Questions and answers
January 11, 2005
What is Persian?
Persian is an old Indo-Iranian language in the larger family of
Indo-European languages which includes Hindi, English, Urdu, French,
Russian, Spanish, German, etc. Today it is the official language
of Iran (Persia), Afghanistan, and Tajikstan. Throughout Middle
East's history Persian has been a very important language.
It was an official language of the Ottoman government (1453-1920).
This meant that Persian documents were used to carry out official
government business throughout Ottoman territory, from Morocco
to Palestine, to Greece, Albania, and Budapest.
Going back further,
Persian merchants founded the city of Kilwa in Zanzibar (today's
Tanzania), around 950AD (more than 1050 years ago). There have
always been Persian speaking communities on the Arabian Peninsula
all the way to Yemen. There have been poets writing in Persian
in Northern India for centuries. And today there are Persian communities
in many other parts of the globe including in Los Angeles.
Three main phases have been known in the evolution of Persian language:
I- Old Persian: Avestan (Avestai). It was very similar
to Sanskrit (ancient language of India). It was used to write the
holy book of the Zoroastrian religion (Iran's dominant religion
before Islam). It was the language of the Hakhamaneshid, the Persian
Empire of Cyrus and Darius. That empire came to an end with the
Greek invasions led by Alexander the Great in 330 BC (2335 years
II- Middle Persian: Pahlavi, the language of the
Sassanid Empire (AD 226-641). It was also spoken in Central Asia,
and in Chinese
Turkestan. It was used to write texts in Zaratostrian, Christian,
Buddhist, traditions. The Sassanid Empire came to an end with the
Arabic invasions of 641 AD.
III- Modern Persian: It is an evolved form
of Pahlavi, written with the Arabic alphabet. Modern Persian
present form since the 9th Century. It has a grammar more simplified
than the Pahlavi, just as Italian is said to be a simplified form
of Latin. Modern Persian became richer by absorbing a vast amount
of Arabic vocabulary.
What are the main dialects of Persian today?
Persian is spoken in a wide geographic area extending from Southern
Iraq to Bahrein,
to Iran, to Afghanistan, to Pakistan,
to parts of Southern Iraq, to Tadjikstan in Central Asia. Just
as English comes in many flavors and dialects (British, American,
Australian, South African, Jamaican, and Scottish), there are different
flavors for Persian.
For some unknown reason many publications
in the West have decided to refer to these dialects of Persian
as Farsi, Dari, Tajiki, etc. Therefore, there is general confusion
in most people's mind about these languages. In reality these
are all the same language. They are all Persian. Today a Tajik,
an Afghan, and an Iranian from Shiraz can communicate perfectly
well, just as an Austrian and a German from Hamburg can communicate.
Here are the main dialects of Persian:
* Persian (also known as Farsi): includes a large group of dialects:
Qazvini, Mahallati, Hamadani, Kashani, Isfahani, Sedehi, Kermani,
Araki, Shirazi, Jahromi, Shahrudi, Kazeruni, Mashadi (Meshed),
Basseri, Teimuri (Mazanderan), Alviri (Saveh), Ashtiani (Tafresh).
Also spoken in parts of Iraq, and many Persian Gulf states.
* Dari (aka: Afghani Persian, the dialect of Afghanistan):
* Badakhshi (dialect in Pakistan):
* Tajiki (dialect in Tajikstan): Also spoken in Kazakhstan,
Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, Uzbekistan. They use Cyrillic alphabet
(as in Russian).
Literary modern Persian is virtually identical
in Iran and Afghanistan,
with very minor lexical differences. It is also surprisingly
similar to the language of Rumi (who lived in the 13th Century).
songs in today's Iran use the poetry of Rumi as their lyrics
and are perfectly understood by most people. It is hard to
imagine an English pop song today using the lyrics of Shakespeare.
other languages are spoken in Iran (Persia) today?
Persian is the primary language of more than half of all Iranians.
It is also the native language of more than half of all Afghanis,
and almost all Tjikstanis. Close to half the Iranian population
speaks Persian as a 2nd language, and other languages as their
own native language. There are a large number of other languages
spoken in Iran (Persia) today:
* Kurdish (in Kurdistan)
* Gilaki (in Gilan and in rural areas North of Tehran)
* Lari (Larestani)
* Luri (Bakhtiari)
* Mazanderani (Tabari)
* Azerbaijani Turkish
* Turkmen Turkish
* Khorasani Turkish
* Qashqai Turkish (in Shiraz)
* Arabic (in the South)
What did the Pahlavi regime do to Iran's languages?
Persian is Iran's most common language. In Iran there are also
other rich languages. A military officer, Reza Khan Mir-Panj,
who took over Persia through a military coup and declared
himself king in 1925 and changed his last name to the more
grandiose Pahlavi (Middle
Persian). His son, Mohammad Reza
(aka the Shah), also staged a coup in 1953 and in an effort
his dictatorship, he banned Iran's other languages, Azeri,
Turkoman, Beluchi, Arabic, Kurdish, Lori, and Gilaki.
the strange irony: English and French daily newspapers were
in Iran (Tehran Journal and Keyhan International),
but it was illegal to publish a book in Azeri, the language
more than 25%
of Iranians. To promote this policy, all those caught with
books in Kurdish or Azeri were regularly jailed and beaten
languages were referred to as "accents" (lahjeh).
The most stable country in Europe has been Switzerland.
In Switzerland, they recognize at least three languages: Swiss
and Italian. To be united, we don't have to destroy the
cultural life of our ethnic minorities.
What are the most widely spoken languages in the
There are more than 6,000 languages spoken in the world today.
Here are the numbers on the number of people speaking the top
Persian is one of the top 20 languages spoken in the world
||As 2nd Language
|1- Chinese (Mandarin)
||874 000 000
||1 052 000 000
||366 000 000
||487 000 000
||341 000 000
||508 000 000
||350 000 000
||417 000 000
|5- Arabic (26 countries)
||280 000 000
||207 000 000
||211 000 000
||176 000 000
||191 000 000
||167 000 000
||277 000 000
||125 000 000
||126 000 000
|10- German, Standard
||121 000 000
||128 000 000
||78 000 000
||77 000 000
||225 000 000
|13- Javanese (Indonesia)
||75 000 000
||68 000 000
|15- Chinese (Cantonese)
||66 000 000
||65 000 000
||93 000 000
What Persian words are used in English?
English words of Persian origin include shawl, pajama, taffeta,
khaki, kiosk, divan, lilac, jasmine, julep, jackal, caravan,
bazaar, dervish, baksheesh, and satrap.
What language is Persian grammar most similar
Persian is similar to the other Indo-Iranian languages: Gilaki,
Mazandarani, Kurdish, Urdu, and Hindi. Persian has its roots
in the larger Indo-European family of languages. The grammar
language is like the skeleton of a building. Persian grammar
resembles that of Russian, Lithuanian, Spanish, and English.
To say you,
in Persian we say to, in Russian ti, in French and Spanish,
tu, and in German, du. Outside the Indo-Iranian family, the
group is the Balto-Slavic family. This family includes Lithuanian
and Russian. The grammar of these languages and the roots of
many words, are quite similar to Persian.
||iz , ot
||kuda (where to)
||budim (we will be)
||budite (you will be)
||dadim (we will give)
||dadite (you will give)
||shto, chi (whose)
What role did Arabic play in the evolution of Persian?
The Arabic language played an extremely important role in Persia's
intellectual history since the Arabic invasion of 640's AD.
During the Islamic Empire, most Persian intellectuals wrote
most of their important works in Arabic.
Biruni, Farabi, Ibn-Sina (Avicenna), Ghazzali,
Razi, wrote most of their works in Arabic. The first systematic
of Arabic language was done by a Persian, Sibovaih. Mowlana
Saadi wrote a portion of their works in Arabic, in the same
way as Pakistani poets some time use Persian verses, and in
way as Mozart wrote Operettas in Italian. From 7th to 13th
Century AD, Arabic was the lingua franca that connected intellectuals
together across a large geographic and historic span from Spain
It has been a tradition in most countries' history for intellectuals
and governments to utilize different languages as the masses
of the people. That is why in the Ottoman Empire (1453-1920)
used Persian and Greek as the main official languages. In Russia
in 19th Century they used French as the language of the court.
In the Safavid period in Persia they used Azeri Turkish as
official language of the court.
Why is there a large amount of Arabic vocabulary
English, a Germanic language at its base, became a half Latin
language in its vocabulary, because of Roman and French invasions
last 2000 years. A large body of English vocabulary is Latin
based (Ex: frequently, politics, society, accounting, linguistics).
similar phenomenon occurred in Iran.
After the Arab invasions of the seventh century,
Persian, an Indo-European language at its base, absorbed a large
later. Later on it absorbed vocabulary from other languages,
namely Turkish, Russian (Ex: benzin, tormoz, zapass, sukhari,
and French (Ex: merci, puree, autobus). English took in a huge
influx of Latin and French vocabulary about 1000 years ago.
Spanish took in thousands of Arabic words during the Islamic
about 1300 years ago. Urdu absorbed thousands of Persian words
last 1000 years. This process made these languages generally
Some of this exchange of vocabulary is inevitable.
When we talk of computers, we use many English words because
computing is extremely fast paced and development is generally
done in English world-wide. In today's technologic revolution,
new items hit the market at such a rapid pace that it's impossible
to come up with a Persian equivalent for every one of them
with the same pace. Instead, we will have to focus our resources
developing actual new ideas as the Japanese do. This is similar
to the development of philosophy and poetry that took place
during the Islamic Empire. At that time, Persian writers wrote
because it was the language that united them with Spanish,
Moroccan, Algerian, Iraqi, and Lebanese philosophers. In fact
so important, many European intellectuals of the pre-Renaissance
period learned philosophy by reading material translated from
Was the Arabic invasion of Persia in 640 good
It is hard to make sweeping judgment about an event that took
place close to 1400 years ago. The Arabs did invade Persia
in 640 AD.
There were other invasions before and after. Alexander invaded
Persia in 330 BC. The Mongols came in the 12th Century AD.
There is a vulgar view of Persian history that claims all was
in Iran until the Arabs came with their Islam.
Persian Empire of the Sassanids was on its way to decay by
640 AD. Otherwise the Arab tribes could not have brought
The Sassanid Empire was based on a caste system. That meant
a peasant or a blacksmith wanted his child to learn to read
and write he could get punished by death. Moreover, the Arab
today consists of at least 22 countries. All of them except
for the Arabian Peninsula became Arab countries after the
Islamic invasions. Many adopted the Arab language years after
Persian literature became more dynamic after the
fall of Sassanides. Saadi, Hafez, Ferdowsi, Omar Khayyam, and
Rumi all came after
the fall of the Sassanides. Most of these writers took pride
extremely eloquent verses in Arabic as well as Persian, their
new Persian, the one blended with Arabic, the one we speak
the Persian Empire of the Sassanid period there was a caste
system in Persia. Therefore, it was next to impossible for
lower or middle classes to engage in learning of the sciences.
What would the great Persian poet, Rumi, have
said about the Arabs and the Turks?
" If the Turk, the Roman, and the Arab are in love,
They all know the same language, the beautiful tune of Rabab (*)"
(*) A traditional string Instrument
Rumi (Poem 304, in Divan-e Shams-e Tabriz)
Is it good to try to write in Persian by using
less Arabic words?
The history of the world is one long history of perpetual mixing
of races, languages, cultures, immigrants, and peoples. That
evolution is constant. Those who try to stop that may as well be trying
to stop the motions of the planets. Those who want to undo
influence of Arabic language in Persian by using an older Persian, are
trying to undo 1300 years of history. This is six times the history of
the United States. History is full of examples of entire
nations changing their religions, first by force, but then
That was how Europeans became Christians, first by force
and then by consent. If today a European talked about using
or pre-Christian religions, he/she would not be taken seriously.
Each and every language today carries with it
an amalgamation of layers upon layers of words from many other
Modern English is 30% Latin (because of the French invasion),
modern Spanish has thousands of Arabic words (because of
the Islamic invasion),
and modern Turkish and Persian both have 30-40% Arabic.
The Islamic empire was at some point a very rich
civilization, because it brought together many nationalities
cultural and communication system. Avicenna (Abu Ali
Sina), and Averroes
(Ibn-e Rushd, from Spain), and Rases (Mohammad Razi),
all wrote their major works in Arabic, not because they were
but because Arabic was a powerful language that bound
them all together,
just as English does today. Without knowledge of Arabic,
Ibn-e Rushd from Spain wouldn't have been able to read
Iraq, or Iran. This is the role English plays in today's
influence over Persian made it richer.
What role did Ferdowsi play
in the evolution of modern Persian?
Abul-Ghassem Ferdowsi Toussi
(940-1020) was one of the greatest poets of the Persian language.
He was Persia's
wrote the Shahnameh, the Book of Kings: the history of the Persian
Empire prior to Islam. The writing of the Shahnameh was partly
sponsored by Sultan Mahmoud Ghaznavi, a Turkish king.
What is the Shahnameh?
Ferdowsi's Shahnameh is similar to
the Greek poet, Homer's Iliad and Odyssey.
It is a legendary history of Persian Kings from mythical times
up to the Sassanid
period. The work had been researched and translated by Abu-Mansouri
from Middle-Persian (Pahlavi) to Modern Persian. Ferdowsi rewrote
the work in epic poetic form, of 60,000 verses. Ferdowsi had
been promised a Dirham for every verse in the Shahnameh by
Sultan Mahmoud. The Shahnameh was completed in 1010 AD (close
to 1000 years ago).
Ferdowsi was not paid the amount he had been promised by Sultan
Mahmoud. Like many worldly artists before and after him, Ferdowsi
died a bitter man. To gain insights into an intellectual's
complicated relation with authorities see Amadeus, a masterpiece
of world cinema about Mozart, directed by Milosz Forman.
Why was the promise to Ferdowsi not honored?
say other scholars in the court were not happy with Ferdowsi's
views. The Shahnameh was not a book of simple hagiography, of lavishing idiotic praise
upon kings. Ferdowsi was a great man. Ferdowsi was not a monarchist.
He wrote about the kings, because the kings ruled Persia. Ferdowsi
praised some kings and criticized others, just as the English
dramatist, Shakespeare did 600 years later. In the Shahnameh, Ferdowsi
praised the egalitarian communistic movement of Mazdak (during
the Sassanid reign, in the year of 494 AD).
Could it be that
Ferdowsi was ex-communicated because of his views?
Some have considered the
Shahnameh the foundation of Iranian culture. That is an extreme
view. Why is it a foundation of Iranian culture
to learn the mostly fictionalized accounts of mad power hungry
kings than to study the philosophy elaborated by Rumi, or the wisdom
of Saadi, or the love poetry of Hafez, or the works of chemistry
of Razi, or the works of history by Nezami, or the Rubayyat of
Khayyam? Persian history is very rich and multi-faceted. If you
are a religious fundamentalist, you may prefer the Koran, if you
think Iran should become a modern industrial nation, you may consider
Raazi and Ibn-e Sina and their works in chemistry and medicine
to be our foundation. If you are a socialist you may consider Mazdak.
If you want to enjoy love you may go for Hafez. If you prefer laughter,
you may go for Zakani's satire. It is absurd to ignore all
of that and make romantic claims about the Shahmaneh. The Shahnameh is a great book. But no single
book can be the foundation of any civilization.
It is true that Ferdowsi used very little Arabic in his writing
of the Shahnameh. But no serious man/woman would claim that Ibn-e
Sina or Saadi who wrote great works in Arabic did a disservice
to Persia. It was not Ferdowsi who preserved Modern Persian.
The language of Persian could thrive due to the efforts of millions
of working people throughout its history. There have been many
other great works and masterpieces created in the rich history
of Persian. Ferdowsi, Omar Khayyam, Rumi (Mowlana Mohammad Jalaluddin
Rumi), Saadi, Hafez, and Shamloo were all great poets of the