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Kurmanji or Sorani? Why not both in the Kurdistan Region?

By Rudaw 13/7/2018
Michael Chyet is foremost a linguist. Born in the United States, he developed an interest while learning Hebrew at day school as a child in Cincinnati, Ohio. He is also fluent in the other main Middle Eastern languages: Arabic, Farsi, Turkish, Kurdish, and additionally several more Indo-European tongues.

By day, Chyet works as a cataloger of Middle Eastern language materials at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., but in his spare time he shares his knowledge of the Kurdish language in academic circles and teaches courses in the Kurmanji and Sorani dialects to anyone. 

Rudaw had the opportunity to speak with Chyet in Washington, D.C., and ask about the Kurdish language's two major dialects: Kurmanji and Sorani. More than half of all Kurds speak Kurmanji, including similar dialects like Badini in the Iraqi Kurdistan. Because the Kurdistan Region of Iraq is the only internationally recognized autonomous region for Kurds, the issue of language standardization is discussed.

According to the Kurdistan Regional Government, both Badini and Sorani are to be taught in schools. However, it is rare to find a native Sorani speaker in Sulaimani who is fluent in Badini, without having taken extra courses; on the other side, not all Badini speakers are fluent in Sorani.

Millions of Kurds are in diaspora around the world where English is prevalent in pop culture, business, and diplomacy. While there have been initiatives to preserve the language in schools and community centers, often it is up to parents and relatives to teach their children Kurdish.

"Let them also learn English. But they shouldn’t ignore and forget theirs. Let them also study in English," he told Rudaw.

Even in Turkey, the most prominent Kurdish leader Selahattin Demirtas, does not publicly speak Kurdish. He is fluent in the lesser spoken Kurdish dialect of Zazaki and advocates for the teaching of Kurdish in public schools. 

Chyet was asked if it's dangerous for Kurdish children to not know their mother tongue.

"If you want to make Ankara happy, go do it. I did not come to this world to make Ankara happy," Chyet responded.

The polyglot was asked if he's upset at Kurds who only speak Turkish.

"I speak to them only in Kurmanji. I can speak Turkish very well, but never speak Turkish with Kurds," Chyet passionately explained.

Kurmanji, for example, is written in the Latin script, while Badini, Sorani, and other "southern" and "eastern" Kurdish languages are written in the Kurdish alphabet, a cursive script which is similar to Arabic and Farsi.

"They have to be equal and on the same level, not saying Sorani is better or higher. They are both equal. Every Kurdish child has to be able to speak, read and write in both dialects," argued Chyet.

For 18 years he painstakingly worked to write the most comprehensive Kurdish-English dictionary 'Ferhenga Kurmanci-Inglizi' which was published in 2003. From 1995-2000 he was Voice of America's Senior Editor for its Kurdish Service. 

Prices for new copies of the hardback book can fetch more than $1,500 in the aftermarket. Used copies can be found for around $200. Some linguists and Kurdologists are eagerly awaiting the release of Chyet's dictionary for Sorani.


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Muraz Adzhoev | 13/7/2018
He is a great, crystal honest and absolutely sincere man not only with delightful linguistic abilities, but also excellent humanistic mentality and worldview.
YA | 13/7/2018
Very good article
Linguist | 13/7/2018
Why not mentioning pahlavwni and Gorani? Problem is that there are 4 different Kurdish languages, with distsnces such as German to Dutch and even English to French.
sormanji | 13/7/2018
natural nations have different dialects and even different branches of one and same language. how many different diverse dialects isnt there in french german italian chinese japanese in english etc ?? and the reporter is right, kurds are under occupation of 4 or 5 different states its absolutely impossible to merge everything together under current circumstances. most kurds share same heart. what comes from the heart goes to the heart. cliche but very true.
Kurdish | 13/7/2018
Unifying Kurdish language is an important step forward for unifying Kurdistan. While Sorani has been practised in schools with a degree of freedom, practising Kurmanji in schools and public has been treated a a crime and yet it is the majority speaking dialect. Again, Sorani writing has been practised with modified Arabic/Islamic alphabet while original Latin Kurdish alphabet has been used in Kurmanji. It makes sense to go back to the origin of the Kurdish language, Kurmanji, and clean up the Kurdish language from Arabic and Turkish words and Arabic/Islamic scripts.

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