An Expat’s View on Kurdistan: Language
When it comes to learning culture, there’s no feat greater than that of learning language; and Kurdish is a language like no other. Its idiomatic nuances, rich vocabulary (or conversely the lack of richness surrounding a topic), and variations in dialect teach lessons on cultural values that can’t be learned in a book.
However, the question immediately has to be begged about which Kurdish one wishes to learn. I’m not speaking only about dialect differences between Sorani and Behdini, or about accent differences between those of differing tribes or from rural or urban settings. At times the most striking difference is found between older and younger generations—often living in the same household.
Older age groups, who were educated in Arabic and may have spent much of their careers interacting in Arabic during the Baathist era of Iraq’s history, may often find themselves scratching their heads by the authentic Kurdi heard on television channels and written in newspapers. This is in stark contrast to the up-and-coming generation of children and young adults who often don’t have any knowledge of Arabic, growing up and educated in a post-1991 Kurdistan when the Kurdish language was finally given its proper place as the de facto language of the region.
Striking also to Kurdish language learners is the richness of vocabulary as it pertains to family relationships. My head spun for a few minutes after realizing how many words are used for those we in English simply call cousin. As one might expect, this points to the importance Kurds place on family, desiring to be precise even unto the family members that Westerners often consider too distant to be important. The same marked richness is noted for domestic animals and geographical features—understandable given the Kurds' history as agrarian peoples inhabiting a very mountainous region.
The Kurds have long been influenced by the language of their conquerors and trade partners, which to this day is still noticeable in everyday language. Most prevalently, one can easily pick up Turkish vocabulary within Kurmanji and Persian influence in Sorani. At the same time, both dialects share a significant amount of Arabic words, particularly as it pertains to religious vocabulary. In this way, Arabic words remain at the forefront of greetings and well wishes in the Kurdistan region, despite the renaissance of the Kurdish language in Iraq.
With all the complexities in mind, one must consider that learning Kurdish in Kurdistan may be much easier than learning another language in another context simply because Kurds pride themselves immensely in their language and are particularly impressed and honored by anyone seeking to learn it—often going out of their way to help any struggling language learner. So whether you’re struggling to just get started with a few words or looking to advance in your solid Kurdish foundation, press on knowing that learning one’s language is the way into their heart.