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Grammar of the Kurdish Language

By Samuel A. Rhea,  Presented to the Society Oct. 21st, 1869.


REV. MR. RHEA arrived at his field of mission labor in the summer of 1851, and established himself among the Nestorians of the Kurdish mountains, at Memikan, a village of the mountain-plain of Gawar, before the end of the same year. This remained his station for more than eight years (till April, 1859), when he was driven home to America by ill-health; and, on his return to the Nestorian country (October, 1860), circumstances determined him to remain at Orûmiah; he died in September, 1865.

While in Gawar, he was in constant intercourse with Kurds, and paid much attention to their language, coming to converse in it readily and correctly, though never attempting to use it for purposes of preaching. He possessed unusual philological tastes and acquirements, used the Modern Syriac with a power which hardly any other missionary has gained, and, at the time when he was suddenly cut off, in the prime of life and the height of usefulness, he was perfecting himself in the Oriental or Tatar Turkish, with the view of translating the Bible into that dialect. For further particulars of the life and labors of this remarkable man, may be consulted his biography by Rev. D. W. Marsh; entitled "The Tennesseean in Persia and Kurdistan " (Philadelphia. 1869).

The grammatical sketch here given is believed to have been worked out during a winter which the author spent at Mt. Seir, above Orûmiah, before leaving Gawar finally. The Vocabulary had evidently lain some time by him, and received gradual additions and corrections, although not to any great extent, after its first drawing up. Both would doubtless have been made more complete and elaborate, if Mr. Rhea's work, after his return to Persia, had lain as much as before among the Kurds, or if he had himself put them in shape for publication. But, in their form as left by him, they will be found an important addition to our knowledge of this interesting language, especially as coming from a region and a dialect concerning which no information, so far as known to us, has yet been placed upon record.

Respecting the dialect and its locality, Rev. J. H. Shedd, Mr. Rhea's successor in Gawar (now in this country), writes us as follows:
"The district to which tbis dialect belongs is especially that of the Hakari, or of the tribes which formed the late principality of J ulemerk, being the southern portion of the present pashalik of Van, having the Persian boundary on the east, and the district of Butan on the west. The border districts on the south are Tiari, Pinyanish, Dastigan, and Shemisdin, and on the north it runs up to opposite Khoi, north of Kotur. The principal tribes in the Hakari country are: the Hartushi, a very powerful and numerous tribe, who winter on the plains of Mesopotamia and summer between Julemerk and Butan, with a smaller branch that summer near Tekhoma; the Pinyamishi, partly south of Tekhoma and partly in Gawar; the Dastiqani, farther east and to the east of Jelu; yet farther east, the Kurds of Shernisdin or Nochea; and, besides the fixed tribes, a powerful nomadic tribe, the Harki; farther north, in Gawar and on the Persian border, the Dirini; between Gawar and Julermerk, the Bilijani; between Gawar and Albagh, the Sorari; in Albaghi, near Bashkullah, the Albaghi; farther north, the Sukhmani; west of Julamerk, the Lewani; farther north, about and beyond Kotur, the Horamni, Tart, and Alwajeki. These names may not be, all of them, exactly correct, but they give an idea of the variety of tribes contained in what was the independent principality of Julemerk. The dialect of each tribe has its peculiarities. There is a considerable number of Knrds in the independent Nestorian districts, as Baz, Tekhoma, and Tiari, and nearly all the Nestorians know the language. The Kurds above mentioned may number 200,000. Beyond the Hakari country may be counted as speaking essentially the same language with that described in the Grammar, all the Kurds on the Persian side of the frontier, between Mt. Ararat and Soujbulakh, and, on theTurkish side, all to the east of Lake Van; also, south of the Hakari district as far as Ravanduz. The Kurds of Butan, who twenty-five years ago were under Bader Khan Beg, fall in point of dialect between the Hakari Kurds and those near Harput-I think, rather nearer to the former. And the Kurdish from Soujbulakh southward, including the region of Suleimania and Senna, is quite different from that of Hakari. The Harput dialect being the western, and the Senna the south-eastern, that of Hakari is the central, and probably the one least adulterated with foreign elements."

Mrs. Rhea writes: "At present, in Gawar, by appointment of our mission, Deacon Tamo, Mr. Rhea's neighbor and helper, is engaged in translating the Scriptures into Kurdish. Deacon Tamo, knowing already Syriac, Turkish, Kurdish, and probably Arabic, was taught Hebrew and English by Mr. Rhea."

A Kurdish primer, in the Armenian character, has been recently (1868) prepared and published by the American Mission at Harput. A complete version of the New Testament, prepared under the auspices of the same mission, is now or will soon be in press. Many years earlier (1866), a Kurdish version of the gospels, made by a native helper of the Assyrian mission of the A. B. C. F. M.," was printed at Constantinople, also in the Armenian character. These are the only works in or relating to the Kurdish, known to have been produced by American missionaries down to the present time.
In preparing Mr. Rhea's work for the press, we have simply recast the Grammar, modifying somewhat its arrangement and forms of statement, but without essentially altering or adding. The Vocabulary is changed only in arrangement, according to the different mode of vowel orthography which we have adopted.


The characters here used for expressing the Kurdish sounds are as follows:


a, has the open a sound infar, father.
ă, the flattened sound in hat, man.
â, the broad sound in all, awjitl, or.
ē, the" long a" sound in fate, male, they.
e; the sound in met, pen.
ī, the "long e" sound in meet, mete, pique.
i, the sound in pin, pit.
o, the sound in note, boat.
u; the sound in rule, moon, fool.
ŭ, the "neutral vowel" sound in but, come, blood.
ai. the sound in aisle, "long i " in pille.
au, the sound of ow or au in cow, sour.
oi', the sound in boil.

[Mr. Rhea's representation of some of the vowel sounds is here changed. He writes, according to English usage, ā instead of ē, and ē or ee instead of ī; and this leads him to distinguish the long and short quantities of e and i. He also writes oo instead of u, and does not denote the quantity. For o, he has ō, but apparently in order to prevent its utterance with the English" short o" sound, in not, pop, rather than to denote it as always long. He writes the au-sound in English fashion, by ow; of ai he says nothing, but we presume that when used by him it has the value stated above; rarely, he writes ī, which is also not mentioned in the list, but which is doubtless intended also to represent the English" long i" sound, or ai.]

CONSONANTS. b, d, j, s, h, k, i, m, n, p, r, s, t, v, w, y, z, are sounded as in English, ,g always with its "hard" sound, as in qet; qiue, go, and r with distinct trilled utterance, as in German or French.
ch, j have their English sounds in church, judqe.
sh; zh have the sounds of sh in she, and s or z in pleasure, azure.
kh, gh are deep guttural spirants or fricatives.

[Mr. Rhea adds signs for a "deep aspirate" and for peculiar values of k, s, and t, which he does not attempt to define, but distinguishes by a dot above the letter. But he does not use these signs in writing the Kurdish words, either in the Grammar or in the Vocabulary. They are doubtless intended to represent the Arabic he, kâf, sâd, and tâ.

Mr. Rhea sometimes writes a double consonant where there is no reason for it, either in etymology or pronunciation, merely under the influence of English orthographic usage. Such cases are reduced to single consonants, with occasional report of the change made.]




Presented to the Society Oct. 21st, 1869

Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 10, 118-155. 1872 - 1880

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