The more things change
We can't stop the penetration of non-Persian
words or their contamination
June 8, 2004
These days a single topic
has kept my mind occupied for weeks, indeed months. But, since
the subject pops up every single day,
I can't help but ponder. Mumbling in four different languages
doesn't change the fact that my first, and strongest, language
is Persian. I speak it, often think it, and won't hesitate
to defend its honor any time it seems to be in jeopardy of yet
foreign attack. Only recently I doubt its purity and wonder
about what qualifies as pure Persian-known most recently to the
The other day, my friends engaged in a hot debate
over the latest trend to use English alphabet in an otherwise Persian
"These young people are set to destroy the language. As if
we haven't already lost enough of our culture to the west. I bet
going to lose our own alphabet, too," one said.
"Don't you hate receiving those e-mails?" another asked. "They
look ridiculous! It takes me forever to figure out the words."
wondered if anyone stopped to think where "our own alphabet" came
from. Did the Persians of long ago feel as ridiculous about this
script that we have grown to love so dearly?
"When I went to Iran, I couldn't believe how
the language has changed," a
man joined the complain squad. "People seem to be divided
into three groups: those who use more Arabic words than ever before,
those who rebel by using too many English expressions, and the
third who invent their own words which I had never heard of, like
'raayaaneh' (computer) and 'paayaaneh' (terminal) and 'bozorg-raah'
so hard, I thought their heads would fall off.
I the only one who had given up a long time ago?
understood where they drew the line. As long as I can remember,
a detailed expression in today's Persian has needed assistance
from one language or another. Back when I was a teenager, I once
used the word "regime" to mean diet. My grandmother got
very upset with me. "Well! You don't have to throw 'farangi'
words around!" When I asked her for the Persian equivalent
she said 'emsaak' to mean a refrain from, or control of, consumption.
the only problem is, that's not Persian either. How come so many
Arabic words were acceptable, but if I used a
it was considered a felony? People think 'automobile' is
a foreign word, but 'machine' is not. We 'post' our letters using
French word for stamp. We couldn't get by without words like:
motor, cinema, soup, salad, shampoo, and of course, telephone,
television? What would the world be like without 'plastic'?
The list goes on and on.
Although pure Persian contains a rich vocabulary,
unless we are willing to go back and move in with Ferdowsi, it
will be impossible
to get around with the pure language of Shahnameh-The Book of
Kings. And if Iranians plan to progress with time, we had better
for the not-so-pure languages that come with it.
I understand the
fundamentals of such arguments. God only knows how hard I try
to stay within what I consider the proper way to
speak. But, there are shortcomings and unless the whole language
is reconstructed, we can't stop the penetration of non-Persian
words or their contamination. The fact is, Persian language
is changing, and weather we like it or not, it will continue to
Some of these debates remind me of when Neema wrote
his poetry. My great uncle-an avid fan of Hafez and Saadi-thought
Neema a mad
man unable to make a rhyme. People had a hard time with modern
poetry and some never acknowledged its value. The same goes for
modern art and music. Yet, how far we have come! Is it not possible
that our arguments about these changes are nothing but an attempt
to swim against the current?
On my previous trip to Iran, I was
asked to give a lecture at one of the dental schools. I felt well
prepared and hoped that, after
nearly thirty years, my Persian would meet their approval. It came
as a shock when students approached me to inquire about the meaning
of some of the Persian expressions I had used. "We use the
English terms," they explained. My attempts to find the Persian
terms for words such as Maxilla, Mandible, Occlusion and Anomalies
had only confused them.
Later, when I thought about that, I understood.
Familiarity with English terms in scientific fields gives our students
references and helps them to do research. No argument there. What
surprised me was the lack of objection to that. I was puzzled by
the double standards. "It's okay to mix languages for science,
it is also acceptable to mix them for religion-and in fact foreign
words are considered to be more acceptable to God-but it's a no-no
to use non-Persian words for self expression."
Ours is not
the only language undergoing changes. Are there not many Spanish,
French, etc mixed in today's English? And, I mean
English, a language spoken by one third of the world and a language
so rich in its vocabulary that it doesn't need to borrow. In
a mixed world like this, who am I to prevent a leak in the ocean
of Persian words?
As for our alphabet, it is so darn hard to learn
to read and write-especially with the absence of vowels-that
you have to be born with it in
order to master the art. I wonder if more people would not be
tempted to learn Persian if not for the fact that they are unable
I wanted to make a list of all the foreign words
in my language, but gave up after the first hundred. We have 'asphalt'
we sit on a 'moble'. (Did somebody suggest we use the word
instead? Well, sorry, but that's a Russian word, so is doroshkeh,
samovar, and even estekan!) We take a 'douche'-French for
shower, we follow our meals with 'dessere' we like to follow 'mode'
and wear blouse-chiffon, satin, or georgette?-cravate and 'echarpe'are
nice accessories (which we paid for all of them by a 'check'
Oh, we try to follow all the 'etiquet' by sending
a 'carte' and feel we have such a 'chance' to know so many
good Persian words. Then, why is it so wrong to say 'oops'? I mean,
wood, the list of our acquired vocabulary goes on and on.
I didn't mean to use a foreign expression, in Persian we
say 'mashallah', or is that Arabic? I'm confused.)
I thought perhaps the language
experts could help me. Alas! I found their Persian to be the
hardest of all to comprehend. A talk with
Persian scholars only reconfirmed my inability to fully learn
my mother tongue. I don't want my language to be distorted, but
than that, I wish for it to survive. The death of anything so
beautiful is bad. And, bad is bad no matter which of the two languages
I hope someone out there will correct me if I'm wrong.
I'll be most grateful.
Let me say 'merci' in advance.
Zohreh Khazai Ghahremani is a freelance
poet and artist. She lives in San Diego, California.