūš; hēč, hiš), which makes the aspiration seem to be a (relatively late) feature common to both languages. Again, however, words beginning with a- (and seldom ā-) in MP. show the h- only in Kd. but not in NP.; cf. Kd. hesp “horse,” hewr “cloud,” hinār “pomegranate,” hesin “iron,” as against NP. asb, abr, anār, āhan. There are more words that contribute to the complexity of this sound change, like MP. hušk “dry,” NP. xušk [ḵošk], Kd. ḥišk (why MP. h- > NP. x-?), or MP. ēzm “fuelwood,” NP. hēzum, Kd. ēzing (why MP. ē- > NP. hē- ?). Altogether, a tendency of Kurdish—perhaps in post-Islamic times—towards replacing both vocalic anlaut and x- through h- seems to be clearly at work, and may be shared by Balōči (cf. Bal. (h)āk “soil,” hāŸyk/hayg/āyag “egg,” hurmag/urmāg “date”), but the data seem to be too inconsistent, and the evolution of Kd. h- too recent, to provide a significant isogloss.

One example may be mentioned of the various other sound changes, each of which characterizes only a part of the Kd. dialects: *-rt > NKd. -r /CKd. -rd (cf. NKd./CKd. sār/serd “cold,” pir/pird “bridge,” kirin/kirdin “to do”), not to be confounded with that of *rd > l/r (see above). Since they are not common to all Kurdish, they naturally cannot serve to show the relationship of Kurdish, as a whole, to other Iranian languages.

TABLE 2 provides an overview of the isoglosses discussed above.

It should have become clear that, while the labels “NW” and “SW” are certainly over-simplifications and problematic, it still makes sense to use them to describe the development of WIr. and Kurdish, taking “NW” plainly as “different from Persian throughout the history of Iranian languages with respect to a number of characteristic sound changes.”

Although in the OIr. period there was no difference between NW and SW yet, but rather one between “Old Persian and the rest of Iranian” (see Schmitt), the sound changes that characterize OP. against Avestan are important also for the definition of the (later) SW- and NW-Ir. languages. These show that Kurdish and Balōči go hand in hand for three major archaic sound changes: they do not follow the OP. changes of *ś/*ź > h/d, but share the OP. change of *θr > ç.

For the changes that appear in the MIr. period, Kurdish and Balōči develop along very different lines. In the development of *j (and *č after vowel), Kurdish and Balōči partly agree, but this is a shared conservatism which does not necessarily entail any specific mutual influence. The differences between Kd. and Bal. in the development of *dw-, *hw, *rd, and *rδ, however, if the partly problematic Kd. and Bal. data have been interpreted correctly, are substantial.

Altogether, the isoglosses show clearly that it makes sense to use the terms “NW” and “SW” not in a black-and-white sense, but in that of a “scale of SW- or NW-ness,” of which two or three historical phases may be distinguished. (The scale model, in the form in which I proposed in 1998, was rightly criticized by Korn [2003] for not adequately taking into account the historical sequence of the sound changes.) Kurdish and Balōči, then, are “less NW” than many other WIr. languages and dialects with respect to the oldest (pre-OIr.) stratum of isoglosses, but for the pre-MIr. isoglosses, Kurdish is “much less NW” than Balōči and most other WIr. idioms. For the most recent stratum of isoglosses, an inconsistent picture emerges, showing (for the first time) exclusively-Kd. sound changes like šm > -v/-w, besides others that Kurdish shares with NP. against all NW (*w- > b-), or with most NW against NP. and Balōči (*xt > t). Combining all this, one may call Kurdish “originally more NW and quite close to Balōči, but since pre-MIr. times inclining more towards the SW.”


The evolution of Kd. morphology, i.e., of the morphological categories, endings, etc., is a highly complex phenomenon, especially because the morphological differences between the single Kd. dialects are much greater than the phonological ones. Besides, Kd. morphology cannot be studied without considering also syntactic phenomena such as the constituent order or the evolution of ergativity. There is an almost total lack of studies that investigate Kd. historical morphology or syntax comprehensively, taking into account also the whole WIr. context. In the following, an attempt will be made at sketching of the most important morphological features of Kd. and relating these to the development of the most important neighbors of Kd., Gurani and Zazaki, and where possible also to other WIr. languages. MacKenzie, 1961b remains the starting point for the evolution not only of Kd. historical phonology, but also morphology.

Nominal inflection. All NKd. and some CKd. dialects use the inflectional system of masculine nouns shown in TABLE 3.

They have thus preserved an older stage than the SKd. and the rest of the CKd. dialects that have given up the Obl. Sing. and generalized the Obl. Plur. ending, yielding a system without the distinction of case (structurally corresponding to that of NP.), shown in TABLE 4. Some SKd. dialects show other forms of the Plur. ending like -gal, -yal, etc., taken from a collective suffix.

A distinction of gender exists in Kurdish likewise only in the N dialects, and only in two forms: in the Obl. Sing. of simple nouns, where the fem. ending is -ē (instead of Masc. -ī), and in the Sing. of Ezafe constructions (see below; for gender in Kurdish, see also MacKenzie, 1954).

The Kurdish Masc. Obl. Sing. ending -ī, derived obviously from the OIr. Gen. Sing. ending *-ahya, is shared by a large number of modern NWIr. languages, e.g., Balōči, Zazaki, Tālešī, Semnānī, etc. (in Balōči, it occurs in various forms such as -ay, -ē, -ī). Not in all these languages, however, has the outcome of *-ahya attained the general oblique meaning as it has in Kd., including various functions like direct object, agent, prepositional or possessive complement, etc. In Balōči, for example, it has preserved its original possessive meaning only. Most Bal. dialects spoken outside Iran, on the other hand, share with NKd. the zero ending of the Rect. Plur., while Zazaki and certain conservative Gurani dialects use the Obl. Sing. ending also for the Rect. Plur., yielding the system (for masc. nouns) shown in TABLE 5.

Since Balōči has developed a three-case system (employing -ā as a general Obl. ending), however, the NKd. inflexional system as a whole is structurally closer to that of Zazaki, with which it has been in close contact for many centuries. Bossong, 1985, the most comprehensive (although not flawless) study of a single aspect of modern WIr. grammar, direct object marking, serves to show how difficult it is to relate the general historical grouping of modern Iranian languages to the distribution of single structural or morphological features (e.g., pp. 104 ff.).

Ezafe. (For Persian, see EŻĀFA.) As for the case system, the form of the Kd. Ezafe is more complex in the N dialects and is gradually simplified from N to S, with the C dialects taking an intermediate position. NKd. distinguishes a Masc./Fem. Sing. Ezafe -ē/-ā and Plur. -ēt, while SKd. and the southern CKd. dialects (such as Sulaimānī) have only one generalized form of the Ezafe, -ī (again similar to that of NP.). The Zazaki system of Ezafe is similar to that of NKd. but more differentiated; for example, it shows also a distinction between “possessive” and “descriptive” Ezafe (-ē/-ō) following Masc. Sing. nouns. The Gurani Ezafe has only this latter distinction and ignores gender, but shows the two forms in reverse order (Poss. -ū, Descr. -ī) as compared to those of Zazaki.

There is certainly a mutual influence between the evolution and preservation of the Kd., Zaz. and Gur. Ezafe systems, but it is hard to venture in which direction it went. Following MacKenzie, 1961b (pp. 82 f.), the simplification of the C- and SKd. Ezafe could be the result of a “clash between the two systems” (i.e., the original NKd. and the Gur. one), but an influence from Zazaki on NKd. would be equally conceivable. That such a mutual influence must have existed between the three languages with respect to their Ezafe systems is made still more probable by the fact that Ezafe constructions are originally absent from many clearly NW languages such as Balōči, Tāleši, Harzandi, Gilaki, and Semnāni, where possessive complements and adjectives regularly precede the noun they modify, without the use of any morphological marking (the strong influence of NP. on most NW languages in more recent times has, however, established Ezafe constructions in various NW languages, e.g. in certain Bal. dialects).

To better understand the WIr. Ezafe constructions, little help comes from MP. and Pth. In both languages the Ezafe particle (MP. ī(g), Pth. usually čē) is only one way to modify a noun, in both languages there are the alternatives of ante- or juxtaposing the modifier without using an Ezafe particle (see Brunner, pp. 10 ff.). The Ezafe construction, being quite susceptible to influence from neighboring languages both on the morphological and syntactical level, is accordingly not a very suitable feature for showing a genetic relationship between Kd. and other NWIr. languages.

Suffixes. In contrast to the lack of nominal inflexion in CKd. (partly) and SKd. as compared to NKd., there are suffix pronouns only in C- and SKd. but not in NKd. (except in “frozen” forms such as žē “from it”). In CKd., the pronoun suffixes are used in a variety of “oblique” (possessive, agential, etc.) functions and are of great importance for the working of C- and SKd. syntax. The existence of pronoun suffixes also in Gurani and their absence in Zazaki obviously betrays mutual influence with N- and CKd. respectively, but the direction is again difficult to tell. Formally, many CKd. dialects have the 1st/2nd Plur. suffixes -mān/-tān, which are identical with those of Gurani (and of NP.). That they are indeed Gur. loans is shown by some conservative CKd. dialects (like Mukrī) that have preserved the older Kd. forms 1st/2nd Plur. -in/-ū. The CKd. 3rd Sing. suffix -ī, on the other hand, occurs also in Balochi (as compared to Gur. -š).

Verbs. Kd. shares with Bal. and NP. the formation of the past stem of a large group of verbs with a formative containing the vowel i (e.g., NP. porsīd “asked,” Kd. pirsī, Bal. pursit), while for many NWIr. languages, ā or (i)st is more productive (e.g., Zaz. persā, Gur. parsā, Harzandī pārāst; see also Paul, 2003, pp. 66 ff.). This is an important isogloss, because it is a relatively old shared innovation of the three languages Kd., NP. and Bal., whose result is already visible in MIr. (MP. pursīd, Pth. pursād).

For C- and SKd., a secondary passive conjugation exists, where CKd. -/-, SKd. -ya/- (present/past stem) are suffixed to the present stem of the simple verb, e.g., CKd. kužrā, SKd. kužyā “he was killed.” Since a similar -ye/- and -ya/- exist respectively in Zazaki and Gurani (Zaz. kišyā, Gur. kušyā), Kd. has certainly borrowed this feature from Gurani, although in CKd. only the “model” was borrowed, and the -y- was replaced by -r-, probably by analogy with the frequent verb kirdin “do” and its passive kirē-/kirā- (through original *kiryē-/*kiryā-). In both NKd. and Bal., no secondary passive conjugation exists but only a passive periphrasis that works with the help of an auxiliary (Kd. hātin “come,” Bal. buag “be”); this is one of the various examples showing that the Gur. influence on CKd. has been deeper than that of Zaz. on NKd.

Interestingly, in certain N-Zaz. dialects there exists a secondary subjunctive suffix that is also taken by analogy from the subjunctive stem ker- of the verb kerdiš “to do” (e.g., vāžiro “[that] he may say,” cf. Paul 1998a, p. 191). This, however, must represent an independent development from the CKd. passive with -.

The verbal lexicology of W-Iranian also seems to point to a closer connection between Kurdish and Balochi in some points, although these results must still be considered with caution (e.g., Kd. hāt/Bal. ātk “he came”; see Paul, 2003). Yet another verbal feature shared by Kurdish and Balochi is the existence of a verbal form going back to the root *kar, yielding a sense of potentiality, e.g., Bal. šut kanag “be able to go,” NKd. ez kārim (/dialectally kānim) bičim “I can go.” This feature, however, is a shared conservatism that is found also in various other (not only W-) Iranian languages, such as Old Persian or Sogdian.

Conclusion. The historical analysis of various important points of Kd. morphology has basically reaffirmed the findings that were obtained from historical phonology, and has not added any really new arguments. There is some close relationship between Kurdish and Balochi, but at the same time there are fundamental differences. It has likewise become clear that the influences that Gurani and, to a lesser degree, Zazaki exerted on CKurdish and NKurdish respectively (and vice versa), are also fundamental for an understanding of the evolution of Kd. grammar, although they seem to be of a relatively recent date as compared with the parallels between Kurdish and Balochi.


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(Ludwig Paul)

Originally Published: December 15, 2008

Last Updated: December 15, 2008