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The literals
Back to the colorful Persian language

December 29, 2004

How many languages can you name that are as progressive and modern as our own ancient Farsi?

First of all, it is a unisex language! We don't have masculine and feminine and do not distinguish between He, She, and it, or his, hers, and its, or him, her, and it. This explains why so many Iranians, even after years of having lived in the US or England, still mix up their He's and She's.

I was at a highly educated, very intelligent, very accomplished friend's office when the phone rang and moments later I heard HIM say: "Yes, This is She!" I immediately figured out that the person calling him must be a woman - even mapping a "She" caller to a "He, Himself" in His Persian Language Mapped Brain, made him say that he was she!

Second, If we treated a verb as the action, or basically the "Operation", Farsi uses Postfix notation, which is perfectly optimized in a computer languages sense (e.g. In mathematics, 5+8 is Infix, because the operation, namely "+" is between the two operands, 5 and 8. A computer, is best optimized to read either 5 8 + , known as Postfix notation.)

In "Mann Ghaza ra Khordam" the verb or the action, which we agreed is the operation, is at the end of the sentence, making it to be in a Postfix format, more efficient for a modern computer than the English language and its Infix grammar, "I ate Food!" You will later see that Farsi is even more Object Oriented than most other languages particularly when it comes to proverbs and expressions.

Do you know what proverbs are? I think of proverbs as concise stories, sampling syntax and semantics of a language, reflecting historical, social, and cultural aspects of the community. If you have read Simin Habibian's 1001 Persian Proverbs, you too will see that Persian Proverbs are indeed a lot more than just snapshots of our unisex language.

This reminds me of a contest where they asked students to write a concise essay that had Sex, Religion, Royalty, and Mystery. The winning essay was: "Oh my God, the queen said, I am pregnant, I wonder who the father is! Persian proverbs are like that.

Simin must have put a great deal of work into translating these practically impossible expressions [Too much information]. I did recently acquire a copy. If you want to buy it, order it to her directly, it is cheaper than Amazon and she even autographs it for you, sends you her picture, and includes a gorgeous Persian postcard - it is lovely.

Simin's book made me realize yet another amazing aspect of our language that I had not noticed before: Proverbs are generally metaphorical - Persian proverbs are particularly less abstract and more specific than other languages, more often. We commonly use these sometimes philosophical, sometimes congenial, sometimes sarcastic, and sometime plain old rude proverbs, with great skill and incredible comfort, in our daily interactions making a conversation more poetic, more playful, and often more painful.

If you are very cautious, and you take careful steps, because of a personal bad experience, we use a very concise, loaded, and well known example, and apply it to your situation: "Aadam e Maar Gazideh az Reesmaan e siah o sefeed meeTarseh" [He that has been bitten by a serpent, is afraid of a black and white rope - In other words, Once bitten, twice Shy!]

It doesn't matter if you are careful spending money because you have filed for bankruptcy, or, you drive carefully because you have been in a serious car accident, or, you don't use a credit card because you were a victim of an identity theft. For all of these cases we use the above expression.

However, you will not use this expression for just any ordinary situation where someone is simply careful. This is a very specific expression and requires a subject with an applicable past bad experience, also from which that person has learned and is now more careful and not just careful - More careful.

This also is the problem: The expression is a bit too revealing, unintentionally, and it hints a past problem about the subject, which is then sometimes too inviting to the curious, like yours truly.

I was invited to a friend's bachelor's party and as we were discussing some details, I heard one of the organizers saying: I am not coming to such and such place agha jaan. "Aadam e Maar Gazideh az Reesmaan e siah o sefeed meeTarseh". Well, the radars went up instantly and everyone wanted to know the who, what, when, where, and the why of that serpent, that mean snake which made our friend be so afraid of going to a strip joint! You get my drift.

We have expressions that are even difficult to explain in Farsi itself and practically impossible to literally translate - yet because they have the story telling attributes of an adage, they are easily remembered and quickly learned, and well understood.

An expression like "Cheshm' am Aab NeMee Khoreh" [My eye did not drink water - I am very doubtful] makes absolutely no sense, yet I am sure most of us said something like "Az Inn Martikeh ye Zaboon Nafahm Boosh, Cheshm am Aab NeMee Khoreh" and better yet, we probably finished it with "Inn Yek Kasse Zeer e Neem Kassash Bara ye Khavar Mianeheh, beh Khosoos Bara ye Iran hast" [there is a bowl under his half bowl - a trick up his sleeve].

Another one is "Dastam Namak Nadereh" [ My hand has no salt - either a bad curse, or I get no gratitude] and "Nokhod e Har Ash" [She is the pea in every soup - Nosy]

The expression I love the best is "Az Damagh e Pheel Oftadeh" [Has fallen from the trunk of an elephant, basically referring to stuck up folks] - I honestly looked around and could not find any historical references to who, or what, may have fallen from an elephant's trunk to have given birth to such a loaded expression <no it is not ivory>. Better yet, Mr. Elephant apparently has a great place in the Persian literature because we also associate impossible tasks with an elephant such as "Inn Kar e Hazrat e Pheel e" [ it is the job of his Excellency, the elephant] Try translating that! Although not an expression, but don't forget Choss e Pheel, and Pheel Goosh <Pheelm does not count as Pheel>

For as long as I can remember, we have consistently used "Dell" to refer to both the heart, as well as the stomach. Interchanging those two can sometimes lead to the most hilarious literal Persian translations such as "Dell am Barat Tang Shodeh" [My stomach has shrunk for you - I miss you]. Even if we used the proper noun, the heart, it is a questionable expression. What does it even mean, in any medical, scientific, or philosophical terms, when the heart shrinks, or tightens! Muscle atrophy? It sounds pretty sick, but then again, in English we have "Total Eclipse of the Heart!", they have gone Lunar with it!

Another one of my favorites, which borders cannibalism, is "Jeegar e toe bokhoram!"

By the way, does anyone have a visual of Foolad Zereh? I am sincerely curious to see how ugly he was, or his mother must have been, to have found such a prominent place in our culture. I love to find that first guy, many hundreds of years ago, who after reading Amir Arsalan e Namdar, decided to use Foolad's mom to describe how ugly someone was, back then! High school must have been a nightmare for Foolad!

The Persian treasure of proverbs is quite large and the play with their literal translation, endless fun. "My hand has no salt", "I did not smell the palm of my hand", "You saw camel, you didn't see camel", and "I make you a soup(Aash) with a lot of oil on top" or "She is not such a hot soup(Aash) to burn your mouth" - Why an Aash that burns your mouth is even good?

My other favorites are: "The boogieman took the pacifier", "Our waters don't go to the same stream", "Go rub your whey", "To put watermelon under one's armpits", "My ass burns", "Bring the donkey and load the lima beans", "Burnt Father", "His brain picks up broken Bricks", "These words will not make underwear for Fatti".

Some seriously loaded and funny ones which I am sure you have either heard, or, when you hear you understand what they mean are:

" yaarou khayli khosh choss e, dam e baad ham mishine! "

"pool e koon dadan sarf e bavaseer mishe"

And "kalaagh az vaghti bache dar shod ye goh e seer ham nakhord!"

Although the ancient Persia was a cast society and traces of it can even be found in Iran today, we have countered with a few very loaded expressions targeting snobs, or people who boast such as:

"engar be ghondaagh e terme reedeh!"

"beh koonesh mige donbal e man naya, toe bu midi" [very snob]

"noonesh nadaare eshkeneh, goozesh abouataa mikhooneh"

And an almost impossible expression to translate literally is "Effade ha Tabagh Tabagh, Sag ha Be Doresh Vagh o Vagh" ... and how many years did you say you have been speaking English?!

My buddy, Bruce Bahmani, particularly asked me not to mention this but I can't help myself: "I ate the ground and my father came out". He always laughs so hard when he says this that I don't understand the rest of what he says.

Here is a random list of a few others:

- Shotor Deedee, NaDeedee [ You saw camel, you didn't see camel]

- Roosh Mess e Sang e Pie e Ghazveen e [His face is like Ghazveen Foot Scrubs]

- Zeereh Beh Kermoon Mee Bareh [He took Cumin to Kerman]

- Boro Kashket ro Bessab [Go Rub Your Whey]

- DamMet Garm [Warm Breath!]

- Khar Shod [He turned into a donkey]

- Baray e Ammash Khoobeh [ it is good for his mother's sister]

Like I mentioned before, Farsi also lends itself to be reinvented and to be very playful. As an Iranian in America with kids, a lot of us have to deal with Fargilisi, a Persian and English mix of words and grammar.

A friend's 2-3 year old daughter in her stroller was asking her dad "Daddy BehPoosh Mano". Poor dad thinking the kid is cold, puts a blanket on her -After a long and frustrating conversation, he finally figured his daughter was asking to be pushed. Here is a few others that are either personal experiences, or have heard from others:

-- "Dad, gole MiGrowee?" <Are you growing flowers?>

-- "Dad, in GhessTeh ro ke Reedy, YekKey digeh Bokhor" <After reading this story, read another>

-- "Dad I Goozed"!

-- "Dad, een Dokhtareh Dareh Man o Messl e Divooneh ha Ranandegee Miknoeh" <She is driving me crazy>

-- "Sorkham Kard" <he made me blush>

-- "Khanoom ha va Aghayoons"

-- "Inno too Goh MeeKhaYn?" <Do you want this to go?>Finally, when reading news, I sometimes encounter names and expressions which make me wonder how they would be treated in the Persian press.

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Bahram Saghari



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Iranian Nationality and the Persian Language
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