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Instead of bashing the invading Arabs for corrupting the Persian language, how about teaching the truth?

December 5, 2004

Growing up in Tehran, studying in Hadaf, one of the best private schools that the capital could offer, I was taught to believe in history, that is the continuation of Persian history. And history was taught almost as one reads a romance novel or a tragedy, with certain expectations and characteristics already built in. I realize now that the way language, history and religion were presented to us by so-called educated teachers, was more than biased.

I know any nation with a long history, is inclined to favor his own version of events over others, but ours stemmed mainly from lack of true understanding of history; history of Persian language and Persian culture, the very things that they professed they loved. It was motivated with feelings of nationalism and religiosity; a toxic concoction that can poison the most acute, truth seeking minds.

As I recall my first Persian literature class in 7th grade where our teacher, having already heard about his legendary reputation both as a master of Persian language and a harsh disciplinarian, began to reveal to us the etymology of Persian vocabulary. He asked each student in the class to utter a Persian word. He emphasized "Persian" not "Arabic".

At first we couldn't understand what he meant by that. We understood the word Persian and Arabic but never knew which one was which. However, we followed his instruction and told him whatever word came to our mind. I think nine out of ten the words turned out to be Arabic and not Persian. And the words that turned out to be Persian, were purely by accident rather than a conscious, or smart reply on our behalf.

From those early days those two words got stuck in our young brains: Arabic and Persian. And this became also the way we viewed the Persian history, before and after the Arab invasion. Somehow nothing else seemed to matter, we cursed Alexandra for burning our Persopolis but made rude and lyrical remarks about Omar, and Osman and sang them daily, particularly in lavatories.

Sunni Arabs became our scapegoat somewhat, because Alexandra came, invaded and left. Mongols also came, ravished and left but here we are stuck with a language that reminded us of our defeat, every day.

Our teacher, a short, podgy man, with a husky voice, told us that the majority of vocabulary in the Persian language derives from Arabic. He then, told us the importance of Firdowsi and his masterpiece, Shahnameh. However, being a Muslim, our teacher proudly acknowledged the fact that Arabic was the language of the prophet and our great religion, Islam.

Yet he also assured us that Arabs and Persians, despite their vast common vocabulary, do not understand each other, even if they screamed into each other's ears. He said the Persian language has passed through many dangerous hurdles to get to this stage, to retain its identity, which is the identity of the Iranian people. And we believed him.

The picture that I, or perhaps some others, conjured up in our little minds was that Arabic was good because it was the language of our great religion but Persian was better because it was the language of our ancestors, a language that connected us to our sense of being as a nation, with a unique past, with a particular destiny.

Of course we couldn't articulate all this but these thoughts gradually crystallized in our minds as we grew up. And the more we used Persian words in our daily conversation the purer we felt about who we were. Of course not all schools were like ours.

In encountering other languages after I left Iran - when my Islamic feathers got ruffled and blown away in the stormy sea of life - I discovered that our teacher's assumption that majority of Persian words have Arabic roots is wrong indeed . This separation of Persian language into two main branches of Arabic and Persian, shows a very limited understanding of Persian and denies its much deeper roots.

The truth is not very complicated, and I am sure as kids we would have understood and appreciate the variety of influences on Persian language, rather than giving us a black and white picture of our literature. But did he know it?

Hebrew, Arabic and Aramaic are invariably interrelated, as they are all part of the same Semitic family. In fact a lot of those words that we were told are "Arabic", are more likely to be Aramaic. Persian on the other hand has roots in Sanskrit. But I don't remember this getting mentioned at our schools, except only in passing.

Aramaic had a long affinity with the ancient culture of Middle-East particularly Persia. The Achaemenids, for over two centuries used Aramaic as their governmental language, writing all the correspondences in their vast empire in that language. The Parthians used Aramaic again and later invented the Parthian language using the Aramaic alphabet.

Aramaic was so influential that later Pahlavi and Parti languages consisted of many or variations of Aramaic words. And many of the alphabets used by the Iranian languages is influenced or copied from Aramaic.

"Ctesiphon, the Persian capital, was located in the heart of the territory inhabited by speakers of Eastern Aramaic." This statement, which is written in Encyclopedia Iranica, is actually saying that the capital of Sassanians, was a cosmopolitan place where people spoke more Aramaic than Pahlavi. It's like saying, in Rome people spoke more Greek than Latin.

However, in that same article the Aramaic language is divided into two main dialects, the Eastern and Western. The former, spoken in the territory controlled by the Sassanians and the latter, in places under the control of Romans.

Encyclopedia Britannica tells us that, "Avestan was written in a script evolved from late Pahlavi writing, which, in turn, derived from Aramaic." Remember, this is only script not the actual language. Avesta, which the Sassanian later translated it and became the torch bearer of its faith, was a language that only the priests could understand.

Now whether the Avestan language was an already existing dialect or invented by a group of people in order to record the Zoroaster's revelation is a matter for debate among scholars. But one thing is for sure that Avestan language was a dead language and something had to be done about it if the faith had to be preserved and spread. However, the Gathas, which is the older part of the Avestan language is very similar to that of Vedic Sanskrit in India

In eastern of Persia, there were also very different languages in use, such as Khwarezmian, Sogdian, Saka, and Scytho-Sarmatian and Bactrian and other less well know dialects. The languages spoken in the east were not mutually intelligible with the languages spoken in southwest and northwest or even within their own group.

Persian Sassanians, identifying themselves fiercely with the Achaemanids, knew that Aramaic, a non Iranian language, has been of tremendous help in connecting their empire together. Their predecessors, the Parthians, used it to develop their own language. So they showed no opposition to the growing popularity of Aramaic, which was on the rise virtually in their own backyard, Ctisphon.

Aramaic has contributed to the overall betterment of their administration in the past and has been used as a tool to advance their own languages as well. In another word, Aramaic was neither a political force nor a religious one but only a tool for communication among the people living in their empire. Beside the two people that they fought most against were the Romans and the Turckic tribes, and to them Aramaic was not the language of the enemy.

Now if we dismiss the influence of Aramaic language on Modern Persia and ignore its historic place in the evolution of Iranian languages and bestow the many words used in the Persian language onto Arabic, we will firstly, ignore the huge contribution that Aramaic had played during the course of Persian history. Secondly, we will misunderstand the true meanings of these words whose etymology go back to Aramaic, a much older language than Arabic.

For example, when you look up the word for bread, in Aramaic, you get lochma. In Persian, we have the word, loqme. No dictionary refers to its Aramaic root, but instead they tell you straight out that it's from Arabic. Now in Aramaic, lochma also means understanding, and it's derived from another Aramaic word hochma, which means "wisdom", and in Persian we have hekmat, or wisdom, which the dictionaries tell us that it's from Arabic again. Another example is the Aramaic word for kingdom, which is  Malkutha, which in Persian is Malakut.

Now the interplay and connections of these words are fascinating and unless we acknowledge their true origins we won't be able to fully understand them and appreciate our own Persian language which these words are part of.

By the way these are the words that Jesus of Nazareth spoke in. He neither spoke in koine Greek nor in Hebrew, but Aramaic. And the word "kingdom" or malkutha is the focal point in many of his sermons and parables and it is this concept that has fascinated and puzzled people throughout history as what Jesus meant by it. Did he mean a just society in it's present physical form? Or a heavenly society?

Unless we go back to the roots of these words we are going to lose their true meanings and symbolic significance, which otherwise can add so much spiritual dimensions to our ordinary, everyday conversations. Instead of bashing the invading Arabs for corrupting the Persian language, how about teaching the truth? My favorite Persian proverbs is, "instead of cursing the darkness, light up a candle."

I don't believe Arabic words were forced into Persian literature by an invading army whom most probably couldn't read or write, but rather they were already part of the greater Persian culture. Even one of Darius's inscriptions was written in Aramaic. Aramaic which evolved later into Arabic (there are still places in Middle East where people speak Aramaic) was not that foreign at all among the Iranian or non Iranian people living under the same Empire.

There are many other interesting examples. The word khtahayn in Aramaic is khatayan in Persian. Both mean the same. This word was later translated as "sin", which gives it a very strong moral overtone. But in fact when Jesus used it he meant "failures" or "mistakes". And the word for God in Aramaic is Alaha.

I have also come across Sanskrit words that have most definitely entered the Persian vocabulary, via Pahlavi. An interesting Sanskrit word is kundalini which has a whole spiritual philosophy behind it. Kundalini "is the divine, cosmic energy which exists as a latent force in everyone." George Feuerstein writes that the kundalini is pictured as residing in a state of potency, brilliant as a million suns, at the lowest esoteric center (charkas) of he body. The Hindus believe kundalini reside in the buttock area, or the base of the charkas. And what do we call that area in Persian? Kun.

Once again when you look at a Persian dictionary it tells you the origin of the word kun is Pahlavi and goes no further. Another Sanskrit word is chakra, which means, "ring", "wheel", and in Persian there is charkhesh, which means rotating around an axel, or ring.   Again, any reputable Persian dictionary tells you that the origin of the word is Pahlavi.

The surface or apparent meaning of the Sanskrit and the Pahlavi are almost the same. And since Sanskrit is a much older language than Pahlavi, I think they should have at least acknowledged its Sanskrit origin. This is what happens when a culture loses its continuity or when biases or fanaticism prevent teaching the truth.

Another word that has been used for the very same meaning both in Aramaic and Sanskrit and has entered Persian and English languages, is yoq. In Sanskrit yoga and in English yoke. When you examining the meaning of them in all three cultures you will realize they have more or a less the same meaning. Yoga in Sanskrit means bringing under control that which is associated with the mind.

The Arabic or the Persian version yoq only give you the literal meaning, which is the same in English: "a contrivance for joining a pair of draught animals," -- in other words, bringing them under control.  If anything yog has a negative connotation in Persian, for it also means exploitation, mainly politically. But in English via the gospel when Jesus says," Take my yoke upon you and learn from me... " the word  has found a meaning other than it's literal interpretation.

Another fascinating word in Sanskrit is Nirvana. It's literal meaning is "extinction". Now if you separate the first syllable from the last two, you end up with vana. Now compare it to an Arabic or more Sufic term, fana, which means exactly the same thing, "extinction, to die to this life while alive. Having no existence outside of God. A unity with Allah."

Another Persian word is kar, which means work or action. The Sanskrit word karma, also means "action". And of course immense amount of philosophy has been written about karma, which is intriguing both the Western and Eastern mind . And most major religion has referred to the concept of karma in one way or another. But once again Pahlavi claims this word for itself without much reference to its much deeper and profounder Hindu/Buddhist roots.

Another thing I discovered was the similarities between some Hungarian and Persian words, particularly in the area of personal pronouns, for example,

Persian man (I) tu (you) ooh (he/she) ma (we)
Hungarian en (I) te (you) Ö (he/she) mi (we)

Also in Hungarian Ö, as in Persian, refers to either of the sexes.

One wonders about these striking similarities and how and when the two languages/races mingled. There are many examples like this in Persian literature. In fact Persian is like the fractal universe; the closer you look the more interesting things you find.

When you stop at Pahlavi or Arabic as the origin of these words, you miss the whole interesting spiritual/philosophical ideas that lie behind them. The philosophies are sophisticated, vibrant and liberating. They can add much richness to the daily conversation of Persian speaking people. They link us to our greater past.

Language could be a fantastic window to people's imagination. But unless we remove the bi- polar opposite of "Persian" vs."Arabic" and acknowledge the deeper connections to ancient Aramaic and Sanskrit, we shall keep this magnificent window shut and become victims of our own prejudices and ignorance.

I think one of the successes of the English language is the way it has absorbed words from languages like, Greek, Latin, German, French and many others. And English language experts more readily acknowledge these roots in order to give the reader a deeper appreciation and widen their horizon. They present English as a language that can absorb foreign words without losing its identity.


Encyclopaedia Iranica , Routledge & Kegan Paul, editor, Ehsan Yarshater, London, 1989.
Vol 2-3, No 1-4.

Encylopaedia of the Quran, editor, Jane Dammen Macauliffe, Brill, Boston, 2003.
Vol J-O

The New Encylopaedia Britannica, 5th edition, Encylopaedia Britannica Inc, London, 2003.

History of Persian Literature before Islam, Dr Ahmed Tafazuli, Sokhan publication, Tehran,1997.

Encyclopedic Dictionary of Yoga, George, Feuerstein, Paragon House, NY, 1990.

Nouvin Persian Dictionary, Mohammed Qarib, Bonyad publication, 1970, Tehran.

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