The Zaza dialect, including whether it is oral/written, living/dead, and has a dictionary [TUR31172.E]

The majority of Kurds speak one of two language variants: a variety of Kurmanci (Kurmanji, Northern Kurdish) or Sorani (Kurdi, or Southern Kurdish) (UCLA n.d.; Leezenberg 1993). Smaller numbers speak Gorani or Zaza (ibid.). Michiel Leezenberg of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Amsterdam states that although Gorani and Zaza are closely related to Kurmanci and Sorani, they do not "strictly belong to the same branch of Indo-Iranian languages. Nevertheless, both groups are commonly thought to belong to the Northwestern group of Iranian languages" (Leezenberg 1993).

According to a UCLA Kurdish language profile, "some people who regard themselves as Kurds speak Gurani (Gorani) and Zaza (or Dimli), closely related Indo-European languages of a non-Kurdish group" (UCLA n.d.).

The section for Turkey in the 1996 edition of the Ethnologue provides the following information on Dimli, which is also known as Dimili, Zazaki, Southern Zaza, Zâzâ: a 1992 census reported that there are one million Dimli speakers worldwide; in Turkey they are found throughout east and central Turkey, mainly in the provinces of Elazig, Bingol and Diyarbakir, the upper courses of the Euphrates, Kizilirmaq and Murat rivers. Dimli is not a Kurdish language nor is it intelligible with Kurmanji. The speakers are called 'Zaza' and the language 'Zazaki.' Dimli belongs to the Northwestern group of Iranian languages (Grimes 1996).

According to Leezenberg, " The most important contemporary Zaza author is Malmisanij, now living in Sweden, who regularly contributes poetry and prose texts to various periodicals; in 1987 he also published a Zaza-Turkish dictionary" (1993).

The following information, quoted from Michiel Leezenberg's 1993 article entitled Gorani Influence on Central Kurdish: Substratum or Prestige Borrowing?, provides linguistic information on the Zaza dialects, but also discusses Zaza's literary and musical tradition. Please note that the Research Directorate has placed subject headings in the quotation to highlight each topic discussed.


... there are the varieties of Zaza, some of which are also called Dumili or Dimili. These are spoken in the northwesternmost part of Kurdistan in the triangle between Sivas, Bitlis, and Diyarbakir. Interestingly-and confusingly-, Zaza speakers in Dersim (present-day Tunceli) call their own tongue Kirmanci; and the local Kurmanci dialect Herewere ... or Kurdasi; Dersimi Zaza is also called So-be ... by local Kurmanci speakers. ... Zaza is marked off from the neighbouring Kurmanci dialects by a number of phonetic differences ... and morphological features ... and probably a morphological borrowing from Armenian. ... On the whole, Zaza seems to have undergone a relatively strong influence from Armenian, which was spoken in the northernmost parts of the area now almost exclusively inhabited by Kurds up till the early 20th century. ...
...The Zaza dialects are not a monolithic whole; among them, important dialectal differences appear, not only in phonetics (e.g the Dersimi s as opposed to sh in all other varieties), but also in morphology; for example, the personal pronoun systems diverge significantly. It must likewise be stressed that the Zaza-speaking areas are by no means monolingually so. For example, of the 127 tribes in the Dersim region listed by Dersimi (1952), 90 are Zaza- and 37 Kurmanci-speaking.
... Some final sociolinguistic remarks: Zaza is not exclusively spoken by nontribal Kurds... . There is no indication that these Zazaophone tribes of Dersim were originally non-tribal peasants (nor, incidentally, that they have been in the area for longer than the Kurmanci speaking ones). In short, Zaza is, and for as far as we can tell has at all times been, spoken by tribal (semi-) nomads and by nontribal peasants alike.

Zaza and Religion

There is also an important link between the Zaza dialects and heterodox Islam ...: a fair number of Zaza speakers, particularly in the Tunceli region, are Alevis, i.e. heterodox Shi'ites; but the Zaza speakers in other regions (e.g. Siverek, Diyarbakir, and Bingol) are mostly orthodox Sunnis. Nevertheless, the link between Zaza and heterodox religion is significant, as are the similarities between the Alevi and the Ahi-e Haqq faiths.

Literary and Musical Tradition

Zaza has practically no written literary tradition: the earliest specimens of written Zaza sources are two mawluds [also mawlid, a poem in praise of the Prophet Muhammad or saint] written in the Arabic alphabet, which were published in the early 20th century, one of them in 1930 in Damascus; all earlier grammatical studies concentrate on the spoken language.
The first serious attempts at creating a Zaza variety fit for purposes of mass communication appeared in the review Tirej in the late 1970s. After three issues, however, this review was banned in 1980. Since then, a small number of authors have published poetry, short stories, and essays in exile: periodicals such as Hevi and Berbang that also contain texts in Kurmanci and Sorani, and more recently in magazines exclusively written in Zaza, like Piya and Rashtiye, which espouse a specifically Zaza nationalist feeling (and a demand for a separate 'Zazaistan'); but these probably reach a small audience only. ...
In conclusion, it seems safe to say that Zaza is not very likely to become a widespread medium of writing and education, although the increased self awareness of Zaza speakers, and the growing numbers of cassette tapes with music sung in Zaza (by vocalists like Yilmaz çelik, Kadri Karagöat;z [sic], and on occasion even Shivan) may contribute to its survival as a spoken language in mass communication.

This Response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the Research Directorate within time constraints. This Response is not, and does not purport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim to refugee status or asylum.


Grimes, Barbara F. (ed). 1996. 13th Ed. Ethnologue. [Internet] ethnologue/countries [Accessed 17 Feb. 1999]

Leezenberg, Michiel. 1993. Gorani Influence on Central Kurdish: Substratum or Prestige Borrowing? [Internet] [Accessed 15 Feb. 1999]

UCLA. n.d. "Kurdish Profile." [Internet]. [Accessed 15 Feb. 1999]