Zaza is a Northwest Iranic language, spoken in the east of modern Turkey by Kurdish and Alevi communities, with approximately 2 to 3 million speakers speaking distinct Northern and Southern varieties. There is a division between Northern and Southern Zaza, most notably in phonological inventory, but Zaza as a whole forms a dialect continuum, with no recognized standard. Northern Zaza is strongly associated with historical Dersim, and is spoken in the northern and northeastern parts of Elazig province, easter and central Sivas, southern Erzincan, western Erzurum and Bingöl, and of course, most of Tunceli (the heart of historical Dersim).
Despite being a major Iranic language, Zaza is not well-known to outsiders and has become increasingly vulnerable due to state repression and political unrest in the region. Due to language policies in effect for over 50 years, both the number of Zaza speakers and the degree to which they use the language have been in sharp decline. Diaspora and refugee communities now exist throughout Europe, especially Germany, and in the United States there are currently Zaza communities in New York and New Jersey.
Zaza is classified as a Northwest Iranic language of the Indo-European language family. Although it was once considered to be a dialect of Kurdish, phonological and morphological differences between Kurdish and Zaza have proven that Zaza is a distinct language from Kurdish. These findings became well known and accepted in the 20th century, and since then Zaza has been recognized as its own language and culture. An ongoing debate exists as to whether Zaza is more closely related to Hawrami and Kurdish, or to Caspian languages. In addition to influence on and from Kurdish, Zaza has been influenced by Armenian, Arabic and Turkish, particularly in terms of lexical borrowings. Additionally, there are apparent cases of phonological influence, with voiced/voiceless/aspirate distinction for stops in Northern Zaza (as in Eastern Armenian) and pharyngeals in Southern Zaza (as in Kurdish and Arabic).
Many Zaza speakers live in conflict-affected areas of eastern Turkey, and they have been drastically impacted by both the current deteriorating political situation and the difficult political situation of the past. Over the past few decades, the number of Zaza speakers in Turkey has declined. In 2005, it was estimated that there are 2 to 4 million Zaza speakers, out of the total Turkish population of 67 million. The lack of documentation and the decline in the number of native Zaza speakers can largely be attributed to the Turkish laws put in place in the mid-1920’s, after the creation of the Republic of Turkey. These laws banned the Kurdish language, of which Zaza is often erroneously considered a dialect, from being spoken in public, being written down, and being published. One specific law, the Language Ban Act of 1985, explicitly stated that only Turkish could be spoken in public, not only greatly discouraged the use of Zaza, but it also endangered the cultural identity of the Zaza.
The efforts of the Turkish state to enforce use of the Turkish language has had devastating effects on generations of Zaza speakers. Many had to leave Turkey and immigrate to other countries, primarily to Germany, Netherlands, Sweden, the United States, and Australia, where the language is used primarily in the home with family, and decreasingly even there. There are only a few elderly monolinguals left, and many Zaza speakers now have either the closely related Kurdish language or the official Turkish as their L2, the latter in particular coming to dominate the linguistic lives of Zaza speakers. One observation of the effects of the Turkish assimilation policies on the current generation is the lack of Zaza being spoken by young children. One young informant mentions that although in her youth Zaza was not used in official circumstnaces, schoolchildren would still speak it to each other during breaks. Now, the younger generation speaks mostly Turkish on the schoolyard. Additionally, as Turkish law banned the writing of Zaza, there has been a lack of literature and development in the language. Only recently has it seen increased use in newspapers and journals.
Previous researchers have disagreed about the number of consonants and vowels present in Zaza, with one more recent analysis determining that Zaza has 38 segmental phonemes, 30 consonants and eight vowels. Of particular note is that Southern Zaza has pharyngeal fricatives such as /ħ/ and /ʕ/, as in Arabic; Northern Zaza has aspirated stops alongside the voiced/voiceless pairs, as in Eastern Armenian.
The cases used in Zaza are direct, oblique, locative, and vocative, and there are masculine and feminine genders. The majority of nouns have inherent gender, while others can function as either masculine or feminine. Ezafe, which is a nominal linking morpheme that is phonologically bound to a noun while functioning at a syntactic phrase level, is also present in Zaza. Unlike many Iranic languages, Zaza ezafe has different forms depending on gender and number, and in the masculine singular also has different forms depending on whether ezafe is being used for possession or an adjective. Verbs in Zaza are inflectional, indicating tense, aspect, mood, and person, number, and gender.
Zaza is also a split ergative language. In the past tenses, the direct and oblique cases function as absolutive and ergative cases, where in the non-past tenses they function as nominative and accusative cases. Of particular interest to syntacticians is the correlation of case and agreement: verbs only agree with nouns expressed in the direct case, regardless of their grammatical role. For some speakers, a typologically rare double oblique alignment is available, where both the subject and direct object are expressed in the oblique case in the past tenses.
Zaza is not nearly as well documented as other languages in the Iranic family. The earliest documentation work on Kurdish languages dates back to the late 18th century, but Zaza only came into sharper focus with the work of Peter Lerch, who published a three-volume book that included both Kurdish and Zaza texts with a German translation. Turkish language policies interfered with the collection or documentation of Zaza materials, meaning that resources on Zaza language and culture today are relatively sparse. One useful and relatively extensive grammar of Zaza was done by T.L. Todd, focusing on the phonology, morphology, and syntax of the Siverek variety.
Aygen, Gülşat. “Zazaki/Kirmanckî Kurdish”. In Languages of the World, vol. 479. Lincom, Europa. 2010.
Blau, Joyce. “Gurani et Zaza”. In Compendium Linguarum Iranicarum. 1989.
Gajewski, Jon. “Zazaki Notes”. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 2004.
Haig, G., Öpengin, E. “Kurdish: A Critical Research Overview”. In Kurdish Studies. University of Bamberg, Germany. 2014.
Keskin, Mesut. “Zur dialektalen Gliederung des Zazaki”. Frankfurt. 2008.
Lerch, Peter. “Forschungen über die Kurden und die iranischen Nordchaldäer.“. In Zweite Abtherilung. St. Petersburg, Germany. 1858.
Paul, Ludwig. “The Position of Zazaki Among West Iranian Languages”. In Old and Middle Iranian Studies. 1998.
Selcan, Zülfü. “Die Grammatik der Zaza-Sprache”. Berlin. 1998.
Todd, T.L.. “A Grammar of Dimili, Also Known as Zaza”. University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. 1985
With support from Princeton University and Columbia University, the Zaza Language Project is an effort to document and research aspects of the Zaza language and culture to support its survival. The project has included work on the Dersim variety of Northern Zaza, which has been least affected by outside contact, and Southern Zaza varieties spoken near Diyarbakir. A research team at ELA — including Northern Zaza speaker Zere Atmaca, Southern Zaza speakers, historian Cevat Dargın, and linguists Daniel Barry and Teresa O’Neill — have been documenting the oral histories of speakers from the diaspora communities of New York and New Jersey. Oral history recordings will form the basis of what will become the largest and most complete corpus of Zaza language recordings. These recordings will be used to conduct detailed investigations of the phonology, morphology, and dialect-based variation of Zaza, topics that currently have a limited amount of information.
Beyond recordings, the project also aims to aid the Zaza community in collecting material of cultural and historical importance. Zaza stories, songs, oral histories, and descriptions of religious practices will be documented. Many of these materials that will be collected will include cultural information that is unique to the region. Teresa O’Neill taught a Linguistic Field Methods course at Columbia University in 2016 and 2017. Both O’Neill and Barry have also undertaken fieldwork with Zaza speakers in Turkey. Among the project volunteers are Kiran Aida, Samantha Mia Mateo, Lexie Mitchell, Siyang Pan, Rebecca Stephen, Christopher Wen, with Mateo having also researched the language in the substantial Zaza diaspora in Germany.
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Diaspora and refugee communities now exist throughout Europe, especially Germany, and there are now a small number of speakers in New York and New Jersey, including a few (like Endangered Language Alliance collaborator Zere Atmaca) who have worked as carriage drivers in Central Park.