Changing Persian script would be harmful
January 15, 1999
Persian-speaking peoples use the Arabic alphabet, in addition to four
letters (sounds) that do not exist in standard Arabic (p, zh, ch, g) (Iran,
Afghanistan), or Cyrillic script (Tajikistan). In this essay, I will refer
to this alphabet as the Arabic+4 script. Recently, there has been much
discussion on the subject of changing the alphabet to the Latin variety,
used in Western Europe, the Americas, and parts of Southeast Asia. As part
of a political campaign to move Turkey away from Arabic and Islamic influences
and toward Europeanization, secularization, and modernization, Mustafa
Kemal (Ataturk) changed the alphabet of the Turkish language from Arabic
to Latin characters in 1925.
What are the benefits of changing the alphabet? One is the relative
ease with which people would be able to learn to read and write Persian.
Vowel sounds are often not apparent in the Arabic+4 script, as they are
in the Latin alphabet. Another benefit of changing the alphabet is that
Persian-speaking peoples would be able to easily learn Western European
languages, which use the Latin script and dominate international business
and travel. What are the disadvantages of changing the alphabet? Do the
advantages, a few of which I have described here, outweigh the disadvantages?
In this essay, I will argue that they do not.
Since the Islamic invasions of Iran (7th - 9th centuries), the rich
Persian literary tradition has been recorded in the (at first) Arabic,
and subsequently, Arabic+4 script. Were the script to be changed, ancient
Persian texts would be lost to the general population. We can safely assume
that there are certain texts which may have been lost and may be found
in the future. For example, we know that there are Persian texts in St.
Petersbourg which we do not currently have access to. With a new script,
such texts could be viewed only by a privileged group of historians and
scholars, who, in the centuries to come, would be the only Persian speakers
literate in the "old script." In effect, the literary tradition
that links a nation to its past would be lost.
Among some Persian speakers, there is a negative attitude concerning
the Arabic-Islamic invasions, which contributes to the opinion that the
Arabic+4 script should be changed. The script is deemed a foreign invasion
of the language brought by barbaric peoples. Whatever one's opinion of
the invasions, the Pahlavi-Sassanid alphabet, was, fortunately or unfortunately,
lost to the Arabic script, because this language and its alphabet were
used in the Qur'an, the Islamic holy book. Not only did the invasions bring
a change in script, but also added some Arabic words and structures (especially
in the singular-plural distinction of nouns) to modern Persian. These historical
facts do not constitute solid reasoning to change the alphabet. While these
advocates of a Latin script claim to reject a script brought by foreigners,
they invite that of another group just as foreign. The purge of one foreign
element and the acceptance of another, such as a script imported from Europe,
is not an accurate removal of that which is foreign.
One can compare the historical linguistic influence of the Arabic-Islamic
invasions on the Persian language to the influence of the Norman invasion
of England in 1066 on the English language. Although these languages (English,
French) belong to the same family (Indo-European), and the Arabic and Persian
languages do not (Semitic; Indo-European), a comparison may be made nonetheless.
The English language now has synonymous noun pairs such as SKY (old English)
and PARADISE (old French). The Persian language similarly has pairs such
as MEEHAN (Persian) and VATAN (from Arabic), meaning one's nation or homeland.
You would surely find it ridiculous if I presented the idea of changing
the alphabet of the English language to the Cyrillic script. I would then
remind you that the English language has been wrought with "foreign
nuances" since the day that some barbaric Normans from the coast of
France arrived in England and set up court.
Another reason cited for a change in the alphabet is related to economic
development in an increasingly global workplace. Advocates of the change
in script often claim that in order to develop and participate globally,
Persian speakers must change the form of their written word. A global community
should be one in which differences are accepted, not shunned. For instance,
was Japan unable to develop economically while maintaining its national
language and alphabet?
To be sure, economic and political development are dependent upon a
literate population, and literacy in the "international" languages
such as English or Spanish is helpful; however, the development of a state
is not dependent upon its alphabet. English is quickly becoming the language
of the world. It is of aid to businesspeople, travelers, and Internet surfers.
As language is linked to culture, we should be aware of the "West
is best" attitude that comes with a culture founded on McDonald's,
Coca-Cola, and Melrose Place, which is rapidly engulfing every last town
in the world. Development is not linked to following a Western model of
culture. Development will be achieved through the will of a nation, regardless
of its written form of communication.
Another consideration, especially for developing countries such as Iran
and Afghanistan, is the sheer cost of such an endeavor. They would need
enormous funds in the areas of education, re-education, publishing, and
re-creation of signs. The national debt that would accumulate would simply
hinder development further.
In this discussion, literary techniques and the fine arts must also
be considered. What traditions do Persian speakers risk losing in changing
their Arabic+4 script? First, consider calligraphy. In Latin script, calligraphy
is considered "fine writing" (The New American Webster Dictionary).
Chinese characters used in China, Korea, and Japan, and the Arabic(+4)
script are the only ones in the world in which calligraphy has become a
fine art, alongside painting, music, and dance. Many of the innovations
of the Arabic script calligraphy (also sometimes called, perhaps inappropriately,
"Islamic calligraphy") such as the Nastaliq script, were made
by Persian calligraphers. The art of Persian calligraphy would be lost
and remembered simply as historical artifact by generations to come.
Jenass-e-Khatti a literary "play on words," employed
by writers such as Sa'adi in his Golestan, would also be endangered
by changing the alphabet of the Persian language. This technique places
homonyms in the same sentence or phrase to enrich the text in prose and
sometimes, in poetry.
The route I have proposed for Persian-speaking peoples is by no means
the easiest one. The difficulty in reading vowels, learning Western European
languages, and connecting to global networks such as the Internet will
be made more difficult when one's eyes are not in the habit of reading
Latin characters. These difficulties will be strides made in an attempt
to preserve, in an increasingly border-less and monocultural world, a civilization
that has survived and grown over the last two and half millennia (or more).