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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
and Parti languages consisted of many or variations of Aramaic words. And
many of the alphabets used by the Iranian languages is influenced
"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.
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.
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,
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.
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
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
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.
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.
the interplay and connections of these words are fascinating and unless
we acknowledge their true origins we won't be able to fully
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
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?
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
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.
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
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.
surface or apparent
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
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
the same meaning.
Yoga in Sanskrit means bringing under control that which is associated with
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.
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.
thing I discovered was the similarities between some Hungarian and
Persian words, particularly in the area of personal pronouns, for
Also in Hungarian Ö, as in Persian, refers to either
of the sexes.
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.
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,
Vol 2-3, No 1-4.
Encylopaedia of the Quran, editor, Jane Dammen Macauliffe, Brill,
The New Encylopaedia Britannica, 5th edition, Encylopaedia Britannica
Inc, London, 2003.
History of Persian Literature before Islam, Dr Ahmed Tafazuli, Sokhan
Encyclopedic Dictionary of Yoga, George, Feuerstein, Paragon House,
Nouvin Persian Dictionary, Mohammed Qarib, Bonyad publication, 1970,