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Iranians speak Persian
The English called it Persian, the French Persane, the Germans Persisch, the Italians Persano, the Russians Persiska. So should we.

March 2, 2005

Reading Azam Nemati's "I'll show you Persian!", it seems she has missed a major point in the Persian vs. Farsi debate. I guess this confusion might be because of the political situation in which Iranians in the US have put themselves, one that I am now just starting to see myself, after living in Los Angeles for six months.

It probably would have been easier if we had a seperate word for the name of the language and the name of the supposed ethnicity. The argument here is not about the ethnicity/nationality, but the language. At the same time, the language issue is not a political, idealogical or natiolistic one. It is also not a matter of proving "our glorious past" or anything of the sort, rather an issue of respecting the laws of English.

Each language has its own laws for naming other people's language. In Persian for example, English is "Engilisi", French is "Faraanse" and Greek is "Younaani". It would certaily sound odd if we start saying "man Francaise sohbat mikonam". It will not only be snubbish, but also ignorant, of the person who uses the above phrase in Persian.

Persian, the lingua franca of Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and parts of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, has been known (in its "Old", "Middle" and "New" variations) to the outside world for many centuries. All different languages of the world have given Persian their own name (mostly based on the root Pars, the name of the Old Iranian tribe whose native language was "Old" Persian). The English called it Persian, the French Persane, the Germans Persisch, the Italians Persano, the Russians Persiska, and other languages used their own terminology.

It happens that Persians themselves, since about 900's AD, started calling their own native tongue with the name "Farsi" (Fars from the aforementioned "Pars" and 'i' as the suffix of relation).

Now, transporting this essentially Persian word (Farsi) into other languages implies a certain kind of linguistic dictatorship! It is in a sense saying that we don't care about your language, we like to use our own words, even when speaking your language. Farsi is not an English word, and it should not be imposed on English. The English suffix of relation is '-(i)an' (Russian, Italian, Mexican, Brazilian...), and -i makes no sense in it. By continuing to use Farsi, you are implying that you are either ignorant of the English -ian suffix, or you are just too grand to be bothered respecting the laws of your host language.

Persian speakers, with their notorious lazyness and ignorance of the laws of host languages, originally started ignoring the laws of English. They created two problems: first, they imported their own word into a language without considering the laws and standards of that language. Second, they introduced a new word for something that already existed in the host language, thus creating confusion!

Imagine that if tomorrow, all the Greeks decide to say "I speak Eliniki" instead of "I speak Greek" (Eliniki being the Greek word for the language). From tomorrow on, the average man on the street is going to wonder about this "new" language called Eliniki! What is Eliniki? How is it related to Greek? Do Greek speakers understand Eliniki as well?

This is the problem that the import of the word Farsi has created. I am asked constantly about the relationship between Persian and Farsi. I am asked: "What language was that you were just speaking", and upon hearing "Persian", some people ask "So, is Farsi like a minority language in Iran? Do you understand Farsi?".

So, again my dear Ms. Nemati, the problem is not Iranian and Persian. The issue is Persian and Farsi. Yes, I am Iranian, but I speak Persian. Iran is a land that is much larger than "Persia" (Fars). I am from Tehran, which is not in Persia/Fars, and so I am not Persian, but I speak Persian.

Think of it like the case of Britian and English. No Scotsman would say that they are "English", but they won't have a problem with saying that they SPEAK English. In the same way, a Belgian is a Belgian, but he/she speaks FRENCH. No shame in that! So, in the same measure, we are all Iranian, but we speak Persian. This is not a political statement, it is just getting your dictionary definitions right.

Say "Persian", not "Farsi".

Khodadad Rezakhani is a PhD student in History at UCLA. Visit his website,

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Khodadad Rezakhani



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Iranian Nationality and the Persian Language
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