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Northwest Iranian Project

Goals of the project

Long-term goals: To describe how the 7 + 2 Northwest Iranian subgroups (henceforth NWI) are interrelated and describe a possible scenario of how these branches developed. To conduct comparative work on NWI, some reference to SWI is necessary, but Eastern Iranian was for the time excluded from the scope of this project. The thrust of the project was synchronic comparative work, but reference to historical data was also of necessity included.

Short-term goals: As a starting point to the long-term, larger project, my immediate goal was to delineate the extent of, and spell out the definition of, the Tatic group as one of the Northwest Iranian subgroups. Tatic has been chosen as the starting point for the Northwest Iranian Project for two reasons:

  • My field work and desktop research in NWI has concentrated on Tatic languages
  • This group is very central to all NWI and is, or has formerly been, in direct contact with all but one or possibly two of the 7 + 2 groups.

The 7 + 2 Groups There are seven subgroups of NWI and two mini-Sprachbünde whose individual members have never been clearly assessed for genetic affiliation (henceforth referred to as the 7 + 2 groups): 

1. Tatic

a. "Original" Tati 

  • Southern, Central and Northern Tati, spoken from the Saveh area in Iran extending to the northwest sporadically as far as Nakhjavan (Nakhichevan) province of the Republic of Azerbaijan
  • Talyshi/Taleshi, in widely differing dialects including a northern dialect cluster in the Republic of Azerbaijan and central and southern dialect clusters in Iran

b. aberrant forms and outliers

  • Alborz Tati (Owrazani, Taleqan area, etc.) and transition dialects to "Original" Tatic
  • Rudbari, a dialect cluster that was originally a form of Tatic that has been heavily influenced by Gilaki to the extent that it has become a mixed language
  • Vafsi, possibly Alviri, Vidari

Note: The term Tatic as used here is not to be confused with a totally different language group spoken in the Republic of Azerbaijan and Daghestan. I have labelled the latter group "Caucasian Tat" in my work and since this language belongs to SWI, it touches only marginally on the present project.

2. Kurdic

a. Northern Kurdish or Kurmanji, a large language area located in northern Iraq, Turkey, and the southern Caucasus with outlier forms far to the east in Mazanderan, Khorasan and Turkmenistan

b. Central Kurdish or Sorani/Mukri, a large language area representing a wide variation in speech forms, spread over an area from western Iran to northeast Syria

c. Southern Kurdish or Kermanshahi, (extent and amount of variation unknown)

3. Gurani

a large dialect cluster representing a wide variation in speech forms; located along the Iran-Iraq border

4. Zazaki/Dimli

a large language area representing a wide variation in speech forms; located in eastern and eastern central Turkey; northern and southern dialect extremes are probably not mutually intelligible

5. Caspian

a traditional dialect chain representing at least three centers plus one outlier that should all be called separate languages:

a. Gilaki in the west (with rather divergent Eastern and Western Gilaki, separated by the Sefid Rud river, each representing both an east-west dialect chain as well as smaller dialect clusters, with transition dialects such as Galeshi)

b. the central Caspian expanse from approximately Tonekabon to Kelardasht (with no particular name assigned as yet since this area has not been previously recognized as a separate language area). This language demonstrates a smooth transition to Gilaki on the west and Mazanderani on the east and it would be impossible to define a clear dividing line between these speech areas.

c. Mazanderani with many divergent forms located between Chalus and Gorgan, the extremes of which probably have low intelligibility.

d. Shahmirzadi, clearly a member of the Caspian group, located in the Semnan area (see below); it has clearly been influenced by the neighboring languages

6. Central Plateau 

a large spread zone representing a wide variation in speech forms; clusters into four basic types according to LeCoq (1989): NW (Mahallati, etc.), SW (Gazi, Esfahani Jewish, etc.), NE (Abyanei, Abuzeydabadi, Farizandi, Meimei, etc.), SE (Zoroastrian dialects of the Yazd area, etc.)

7. Baluchi

a large language area representing a wide variation in speech forms; breaks down into six dialect clusters according to Elfenbein (1966): Eastern Hill Dialects, Rakhshani, Sarawani, Kechi, Lotuni and Coastal.

Mini-Sprachbünde that are part of NWI

8. Tafresh area

In the Tafresh area there are four languages whose interrelationships or further affiliations to other groups of NWI have never been defined:

  • Vafsi, a seemingly mixed language (spoken in four villages) with features of both the Tatic and the Central Plateau groups, with a heavy overlay of some form of Kurdic; it does not, however, look to be a normal transitional language between any of these groups but rather a later mixture of all three groups, probably due to population movements and language switching.
  • Tafreshi
  • Ashtiani
  • Amorei

9. Semnan area

In the Semnan area there are four languages whose interrelationships or further affiliations to other groups of NWI (except for Shamirzadi) have never been defined:

  • Semnani
  • Sangesari
  • Sorkhei, Lasgerdi and Aftari (dialect cluster? Separate languages?)
  • Shahmirzadi (see Caspian, above)


With the aim of describing how NWI developed and how the 7 + 2 NWI groups are interrelated, I have begun to collect and compare materials from some 140 to 200 NWI languages and dialects (within each of the NWI subgroups as well as transition groups). This material includes 230 grammatical points and historical phonological developments and 575 lexical items.

The 230 grammatical points were separated into historical/genetic factors, areal/diffusion phenomena, analogical changes, common morphological forms, common (but non-areal) uses of morphological forms, losses and additions of categories, syntactic phenomena, and others. Many grammatical features belong to more than one of these categories. The 575 lexical items were subcategorized for importance of shared lexical roots, change or retention of semantic content in shared lexical roots, historical phonological developments of original roots, loss of lexical categories, shared development of new semantic categories, etc.

TThe areal/diffusion phenomena were separated into various categories:

a. the diffusion of actual forms (whether lexical items or morphemes) that are for the most part intra-Iranian borrowings, i.e., genetic diffusion patterns and borrowings, including both among NWI groups as well as from Persian

b. areal patterns involving morphological categories, order of morphemes, lexical use, and syntactic patterns that include Iranian as well as non-Iranian, e.g., Azerbaijani, Armenian, Georgian, Aramaic, Arabic, and others

c. other linguistic processes affecting the structure of individual NWI languages: typological pressures, analogical leveling, independent innovations, common retentions, etc.