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How to Tell the Difference Between Arabic, Persian, and Kurdish

Differences Between Arabic, Persian, and Kurdish

In this article we will demonstrate to you how you can easily tell the difference between the languages written in the Arabic script. Much like most European languages use the Latin script, each language has a few special letters that are unique to itself and this is true for these languages as well.

The idea for this article was originally conceived and written by Imadeddin Fatah, polyglot of Middle Eastern and East Asian languages at Glossika. It was added to, typeset, and edited for consistency by Michael Campbell, hyperpolyglot founder of Glossika. The green-colored words found in the article is sourced from the Saudi flag, the yellow from the sun on the Kurdish flag, and the red from the lower third of the Iranian flag.

Why Recognize these languages?

For some people, it’s important for their job, especially if they work in text or book processing such as libraries. For people who are learning a language of the Middle East, it’s also important to know what you might be looking at doesn’t belong to the language you’re learning. Otherwise, it is a fun task to be able to rely on your own instinct to determine which language something is written in.

Arabic, Persian, Kurdish, among many others, all use an Arabic-based script. During the Ottoman Empire, Turkish was also written in Arabic up until Mustafa Kemal Atatürk declared the change to Latin script in 1928.

Many people may not know this, but these languages all belong to different language families. In fact, Persian and Kurdish are Indo-European languages and have more in common with English and Greek than they do with Arabic. Turkish, on the other hand, belongs to yet another language family. You can read more about language families on the Glossika blog.

Similarities and Differences

In this article we will only discuss the differences between Arabic, Persian, and Kurdish. The Arabic script is used in many more languages, major ones of which include Pashtu and Urdu, but we'll leave those for a future article.

The following three sentences demonstrate how similar the languages look.

Despite the similarity, you should also be able to notice striking differences such as vocabulary and sentence length. Other than that, you may have no other clues to work with.

If a person is not familiar with the Arabic alphabet, these three languages might look very similar at first, for example, take a look at the following sentences:

“My job is very interesting. I meet a lot of people.”
مهنتي مثيرة جدا للإهتمام. أقابل الكثير من الناس.
شغل من خیلی جالبه. من با افراد زیادی ملاقات میکنم.
ئیشەکەم زۆر خۆشه. له‌گه‌ڵ خه‌ڵکانێکی زۆر ئاشنا ئه‌بم.

All sentences that are used here can be found in our Glossika language courses (and if not published yet, will be published soon).

You might not know the difference at this moment, but very soon, with some tips and tricks, you will be able to easily recognize the difference between these languages, and next time you can tell your friends which language is which even you don’t speak any of these languages.

If you didn’t notice it yet, the Arabic script starts on the other side of the page than how you’re used to reading English: from right to left. The other thing to notice is how the letters are almost all connected to each other in a row. There are some letters that don’t connect as a rule. Letters written alone or at the end of a word usually have an extra tail.

Many letters in the Arabic alphabet look the same, but only differ by adding one or more dots above or below a letter. This allows a different language with more sounds to add more letters as necessary, much like how German adds two dots to vowels to get extra letters: ä, ö, ü.

Here is the alphabetic list of all the letters in Arabic, Persian, and Kurdish. Notice the extra letters in Persian and Kurdish.

Arabic
ا ب ت ث ج ح خ د ذ ر ز س ش ص ض ط ظ ع غ ف ق ك ل م ن ه و ي
Persian
آ ا ب پ ت ث ج چ ح خ د ذ ر ز ژ س ش ص ض ط ظ ع غ ف ق ک گ ل م ن و ه ی
Kurdish
ا ب پ ت ج چ ح خ د ر ڕ ز ژ س ش ع غ ف ڤ ق ک گ ل ڵ م ن ‌‌هـ ە و وو ۆ ی ێ ئـ

A note should be made about Arabic's four emphatic letters: ص ض ط ظ. These letters (and sounds) only really appear in Arabic, but since Persian has so much borrowed vocabulary from Arabic, they do frequently appear in Persian as well. Kurdish prefers not to use them at all.

If you ever see the letter ط written smaller above other letters as a superscript ( ڈ ڑ ), then you're looking at Urdu and since Urdu is supposed to be written in a Nastaliq script, the overall appearance is quite dramatically different from either Arabic or Persian, running diagonally in tall and tight compact letters from top right to bottom left.

Finding the Unique Letters

Here are letters unique to only Persian and Kurdish:

چ پ ژ گ

Here are letters unique to only Kurdish:
ڕ ڤ ڵ ۆ ێ

Notice how four of the unique Kurdish letters have an extra “v” written above or below the base letter.

So although Persian shares a lot of letters with Kurdish and Arabic, you should notice that Persian lacks a lot of commonly seen letters in Kurdish. Kurdish is the alphabet with the most letters among the three.

Central Kurdish (Sorani)

First, we should clarify that we're talking about Central Kurdish and not other forms of Kurdish (there are several Kurdish languages). The Kurdish spoken further to the north in Turkey is called Kurmanji. The Kurdish we're talking about in this article is Sorani, which is spoken in Iraq and is the mother language of Imadeddin, the author of this article.

The easiest way to recognize a Kurdish text is by searching for the small “v” shapes above or below the letters.

"Who are you waiting for?"
چاوەڕێی کێ ئەکەیت؟

Notice the small “v” shapes above or below the words — a clear sign that this is Kurdish.

Some more examples:

دوێنێ هه‌وا زۆر خۆش نه‌بوو.
شوشە لە لم دروست ئەکرێت.

You will also notice that the letter ه‌ has its own shape in the middle of a word in Kurdish, which is impossible in Arabic: ـەـ. In Arabic, that same letter resembles more like a cursive English “f” like this: ـهـ. So even though Arabic ه and Kurdish ە look the same, in Arabic it links to the next character whereas in Kurdish it doesn’t. The letter will only look the same at the end of a word or written as an isolated letter. And these are very easy to recognize among Kurdish words.

Technical Explanation: The Unicode codepoint for ه‌ in Arabic is ه and for ە in Kurdish is ە. The Arabic character joins with the following letter whereas the Kurdish character does not.

How to Type in Sorani Kurdish

To type in Kurdish, select the Iraqi Arabic keyboard from your input keyboards (in Windows). You can click on the icon to choose between Arabic and Kurdish. The Kurdish input will automatically produce Kurdish characters according to the keyboard layout you choose.

Standard Arabic

Arabic is very easy to distinguish when written with tashkeel (the phonetic guide). Almost every letter will have a symbol above or below rendering it quite different from Kurdish and Persian. Example:

The weather is not cold.
الْجَوُّ لَيْسَ بَارِدًا.

Unfortunately, most of the time, Arabic texts are written without tashkeel, making it harder for foreigners to distinguish or read correctly. This is why our Glossika courses include tashkeel for you to learn to recognize the spelling and pronunciation more easily.

Here is an example of a sentence written with tashkeel and the same sentence without:

The old couple were in the park taking a walk.
كَانَ الزَّوْجَيْنِ الْعَجُوزَيْنِ يَتَمَشَّوْنَ فِي الْحَدِيَقَةِ. with tashkeel
کان الزوجين العجوزين يتمشون في الحديقة. without tashkeel

In this case, there is an easy way to know if a text is Arabic by visually searching for the letters ي ة ـة , the letter “y” at the end of words: ي and the feminine “ta” endings of words: ـة ة , — all clear signs that this is Arabic.

Let’s take a look at the same sentence again:

کان الزوجين العجوزين يتمشون فــي الحديقــة

These two letters are enough to be sure the text you are seeing is written in Arabic language, not in Persian or Kurdish.

More examples:

مَا هُوَ أَطْوَلُ نَهْرٍ فِــي الْعَالَمِ؟
أُرِيدُ أَنْ أَذْهَبَ إِلَى الْكُلِّيَّةِ عِنْدَمَا أَنْتَهِــي مِنَ الْمَدْرَسَــةِ الثَّانَوِيَّــةِ.
وَصَلَ أَصْدِقَائِــي يَوْمَ الْجُمُعَــةِ.

Keep in mind that sometimes you might have a complete sentence without these letters (ي (ة ـة , for example:

متى وصل البريد هذا الصباح؟

In this case, it might be a little more difficult to recognize the language if you don’t know Arabic. But another quick way to know is the presence of the “الـ” which is the Arabic word for “the” that attach to the nouns. This is a clear sign of Arabic language.

Now you have two easy ways to tell if a text is Arabic, search the endings of words for specific letters and check for the Arabic word for “the” as it is even more frequent in Arabic than it is in English. The third sentence has “the” but it takes on a different shape due to the following letter: here, the الـأَ changes shape to الأَ which is an aesthetically more pleasing look.

الــبْرَازِيلُ بَلَدٌ كَبِيرٌ جِدًا.
إِنَّهَا تَأْكُلُ تُفَّاحَــةً.
تَدُورُ الأَرْضُ حَوْلَ الــشَّمْسِ.
لاَ أُحِبُّ كُرَةَ الْــقَدَمِ.

Persian

In English we should always refer to the language of Iran as Persian. This is the English name. If you were speaking in Persian, then you would refer to the language as Farsi. The Persian language is a lingua franca across several countries, albeit each country having a local standard: Persian in Iran, Dari in Afghanistan (written in the same script), and Tajiki in Tajikistan (written in Cyrillic script).

All of the related languages in this region along with the languages of India and the subcontinent that descended from Sanskrit (including Hindi and Urdu) make up the eastern branch of the Indo-European language family: Indo-Iranian.

Kurdish and Persian are linguistically sister languages and both are in the Iranian branch, much like how English and German can be considered sister languages of the Germanic branch.

Since Persian is an Indo-European language, it is not linguistically related to Arabic. The countries that speak Persian, such as Iran, do share many cultural traits with the Arabic-speaking world.

Persian is more challenging to recognize since it incorporates both features of Kurdish and Arabic.

Take a look at these Persian sentences:

من هیچی درباره اقتصاد نمیدونم.
هیچ کدومْ اَز فروشگاهها باز نبود.
اَگه کسی هر سوالی داره, خوشحال میشم جواب بدم.

Here are some tips on how to recognize if something is written in Persian:

If you see these letters “گ چ پ”, it’s obvious the text is not Arabic, but it could still be Kurdish. You also have to look out for the lack of “v” above or below letters. Let’s see a few examples.

تو هیــچ کدام اَزاین کتابها را خوانده ای؟
قطار تویِ چــند دقیقه دیــگــه حرکت میکنه.

Unfortunately, some complete sentences might not contain any of these letters “گ چ پ”. In this case, you'll have to rely on our Polyglot Hack below.

مایلی با ما غذا بخوری، یا قبلا خوردی؟
من اونا رو اَز سالی که ازدواج کردن ندیـدم.
هوا امروز خوب است.
برادرم در یک بانک کار میکــند.
زمین دور خورشید میچرخــه.

Polyglot hack: Unlike Arabic, Persian is an SOV language, so the last word of every sentence is a conjugated verb form, which are not all that different to Latin and Slavic conjugations. Therefore, Persian sentences most frequently end in one of the following letters: ـد , ـم , ـی , ـند , ـست , ـه. The two example sentences above include one or more of these letters at the end of the sentence and therefore can be deduced by this simple rule.

What makes Persian difficult to identify at first glance is that Persian shares a lot of similar words with both Kurdish and Arabic, and some words are even written exactly the same way. Some examples:

school: مدرسة مدرسه
sick: مریض مریض
name: اسم اسم
teacher: معلم معلم
politics: سياسة سیاست
new: جدید جدید

Persian has had an influx of thousands of words from Arabic like these.

In this case, you have two options, you either need a longer sentence to determine accurately what is the language that you are looking at, or learn one of these three languages, which you can do with Glossika's fluency courses.

The final way to easily tell Persian from Arabic and Kurdish is through numbers.

English: 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 0

Arabic: ٠ ١ ٢ ٣ ٤ ٥ ٦ ٧ ٨ ٩

Kurdish: ٠ ١ ٢ ٣ ٤ ٥ ٦ ٧ ٨ ٩

Persian: ۹ ۸ ۷ ۶ ۵ ۴ ۳ ۲ ۱ ۰

Whereas Arabic and Kurdish are identical, Persian numbers four, five, and six are written differently: ۶ ۵ ۴. And remember that longer numbers are written left-to-right the same as in English, so that 10 appears as ١٠ and not as ٠١.

These tips should help you tell Arabic, Persian, and Sorani Kurdish apart. If you decide to start studying any of these languages, then one day you will find it much easier to recognize all the other languages that use the Arabic script.

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Michael Campbell

Polyglot, phonologist, linguist specialising in Formosan, PAN, Sinitic, Slavic, typology, IPA, and L2. Does GSR training daily.

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