Last week I wrote about the Kurds as a people as an introduction to the subgroup known as “Feylis”. I wanted to write this week about the Feylis of Iraq and the ordeals they have faced over the past few decades, but as I was writing I decided a post on the language(s) spoken by the Feyli Kurds deserved its own post.
As stated last week, the Kurds are an ethnic group whose territory mainly spans a large area in and around border regions of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. This is a large group of 30-40 million that has, through the circumstances of geography and history, been denied their own state. This is a mostly Sunni Muslim people who speak the various dialects of the Kurdish language.
Interestingly enough, Gorani is seen as a separate, although closely related, language to Kurdish. It is grouped with Zaza in northern Kurdistan, another language that is not Kurdish, but whose speakers sometimes see themselves as Kurds and sometimes as a distinct group (although still very close to the Kurds).
While Zaza speakers seem to have an at least somewhat distinct identity based on their language, the Feyli Kurds identify themselves primarily with their sect (Shia Islam) as a distinguishing factor. There are many speakers of Gorani among Sunni Kurds in the area and on top of that Gorani is seen as an endangered language being phased out by the Sorani dialect. I had trouble finding a source on this and it seems a somewhat unclear situation, although if anyone can find the following book they can confirm: Meri, Josef W. Medieval Islamic Civilization: A–K, index. p 444.
Even if the Gorani language were to be completely supplanted by the Sorani dialect I would expect the Feyli Kurds to continue to exist as a distinct group due to their Shia faith whereas if the same were to happen between the Zaza language and the equivalent northern dialect of Kurdish (Kurmanji) I would expect the Zaza people to be subsumed into the larger Kurdish group.
Even the classification of Gorani as separate from Kurdish seems unclear with some sources classifying Gorani as a dialect of Kurdish due to the self identification of Gorani speakers as Kurds. If someone has access to Encyclopedia Britannica they can confirm with the following source: “Kurdish language.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2010. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 23 November 2010.
Now language borders are themselves a fairly arbitrary idea. While it is pretty easy to decide what is Turkish and what is Kurdish or what is Arabic and what is Kurdish due to their distinct separation into different language families originating from different areas, distinguishing languages or dialects that are all found in the North west Iranian group of languages, and found in roughly the same region, is a much trickier matter.
My own hunch is that Gorani is distinct from Kurdish as is Zaza, but all three languages being very distinct from Turkish and Arabic, their speakers identify with each other.
This map (provided by a Columbia University study “gulf2000” which is giving me great maps) illustrates the language situation much more beautifully than I could. The pink and red areas are all grouped in the north western Iranian language family with the red areas being dialects of Kurdish while the pink areas are other languages (Zazaki, Gorani, etc.)
Notice here Gorani and Zazaki are classified as dialects of Kurdish along with the main two dialects of Kurdish, Sorani and Bahdinai (Kurmanji). If these groups want to see themselves as Kurdish speakers then that is fine with me (what is an identity other than what people choose it to be).
There is not much more I can say on the matter of language here (due to my own ignorance on the subject) so I will end the discussion here and hopefully my next post will be on the plight of Feyli Kurds in Iraq rather than going off on another tangent.