The Persian Language
The official language of Iran is Persian (the Persian term for
which is Farsi). It is the language of government and public instruction
and is the mother tongue of half of the population. Persian is
spoken as a second language by a large proportion of the rest.
Many different dialects of Persian are spoken in various parts
of the Central Plateau, and people from each city can usually
be identified by their speech. Some dialects, such as Gilaki and
Mazandari, are distinct enough to be virtually unintelligible
to a Persian speaker from Tehran or Shiraz.
Persian is an ancient language that has developed through three
historical stages. Old Persian dates back to at least 514 B.C.
and was used until about A.D. 250. It was written in cuneiform
and used exclusively for royal proclamations and announcements.
Middle Persian, also known as Pahlavi, was in use from about A.D.
250 to 900. It was the official language of the Sassanid Empire
and of the Zoroastrian priesthood. It was written in an ideographic
script called Huzvaresh.
Modern Persian is a continually evolving language that began
to develop about A.D. 900. Following the Arab conquest of the
Sassanid Empire in the seventh century and the gradual conversion
of the population to Islam, Arabic became the official, literary,
and written language, but Persian remained the language of court
records. Persian, however, borrowed heavily from Arabic to enrich
its own vocabulary and eventually adopted the Arabic script. In
subsequent centuries, many Turkic words also were incorporated
As part of the Indo-European family of languages, Persian is
distantly related to Latin, Greek, the Slavic and Teutonic languages,
and English. This relationship can be seen in such cognates as
beradar (brother), pedar (father), and mader
(mother). It is a relatively easy language for English-speaking
people to learn compared with any other major language of the
Middle East. Verbs tend to be regular, nouns lack gender and case
distinction, prepositions are much used, noun plural formation
tends to be regular, and word order is important. The difficulty
of the language lies in the subtlety and variety of word meanings
according to context. Persian is written right to left in the
Arabic script with several modifications. It has four more consonants
than Arabic-- pe, che, zhe, and gaf--making
a total of thirty-two letters. Most of the letters have four forms
in writing, depending on whether they occur at the beginning,
in the middle, or at the end of a word or whether they stand separately.
The letters stand for the consonants and the three long vowels;
special marks written above or below the line are used to denote
short vowels. These signs are used only in dictionaries and textbooks,
so that a reader must have a substantial vocabulary to understand
a newspaper, an average book, or handwriting.
Persian is the most important of a group of several related languages
that linguists classify as Indo-Iranian. Persian speakers regard
their language as extremely beautiful, and they take great pleasure
in listening to the verses of medieval poets such as Ferdowsi,
Hafez, and Sadi. The language is a living link with the past and
has been important in binding the nation together.
There is no accepted standard transliteration of Persian into
Latin letters, and Iranians write their names for Western use
in a variety of ways, often following French spelling. Among scholars
and librarians a profound dispute exists between those who think
Persian should be transliterated in conformity with the rules
for Arabic and those who insist that Persian should have its own
rules because it does not use all of the same sounds as Arabic.
Among educated Persians, there have been sporadic efforts as
far back as the tenth century to diminish the use of Arabic loanwords
in their language. Both Pahlavi shahs supported such efforts in
the twentieth century. During the reign of Reza Shah Pahlavi (1925-41),
serious consideration was given to the possibility of Romanizing
the writing of Persian as had been done with Turkish, but these
plans were abandoned. Since the Revolution, a contrary tendency
to increase the use of Arabic words in both spoken and written
Persian has emerged among government leaders.
Data as of December 1987