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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 another foreign attack. Only recently I doubt its purity and wonder about what qualifies as pure Persian-known most recently to the world as Farsi.

The other day, my friends engaged in a hot debate over the latest trend to use English alphabet in an otherwise Persian e-mail. 

"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 soon we're 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."

I 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' (freeway)!"

Everyone nodded so hard, I thought their heads would fall off.

Was I the only one who had given up a long time ago?

I've never 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.

But the only problem is, that's not Persian either. How come so many Arabic words were acceptable, but if I used a European expression it was considered a felony? People think 'automobile' is a foreign word, but 'machine' is not. We 'post' our letters using a 'tambre'-the French word for stamp. We couldn't get by without words like: motor, cinema, soup, salad, shampoo, and of course, telephone, radio and 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 prepare 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 do so.

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 access to 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 to read backwards.

I wanted to make a list of all the foreign words in my language, but gave up after the first hundred. We have 'asphalt' roads, we sit on a 'moble'. (Did somebody suggest we use the word 'sandalee' 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' from the 'bank').

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, knock on wood, the list of our acquired vocabulary goes on and on. (Sorry, 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 more 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 use.

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 writer, poet and artist. She lives in San Diego, California.

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