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Phonological Adjustments in Kurdish

By Khasrow F. Almasi, Central Washington University, May 2010


Phonological adjustments are such processes as assimilation, dissimilation, deletion, insertion, and linking. As a result of these processes, the sound segments go under partial or fundamental changes. In most languages, these adjustments do not lead to any difference in the orthographic form of the words after the adjustments are exerted, but the orthographic system of Kurdish does represent most of these adjustments.

This is simply because Kurdish orthographic system is a phonemic one, i.e., each and every single sound is represented in the orthography of the language. In this article, I examine the phonological adjustments in Kurdish and try to provide phonological reasons to show when and in what context these adjustments occur. 


Assimilation is a phonological process in which “a speech sound changes, and becomes more like another sound which follows or precedes it” (Richards, J. Platt, Platt, 1985, p 23). There are three kinds of assimilation: progressive, regressive, and coalescence. In a progressive assimilation, a sound segment is affected by a preceding sound. Regressive assimilation occurs in the opposite direction, i.e., a sound segment is affected by the following sound. In coalescence, two neighboring sounds affect each other and produce a third sound. In Kurdish, assimilation can be voicing or nasal. A sound is said to be [+voiced] if one can feel vibration of vocal cords during its articulation. Absence of vibration during the articulation of a sound results in a [-voiced] feature. The voicing assimilation, [-voiced] /ʃ/ is assimilated to [+voiced] /ʒ/ when followed by a [+voiced] phoneme like /r/.This happens mostly when a verb is used in its passive voice. It also happens in some other words. This kind of assimilation is regressive, because a sound with a [-voiced] feature is affected by the following sound with a [+voiced] feature, and as a result of this adjustment, it assimilates and changes to a [+voiced] sound. These adjustments are represented in the spelling system of Kurdish. Examples of assimilation are given in Table 1.

Table 1: Assimilation in Kurdish

Phonological realizations
Non-assimilated realization Assimilated realization
  heşt /h æʃt/ ‘eight’ hejde /hæʒdæ/ ‘eighteen’
Voicing naştin /naʃtn/ ‘to bury’ nejra /naʒra/ ‘was buried’
  kuştin /kuʃtn/ ‘to kill’ kujra /kuʒra/ ‘was killed’

As can be seen, in the word hesht /h æʃt/ ‘eight’ the [-voiced] /ʃ/ is followed by a [-voiced] /t/, but the /ʃ/ sound changes to [+voiced] /ʒ/ because in the new phonological environment, it if followed by a [+voiced] sound /d/.


The process of dissimilation is the opposite of what happens in assimilation. According to Celece-Murcia, Brinton, and Goodwin (1996) “The process of dissimilation occurs when adjacent sounds become more different from each other” (p. 162). This means that a sound changes to another sound with different phonemic features. Kurdish speakers in Hawler and Koya sometimes realize /l/ as /r/ and /b/ as /l/. In some areas of Sardasht, Piranshar, Mahabad and Shno, Kurdish speakers realize /ħ/ as /ʕ/ and /ʕ/ as /ħ/. Sulaimania speakers of Sorani also replace a consonant /t/ located medially in verbs with  vowel /u/ or glide /w/. Examples are shown in Table 2.

Table 2: Dissimilation in Sorani Kurdish

Dissimilation process
Not-dissimilated realization Dissimilated realization
/l/ xall /xaɫ/ ‘uncle’ xall /xar/
/b/ bo /bɔ/ ‘why’ bo [lɔ]
/ħ/ heya /ħæya/ ‘politeness’ heya /ʕæya/
/ʕ/ eşîre /ʕæʃɪræ/ ‘tribe’ eşîre /ħæʃɪræ/
/t/ etbînim /ætbinəm/ ‘see you’ etbînim /æwbinəm/
/t/ bitbînim /btbinəm/ ‘I see you’ bitbînim /bubinəm/


Deletion is a phonological process in which speakers leave out a phoneme. Simply put, a sound segment is deleted or is not articulated. This process, also known as omission, is one in which “sounds disappear or are not clearly articulated in certain contexts” (Celece-Murcia, Brinton, & Goodwin, 1996, pp. 163-164).

In Sorani Kurdish, deletion occurs when a verb is used with third person singular subjects or in imperatives. The final [t] in verbs are usually deleted in spoken Kurdish. Sorani Kurds also tend to drop final or medial [d] nouns. Kurds from Sina and Saqez areas also tend to delete the sound /d/ when located word-medially. Table 3 illustrates this phonological process.

In Sulaimania, deletion sometimes co-occurs with nasal assimilation. For example, when they pronounce the word pend /pænd/ ‘proverb’, they drop out the final /d/ sound and, is then assimilated to the preceding nasal /n/ and is articulated as/ŋ/ or /ng/. Examples of deletion are given in Table 3.

Table 3: Deletion in Sorani Kurdish

Phonological environment
Phonological Realizations
Non-deletion realization Deletion realization
Verbs eçêt /ætʃɛt/ ‘goes’ eçê /ætʃɛ/
Imperatives biçît /btʃɪt/ ‘You go” biçî /btʃɪ/
Nouns çend /tʃænd/ ‘how many’ çen /tʃæn/
Nouns didan /ddan/ ‘tooth’ dan /dan/


Insertion, or epenthesis, is a phenomenon in which a sound segment is added or inserted into a sequence of sounds. As Richards, Platt J, and Platt (1985) define, epenthesis is “the addition of a vowel or consonant at the beginning of a word or between sounds” (p. 126).

As illustrated in Table 4, the speakers of Sulaimania variety of Kurdish tend to insert a few sounds into verbs, including all singular and plural subjects. The insertion in Sorani Kurdish can be realized in the form of a sequence of sounds. For example, the final vowel /æ/ is substituted by a sequence /anɛ/. Consonant /d/ is added to the beginning of all forms of verbs in the present tense, and vowel /æ/ is inserted in the beginning of the first and second singular pronouns. These inserted sound segments can appear in both spoken and written forms.  

Table 4: Insertion in Sorani Kurdish

Phonological environment
Non-inserted realization Inserted realization
Verb, 1st person singular dêmewe /dɛmæwæ/ dêmewe /dɛmæwanɛ/
  ‘I come back’ ‘I come back’
Verb, 1st person singular eçim /ætʃəm/ deçim /dætʃəm/
  ‘I go’ ‘I go’
Pronoun, 1st person singular min /mən/ emin /æmən/
  ‘I’ ‘I’


Linking is “the connecting of the final sound of one word or syllable to the initial sound of the next” (Celece-Murcia et al., 1996, pp. 158-159). As illustrated in Table 5, an example of linking is conjunctionwe /wæ/ ‘and’, linked to the previous word. The conjunction is linked to the preceding word in natural fast speech. If a speaker would like to pause, he / she usually disconnects the conjunction and pronounces it separately. The disconnection occurs typically when a speaker changes the subject or topic or when he / she has forgotten a piece of information. Linking in Kurdish co-occurs with dissimilation, i.e., it results in a dissimilated form of the sound segment. So when the conjunction we /wæ/ ‘and’ is linked to the preceding word, it is phonetically dissimilated and realized as /u/ or /o/.

Table 5: Linking in Sorani Kurdish

Parts of speech
Non-linked realization Linked realization
pronouns min we to [mən wæ tɔ] min we to [mənu tɔ]
  ‘I and you’ ‘I and you’
nouns buk wa zawa [buk wæ  zawa] buk wa zawa [buku zawa]
  ‘bride and groom] [bride and groom]
verbs deçêt wa [dætʃɛt wæ] deçêt wa [dætʃɛtu]
  ‘he/she goes and’ ‘he/she goes and’
prepositions nawewe we[nawæwæ wæ] nawawa wa [nawæwo]
  ‘in and’ ‘in and’


It is concluded that the phonological processes such as assimilation, dissimilation, deletion, linking, and insertion occur in the Kurdish language and the lead to adjustments which are mostly regular and can be justified by the phonological rules. Most of the phonological adjustments are represented in the orthographic forms of the phonologically adjusted words. This is simply because Kurdish orthography is phonemic, i.e., each and every single sound is represented in the orthography. 


  1. Celece-Murcia, M., Brinton, D. M., & Goodwin, J. M. (1996). Teaching pronunciation: A reference for teachers of English to speakers of other languages. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  2. Richards., J. C., Platt, J., & Platt, H. (1985). Longman dictionary of language teaching & applied linguistics. England: Longman.

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