Conferences : World Congress of KURDISH STUDIES : Pierre LECOQ


Section PRESSE
World Congress of

Irbil, 6-9 September 2006

Organized by the Kurdish Institute of Paris in partnership with
Salahadin University (Irbil) and with the support of the
Kurdistan Regional Government and of the
French Ministry for Foreign Affairs

The place of Kurdish among the Iranian Languages

Par Pierre LECOQ (*)

I would like to take the opportunity offered in this congress to resume a problem which I had tackled some ten years ago, in a previous congress held in Paris and devoted to Kurdish Studies[1].

I had expressed a tentative theory about the place of Kurdish among the Iranian languages, within the framework of the historical grammar of that language[2]. However, my line of argument was not sufficiently documented. This is the reason why I wish to submit to this audience a new account of the problem, putting forward new and more detailed arguments for the solution which I am presently proposing.

There are two ways of approach to our problem. The first one is historical, or diachronic, and the second method is based on typology, a comparison of different languages, whether they are genetically related or not.

The diachronic method examines the ways in which a language has made changes over some period of time. When used to establish the genetic affiliation of different languages, this method allows to determine the common ancestor, from which they all started off at some time in the past and those languages are to be considered as no more than regional varieties. They share a common origin and constitue a language family. We know for a long time that Kurdish, Zaza, Persian, Gilaki, Pashto, Ossetic, etc. belong to the same group, which is called among linguists, the Iranian family of languages.

But a serious problem may arise when scholars try to determine a classification of different languages inside a recognized family. Some languages are more closely related within a family and the linguists try to establish a subgrouping of different varieties. Inside each subgroup, it is also necessary to distinguish further groups, or branches, until we reach the level of the languages as they are actually spoken.

If we start from the lowest level, we can say that Sorani, Mukri, Kurmanji, and the Kurdish dialects, spoken from the Caucasus till the Turkmenistan, all derive from a common Kurdish language and constitute a subgroup of their own. But what is the relationship between the Kurdish subgroup and the Persian one ? Shall we consider that Persian and Kurdish are a common subgroup inside the Iranian family or two separate subgroups ? Is Kurdish derived from Persian or Persian from Kurdish ? And what can we say about the other Iranian languages ?

The historical approach has allowed linguists to distinguish, at the highest level, two great groups inside the Iranian family. The Eastern group, including Pashto, Munji, etc., the unity of which is still a disputed problem, will not retain us here, because Kurdish belongs undoubtedly to the Western group.

Unfortunately, the historical method has its own limits. In this particular case,  we lack information, for a long period of time, about the Western group, with the exception of the Persian branch. We have in our possesssion the Achaemenian Old Persian inscriptions, from the 6th till the 4th century BC. and documents in Middle Persian (Sasanian inscriptions, Mazdean Pahlavi and Manichean texts). All this provides us with a very good knowledge of the evolution of the Persian branch, but we do not know anything about other Western Iranian languages untill a very late time.

However, the historical approach allows us to draw a very important conclusion. Since a time as early as the 5th century BC., Persian had developped its own characteristics and had acquired a shape which made it different from the other Western Iranian languages. An example will be sufficient here. The old Indo-European voiced velar *g(h) was represented by d in Persian and by z in the other languages, as Persian dān- “to know” (Modern Persian mi-dān-am) ank Kurdish zān- (Sorani a-zān-im)[3], or the old personnal pronoun “I” (Latin ego) which is represented by Old Persian adam, but in Kurmanji, Tāleši, etc. by az (also the Eastern Pashto ).

Unfortunately, as I said previously,  the historical method does not give us any possibility to elaborate a satisfactory classification of the Western Iranian languages. Nevertheless, we can draw our attention to a very important remark. As soon as the middle of the first millenium BC., Persian was distinct from the other Iranian languages. This is not at all surprising. Since the scattering of the primitive Iranian people, five or six centuries before, the course of time did favour the emergence of separate dialects inside the different Iranian tribes. Therefore, it is not highly speculative to assume that the languages we know in modern times had also acquired their own characteristics in a remote past. In other words, Kurdish, as well as Tāleši, Gilaki, etc., had begun the evolutionary process which led them eventually to the modern shape which we know currently.

If the historical approach is a failure to give us any certainty in relation to the classification of Western Iranian languages, we can go no further than to turn to typology.

Typology is a method which compares different languages according to their structural features. Comparison does not imply that those languages are genetically related. You could compare Chinese and French, as well as Kurdish and Japanese. There is a common agreement that typological similarities cannot be considered to be indicative of genetic relatedness. The stance that I take here on this issue is slightly different and less doctrinal, if I may use this word. Nothing cannot prevent us comparing, in the typological way, languages which share, as we know, a common ancestry, the subgrouping of which cannot be established by the way of the historical method. To put it otherwise : typological comparison may provide us with a clue which can help us to solve our problem in an historical view.

Before going any further, it is necessary to give a brief account of the most important members which constitute the group of  the Western Iranian Languages.

I shall call here “Medo-Caspian” a group of languages which are spoken in Eastern Turkey, in the Iranian Azerbaijan (the Ancient Media), on the shores of the Caspian See, in Khorassan, including some isolated languages in Afghanistan, and also in different parts of Central Iran. It is important to emphasize this point that the term “Medo-Caspian” is used here for the sake of convenience and does not imply at all that those languages constitute a homogeneous group.

Going from East to West and following a line running alongside the Caspian See, with an extension as far as Afghanistan, we meet a continuum of languages, only interrupted at both ends.

First of all, we find Zaza spoken by Kurdish people in Eastern Turkey, on a territory surrounded by Kurmanji and approximately limited by the towns of Erzincan, Erzurum, Mutki and Diyarbakir. Its old name “Dimli” has often been compared with “Daylam”, the ancient name of Gilān, and it is suggested that that language has its origins in the Caspian region. This is an attractive but still speculative hypothesis.

In Western Iran, on the territory of the Ancient Media, called nowadays Azerbaijan, we find the remnants of the Iranian language which was spoken there before the Turkish invasions. According to a suggestion of the Iranian scholar Ahmed Kasravi[4], it is convenient to call that language Āzari, which must not be mistaken for Turkish Azerbaijani. Āzari survives in isolated small areas : in NW Azerbaijan (Harzand, Dizmār), in NE (Xalxāl, Tārom), in the vicinity of Qazvin and some other regions.

In an eastward direction, along the western shores of the Caspian See. we find the Tāleši dialects, which are spoken in the Republic of Azerbaijan and in Iran, then the Gilaki dialects, in the city of Rasht and in all Gilān, and, lastly, Māzanderāni, till the border of Turkmenistan.

Slightly to the South of Māzanderān and at some distance East of Tehran, the town of Semnān has remarkably preserved its own language, the Semnāni, in spite of the constant pressure of Persian, spoken by the numerous travellers who take the road to Khorassan. Around Semnān, scattered in a desert region, is found a cluster of languages, Sorxei, Lāsgardi, Sangesari, etc. Those languages are still an unresolved problem. They are not related to each other and they cannot be considered as dialects of Semnāni. Their presence in the area could be explained as a consequence of the frequent invasions or forced migrations of populations, which  occured very often in that region.

In this respect, we still have to mention two isolated languages of Afghanistan. Parāči, spoken in some inaccessible valleys, in North of Kabul, and Ormuri, in South of Kabul and in a small region of Pakistan, Kanigram. In spite of their geographical situation, these two languages are not considered as part of the Eastern group of Iranian Langauges. They belong undoubtedly to the Western one.

If we come back to Eastern and Central Iran, we find a number of languages or clusters of dialects, often scattered in isolated areas.

First of all, a very interresting language, Gōrāni, spoken by some Kurdish tribes, in different small areas : Gawhāra (North of Kermanshah), Kandula (eastwards), Hawrāmān (West of Sanandaj), Bājalān (near Qasr-e Shirin), etc. This situation recalls that of Āzari and it induces us to suppose that Gorāni was once spoken on a larger and continuous territory. On the other hand, as it was the case with Zaza, Gōrāni has often been linked to the Caspian region (the name Gilān seems to be a frequent place name).

Other isolated languages are spoken in Iran : Tafreši dialects (near Hamadān and Sāve), various dialects of the Fārs province (including Sivandi), which have not yet been investigated enough, but they are not very important for our purpose, with the exception however of the Kaviri dialects, spoken in the Dašt-e Kavir, which offer very interresting features for our problem.

We shall end this review by Balōči, a very important language, spoken, in different and numerous dialects, on a considerable stretch of land, extending from South-Eastern Iran to South-Western Pakistan, as far as Karachi, with some isolated groups of Balōč, in Afghanistan and Turkmenistan. There is a general agreement that the Balōč tribes migrated into their present location, from the vicinity of the Caspian See, no later than in the late Sasanian times.

The main purpose of this paper is to show that all the languages of the so-called Medo-Caspian subgroup share common specific features in deep contrast with an other subgroup which is made up of Persian[5], Kurdish and the Kermanian dialects.

The Kermanian dialects constitute a very important cluster spread over a large area of Central Iran, limited by the towns of Kāšān, Ispahān, Kermān and Yazd. None of those dialects has ever gained the position of a literary language. A point of great importance for a linguist is that the Kermanian dialects seem to be at home in their present location. No trace of any substrate is detectable. This is an exceptional situation when one thinks that most of the Western Iranian languages have migrated in the course of history, with the valuable exception of Persian, which is attested in the Province of Fārs for a long time, as we have seen. This fact does not make easy the elaboration of a convincing theory about the classification of those languages.

 Actually, the large area where the Kermanian dialects are spoken seems to correspond to the Ancient Carmania which the Greek historian Herodotus locates on the North and East of the Fārs province, from which it is separated by moutains. Herodotus gives the strong impression that Persians and Carmanians are peoples who look very much alike. It is needless to say that the name of the old country survives till nowadays in the name of Kerman.

We can now proceed to our problem, beginning with the verbal system.

Kurdish, Persian and the Kermanian dialects have similar formations of the verbal conjugation. Two features are here important. First, tenses are formed regularly from two stems : present and past. The present stem is the continuation of the ancient present : Old Persian kunāmiy “I do” and the past stem is based on the old perfect participle : karta- “done” :

             Persian             kard                kon-

             Sorani              kird                 ka-  (< kar- in some S Kurd. dial.)

             Kurmanji          kir                   ka-

             Qohrudi           kard                ker-

             Abyānei           kard                kar-, etc.

Most of the Medo-Caspian dialects have a very different present tense formation. They use mostly a composed expression made of the ancient present participle kunant- “doing” and the verb “to be”. This is quite similar to the English “I am doing” (but usually with the meaning “I do”). The affix -nt- changes into –nd-, or more often is reduced by assimilation to ­–nn-, -n-. This formation has both habitual and actual present meaning, in contrast with the subjunctive which has no affix and describes a single action :

In Zaza, the present tense is formed with an affix –an- added to the root : barm- “to cry” : pr. st. barm-an- ; ras- “to arrive” : ras-an- ; kiš- “to kill” : kiš-an- ; kar- “to do” : kan­- (< *kar-an-), etc. The subjunctive lacks any affix and is formed with the bare root and the common Iranian prefix bi-.

The Āzari dialects follow the same pattern, but the old participial affix is sometimes better preserved as in Harzandi kond-en “I do”, in contrast with subj. kon-im “that I do”. Some dialects have lost that formation, but preserved it semantically in creating a periphrasis, having the meaning “I am at doing” : Keringāni mun-an be-kārde, Šāli az kerā paj-əm “I am cooking” (kerā is a particle expressing continuity), Kajali az mišim kore raz “I am going to the garden”. The Tāleši (nothern dialects) has regularly developped such a formation which has become the regular paradigm of the present : az karde-da-m “I do”, which must not be confused with the past kard-əm-e “I did”.

Gilaki seems to have lost this formation, probabily under pressure of Persian, while Māzanderāni has partially preserved the affix of the present participle, but it has merged at times with the personal endings : nevis-eni “you write”, contrasting with subj. be-nevis-i “that you write”, nevis-en “he writes” and be-nevis-e “that he write”. Šamerzādi, a very conservative Māzanderāni dialect, spoken outside Māzanderān, not far from Semnān has pors-ammam, pors-anni “I, you ask”, opposite subj. ba-pors-am, ba-pors-i “that I, you ask”.

Semnāni does not keep any trace of the affix, but, as one can expect, the surrounding dialects, isolated as they are in the desert, are more conservative. Sorxei has pors-enda, pors-ende “you, he ask/s”, but subj. pors, pors-ey “that you, he ask” ; also in Lāsgerdi. Sangesari has the same : pors-endi, pors-ende “I, you ask”, but subj. por-si, pors-e “that I, you ask”.

Parāči has remarkably retained the old present participle : ān-em xartön, tū-ē xartön, ö-ē xartön “I am, you are, he is eating”, but Ormuri has lost it. Instead, it developped a periphrasis : bu xra “he eats, is eating”, with a particle bu which recalls a similar construction in some Āzari dialects.

Gōrāni has no affix in the present indicative, which has probably been reshaped under the influence of both Persian and Kurdish, but the imperfect has surprisingly special personal endings which could be explained as tiny remnants of the old participle affix : karene, kareni, karenme, karende “I was, you were, we were, you were doing”.

Balōči has also lost the participle formation of the present, but it has on the contrary developped progressive expressions, as a continuative ravagā un “I am going” and an iterative ravān un “I am (still) going”.

Persian, Kurdish and the Kermanian dialects have followed a very different way. As we can see in Middle Persian, the old indicative present kunāmiy, became kunam, kunom, kunēm, all three free forms with the same meaning, as a general present “I do”, as a progessive present “I am doing”, as a future “I shall do”, and also as a subjunctive “that I do”. This is the so-called aorist, which soon was felt unable to describe the process of the action. A future-subjunctive was then formed with the loose particle be, well spread among almost all the Iranian languages.

The durative aspect was first expressed by an adverb, in Middle Persian hamē, Persian hami, the meaning of which is “always, all the time”. In the Persian of the time of Fedowsi, this is still a free particle : hami kār konam, kār konam hami, etc. “I work [I make work]”, but in classical Persian kār hami konam became usual and the particle was prefixed to the verb : (kār) mi-konam.

Kurdish and the Kermanian dialects followed the same process, but with a different word. The adverb was probably here *hadā[6] which evolved in da-, with different variations : Sorāni, Mukri da-ka-m, Kurmanji di-ka-m “I do”. The same prefix appears also in some Kaviri dialects : Xuri de-gen-am, Farvi di-gin-a “I see” and in Tafreši dialects : Āštiāni ed-gīr-o “he takes”, Āmorei ed-ā-m (< *ed-vā-m) “I say”.

The prefix appears also in a reduced form a- (sometimes also e-), with lost of the dental : Suleymāni, Sūrči, some Southern Kurdish dialects a-ka-m “I do”. The same in Tafreši : Vafsi a-vesin-om “I sit”, Āštiāni e-š-om “I go”, etc. The same appears very often in the Kermanian dialects : Abyānei e-kar-ān, Abuzeydābādi o-kor-ō “I do” (with e- > o- by vocalic assimilation, 2d sg. e-kar-ē “you do”). The prefix may also be completely lost as in many Southern Kurdish dialects and in Kermanian : Nāini kir-i “I do”, or even be displaced : Gazi ker-ān-e, Sedei ker-ōn-e, etc.

In some Kurdish dialects, the voiceless prefix t- is regularly used instead of its voiced counterpart d- : Zaxo, Sheikhan t-ka-m “I do”, t-girī-m “I take”. We also find the same prefix in many Kermanian dialects : Mahallāti at-kir-ōn, Vōnišuni et-ker-ān, etc., as well as in Tafreši : Kahaki to-vāj-e “he says”, Vafsi a-jān-ā “you know” (< *at-zān-a).

The t- prefix is also the rule in all Kurdish and Kermanian dialects, but its use is here restricted to some verbs beginning with a vowel and this prefix seems to be incorporated to the stem. Kurmanji az tīnim “I bring”, Wārmāwa min tēm “I come”, min tērim “I bring”. In Zakho, Gulli, etc. az tēm “I come” is the regular form. In Southern Kurdish dialects, we find similarly min tyām “I come”, min tyārim “I bring”, etc. In the Kermanian dialects this form is much more spread, even in dialects which use otherwise the reduced form a- of the prefix, or no prefix at all : Qohrudi a-t-ömödūn, Ardestāni a-t-ōmoyō, Nāini t-omi  “I was coming”, Abuzeydābādi o-t-ō, Ardestāni t-orō  “I come”, Abuzeydābādi a-t-ārō, Abyānei e-t-orān, Tāri a-t-ārō, Nāini t-āri “I bring”, and many other verbs.

If we turn know to the personal pronoun suffixes, we find a remarkable link between Kurdish and Kermanian dialects. As well known, Persian uses a set of pronouns, which is also found in all the Medo-Caspian dialects : sg. –m, -t, -š, pl. –mān, -tān, -šān (pesar-am, pesar-et, pesar-eš “my, your, his son”). Kurmanji has lost these sufixes, but Central and South Kurdish have preserved the same set of pronouns, except on one point : the 3d sg. is here –ī (Sorāni kur-im, kur-it but kur “my, your, his son”, South Kurdish das-i “his hand”, pā-y “his leg”). Many Kermanian dialects have borrowed the Persian form of the pronoun, but some of them, more conservative, have the suffix –i (also –y after vowel and  –e or –ey) : Qohrudi  pǖr-ey, Abuzeydābādi pür-e, Abyānei pǖr-i, Sedei pǖr-(e)i “his son” and also some Tafreši dialects : Xuri  pos-e(y) “his son”.

We find also a stressed deictic suffix which is shared by the three members of our subgroup and has a demonstrative force, or is identical to a definite article, mostly in its referential function. Persian has such a suffix, the use of which is however restricted to the spoken language : pesar-é “the (previously mentioned) son”. In the same way, Sorāni has kur, which is preferably used with the demonstrative : aw kur. The Kermanian dialects have exactly the same stressed suffix (also –e, -o) : Qohrudi yene-y- á “the woman”, Abuzeydābādi pe-y-á “the father”, Tāri pǖr-á, Varzenei por-ó  “the son”, etc.

But the substantive may also be determined in three other ways : by another substantive (the genitival construction), by an adjective in attributive function or by a personal pronoun, in order to show possession. Here the contrast between the Medo-Caspian group, on the one hand, and Kurdish, Persian, Kermanian, on the other hand, is striking. The great difference is of syntactical nature. In the first group the determination precedes the substantive, in the other, it follows it. However, Zaza and Gōrāni are on this point a particular issue which will be discussed below.

In the other languages belonging to the Medo-Caspian group, the substantive, when it determines a noun, comes first, sometimes in an oblique case. We find in Āzari dialects : Harzandi Hasan-i keteb “Hassan’s book” ; Hazārrudi deta-r čādera “the girl’s chador” and in Tāleši, Lenkorani  žen-i das “the woman’s hand”, Masulei zo-on pə “The boys’ father”. The Gilaki has xaxurzay-ə təvəllud “the niece’s birth”, Rašt-ə miyan “in Rašt” (litt. the middle of R.) and in Māzanderāni arbob-e pεsεr “the landlord’s son”. In the same way, Semnāni has Farhād-i kiya “Farhad’s house” and the neighbouring dialects : Sangesari  pūr-i ke “the son’s house”, Sorxei vače may and Lāsgerdi vače mā  “the child’s mother. The same pattern has been preserved in Parāči  bāw-ika γus “the father’s house”. For Ormuri ta pē nēr (same meaning), we can observe that the ancient construction has been reshaped, with the preposition ta, under the influence of Pašto : də plār kor. Finally Balōči : mard-ay gis and mardān-i gis “the man’s” and “the men’s house”.

As for the adjective, it takes often a suffix, which is used only in the attributive position. The origin of this suffix is not known. In Āzari dialects, we find Keringāni čuk-a mert “good man”, Hazārrudi sor-a xalā “red dress”, Čāli kov-a qāter “grey mule” and in Tāleši, Lenkorāni yol-a do “great tree”, Māsulei isbi-a asb “white horse”, Māsāli xās-a kina “pretty girl”. In Gilaki we have rāst-ə gəb “true word” and in Māzanderāni xor-ε kitob “good book”. In the same way, Semnāni pāk-a šiša “clean bottle” and also, but without any suffix, Sorxei esbi asm, Sangesari esbi asb “white horse”. No suffix either in Parāči : činö γus “small house”, nērök ösp “male horse, stallion”, and in Ormuri spēw yāsp “white horse”. In Balōči however, the suffix is regularly used : mazan-ēn asp “big horse”, ispēt-en jāmag “white shirt”.

Finally, the same construction occurs with the pronoun in its possessive function, but here we can reconstruct three different hitorical patterns, as follows :

                        1          *mana pitā                 “mine father (where “mine” is the old genetive)

                        2          *hača mana pitā        “of me father” (with redundant preposition)

                        3          *manahya pitā           “of-mine father” (with double genitive)

The first pattern is attested from the Gilaki to the other dialects eastwards. Gilaki : mi per, Māzanderāni me per, Semnāni mo piya, Sorxei mun bābā, Lāsgerdi mo pe(r), Sangesari ma pöšer, Parāči manān bāw, Ormuri tar mun a pē (tar is “of” and a the definite article). The second pattern is followed by the Āzari dialects where “my” appears as Harzandi čaman, Keringāni čeman, Hazārrudi čemen, etc. and in Tāleši we have Lenkorani čəmə pəa. Only Balōči follows the third pattern : man-ī piss.

Persian, Kurdish and the Kermanian dialects usually have the determining word after the substantive. In the Kermanian dialects, this is done directly, without any intervening morpheme or clitic. However, this is true only in the most conservative dialects. Many Kermanian dialects have indeed borrowed the Persian construction which we shall discuss presently. Nevertheless, this point must be stressed that most of them preserve the traditional pattern. We have Qohrudi kamar baxšedār “the belt of the governor”, keye tö “your house” ; Tāri töma handivūna “pip of watermelon” ; Nāini bu ādemizāt “smell of human being” ; Abyānei šāh vaxt “king of the time”, dānešmand γidīm “old scholar” ; Abuzeydābādi jū ōw “stream of water”, dokkō γassābi “butcher’s shop”, xar nača “good donkey”, xar ma “my donkey” ; Anāraki dig mahalli “local pot” ; Ardestāni dot pādeša “the king’s daughter”, berār goto “big brother”, pǖl õhā “their money” ; Varzenei pey men “my father”, etc. This may be compared also with the so called “open compound” in Kurdish : kura pāšā “the king’s son” (with an anaptyctic vowel) instead of kur-ī pāša, and birā gawra “eldest brother”.

Persian and Kurdish have the same word order and they use a nominal link, better known in the traditional grammars as ezāfe. We know the origin of the ezāfe. It is attested in Old Persian where it was a relative pronoun. In that language, “my son” could be said in three different ways : mana puça “of-me son”, or puça mana “son of-me”, or puça haya mana “son who of-me”. The last construction alone was preserved in Middle Persian : pus-ī man and in modern Persian : pesar-e man, where the ancient relative is nothing more than a simple enclitic. The same is true in Kurdish, kui-ī min. Moreover, as the ancient relative knew distinctions of gender and number, it explains why we have masculine, feminine and plural ezāfe in some Kurdish dialects.

The ezāfe construction is also found in Zaza and in Gōrāni, two languages which we have provisionally connected to the Medo-Caspian subgroup. We could suppose that the ezāfe construction has been borrowed from Persian or Kurdish, but this is unlikely. Moreover, Gōrāni has a specific adjectival ezāfe which does not exist elsewhere. Therefore, we are obliged to consider here a new division in the so called Medo-Caspian subgroup.

It is now time to draw a conclusion, at least as far as Kurdish is concerned. But, before doing so, I would like you to pay attention to a well known historical fact that has a great importance for the comprehension of the linguistic problems. In the course of history, the land of Iran has often suffered from numerous displacements of population. Some of them were undoubtedly deliberated, in a society where nomadism was for a long time a sort of way of life. Other ones were the consequence of political decisions. It is admitted that the Tāti dialects, which belong to the Persian group, spoken in the Caucasus, were brought there by Sasanian garrisons and we know also that King Shâh Abbâs displaced Turkish tribes into the Turkmenistan.

But many other displacements were caused by foreign invasions. Early in Sasanian times, Hunnic and other nomad tribes harassed Iran, then came Arabs, Mongols and Turks. In many cases, we can suppose that populations were submitted to the “domino principle”, when a tribe flying before the invaders, pushed the neighbouring tribe away, and the latter did so with its neighbour. Unfortunately, we have no information about the change such events caused on the linguistic situation. But this is the only way to explain the apparently so chaotic linguistic map of the Iranian lands. One invasion has perhaps had more weight than the other ones. The Scythian invasions which occured around the first century BC. changed completely the linguistic situation in Afghanistan. Many old languages disappeared and new ones, like Pašto, spread over a larger part of the country. We do not know how this affected the Western Iranian languages, but the Scythian invasion ruined completely the rich irrigated lands of Eastern Iran and caused a very important shift of populations westwards.

We have seen that Persian and Kermanian offer the same line of evolution, although they are not related genetically. This is not at all surprising. Linguists know for a long time that neighbour languages have influence on each other. But the similar convergence in Kurdish is amazing, since this language is spoken today at a great distance from both Persian and Kermanian. There is only one way to explain this : when Kurdish acquired its modern shape, it was spoken in the vicinity of the other two, probably on a territory roughly limited by South Media, North Persia and East Carmania.

We can now try to find some piece of evidence from ancient written sources. The Greek historian Strabo, who was writing during the Arsacid period, mentions twice (11, 13, 3 ; 15, 3, 1) a tribe of Kurtioi (Kyrtii in Latin). Their name has often been quoted in the studies about the origins of the Kurds, but modern historians rightly advise caution in the matter. Many peoples change their name in the course of history and similarity of name does not imply identity. But now we have a linguistic argument. Strabo locates the Kurtioi just where they are supposed to be according to the linguistic data. in the Nothern part of Persis, the Great Persis, in Strabo’s time.

In his description of the country East of Carmania, the Greek historian writes that it was occupied by three great tribes : the Achaemenidae, the Magi and the Pateischoreis. The first two tribes are the Persians and the Medes. The third name is attested in an inscription of Darius I, on his tomb at Naqš-e Rostam. as the tribal name Pātišuvariš [Pātišxwariš] of Gaubaruva, a high dignitary. This is undoubtedly an Iranian name, even if its etymology is still disputed. Strabo gives also the names of two subtribes : the Amardoi (or Mardoi), also a good Iranian name, and the Kurtioi. We can, at least, conclude that the latter is the name of an Iranian speaking tribe, maybe that of the ancestors of the Kurds.

Another literary source provides us with some piece of very interresting information. The famous Sasanian book Kārnāmag-ī Ardaxšīr-ī Pābagān (in Persian Kārnāme-ye Ardašir-e Bābakān)[7] describes the war Ardashir had to wage against the Kurdān Šāh, who is qualified as Median. Some scholars have cast doubt on the identity of these Kurds, but it seems to me hypercritical. Today, the Kurds are the most important Iranian population, just after the Persians, in the Western Iranian linguistic area. This importance is not a recent fact. We can assume that in Sasanian times the Kurds were a tribe strong enough not only to compete with Ardashir but also to inflict a defeat on the king’s military. On the other hand, the fighting with the Persians took place in the neighbourhood of Fars. Once again, this matches perfectly with the ancient location of the Kurds.

If we are right to place the original homeland of the Kurds approximately on the North of Fars and on the West of Esfahan, or maybe the very region of Esfahan, we still have to solve the issue of the time of their migration. Here again, the lingistic approach can help us.

Old Iranian, like the other ancient Indo-European languages, was charaterized by a very complicated morphology. Modern Iranian, especially modern Western Iranian, has been subjected to a significant simplification of the morphological system. We can say, on the testimony of written documents in Middle Persian and Parthian, that this process of simplification was accomplished as early as the 3rd century AD. A Persian of today can easily read Middle Persian, after some training. The same thing could hardly be said for Old Persian. We can rightly assume that Kurdish had reached the same stage of evolution during the Sasanian times.  Therefore, the westward migration of the Kurds could not happen, at the latest, before the end of the Arsacid period. The more probable time for this event is however the Sasanian period, as we know that many displacements of population occured at that time. Whether this was the outcome of the struggle of Ardashir, and his successors, against the Kurds is only a possibility.

A detailed reconstruction of the linguistic map of ancient Iran is beyond the scope of the present paper. But we can briefly sum up what has been under discussion.

Āzari and Tāleši are very close to each other. They may be considered as variants of the same language which was spoken on the territory of Nothern Media. The Turkish invasion caused a split between them and drove the Taleši onto the shores of the Caspian see.

Before this, this part of the Caspian shores could have been occupied by the Zaza. This position would explain its connection with Gilān, the former name of which was Daylam. From a linguistic point of view, it explains also some features which Zaza shares with the languages of the region, but also the ezâfe contruction which it has in common with his ancient southern neighbour, Kurdish.

Nothing can be said about Gilaki and Māzanderāni, except that Māzana is the name of a tribe which the Avesta locates in what is today Aghanistan. The Māzanderāni could have migrated from Afghanistan and changed the old name of the country which was Gorgān. Among the dialects spoken around Semnān, Sangesari has some features in common with Ormuri. Its origins are perhaps to be found also in Afghanistan.

About Gōrāni, we know for certain that the language occupied in the past a larger and continuous territory, before the Kurdish migration into their present home. It is known for a long time that Sorāni shows traces of a Gōrāni substrate. The origin of Gōrāni could be found slightly on the North-East of its present location. This would explain some similarities with its nothern neighbours Zaza and the Caspian dialects, and on the East, or South-East, with its other neighbour, Kurdish.

Balōči could have occupied a part of the Iranian Khorassan. This view is enhanced by the numerous isoglosses which it shares with Parthian. This again can only be explained by an ancient proximity of the two languages.

Finally, our map will be completed with the three neighbours of Central and South Iran. Persian in the South, slightly apart and, more closed to each other, Kermanian and Kurdish.


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[1] Colloque de Paris “La langue kurde à l’horizon de l’an 2000” (28-29 novembre 1993).

[2] P. Lecoq, La grammaire historique du kurde, The Journal of Kurdish Studies, II, 1996-97, pp. 31-36.

[3] Kurdish, as well as the other Iranian languages, is here written according to the usual scientific transciption, and NOT in the Kurmanji spelling..

[4] A. Kasravi, Āzari, yā zabān-e bāstān-e Āzarbāyjān, Tehrān, 1325 (1946)

[5] It may be pointed out here that the “Persian” subgroup does not only include only Persian, but also numerous other languages as Tāti (spoken in the Caucasus), Lori dialects, Lārestāni dialects, Baškardi and Kumzāri (in the Oman peninsula).

[6] This is the explanation proposed by K. Barr, Iranische Dialektaufzeichnungen aus dem Nachlass F.C. Andreas, bearbeitet mit Kaj Barr …, Abhandlungen der Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften zu Göttingen. Philologisch-historische Klasse, Dritte Folge, Bd. 11, 1939, p. 408, n. 3, who derives da- from Avestan haδa, Old Persian hadā. But the prefix appears also with a t- (see below) and a devoicing of the dental is hardly understandable. The opposite direction would be more plausible. If we start from ta- the voicing in da-may be explained by assimilation to a voiced consonnant of the verb or by analogy with the initial of the other verbal prefix be-.

[7] The Pahlavi text has been recently translated into French by Fr. Grenet, La Geste d’Ardashir fils de Pâbag, Die, ed. A Die, 2003 [see p. 79].

(*) Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, Paris