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I speak Irani
The case for a supra-national lingual identity


April 17, 2006

In the Indo-European Family of Languages, the Indian branch evolved into Sanskrit, then into Middle Indian and from it derived the sub-branch that included Bengali and other tongues, while another sub-branch became Hindustani. The Iranian branch produced Avestan and then Old Persian and from Old Persian derived Middle Persian, the written form of which was called Pahlavi in Sasanid times. The Persian of today called by some as New Persian (and Modern Persian) is what most Iranians recognize among themselves as Farsi. Farsi (also referred to by a minority as Parsi) is the language of the Samanids, of Rudaki, of Ferdowsi and of Iran for over a thousand years.

When an Iranian speaks of his language to another Iranian they refer to it as Farsi. The term Parsi is hardly used by the majority of the people unless they try to get across to the listener or reader a cultural, ethnic or political point of view, often laced with nostalgia, nationalism or ethnic purity. There is very little linguistic logic to its persistence.

When an Iranian speaks of her language to a foreigner or in a non-Iranian medium, she uses the term Persian, Farsi or Irani(an). All three are correct and each has its own nuance. I do not see a substantive difference between saying Persian and Farsi. This is so because of two reasons: First, the term Farsi or Parsi is the Iranian’s way of saying Persian. Second, the term Farsi is not in my opinion an Arabicized form of  the term “Parsi.” The Persian language did not have to wait for Arabic in order to turn “parsi” into “Farsi,” substituting the Arab “f” sound for the Persian “p.” The fact is that Persian too has had the sound “f”. I think the Persian “p” succumbed to the Persian “f” when the Persain script became Arabic in which initially the letter “p” was lacking.

In a recent article ["For the love of P"] I took the view that the word “Farsi” is Persian and that the occurrence of the sound “f” in the word “Farsi” came about as the result of the Persian language’s own survival mechanism – its own rules of sound substitution -- and, therefore, Farsi is not Arabic or Arabicized form of Parsi. A few passages from that essay is worth repeating here:

At the time of Darius the Great the language of the Achaemenians was what we call now Old Persian, as represented in cuneiform (600-300 BC). In the cuneiform alphabet the sounds “f,” “p,” “b, and “v” existed, as they did in the version of Persian in Parthian and Sasanian times. When the Arabic script became the national script in Iran, the Persians found themselves in a situation where the sound “p” found no symbol in the Arabic alphabets. So in many instances the Persian scribes chose the phonetically akin “f” sound for “p” to express their Persian words. Therefore, the substitution of the sound “f” for “p” was a necessary device by which the people who wrote Persian in the Arabic script sought to preserve the Persian vocabulary. So they said “Farsi” to mean “Parsi,” instead of losing the word to something like ajam. Later the scribes invented the symbols within the Arabic script in order to give expression to the sounds of their native Persian tongue – so Farsi has the additional symbols of “p”, “ch” “g” and “j” that Arabic script did not have.

Not all the “p” sounds turned into “f.” Some “p” sounds were preserved by the use of the substitute sound “b.” Consider the etymology of the Farsi word barf  (snow). The ancient Iranians referred to snow as “par,” which is the present-day-word for “feather.” The evidence is in the form of two passages about the climate of Sakam (Scythia), inhabited by the Saka (Scythians), an Iranian-speaking people. Herodotus wrote: “Above, to the northward of the furthest dwellers in Scythia, the country is said to be concealed from sight and made impassable by reason of the feathers which are shed abroad abundantly. The earth and air are alike full of them, and this is which prevents the eye from obtaining any view of the region.” “Now snow when it falls looks like feathers,” he further wrote, “and the Scythians, with their neighbours, call the snow-flakes feathers because, I think, of the likeness which they bear to them.”  

The pre-Original Teutonic root of the English word “feather” was the word petra, which in Greek evolved into the word petro (wing), which had its roots farther in Sanskrit’s pat, meaning to “fly.” This is according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The Persian par (feather), par-zadan (to wing, fly), and parvaz (flight) obviously share an undeniable kinship with the European derivations. The word parvaz consist of par (feather) and vaz (open) – a description of the sate of flight by a bird that spreads or opens (vaz) its feathers. I believe, for now, that the Persian (proto-) word parva that means “fear,” but which Iranians use in the form of biparva (fear-less) may well have originated with the image of a bird diving with its feathers (wings) closed. In time the word bi-par-va (without open feathers/wing) became synonymous with fearless, courageous. 

The present-day Farsi word for snow is barf. In view of Herodotus’ description of snow among the Saka as “feather,” the Iranian word for snow would have been “par.” If the sound “p” became “b” in Arab occupation times (perhaps with the addition of f at the end) it was for the purpose of Persian preserving the word in a script system that did not have the symbol for “p” as yet.

Within the Indo-Aryan (Indo-Iranian-European) language system, the substitution of the sound “f” for “p” is as common as the substitution of “t” is for “d” sounds. A chief example of this is the Sanskrit word pramana (measure, authority) that became in Old Persian (yes, Old Persian) the word framana (with an f) – long before Arabic came into play. That word means “command” and survives in Persian as farman. Already in the days of Darius therefore f was a substitute sound for p in Old Persian proper.

This transformation of sound from  p to f  is so natural to the Persian phonetics that many examples can be offered of it. One good one is the word espand (wild rue) that became esfand and when Ferdowsi wrote of the Iranian hero he wrote of Esfandiar, not Espandiar. Iranians still use sepid as they do sefid for the color white, while less use the word pil for fil (elephant). Then there is the word for water in Persian: In Avestan it was ap, in Pahlavi/Middle Persian it became av, it is now ab, all transformations within the Iranian language system, without Arab influence (otherwise ab would have become aw).

Then there is the Persian word for horse asb, which derived from the earlier asp and in some dialects in Iran comes out as asf.

To further illustrate the point about the natural occurring substitution from p to f in Indo-Iranian-European languages -- consider the English word “father.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, in Original Teutonic the word was both fader and fater. In Greek it was patr, in Latin it was pater, in Sanskrit it was pitr and in Old Aryan it was pater. In Persian it was probably padar and later pedar. This example demonstrates how the word pater (Aryan) or pedar (Persian) lost the p sound to f – all within one language system and with no influence from Arabic! It is worth the time to consider how in Farsi we have come to use the term baba to say “dad”. Is this a Persianized form of the European papa, or that papa would have occurred naturally in Persian and other Indo-Iranian-European languages as a matter of repetition by a baby of the first syllable of the word for father (padar, for example), just like mama for mother (madar)? 

The folk who insist on dismissing the term “Farsi” as Arabic (because of the f) need to explain away Arabic’s tendency to substitute the letter “b” for “p” in in-bound words -- such as betrol for petrol.

The insistence that the term Farsi is Arabic or Arabicized need to explain away the Arabic language’s natural inclination to substitute the sound “b” sound for “p” in in-bound – thus betrol refers to petrol, borteghal to Portugal orange, Balastine to Palestine, and beez to peace.

It has proven next to impossible to convince many of the Iranians to use the term “Persian” instead of “Farsi” when speaking or writing about their national language in a non-Iranian medium. There are very good reasons for this. First, when an Iranian says Farsi she means Persian in Persian, so there is no rapture or falsehood there.

Second, to most Iranians the concept of “Persian” is alien in that the term is another’s way of saying Parsi or Farsi and there is no legitimate reason to describe one’s language in another’s term for it. Iranians of today grow up with Farsi as they have for centuries and when they travel abroad or address foreigners they express themselves as they are. There is no shame to be associated with Iran or Farsi.  

Third, there is a political dimension to the use of Persian over Farsi, too. At one level, it is the high-handed approach of some advocates that impinges on one’s freedom of expression. At another level, the debate is often coached in terms of what is “correct” and what is “incorrect.” At a third level, the insistence on Persian rubs many Iranians the wrong way because it is ethnically insensitive and smacks of ideological superiority or nationalistic purity.

Not all Iranians are ethnically Persian or even speak Persian, Parsi or Farsi. The weightlifting champion of the world is from Iran, but until very recently at the last summer Olympics he spoke only Torki Azari. When asked what language he speaks, should he say “Persian,” “Torki,” “Torki Azari,” “Azari,” or “Iranian Turkish?”

Many fear that the use of the term “Farsi” in non-Iranian settings would somehow result in the disappearance of such cherished Persian adjectival references as Persian Gulf, Persian cat, Persian carpet, and so on. The fear is misplaced for the same reason that after two thousands years plus Roman Law is still called “Roman Law” and no one to my knowledge has suggested that it be re-named Italian Law. By the same token, the name Persian Gulf did not become “Iranian Gulf” when the Iranian government suggested it at the time when the world was asked to refer to Persia as “Iran.”

The term “Farsi” is exclusively a lingual concept. Persian on the other hand is much broader, and it includes cultural features associated with Iran. For example, it is incorrect to say that one enjoys Farsi music; it is Iranian music. But one speaks Farsi. The hairy pussy in the corner is a Persian cat and not an Iranian or Farsi cat. 

The language that the Persians spoke in Achaemenian times was the same as the one spoken by the Medes. Were it not for the domination of the Persian rulers and the Greco-Roman adoption of the name “Persian” to describe all the nations in Iran, the Iranians could be deciding today if heir language ought to be called Erani or Median.

The people known later as the Medes preceded the Partatua (=Persians) into the Iranian Plateau by a few centuries.  Herodotus is quite clear (bk VII, ch. 62) that the Medes were called anciently by all people as Arians (Greek Eri). While he attributes the name change to Mede to Medea of Colchis, the name Mada for a people made its earliest appearance in Assyrian texts in the 9th century BC. In Greek mythology, Medea was the enchantress daughter of  King Aeets of Colchis and helped Jason, the king of Argonauts, to get the Golden Fleece from her own father. Colchis itself was a mythically rich and fabulous place that is approximated to the region corresponding with the present-day eastern shores of the Black Sea down to southern Caucasus (namely, western part of Georgia).

That the people known as Eran (Arabicized: Aran) or Alan should still be identified with the Caucasus is a good indication that perhaps the enchantress Medea did rule over the Iranian tribes that inhabited the regions that corresponded with present-day Azarbaijan, Kordestan and Kermanshahan. The term Media Atropatente or Atropatente in ancient geography referred to the lands that are now called Azarbaijan above and below the Aras River east of the Caspian Sea. Before its takeover by the Turkic hoards from Central Asia in 9th to 11th centuries, this region was predominantly Iranian.  

The term Arian or Eran or Iran has been the designation of the land of Iran since the Sasanid times, if not earlier backing into the Avesta. The first Gazetteer of Iran, called Eranshahr dated from pre-Islam.

There was a time when an Iranian would have been more inclined to say that she spoke Persian, because at the time there was on the political geographical map of the world a country called Persia. By the same token because there is now the name Iran I would feel more inclined to say that I speak Irani(an). This would not change anything about the language I speak or people’s perception of my origins. It is succinct and to the point, unambiguous, clear cut identity.

Some have argued with equal passion that it was wrong for Iran to have changed its foreign name from Persia to Iran. In some quarters the issue has gone so out of control that for example the Iranian foreign minister who held office in 1971 is referred to as the Persian foreign minister, Iran that has not been Persia since 1935 is referred to as Persia even in the present tense, and passages in quotation that refer to Iran as Iran get rendered into Persia.

Contrary to the general belief that return to “Persia” and “Persian” will save Iranian identity (!), it is my belief that this exercise will only help those who seek to divide Iran into its constituent ethnic parts. After all, Persia was just a province (Parsa) and Persians are not very many in the nation of some 70 million Iranians. That is why I choose to use the term Farsi over Persian and better yet will argue for the use of the term Irani(an) to allow for the expansion of the Iranian family beyond Iran’s own borders. As an umbrella designation, when I speak Iranian I could be speaking in the tongue of people who inhabit Iran, Afghanistan (Dari, Tajikestan, Kordish regions of northern Iraq and parts of Pakistan. In my Irani tongue I include Torki Azari, which is not really Torki Istanboli (Ottoman Turkish) and Baluchi and Giylaki and Tabari and Khorasani and Lori and Kordi and Dari and Ordu and very other dialect or related togue in between.    

The Iranian who passionately argue in favor of Persian over Farsi in foreign parlance often draw the parallel to other people who are known to themselves in one way but refer to their language in foreign parlance in another way. So a German does not say to an Englishman in English that he speaks Deutsch, he says that I speak German, the name of the Deutsch language in the English language. Therefore, an Iranian should not say to an Iranian in English that he speaks Farsi; he should use the term Persian instead. This must be even more so when the other side is a foreigner. Ironically, the Englishman speaks English, as do the people of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, United States and many more countries. But when an Englishman writes about his language in Farsi he writes Inglisi and not Inglish.  

The German language is an interesting example of the confusion that can result from a nation accepting another nation’s designation for its language. When a german wants to write in Farsi about his language he will write “Alamani.” This term entered Farsi from the French designation of Germany as Allemagne and its people and language as Allmand. However, prior to this the Farsi name for German was “Namseh” and so the German writing about his language in Farsi would have said “Namseh” and it would have said more or less the same if he were to write about his language and country in Russian (Nemsky). There is no rule of logic that requires that Iranians continue to abide by the designation given to their language 2,500 years ago by the Greeks, Romans and others. Above all, one should be true to oneself and others will follow.

Just as the people and country of England named the English language, I propose that the label Irani be used as an umbrella designation for the languages that are spoken in Iran, Kordish Iraq, Afghanistan, Tajikestan. It should not matter that a country called Iran be the cultural and linguistic epicenter of this broad-based language, just as England and English has for so many other countries.

Guive Mirfendereski is a professorial lecturer in international relations and law and is the principal artisan at Born in Tehran in 1952, he is a graduate of Georgetown University's College of Arts and Sciences (BA), Tufts University's Fletcher School (PhD, MALD, MA) and Boston College Law School (JD). He is the author of A Diplomatic History of the Caspian Sea >>> Features in

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