February 9, 2014

So I guess I'm learning Kurdish

En route to a village where everyone speaks Kurdish but me

I actually came for Arabic

Many moons ago, my friend Melodee sent me by mail an article about bilingual Arabic-Turkish speakers in southeastern Turkey. Sweet, I thought. I've always wanted to go back to that cultural hot spot, and now I can go with the exciting mission of learning Arabic via Turkish. The bilingual Turks can guide me through the daunting underground caves of Arabic, using our shared Turkish as a headlamp.

Şanlıurfa? Sure.

I arrived in Turkey in November with this idea about Arabic in the southeast and also a vision of working in some position that connected to my values–spending time outside, learning and teaching in a human way, and sharing ideas about how to live. By fate, such a position was presented... in Şanlıurfa.

Şanlıurfa, unlike Antakya further south, is not really the city for learning Arabic. Yes, there are Arabic speakers, especially now in the form of displaced people from the conflict in Syria, but the city is primarily Kurdish. I am told that Şanlıurfa is 80% Kurdish, and I believe that means that 80% of people speak Kurdish as a first language.

For instance, many of the people I work with now speak Kurdish as a first language, and Turkish as a close or far second. Turkish ability seems to vary with education, access to Turkish media, and communication with non-Kurdish speakers. These are also the people teaching me Kurdish, using our common second language of Turkish to explain things.

Learning Kurdish via Turkish is probably a huge mistake

Reason 1: The languages are not from the same family. 

Turkish is Turkic. Kurdish is Indo-European. There are some overlapping words, but not that many, based on what I have heard.

Note: Of the two major dialects of Kurdish, I am learning Kurmanji, the northern, versus Sorani, the southern.

Reason 2: The Turkish alphabet sucks at describing Kurdish sounds. 

I began writing Kurdish words with my own made-up transliteration system. Now with the thought that it may be useful in the future, I'm trying to use what Kurdish speakers use in Turkey–the standard Turkish alphabet.

Although no expert after a mere week, I can already tell that letters are missing or inadequate for the sounds of Kurdish. The throaty ‘kh’ that’s similar to Arabic is one thing, as well as a vowel between Turkish ‘e’ and ‘a’.

Kurdish stuff seems to always be political in Turkey, and the inadequate alphabet is no exception. Only last year did the government legalize the use of letters Q, W, and X, [I know–there's a potential satirical Sesame Street episode here] which are used for transliterating Kurdish, but which don’t otherwise exist in Turkish.

See the alphabet issue in this strongly-titled article by a journalist who maintains a devoted blog on Kurdish matters. You can also see the same article written in Turkish and written in Kurdish. [Note to self: Potential learning/self-educating materials].

Kurdish–my long lost cousin?

Learning issues aside, one cool thing about this language is that it feels eerily familiar, like a long lost cousin that shows up with features and mannerisms I know intimately, but wouldn’t notice until someone pointed them out.

Because it is an Indo-European language, and there are so many other Indo-European languages swilling around in my brain in varying quantities (English, Spanish, French, Italian, German, Hindi, Farsi...) every Kurdish word sounds like a possible cognate.

na (no)
du (two)
bra (brother)

Today a woman taught me ba for ‘wind’. It stuck easily. A list of cognates online points out that ba is a cognate for vent (‘wind’ in French). More from the list:

ster (star)
mer (mari in French) (man)
merane (manly)
nu (new)
brusk (blitz in German) (storm)

As my friend Alaina said, it makes the world seem even more like one big family.


  1. Tough as the start may be of this new language you are sounding positive~~finding new connections in your big world family. Can't wait to share some of this with you in April. My az biraz of Turkce won't help though by the sounds of it! Do you think brusk could have any connection with brusque?

  2. Reading your blog makes me feel warm and fuzzy!


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