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Politicizing linguistics
It is a mistake to confuse ethnicity with language

August 14, 2002
The Iranian

I read with great interest Aylinah Jurabchi's essay on Azarbaijan [Who are Azeris?], first with shock, then with amusement. Her assertion is a wonderful revision of history and a misunderstanding of the science of linguistics.

Having been born in Tabriz, Azarbaijan, I have a special interest in this kind of speculation and fiction. I grew up first in Tabriz, then in Tehran, eventually coming to the United States and receiving a Ph.D. degree in English Literature and Linguistics.

I am an American, loyal to this country and this land. I am giving this information to tell the readers that I have lived as an Azari and have the credentials to speak about the matter with some knowledge, and that my principal loyalty is to the country in which I live.

BUT! It is a mistake to confuse ethnicity with language.

Through the course of the history of nations many invasions bring linguistic, if not necessarily language, changes. To assume that someone who speaks a language must be ethnically of a certain origin is a false assumption. Many Italian-Americans speak only English, thus we can assume, according to Jurabchi's theory, that they are of Anglo-Saxon origin, coming from England.

Obviously this is a fallacious notion and language has very little to do with ethnicity, although it might in a confined society. Interestingly, Jurabchi's name--a Persian word, meaning maker of socks -- is Persian, as is my name Ordoubadi (Ordu Abad, populated by the militia. The name is still there, in Naxjvan), and by her reasoning, she and I must be of the Persian origins, which, perhaps, we are!

One point is obvious: there is no possibility of claiming ethnic purity for any society, large or small, unless one lives in the la-la land of dangerously chauvinistic dreaWe are all mixed, linguistically and genetically, whatever genetic impurity could be; and, we must be thankful for that to move away from the incestuous replication of ourselves. As "people" are mixed, so are their languages and cultures.

Azaris belong, first and foremost, to the larger, indefinable culture of Iran while also maintaining the Azari culture as a distinct reality. Never mind history and historical documentaion; never mind the Safavid imposition of a foreign language in the region: make an onomastics journey.

One of the best ways to study language is through place names, particularly in ethno-linguistics. Place names tend to linger and are hard to change. A look at the Bible will show how many of the Old Testament place names still survive.

If my memory serves me right, there are an amazing number of place names--both in the north and in the south--that are in origin Persian. The very name "Azar" is a Persian word for "fire," and "Azarbaijan" from "Ath(z)rapathan," a place of fires, the genesis of Zoroaster and Zoroasterianism; Jurabchi agrees with me on this score.

Of course, Tabriz, the capitol of South Azarbaijan is decidedly Persian, as is Baku, the capitol of the north (Bad-koobeh, wind-blown). Let me list a few names of villages and towns that I can remember: Harzand, Eskandar, Maragheh, Gul Tapa (Gol-Tapeh, flower mound), Shahsavar, Gul Dara (Gol Dareh, valley of flowers).

I cannot authenticate this, but I have a memory that, when I was in Tabriz on a Fulbright to research the structure of Azari (some of the findings are published in The SECOL Review), some professor at the University told me that 70% of the place names on both sides of Aras River are of Persian origins. Language and culture are so intertwined that studying one requires a knowledge of the other. In the annals of Azari literature, more is written in Persian than in Azari.

By the way, Persian is not a Semitic language like Arabic, as Juranchi agrees; it is an Indo-European language, and there is no such an animal as Aryan language. True, there have been many lexical intrusions to the Persian Language, but words are only one part of the story. Morphological and syntactic structures are equally important.

The basic grammatical structure of the Persian Language remains Indo-European; not that it makes any difference in a global village, but take a look at the Persian verb enclitics (passvand) and then compare them with the Old English. They will pair off favorably. Only in the last 150 years, since the annexation of Northern Azarbayejan to Russia, has a measure of literature in the local language been produced.

No one can deny that Azari, as spoken now, is a Turkic language, notwithstanding Kasravi's assertions that it is basically a Persian dialect. However, this fact does not make Azaris a Turkic people (the term Mongoloid refers to a genetic variation in the facial skeletal structure of certain human beings, not to a linguistic fact, although in old-fashioned philological studies it also refers to an ethnic group, the term now out of use).

And, yes, the people of Azarbaijan have spoken this Turkic language for some five hundred years, but in the back of the language there is the Persian culture: literature, music, philosophy, painting and such. Politicizing the innocent science of linguistics reeks of special agendas, and I fear it is unfair to the Iranian people at large to expound such fabrications.

If in a plebiscite Southern Azaris decide to join their Northern brothers and sisters and make a country called Azarbaijan, then be it, but until such time writing political tracts under the guise of linguistic facts is unbecoming and unfair, to say the least. I am impressed by Jurabchi's efforts to make a case, but a case is hardly acceptable unless it accompanies hard facts and historical evidence.

Comment for The Iranian letters section
Comment for the writer Reza Ordoubadian

By Reza Ordoubadian

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