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For the love of P
Farsi is not Arabic


October 21, 2005

To be able to stand in the public square for any extended period of time and express oneself requires that one be poust-koloft (thick-skinned) and porru (cheeky). Notice how both these Persian words begin with the letter “p.” Today, I would like to examine the place of this sound in the Persian language and why the Iranian hyper-nationalists are wrong to build their entire identity on the power of “p” at the exclusion of its naturally occurring substitute “f” in the Persian language itself. I take 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.

Before I go there, I would like to address two legitimate observations made by a few about my methodology. One reader has stated that my reaction to criticism/comments on essays entitled [Sweet Farsi] and [Beyond far and good] cast “ a shadow of subjectivity” on my writings as a whole. I think this reader has hit the mikh (nail) right on the head: As I wrote back to him: I aspire to subjectivity as the only form of discovering the truth, for myself and by myself. As far as I am concerned, it is all subjective.

Speaking of  mikh -- In taking umbrage to my general disdain for looking to Westerners for answers about matters Persian, another reader has pointed out correctly that the Westerners deciphered the cuneiform script and thus making possible the reading of the eight Old Persian inscriptions. This reader pointed to the Western contribution to understanding, recording and preservation of Iranian history and culture in the face of the Iranian’s own shortcomings.

The fact of the deciphering of the Achaemenian cuneiform by a Westerner goes to the heart of the recent debate about the role of an amateur (or enthusiast) and responsibility of the professional (specialist) in the process of discovery and diffusion of knowledge. Rawlinson, a professional career military man, with an enormous love of history and ciphers, deciphered Darius’ cuneiform inscriptions at Bisotun.

This is not to say that an Iranian would have not deciphered the mikhi (nail-like) inscriptions in time. But that would have been unlikely because, you see, in Iran mikh was in the province of carpenters (and also ironworkers) who made and used nails but otherwise probably were not allowed by the “specialists” to develop an interest in ancient archaeology or languages!

Rawlinson, on the other hand, could do this because he did not confine himself to the barracks or diplomatic residences. In fact, the Iranians owe a huge debt of gratitude to the British civil servants and other Europeans who dabbled in Persian history, geography and culture outside the scope of their professional training or employment.

Some years ago I was researching the names of place-names in the Gorgan region in northern Iran. In the area of Kuhsarat located 28 kilometers east of Minou Dasht is a place called Farang. Believing that the place did not get its name because of its connection with the Occident, I amused myself with the thought that the place-name was probably called Feleng because its inhabitants used to close the feleng (lock) and hit the chak (bank of the river) -- run away in the face of adversity.   

The foregoing is an example of “folk etymology.” However, were it not for  this subjective experience I probably would not have pursued a more “researched” course of inquiry. I learned that in the Gorgan region inhabited a tribe called Palang (palang=tiger), whose primary settlements in the 19th century were in Chahrdangeh (Hezar Jarib) and Katul districts east of Gorgan. A source placed them in the Ramsar region around the 12-13th centuries.

I would surmise, therefore, the village that they called Farang was one of the places where they arrived in their eastward migration past Katul. Etymologically, their abode (always called Palang) underwent a double ebdal/substitution) -- l became r and p became f.  Unless one is an “ef-o-phobic” Iranian, one should not suggest that this transformation of p to f was an Arab linguistic influence.

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. But I digress. 

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.

I close with an observation made by a reader about my “experimental approach to sharing my knowledge with fellow Iranians, to get them to think outside the box.” “The problem is,” he wrote, “nobody is thinking inside any particular box to begin with. We are like a bag of spilled rice. There is no authority, no hierarchy, no one to defer to and learn from. We are ineffective as a community because everyone marches alone and nobody cares what others think. There is no consensus on anything. No consensus [equals] no community. No community [equals] no power. No power [equals being] easy prey.”

Alas -- All this despairing sentiment just because I have dared to say Farsi instead of Persian when writing about our language in English! The way I see it, Farsi is the byproduct of a culture with 2500 years of imperial history, with multiple languages, endless sounds and dialects, and endless substitutions of vowels and consonants. I am therefore skeptical of any idea that is foisted as the answer or correct view by a specialist. In wring about language and meaning of words and place-names, the bottom line for me is that I offer a thing, never the of anything. In the soft domains of knowledge, all I can do is to offer an answer, an explanation, and let the marketplace sort out its preference for one among others.

I have patiently endured the jabs of the hyper-nationalists’ preference for Parsi and Persian over Farsi. In a world that they see only black (Arab) and white (Persian), I have offered here a third and entirely Iranian explanation – that form of the word Farsi is Persian and it was created by the genius of the Persian language itself in order to persevere Parsi in a foreign script. Enough said, here is then one more reason why one should not give a plying puck about what detractors may think on the subject.

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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