If you want to visit Iran, which language should you brush up on? It is a more complicated question for Iran than for other countries. But now is really not the best time to go there anyway, so we have plenty of time to figure it out.
Universities in the West typically teach courses in Persian. This sounds a bit old-fashioned, but it makes intuitive sense. However, the language the US government teaches foreign service employees is not Persian, but Farsi. Private companies are a mixed bag.
Luckily for learners, Persian and Farsi are, for most intents and purposes, congruent. But what to call the language is a spicy issue. Historically, it was obvious to everyone that in Persia they spoke the Persian language. But in the 1930s, the shah decreed that he would like everyone to start calling his country Iran. This was what Iranians had always called their homeland, and it seemed reasonable that the West should finally stop using an exonym invented by the Romans based on a dynasty that fell in A.D. 224. But there was also a less wholesome motive: Iran means “Aryan,” after the warrior people who settled South Asia and Europe in the distant past. Iran updated its name in part to impress Adolf Hitler.
In the latter decades of the 20th Century, many in the West started referring to the language of Iran as “Farsi,” in the same spirit of native fidelity that possesses people to pronounce Qatar “cutter.” But the Iranian government objected, claiming this was a ploy to undermine the revolutionary government by portraying its language as different from the venerable Persian of the past.
In 2005, the Academy of Persian Language and Literature anathematised “Farsi.” (Ironically, they made their announcement in their native tongue, so they were telling everyone it was offensive to call the fârsi language Farsi.) This is one of the few areas where the Persian diaspora and the government in Tehran agree. But many in the West have not gotten the message.
One may wonder how this divide opened. The name “Persia” was based on the Parthian Empire, the great rival of the Romans. They took their name from their homeland in Pars, in southwestern Iran. Today, however, this province is called Fars. The shift is a legacy of the massive influence Arabic brought to bear on Persia after the 7th Century.
The linguistic history of Persian is strikingly similar to that of English around the same time. Both were originally highly complex languages, with three genders and an intricate set of declensions and suffixes around which to build a sentence. But uncouth conquerors had no time for all that. Over time, the Arabs and Vikings so garbled both languages that they simplified radically. Persian lost its genders and declensions, as well as the letter P, which Arabs have difficulty pronouncing. (The Parsi community of northern India, who fled Islamising Iran in the Middle Ages and still practice Zoroastrianism, also kept the P.)
Under Arab domination, Persians adopted the Arabic alphabet and a torrent of Arabic vocabulary. But unlike Syrians, Egyptians, and the Romans of North Africa, they never became Arabs. Indeed, it was not long before Persia enjoyed a cultural renaissance. For centuries, Persian was the language of high culture for the whole Islamic world.
This version of Persian would be hard to understand for Iranians today. However, it would be easy for people in Afghanistan. Afghanistan’s two official languages are Dari, the old court language, and Pashto, a local rustic dialect that has traditionally been marginalised. While the dialect of the Persian heartland shifted rapidly, things moved slower in the isolated valleys of Central Asia. Again, there is a close analogy here to our own experience. Scottish is more similar in many ways to Middle English, and Icelandic is the most conservative Germanic language of all.
Iranian Persian (or Farsi), Dari, and Tajik are considered Persian proper. Other major Persian languages include Kurdish and Balochi (in southern Pakistan), which are on opposite sides of Iran but are more similar to each other because they remained outside the standardising influence of the Iranian state. Smaller curiosities in the family include Sogdian, still spoken in a valley outside Samarkand, and Ossetic in the Caucasus, whose speakers are so keen not to be Georgian that they have their very own Russian-backed separatist state.
My inspiration for this article came a few weeks ago, when I went to a hookah bar with two Persian-Americans, a Kurdish-Canadian, a Pakistani-Canadian, and a Jordanian-Austrian-American. Aside from sounding like the weirdest “X people walk into a bar” joke ever, it was a fascinating linguistic experience. The Persians and Kurd had no problem conversing with one another in standard Persian. The Pakistani could understand about a third of it, and my latter friend could pick out certain Arabic words — interestingly, everyone knew which Persian words were Arabic.
Of course, I understood almost none of it, aside from sporadic Islamic expressions I picked up in Turkey last summer. In this blog, I tend to stay in the orbits of European languages and East Asian ones, both of which I am familiar with. By contrast, I do not speak Persian at all. This has been an interesting challenge, and I hope to expand my boundaries on this blog in 2023. In the spirit of this topic, maybe I should edify myself with some good luck by leaping over a bonfire.