Notes on Pinglish

Persophone states should agree on a common Latin transliteration


Notes on Pinglish
by Houchang Esfandiar Chehabi

When Mustafa Kamal replaced the Arabic alphabet with the Latin one in Turkey, the Iranian government, which had been pondering a similar measure for a while, decided not to follow suit. The decision had been preceded by much soul-searching among the country’s top literati, who concluded in the end that a change of script would cut Iranians off from the rich literary heritage of the Persian language. Considering how alien Ottoman literature has become to the vast majority of Turks, one has to admire the lucidity and foresight of the statesmen who insisted on keeping the charming old squiggles, in spite of their acknowledged shortcomings. But even the most well-intentioned policies can have unanticipated consequences, and in the case at hand the unanticipated consequence is an abomination called Pinglish.

When I first encountered this portmanteau word, a blend between ‘Persian’ and ‘English,’ I thought of course of Spanglish and Hinglish, i.e., the vernacular spoken by Hispanics and Hindi-speakers who lace their English with Spanish or Hindi words that are either untranslatable or have English equivalents that simply do not convey the culture-specific nuances and emotional tenor of the original. As the children of the Iranian diaspora become English-speakers, they are creating their own dialect: somehow “Khaleh-joon, please pass the tahdeeg,” sounds more satisfying than “Maternal aunty dearest, please pass the rice crust from the bottom of the saucepan.”

Having had a father who was a language teacher and who always insisted that I do not mix the two languages with which I grew up, I am by temperament a purist; marshaling the multicultural sensitivity to find any merit in community-specific dialects does not come easily to me. I need not have struggled against my own instincts, however, for Pinglish, I learned, is not a hybrid English but simply Persian written in Latin letters. There is nothing remarkable in that, for Persian has been written in all sorts of alphabets: Iranian Jews used the Hebrew script until the dawn of the 20th century; Tajiks in the Soviet Union were forced to use the Latin alphabet between 1928 and 1938 and the Cyrillic alphabet thereafter (and have come to be perfectly happy with it); and in today’s India Persian is sometimes written in the Devanagari script, the knowledge of Urdu nasta‘liq having declined thanks to Partition. One alphabet Iranians have never used is an Iranian one, for in their 15,000-year (by the latest count) history, they have never bothered to invent one. And there is no reason why they should have, since first the Sumerians and later the Phoenicians and Arabs created writing systems that could so easily be adapted for use by them. Where, then, is the English in Pinglish? Why not, say, Pertin?

The answer is obvious, if a tad depressing: other European languages have simply fallen off most Iranians’ lingual radar screens, which means that the Latin alphabet has come to be associated almost exclusively with English. Before the revolution Iranian stamps bore inscriptions in Persian and (always correct) French; since the revolution they have been labeled in Persian and (sometimes atrocious) English. English has taken over, as it has in the rest of the world, although loanwords like muzeh, gisheh, and rofuzeh remain as reminders of French cultural ascendancy, not to mention the word farangi, meaning Christian Westerner and harking back to the Germanic tribe that gave its name to the land of the Gauls. Still, in the case of Iran this uncontested supremacy of English is not devoid of a certain irony, considering how much abuse the English-speaking nations have been subjected to in the official Iranian media for the past three decades.

Since successive Iranian governments have neglected (like the Koreans and Israelis, but unlike the Greeks or Chinese) to announce an official Latin transliteration (in which one Latin letter always stands for the same letter in the local alphabet) for the official language of their country, Iranian internet users who are not computer-savvy enough to make use of the Arabic script have no choice but to resort to transcription, where Latin letters are used for the sound they evoke in the reader’s mind. And what sound the letter evokes is conditioned by English, if that is the only foreign language you are familiar with. The trouble with this is that there is probably no major language less suited for such use than English. French, German, Italian, and Spanish all have regular orthography: if you know the rules, you know how to pronounce a word. But in English, to recall George Bernard Shaw’s famous quip, ghoti could conceivably be read as fish: gh as in enough, o as in women, ti as in nation. That is the spelling system Iranians are stuck with! Occasionally it allows for some cross-cultural creativity, especially on restaurant menus – one thinks of such delicacies as Ash Joe (barley soup) and Gourmet Sabzi (meat stew with herbs). But on the whole the transcription of Persian words and names into Latin letters has been haphazard and immensely incoherent, as anybody who has tried to find an Iranian’s name in a Latin-script telephone book can attest.

Consonants do not pose much of a problem, except for the (rather rare) ﮋ (sounding like the s in the word ‘measure’), which is usually rendered as a j (as in the surname of Iran’s beloved president), although j also stands for the letter ﺝ, which in Persian sounds like the j in the aforementioned Joe. One could also point out the obstinate use of the digraph gh for ﻖ, which is doubly objectionable. First, it wastes the letter q, which is a pity, since one letter is always preferable to two (think of the possible confusion if you want to write sagha, ‘dogs’). Second, it is complicit in the conflation of ﻖ and ﻍ, where it is only the latter that should be rendered as gh, as it is a voiced kh, like the guttural French r. In the Persian of southern Iran and Afghanistan and in Tajik the distinction between ﻖ and ﻍ is still routinely made, and there is no reason to give in to the sloppiness of the people of Tehran, who have forgotten about it and pronounce the latter like the former.

These inconsistencies are minor inconveniences in comparison to the problems posed by vowels. One problem is that the letter a has to do double duty for two very different sounds, as a result of which bastani can mean both ‘ice cream’ and ‘ancient’. On a French keyboard one can easily differentiate between bastani and bâstâni, but that takes an effort on English keyboards most users are unwilling to make. Oddly enough, however, the greatest confusion surrounds the long u (as in ‘fool’). In the nineteenth century, when French was the primary foreign language in Iran, Iranians started using the digraph ou for it, which was functional so long as one was consistent and used French spelling throughout. But now English has taken over, and the ou is not only obsolete but also highly dysfunctional, for which ou are we to go by: ou as in thou, thought, through, though, tough, trough, tour, tournament, or tremendous? Although the ou is pronounced in (at least) nine different ways in English, somehow it survives, resulting in such inconsistent spelling as, to take two random examples, Houshang and Gougoush, which should be Hooshang and Googoosh in English, or Houchingue and Gougouche in French. But even if we settled on the oo we would have a problem, as oo sounds differently in foot, food, flood, or floor, not to mention (now that I am being a pedant) cooperate or coordinate.

If Iranians had followed the same policy as the Turks, there would be no problem, of course: Huşang and Guguş are quite unambiguous Latin-script renderings of the two names. An unsettling thought, isn’t it? It seems to me that the only way out of this mess is for the governments of the three Persophone states to agree on a common Latin transliteration.


Recently by Houchang Esfandiar ChehabiCommentsDate
Paradise Maker
Jul 15, 2011
more from Houchang Esfandiar Chehabi

Iranians have never invented an alphabet?!

by irnstd on





Also, Old Persian was written in a cuneiform alphabet DERIVED from Akkadian. All the glyphs were newly invented by the Achaemenids in that style, except for one (of 27) which was directly borrowed from Mesopotamians, the symbol for "la".


Most alphabets derive from a select few original orthographies. I.E. if you want to nitpick Pahlavi script for being derived from Aramaic, you can't call it "Latin" script either, since it's derived from Greek, which in turn is derived from the Phoenician alphabet. The same is true of many East Asian alphabets, Cyrillic, etc. There are very few independently invented alphabets. 

Guive Mirfendereski

I have three concerns –

by Guive Mirfendereski on

I have three concerns – first that the map does not indicate the Kurdish speaking world which is – as far as I can tell a Persian tongue. Second – emla for the most part is hostage to pronunciation – and that is why harmonizing the transliteration among many Persophone groups is a difficult one indeed. Take for example how in Tehrani Persian the sound v is a wa in Dari, or when in Dari the sound is ou, in Tehran it is o. How will a single English letter represent both sounds?  Third, one needs to be weary of attempts to standardize or harmonize the transliteration systems because then it becomes the province of even a fewer. Take a look at the Encyclopaedia Iranica, for example, where a transliteration system is at work - and see how it works for you. Now is it ghorbanat, ghorbounat? O qorbanat? Korbanat? What the heck  Ciao!      

Ari Siletz


by Ari Siletz on

The article already gives several examples demonstrating  that the lack of a standard for one-to-one Latin to Farsi letter association creates ambiguities. Bastani and Baastaani is a good one.

Bottom line: daily, as I read or write on the internet I feel the need for such a standard. This standard has to be something that can be easily implemented on an English QWERTY keyboard. International pronunciation symbols do not have this ease of use feature.

A concrete example that you may enjoy is my recent comment reference to Esfehani's (Isfahani, Esfehaani, Isphanani...) Helyat al-Awliya. As an exercise try to see how many different ways you can spell the book title and its author in Latin alphabet. Why bother with a standard? Because someone typing into a search engine looking for what "Ari Siletz" said about "Helyat al-Awliya" would have to try many different spellings of the book before hitting on the right one (the article mentions this problem using a phone book example). How does this lack of standard hold us back? In this specific case, it takes much more time for an Iranian to get information out of the predominantly English language internet.Crucial in the modern age!


the sad lamentable future of the "internet public" .. :( بو هو



The future development of Iranian society is in no way hampered by the Persian script.  

& The Orders have been doing fine for thousands of years.  I'm not particularly worried about them. (Simply one "example", Ari...)

You should outline why you believe that Iran or Iranians are held back by the current script and why you believe existing internationalized information systems and standards are insufficient for the "internet public".  Personally I find the lack of a rich selection of fonts to be a shortcoming, but that is likely mostly due to the flight of talent from "Islamic Republic of" Iran.  We will address that shortly, inshAllah. 

Abacuses are neat and interesting, and I do agree with you that "faster" machines (not to mention Turing machines) are more appropriate for computing in the digital age. (But I'd rather not talk shop on IC.)

Think Clearly, Speak Straight, and Act Decisively.  Only then will you be an Iranian.

Ari Siletz


by Ari Siletz on

1. Persian alphabet was not designed to accomodate Sufi texts; it was made for everyone to use for whatever purpose and it happened to be the alphabet in use when Sufis wrote their texts. Forms of spirituality that depend on a specific alphabet script for expression are using the letters as meaninfgul symbols, not as vowels and consonants. As such these spiritual orders need a private system to preserve their symbols; no need to hold up the internet public.

2. The future is at least as important as the past. Failing to adapt for fear of losing parts of the past puts severe constraints on our development as a culture. 

3. Preserving the past is important to newer generataions as well. For example, here's a very busy and lively abacus competition.  Outside this arena, however, faster machines are needed.


Ari (and to clarify)

by Joubin on

First, it should be clear that our respected Dr. Houchang Esfandiar Chehabi is definitely correct that in cases where States have to utilize e.g. for passports some manner of transliteration, the standing practices leave much to be desired.  The counter argument, if it was not clear to you, is that such issues are minor irritants given the gravity and high likelihood of the unintended consequences.

"A good Persian-Latin alphabet system for internet communication can exist side by side with the original printed Farsi alphabet "  


"But it will be a fair competition in the "market," not a switch-over by edict. Sufi poetry could well lose out, but the users have made the decision, not governments or scholars. And, there is very little added education cost in having two different scripts; internet users alreay know the Latin alphabet." 

This is the bone of contention.  (FYI, Sufi texts are not "poetry", Ari.)

Our heritage is not to be left in the hands of "markets", and carelessness of transitory generations (such as yours).

It is the duty of Iranians to protect and guard the Iranian heritage.  

You may not care about such matters and consider such care as "edicts" by "scholars", but some of us most certainly do and we will not countenance any effort to diminish the reach of the voice and wisdom of generations that have gone before us.  

& Salaam 

Think Clearly, Speak Straight, and Act Decisively.  Only then will you be an Iranian.


Second Ari

by Mahvash Shahegh on



I second Ari Siletz. Pahalavi language was written with Aramaic alphabet. Even "Hozvaresh" that we have in Pahlavi language are the words that were written in Aramaic but read in Pahalavi (e.g. it was written "malek" but read "shah".

The article is right; Iranians never invented a script of their own. 

Ari Siletz


by Ari Siletz on

The article is right. The script used by the Sassanians was derived from Aramaic (a semitic language related to Arabic and Hebrew). Similary with Parthian scripts. 

Here's a quick source.


Tower of Babel

by Mahvash Shahegh on


I agree with Joubin that with the advent and help of technology, particularly, machine translation, in a time not too far from now, not only we do not need to change/modify our alphabet but we do not even have to learn another language.

We may be closer to a universal language than ever before. In my humble opinion, in the near future, human beings can overcome the conspiracy of the Tower of Babel and go back to speak a single language and use a single alphabet.


Terrible blog

by BacheShirazi on

One alphabet Iranians have never used is an Iranian one, for in their
15,000-year (by the latest count) history, they have never bothered to
invent one. And there is no reason why they should have, since first the
Sumerians and later the Phoenicians and Arabs created writing systems
that could so easily be adapted for use by them


This is false. Pahlavi script was used during Sassanid era. 



Terrible blog, refuse to read the rest because of this. 

Ari Siletz


by Ari Siletz on

The proposal need not be taken as a call to replace Farsi script with Latin across the board (though it may be). A good Persian-Latin alphabet system for internet communication can exist side by side with the original printed Farsi alphabet, though I'm guessing that it will spill over to print and compete in that area. But it will be a fair competition in the "market," not a switch-over by edict. Sufi poetry could well lose out, but the users have made the decision, not governments or scholars. And, there is very little added education cost in having two different scripts; internet users alreay know the Latin alphabet.



by Joubin on

Dr. Chehabi,

Thank you for your thoughtful essay.  

A few comments:

In your consideration of the various transliteration patterns adopted by Persian speakers, you did not mention one of the main reasons some of us on the net effectively invented, and borrowed from one other, what you refer to as "Pinglish" -- a term I had not encountered prior to your essay.  

Back in the day, on USENET, Persian speaking academics, scientists, and engineers (who were using emails and the internet when the rest of the world was struggling with the very concept of floppy disks), communicated via ASCII based Users Interfaces (UI) and 'newsreaders'.  These 'newsreaders' were simple text based applications (and nothing like the wonderful new shiny toys we have today).  These Persian speaking pioneers were the first to take a crack at the challenge of squeezing the Persian tongue into the 128 character space of ASCII system, so that they could communicate in their native tongue in private.  (Some of us even had fun doing MiXIII! ;)

What is puzzling to me, having read your article, is that you start with commending the foresight of the Iranian statesmen that declined to follow the Turkish model nearly a 100 years ago, and yet end your essay with an apparent call to "the governments of the three Persophone states to agree on a common Latin transliteration".

To solve what precise problem, exactly?

There is a common script: it is the Persian script.  We all know it and love it.  And can read it.

I certainly would not want to see a future world where children of Iran are denied access to their cultural heritage.  And the mere transliteration of existing corpora will not do -- many Sufi texts, as just one example, rely on meta-allusions that directly address 'the form' of the script that transcribes the thoughts of the authors.  Such deep meaning would be completely lost, and no, an 'informative' footnote would not do the meaning justice at all.  Frankly, it would be a travesty.

Indeed, let's look at the Turkish people, unable to decipher the script that decorates their own monuments!  Would you have us revert to the dark days (prior to the advent of the Persian Studies by European scholars) and the historic silence of our own pre-Islamic texts and artifacts?  Would you not agree that the resurgence of Iranian nationalism is in no small part due to the resurfacing of those ancient, pre-Islamic, expressions and thoughts in our collective consciousness?

It should also be noted that a further benefit of our existing, functioning, and viable script is that it affords us the opportunity to peer (if somewhat darkly) at Arabic texts.  And Persian speaking lands are, and will remain, mostly surrounded by other peoples who utilize (mild) variants of the Arabic script.  Would you have us erect even higher walls between the tribes that inhabit Iran Zameen and periphery?

It further needs to be emphasized here that an important Arabic text that we need to continue to have access to is The Qur'an. Regardless of personal views regarding the book in question (or Islam) the fact remains that a substantial majority of Persian speakers also happen to be Muslims, and it will not do to have them rely on the translations of the said text by "official" interpreters (and other dubious guides, such as the clergy) and making the already difficult challenge of accessing the said content even greater.  

The current generation that (perhaps, per your claims) finds it difficult to handle information technology will soon pass way, and their children will have no issue whatsoever with using available technology.  And it is not even necessary to raaheh dur bereem: consider the nation of bloggers that is the "Islamic Republic of" Iran.  Are they using "Pinglish" to blog and communicate?  (That is also news to me and surely to the captive-Iranian nation!)

The Turkish leadership certainly lacked foresight, but in their defense one must also recognize that the world lacked the necessary technology, and fairly remember that they were a defeated people and a dismembered empire.  

Today, and since late 80s, there exists Unicode, with specific designated ligature for the digital display and transmission of various languages, including (of course) the Persian script.  "We have the technology. We have the capability" to write in our own script.

In conclusion, the problem that you appear to suggest exists is in fact a non-problem: at worst a minor irritant, and positively considered a new venue for expression of Iranian creativity.  And the proposed solution, would surely be a historic crime against the future generations of the Iranian peoples.

Again, I thank you for taking the time to write about this very interesting topic and sharing your thoughts on this matter. 

I remains yours respectfully (that rather rare) 

& Salaam 

Think Clearly, Speak Straight, and Act Decisively.  Only then will you be an Iranian.

Ari Siletz

Tough call!

by Ari Siletz on

A well informed, well reasoned yet delightfully illustrated essay.

Some  cognitive psych lab work with word recognition and comprehension speeds may be useful in coming up with a recommendation for a standard pinglish alphabet. As it is, I find reading Farsi paraghraphs in the Latin alphabet a draining task even though I have had a lot of practice. An "ergonomic" design could go a long way in making this standard attractive. 

Thank you for shedding light on the issue.