email us

US Transcom
US Transcom

Shahin & Sepehr

Iranian Online Directory

Sehaty Foreign Exchange

Advertise with The Iranian


No thanks
Changing Persian script would be harmful

Saba Ghadrboland
January 15, 1999
The Iranian

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).


Copyright © 1997 Abadan Publishing Co. All Rights Reserved. May not be duplicated or distributed in any form