Persian or Farsi?
The debate continues...
By Kamran Talattof
December 16, 1997
In recent years, there has been a growing tendency to refer to Persian as Farsi. Professor Ehsan Yarshater, editor of the Encyclopaedia Iranica, has written about the damage wrought by changing "Persia" to "Iran" and has pointed out that the use of Farsi in foreign languages is as detrimental.(1) Here, I would like to focus on the latter issue and explain the reasons behind the growth of tendencies to call Persian Farsi.
Persian, the term used for centuries in the West, originated in a region of southern Iran formerly known as Persis. It was the language of the Parsa, an Indo-European nomadic people who migrated into the region about 1000 BC. The older forms of the language are known as Old and Middle Persian. Old Persian was spoken until approximately the 3rd century BC and Middle Persian, or Pahlavi, was spoken from the 3rd century BC to the 9th century AD.
The use of the names Persia and Persian were gradually extended by the ancient Greeks and other Western peoples to apply to the Iranian Plateau and the official language in the region respectively. New Persian is closely related to these ancient forms. Persian became the lingua franca of the region during the Islamic period. It was the official language of countries such as India for many centuries during which time numerous annals, chronicles, and court volumes of poetry were compiled outside Iran. (2)
Today, Persian is not only the name of the official language in Iran but also of the Republic of Tajikistan, and Afghanistan, and different dialects of this language are spoken in many regions of south and central Asia.(3)
In recent years the word Farsi, the Arabized form of "Parsi," the name of the language in Persian, has become the standard word used by many English and non-English speakers to refer to modern Persian. Some Iranian authorities have actually encouraged this and have engaged in a systematic attempt to change the name of the language in the international communities to Farsi.(4)
This attempt to replace the word "Persian" with "Farsi" is not only incongruous with the history of the language but also creates confusion and misunderstanding. While the use of the word "Farsi" is a political statement for some Iranian authorities, for others it may indicate a lack of knowledge about the history of this language. It indicates that those who carelessly promote the use of the word Farsi are indeed engaging in an equivocal representation of this language and may not, by any means, be promoting Iranian culture.
Three main groups use the word Farsi instead of Persian while speaking English: non-Iranians who are somewhat familiar with the country and its culture; second-generation Iranians who know some Persian, and Iranians, including some officials, who do not have a sound knowledge about their culture and language.
The first two groups find it more confortable to refer to the language as Farsi and the third group finds it more politically correct to do so. In either case they do not do justice when they try to change the name of this language in English.
No matter who does it, there are three reasons why it is a mistake to refer to the Persian language as Farsi. First, it is ignoring the above historical facts about this language. It is as incorrect as calling the Persian Gulf as the Farsi Gulf. Moreover, the name Farsi is obscure and under the best conditions refers only to certain dialects such as the Persian of Iran as opposed to Tajiki, the Persian of Tajikistan or Dari, the Persian of Afghanistan, or even one may say Isfahani, the Persian of Isfahan.
Second, the use of word Farsi in English strikes a discordant tone to the native speaker. Imagine someone speaking in English about their recent trip to Paris saying, "I went to Paris and there I spoke Francais." To use the word Farsi has the same impact and may sound not only pretentious at times but also destructive of English syntax.
Third, the word Persian in the mind of an English speaker, consciously or not, recalls many other historical and cultural legacies about Iran. Persian is closely associated with Persian poetry, Persian carpets, Persian cats, Persian poetry, Persian pistachios, and so on. When you refer to this language as Persian, the audience may associate it with one or more of these relevant ideas. On the contrary, the word Farsi not only voids these historical and cultural associations, but it also adds to the recent portrayal of Iran as a strange and distant society.
This problem is not limited to the use of this word in English. Similar problems exist among French speaking Iranians and their friends who refer to Persian as Farsi. The issue is even more problematic in the case of French because the word Farsi sounds similar to the word Farci (stuffed) and therefore does not evoke any cultural connotations at all.
We should therefore avoid the use of the word Farsi instead of Persian (or Persan in French) because it not only violates historical fact but also some of the regularities of the language in which we speak. I believe that Persian is the true and proper name of this language in foreign tongues and international communities and changing it does not benefit the representation of Iranian culture.
1. See Ehsan Yarshater, "Zaban-i Nozohur" IrnianShenasi: A Journal of Iranian Studies, IV, I (Spring, 1992), 27-30; "Iran Ra dar Zabanha-ye Khareji Cheh Bayad Khand?" Rahavard: A Journal of Iranian Studies, V & VI, 20/21 (Summer & Fall, 1988), 70-75; and Nam-e Keshvar-e Ma Ra dar Zaban-e Engelisi Cheh Bayad Khand?" Rahavard, VIII, 29, (Spring, 1992), 22-26. (Back to article)
2. See Edward G. Browne, A Literary History of Persia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1902-4) and Jan Rypka, History of Iranian Literature (Dordrecht, Holland, 1968). (Back to article)
3. For more information see, Kent, Roland G. (Roland Grubb), Old Persian: grammar, texts, lexicon. 2d ed. (New Haven, American Oriental Society, 1953); Dandamaev, M. A. Iranians in Achaemenid Babylonia, (Costa Mesa, Calif. : Mazda Publishers in association with Bibliotheca Persica, 1992); and Johnson, Edwin Lee. Historical grammar of the ancient Persian language (New York: American book company, 1917). (Back to article)
4 English language journals published in Iran., text books published by the Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance, and materials published for tourists often refer to Persian as Farsi. (Back to article)