Kurdish Phonology
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Kurdish Phonology

Kurdish phonology is the sound system of the Kurdish dialect continuum. This article includes the phonology of the three Kurdish dialects in their standard form respectively. Phonological features include the distinction between aspirated and unaspirated voiceless stops and the presence of facultative phonemes.[1][2]


Geographic distribution of Kurdish and Zaza-Gorani[3]

  • /n, t, d/ are laminal denti-alveolar [n?, t?, d?], while /s, z/ are dentalized laminal alveolar [s?, z?],[6] pronounced with the blade of the tongue very close to the back of the upper front teeth, with the tip resting behind lower front teeth.
  • Kurdish contrasts plain alveolar /l/ and velarized postalveolar[7]/?/ lateral approximants. Unlike in English, the sounds are separate phonemes rather than allophones.[8]
  • Postvocalic /d/ is lenited to an approximant . This is a regional feature occurring in other Iranian languages as well and called by Windfuhr the "Zagros d".[9]
  • Kurdish has two rhotic sounds; the alveolar flap (/?/) and the alveolar trill (/r/). While the former is alveolar, the latter has an alveo-palatal articulation.[10]
  • According to Hamid (2015), /x, x?, ?, / are uvular [?, , ?, ] in Central Kurdish.[11]
  • Northern Kurdish distinguishes between aspirated and unaspirated voiceless stops, which can be aspirated in all positions. Thus /p/ contrasts with /p?/, /t/ with /t?/, /k/ with /k?/, and the affricate /t/ with /t/.[2][8][12]
  • Although is considered an allophone of /w/, some phonologists argue that it should be considered a phoneme.[13]
  • Kurdish distinguishes between the plain /s/ and /z/ and the velarized /s?/ and /z?/.[14][15] These velarized counterparts are less emphatic[clarification needed] than the Semitic emphatic consonants.[15]
  • is an allophone of /n/ in Southern Kurdish, occurring in the about 11 to 19 words that have the consonant group ⟨nz⟩. The word yânza is pronounced as [j?:?z?a].[16]


  • Kurdish has labialized counterparts to the velar plosives, the voiceless velar fricative and the uvular stop. Thus /k/ contrasts with /k?/, /?/ with //, /x/ with /x?/, and /q/ with /q?/.[17] These labialized counterparts do not have any distinct letters or digraph. Examples are the word xulam ('servant') which is pronounced as [x'l?:m], and qoç ('horn') is pronounced as [qnd].[18]


  • After /?/, /t/ is palatalized to [t?]. An example is the Central Kurdish word gâlta ('joke'), which is pronounced as [g?:?'t?æ].[8]
  • /k/ and /?/ are strongly palatalized before the front vowels /i/ and /e/ as well as , becoming acoustically similar to /t/ and /d/.[2]
  • When preceding /n/, /s, z/ are palatalized to /?/. In the same environment, /?/ also becomes /?/.[19]


  • In some cases, /p, t, k, s, z/ are pharyngealized to [p?, t?, k?, s?, z?]. For example, the word sed/?ed is pronounced as ['sd][8][4][20]
  • Furthermore, while [f?] and [] are unique to Central Kurdish,[5] Northern Kurdish has [t].[21]

Facultative consonants

  • /?/ and /?/ are non-native phonemes that are mostly present in words of Arabic origin. Even though they are usually replaced by /h/ and /x/ respectively, they are facultative. Thus the word heft/?eft ('seven' /'ft/) can be pronounced as either ['h?ft] or ['ft], and xerîb/?erîb ('stranger', /'ri:b/) as either [x?'ri:b] or ['ri:b].[22]
  • /?/ is only present in words of Arabic origin and is only present in initial position.[23] An Arabic loanword like "Hasan" would thus be pronounced as /'s?n/.[24] The phoneme is absent in some Northern and Southern Kurdish dialects.[25]
  • /?/ is mainly present in Arabic loan words and affect the pronunciation of that vowel. However, many Kurds avoid using the glottal phoneme for nationalist and purist reasons since the glottal phoneme is seen as the embodiment of Arabic influence in Kurdish.[26]


The vowel inventory differs by dialect, some dialect having more vowel phonemes than others. /i:, ?, u:, ?, e:, o:, ?:/ are the only vowel phonemes present in all three Kurdish dialects.

Detailed table

Letter Phoneme
Northern[29] Central[30] Southern[31][32]
a ?: a a[33]
â - ?: ?:[34]
e ? ? ?
ê e: e: e:
i ? ? ?[35]
î i: i: i:
o o: o: o
ô - - o:
ö - - ø:[36]
u ? ? ?[37]
û u: u: u:
ü - - ?:[38]


  • In Central Kurdish, /a/ is realized as , except before /w/ where it becomes mid-centralized to . For example, the word gawra ('big') is pronounced as [w'?æ].[39]
  • /?/ is realized as in certain environments.[28][40][41]
  • In some words, /?/ and /u/ are realized as . This allophone occurs when ⟨i⟩ is present in a closed syllable that ends with /m/ and in some certain words like dims ('molasses'). The word vedixwim ('I am drinking') is thus pronounced as [v?d?'xm],[40] while dims is pronounced as [d?ms].[42]

Facultative vowels

  • /ø:/ only exists in Southern Kurdish, represented by ⟨ö⟩. In Northern Kurdish, it is only present facultatively in loan words from Turkish, as it mostly merges with /o:/. The word öks (from Turkish ökse meaning 'clayish mud') is pronounced as either [ø:ks] or [o:ks].[43]
  • 'Short o' is not common in Kurdish and exists mostly in loanwords from Turkish like komite, which is pronounced as [komi:'t?].[44]

Glides and diphthongs

The glides , , and appear in syllable onsets immediately followed by a full vowel. All combinations except the last four are present in all three Kurdish dialects. If the word used as an example is unique to a dialect, the dialect is mentioned.

IPA Spelling Example Word Dialect Group
Northern Central Southern
[?w] aw ?aw[45] ['w] 'night' (Central Kurdish) Yes Yes Yes
[?:w] âw çaw[45] ['t:w] 'eye' (Central Kurdish) Yes Yes Yes
[?:j] ây çay[45] ['t:j] 'tea' Yes Yes Yes
[?w] ew kew[46] ['k?w] 'partridge' Yes Yes Yes
[?j] ey peynja[45] [p?j'n?æ]
'ladder' Yes Yes Yes
[o:j] oy birôyn[45] [b?'?o:jn] 'let's go' (Central Kurdish) Yes Yes Yes
[u:j] ûy çûy[45] ['tu:j] 'went' (Central Kurdish) Yes Yes Yes
[?:?] a da[13] ['d?:?] 'ogre' (Southern Kurdish) No No Yes
[?:?] ü küa[13] ['k?::] 'mountain' (Southern Kurdish) No No Yes
[] e tela[13] [t'l?:] 'stable' (Southern Kurdish) No No Yes
[:] a dat[13] [d:t] 'daughter' (Southern Kurdish) No No Yes


  1. ^ a b Khan & Lescot (1970), pp. 3-7.
  2. ^ a b c Haig & Matras (2002), p. 5.
  3. ^ The map shown is based on a map published by Le Monde Diplomatique in 2007.
  4. ^ a b Thackston (2006a), pp. 1-2.
  5. ^ a b Asadpour & Mohammadi (2014), p. 109.
  6. ^ Khan & Lescot (1970), p. 5.
  7. ^ Sedeeq (2017), p. 82.
  8. ^ a b c d Rahimpour & Dovaise (2011), p. 75.
  9. ^ Windfuhrt (2012), p. 597.
  10. ^ Rahimpour & Dovaise (2011), pp. 75-76.
  11. ^ Hamid (2015), p. 18.
  12. ^ Campbell & King (2000), p. 899.
  13. ^ a b c d e Fattahi, Anonby & Gheitasi (2016).
  14. ^ McCarus (1958), pp. 12.
  15. ^ a b Fattah (2000), pp. 96-97.
  16. ^ Fattah (2000), pp. 97-98.
  17. ^ Gündo?du (2016), pp. 61-62.
  18. ^ Gündo?du (2016), p. 65.
  19. ^ "Kurdish language i. History of the Kurdish language". Iranicaonline. Retrieved 2017.
  20. ^ Thackston (2006b), pp. 2-4.
  21. ^ Thackston (2006b), p. 2.
  22. ^ Khan & Lescot (1970), p. 6.
  23. ^ Asadpour & Mohammadi (2014), p. 114.
  24. ^ "1.26 Pharyngeal substitution". Dialects of Kurdish. University of Manchester. Retrieved 2017.
  25. ^ "1.27 Pharyngeal retention in 'animal'". Dialects of Kurdish. University of Manchester. Retrieved 2017.
  26. ^ Sedeeq (2017), pp. 80, 105-106.
  27. ^ Khan & Lescot (1970), pp. 8-16.
  28. ^ a b Thackston (2006a), p. 1.
  29. ^ Thackston (2006b), pp. 1-2.
  30. ^ Thackston (2006a), p. 7.
  31. ^ Fattah (2000), pp. 110-122.
  32. ^ Soane (1922), pp. 193-202.
  33. ^ Fattah describes the sound as a voyelle brève antérieure ou centrale non arrondie (p. 119).
  34. ^ Fattah describes the sound as a voyelle longue postérieure, d'aperture maximale, légèrement nasalisée. (p. 110)
  35. ^ Fattah describes the sound as being the voyelle ultra-brève centrale très légèrement arrondie (p. 120).
  36. ^ Fattah describes the sound as being the voyelle longue d'aperture minimale centrale arrondie (p. 114).
  37. ^ Fattah describes the sound as being the voyelle postérieure arrondie (p. 111).
  38. ^ Fattah describes the sound as being voyelle longue centrale arrondie (p. 116).
  39. ^ Thackston (2006a), p. 3.
  40. ^ a b Thackston (2006b), p. 1.
  41. ^ Gündo?du (2016), p. 62.
  42. ^ Gündo?du (2016), p. 61.
  43. ^ Khan & Lescot (1970), p. 16.
  44. ^ Soane (1922), p. 198.
  45. ^ a b c d e f Rahimpour & Dovaise (2011), p. 77.
  46. ^ Asadpour & Mohammadi (2014), p. 107.


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