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Documenting Dari
Researching an endangered Persian language

October 22, 2003
The Iranian

Maziar Toosarvandani and Annahita Farudi recount how they traveled to Yazd, Iran, during the summer of 2003 to conduct fieldwork on the endangered language of Dari [See Saving Gabri]. They have subsequently founded a research organization, the Dari Language Project, to promote the preservation and perpetuation of the language.

We arrived in Yazd after a nine-hour, overnight train ride from Tehran. The relatively smooth trip, most of which we slept through in an air conditioned car, indicated how much twentieth century technology had changed rural Iran. It was easy to forget that until the 1920s the lack of modern transportation methods made regular contact between Yazd and the capital inconceivable. But as we left the train station, the vast, empty desert plane that met us reflected the shimmering early morning sunlight into our sleep-weary eyes and reminded us forcibly of why we had come.

We were retracing the path that the Zoroastrian speakers of Dari, practitioners of Iran's ancient imperial religion, had followed thousands of years before, after the seventh century Arab invasion of the Persian empire. They fled to the country's central regions in search of a haven where they could continue practicing their inherited faith and avoid the persecution by the Arab invaders, who sought to completely convert Iran's native population to Islam.

While the harsh desert climate and landscape they encountered in those desolate areas was unappealing to the Zoroastrian émigrés, it was, more importantly, just as unattractive to their persecutors. Consequently, the remnants of Iran's once-majority Zoroastrian population, are confined, after a millennium of migration, to the cities of Yazd and Kerman, where today we find the only native speakers of Dari.

While the number of Iranian Zoroastrians overall (currently around 100,000) has dwindled over the past thousand years, the number of Dari speakers among them has decreased, and continues to decrease, at an even more alarming rate. As such, Dari, which, as a member of the Northwestern Iranian language family, is closely related to languages like Gilaki, Kurdish, and Balochi, less closely to Persian, and distantly to the European languages, is today the mother language of only a small portion of Iran's Zoroastrian population, numbering no more than 8,000 to 15,000 people. Because it has so few speakers, Dari is spoken in increasingly confined spheres of usage, and shows signs of converging with Farsi. Thus Dari is considered to be highly endangered.

We are particularly concerned with Dari since its endangered status is exacerbated by the fact it has not been studied adequately. While a selection of grammatical sketches exists, they are either cursory or so old that the resources are inadequate to the task of writing a comprehensive grammar of the language. It is the frightening reality that, if the last speaker were to die today and Dari were to cease to exist, we would know virtually nothing about the language.

We began planning a one-month linguistic fieldwork project last fall, a project that would take place in Iran and would have the intent of documenting and analyzing Dari in its native environment.

In order to secure financial backing for our project, without which the entire endeavor would have been impossible, we sent a proposal detailing our intention to twelve non-profit Iranian and Zoroastrian cultural organizations. The initial responses to our project were overwhelmingly positive, but monetary contributions were slow to come.

Our hopes of realizing our plans were further dampened by the political uncertainty in the Middle East, but instead of abandoning them, we redoubled our fund-raising efforts, intensifying correspondence with scholars, individuals, and organizations, and submitting our proposal to online agencies. Our perseverance proved worthwhile and by the time of our scheduled departure, we had secured enough contributions to cover the costs of our travel expenses as well as the purchase of the necessary recording equipment.

The month of July we spent living and working in Qasemabad, a Zoroastrian village within the city of Yazd. We met with our linguistic consultants, native speakers of Dari, every day, eliciting from them words and phrases and occasionally stories, which we recorded electronically. Afterwards, we transcribed the speech data manually and began preliminary analysis, often continuing far into the night.

We found an intriguing diversity in the formal properties of Dari's pronoun system despite an underlying unity of organization, and a differential treatment of subjects depending on whether the sentences in which they appear are transitive or intransitive. We are currently surveying the relevant literature to determine which features of Dari may tell us more about language generally.

Our stay in Qasemabad encompassed more than purely linguistic pursuits alone, however. We made a strong effort to participate actively in the religious and social life of the Zoroastrian community in Yazd. We integrated ourselves into the daily life of the villagers and took advantage of many unique opportunities to attend various religious ceremonies and cultural events.

While our research this summer was highly successful considering the limited amount of time we had, it only scratched the surface of Dari's structure. If nothing else, we have returned from Yazd with a realization of how much remains to be learned. We were also struck by the dire situation that the Dari language faces and by how little time is left to work with the last few elderly speakers of some dialects.

The Mohammadabad dialect, for example, possesses only a few elderly speakers, all of whom reside in Tehran. This powerful realization has inspired us to expand the scope of our research: what began as a month-long fieldwork trip will now continue through a research organization that we have founded under the name of the Dari Language Project. The Project is dedicated to preserving the Dari language through study of its linguistic structure and patterns.

Our work this summer took the first step towards a complete understanding of the language through a study of the Qasemabad dialect within the context of current linguistic theory. We plan to return during the summer of 2004 to continue our research on Qasemabad Dari, but also to expand the study to include examination of another of Dari's most threatened varieties.

By investigating the two varieties' grammars concurrently, we hope to make valid cross-dialectical comparisons as well as make further headway in analyzing the language's grammar. We will soon begin a new fundraising campaign to raise support for the Dari Language's Project's fieldwork effort next summer and to ensure its long-term success.

Though the outlook for Dari's future is grim today, much hope remains. It is a well-attested linguistic fact that attitudes towards language are of the greatest importance in determining the language's chances of revival or continued vitality in the face of imminent death.

In spite of the statistics predicting the demise of the Dari language, we believe that Dari's future is not hopeless, especially when we consider that language is intimately related to the culture and society of its speakers. For example, many argue that Dari was a local dialect that was purposely adopted by the Zoroastrians as an additional means of distinguishing themselves from their Muslim persecutors. Though this remains an unsupported claim, it seems much more likely than the alternate argument, that Dari was consciously "invented" by its speakers in order to prevent outsiders from understanding it.

Whether or not this latter view has any basis in reality or not, the fact that it is such a prevalent notion among both non-speakers and speakers is indicative of, what seems to us, Dari speakers' general interest in and awareness of their language. The Dari speakers we encountered were not only highly conscious of their language's diversity and variation but they also seemed to derive the utmost enjoyment from presenting this diversity to us in the form of words and turns-of-phrase especially different from their own speech.

While it would be preposterous to suggest that Dari is not highly threatened today, showing as it does all the typical signs of imminent death, the beauty of language, like culture, is that it is a dynamic, living system, as capable of progressing in one direction as it is in another, given the appropriate stimuli.

Indeed, the fact that, in spite of their vastly diminished numbers, the Zoroastrians have managed to preserve as much of their traditional culture as they have is quite remarkable. Their success is no doubt the result of the strength of their conviction that what they are preserving is an extremely valuable system, worthy of protection even in the face of difficulty. As linguists committed to the preservation of the Dari language, our fondest desire is therefore to convince Dari's speakers, the Zoroastrians of Iran, that their language is a complex and beautiful system equally worthy of protection.


Maziar Toosarvandani was graduated from the University of Virginia in 2003 with a B.S. in linguistics and biology. He has been accepted into the theoretical linguistics Ph.D. program at University of California at Berkeley and will attend beginning in the fall of 2004. He is currently teaching English in France.

Annahita Farudi was graduated from the University of Virginia in 2003 with a B.A. in linguistics and comparative literature. She currently attends the University of Oxford in Oxford, England where she is working towards a M.Phil. in theoretical linguistics.

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By Maziar Toosarvandani and Annahita Farudi
Saving Gabri
Planning research on the language of Yazd's Zoroastrians (Dari)





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