Kurdish vernaculars are members of the northwestern subdivision of the Iranic branch of the Indo-European family of languages. Many Kurdish words are cognate with English, such as gama=game, mâra=marry, stâra=star, rubâr=river, dol=dale or valley, brâ=brother, mong=moon, snoy=snow, firo=free (of charge), standin=to stand, sur=sure, and the like. The major language nearest to Kurdish, however, is Persian, the state language of Iran, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan. The close relationship between Kurdish and Persian is similar to that between German and Danish.
Kurdish vernaculars divide into two primary groups: 1) the Kurmânji group, composed of two major branches, Bâhdinâni (or North Kurmânji) and Sorâni (or South Kurmânji) and 2) the Pahlawâni (or Pahlawânik) group, also composed of two major branches, Dimili (or Zaza) and Gurâni. These are further divided into scores of dialects and subdialects as well. Some of them, like Awrâmani and Laki (both major dialects of Gurâni), have large bodies of written literature that span more than a thousand years.
The name Kurmânj has been proposed by Minorsky to have evolved from the combination of Kurt and Mând, together meaning “Median Kurd.” This may be less plausible than contending theories asserting that it may have evolved from Kurt and Manna, i.e., “Mannaean Kurd.” The original home of Kurmânj was the Hakkâri region, which falls nicely within the territories of the ancient Mannas.
The common appellation Pahlawâni for Gurâni, Dimili, and other related dialects of the old language of the Kurds has now fallen out of use by the Kurds and the non-Kurds. Pahlawâni used by the medieval authors, and is here revived out of the need for a common name to cover all these dialects.
The term Pahlawâni itself has clearly evolved from Pahlawand, i.e., “that of Pahla.” Pahla comprised southern Kurdistan and northern Luristan, perhaps the original home area of the language. The suffix wand has already been discussed in the section on Tribes. The word Pahla is still preserved in corrupted form in the Kurdish tribal name Fayli, who incidentally still reside in southern Kurdistan, in the old Pahla region.
Lacking a state apparatus to undertake the task of creating a standard Kurdish language, the Kurds continue to speak a myriad of dialects, despite many unsuccessful attempts by Kurds to create such a standard national language.
If we were to compare the Kurdish language group to the Romance languages, the relationship between Kurmânji and Pahlawâni would be like that between French and Italian. Just as these Romance languages are the modern offshoots of Latin with various degrees of evolution from the original parent tongue, the modern Kurdish vernaculars are the offshoots of a single, now lost, archaic language that may loosely be called “Median” or “Proto-Kurdish” .
Kurmânji and Pahlawâni, like French and Italian, now qualify as two bona fide languages, and not dialects of the same language. Their variations are far too great by any standard linguistic criteria to warrant classification as dialects of the same language. Moreover, the level of mutual understanding between the speakers of the two is at best about half. These two Kurdish languages presently are spoken by very uneven segments of the Kurdish nation, with Kurmânji being the vernacular of about three-quarters of all Kurds, and Pahlawâni of the rest. This is the direct result of the major historical movements of people in Kurdistan since the middle of the classical era, as well as the introduction of new religions, which often resulted in alteration of the local speech as well as culture and economy. These changes are manifest not just in the language of the Kurds, but in their entire social and cultural spectrum. The extent of literature and the writing system employed in each of the Kurdish vernaculars are discussed under Literature and Education.
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