What comes to mind when you hear or read the word “Persian?”
Maybe it’s the Persian cat. Maybe it’s the idea of deserts and golden sands that stretch out for kilometers on end. For video game players, the platformer title “Prince of Persia” may come to mind.
But for me, when I hear the word “Persian”, I’m reminded of the language, also known as “Farsi”, with different names in the modern era, depending on the location it’s spoken. These changes through time reflect the changes in societies and empires that have used it as a medium of communication and art for generations.
Understanding and translating Farsi has become essential in facilitating communication and cultural exchange in Middle Eastern and Central Asian countries, not just for business or legal procedures, but also for more personal reasons, such as traveling. And for some people, Farsi can be a way to rediscover their cultural roots and origins.
So let’s delve into this language with a rich history and cultural significance, its past and current presence in the world, its evolution, and its influence on not just a group of people, but other languages as well.
Farsi is another name for Persian, an Indo-European language, making it a relative of other languages like Kurdish and Pashto. Persian is the umbrella term for the language, primarily spoken in Iran, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan; “Farsi” in Iran, “Dari” in Afghanistan, and “Tajik” in Tajikistan.
As with most languages, Dari and Tajik, while still being the Persian language in essence, are distinct dialects in their respective countries. The Dari and Farsi language is written in a script that has its origins in Arabic. On the other hand, Persian people write Tajik using the Cyrillic alphabet.
While the Farsi language is the official language of Iran, the Tajik and Dari dialects also hold official status in Tajikistan and Afghanistan. The formation of these 3 dialects points to geopolitics as the main cause, with the languages’ history dating back to when empires used to rule the area compared to the current government systems in use today.
As expected, Iran has the most Farsi users, with around 62% of the population speaking the Persian dialect of the language. Afghanistan and Tajikistan also have large parts of their population that have the language as their mother tongue, around 32% for Dari and 68% for Tajik respectively. In total, there are around 70 million native speakers of the Persian language, combining those that speak the Dari, Tajik, and Farsi language dialects.
Additionally, around 50 million have learned the Persian alphabet, vocabulary, and pronunciation as a second language, since it is also spoken by large populations in neighboring countries, such as Iraq, Yemen, Uzbekistan, and the UAE. Overall, this means there are around 110 million speakers worldwide. This puts Farsi among the top 20 most spoken languages in the world, with a concentration in the Middle East and Central Asia.
While not as old as Chinese and Egyptian, Persian is perhaps one of the oldest languages in the world, dating its beginnings back to almost 2,500 years ago.
The foundations of modern Persian and its three distinct dialects can be traced back to the Achaemenid Dynasty (522 BC to 486 BC), thanks to cuneiform inscriptions found in Iran from this period. At this time, this language, known now as Old Persian, was spoken by Persian people in the Parswash tribe, who ruled the area known as the Realm of the Aryans up until the conquest of Alexander the Great.
Old Persian is widely spoken in the region, as it was the official language of Achaemenid kings. When the kingdom finally fell, the language formally transitioned into what’s now known as the Middle Persian language.
Middle Persian is the direct language descendant of Old Persian. It’s also known as Pahlavi, named after Parthians who ruled Persia following the collapse of Alexander’s Empire. Pahlavi is believed to come from a province in southwest Iran that was once the center of the Persian Empire – Parsa or Fars, which is also the origin of the modern Iranian name of the language: Farsi.
One difference between Old and Middle Persian is that Middle Persian has almost lost all case inflections, while the use of prepositions and tenses increased. Another change is the development of the Persian alphabet, which evolved with the spoken language.
At first, Middle Persian used Pahlavi scripts, which were used by Zoroastrians in the 3rd and 4th centuries. Later on, by the 9th century, the Manichaean script was used, and remained as such, until the Muslim conquest in and around the area later on.
Classical Persian is when the Persian script as it’s being used today is introduced. Also known as the Early Modern Persian Period, this is the version of the language that has been preserved in various literatures around the Empire, as it’s used by many poets of the time period, such as Rudaki, Firdowsi, and Khayyam.
Many Arab vocabulary and terms became integrated into Persian during this period because of the region’s continuous contact with Arabic communities. Persian soon became the lingua franca of the eastern Islamic nations, and remained unchanged until the nineteenth century, when the dialect of Teheran rose in prominence, having been chosen as the capital of Persia by the Qajar dynasty in 1787.
Farsi is what’s become known as the Contemporary Standard or Modern Persian. Unlike Middle Persian, which was derived from Old Persian, Farsi did not directly descend from Middle Persian but is believed to have come from a Pahlavi dialect once spoken in northeast Iran.
Also Farsi, unlike Classical Persian, uses nativised forms of Arabic words in colloquial or common speech. But otherwise, it has changed relatively little, as classic literature is still understandable for modern-day speakers. This scenario is rare and amazing among world languages, as older languages being combined and being transformed with new languages is a more common event.
In its current form, Farsi is characterized by its simplicity in grammatical structure, a vast vocabulary, and a significant body of literature.
Dari is the Afghan dialect of Persian and one of the two official languages in Afghanistan. Like Farsi, it’s written in a modified Arabic alphabet, and it has many Arabic and Persian loanwords. The languages do not differ greatly, but compared to Farsi, Dari has less stress accents, uses “-ra” to mark attribution, uses different vowels, and has additional consonants.
It is the primary language of the Tadzhik, Hạzāra, and Chahar Aimak peoples. And in Afghanistan, Dari serves as the means of communication between people who speak different languages in the country.
Tajik is what the Persian language is called in Tajikistan. As mentioned previously, Tajik is written in Cyrillic script due to its isolated location and continued Russian influence.
Unlike Farsi and Dari, Tajik has retained many archaic elements of speech and pronunciation from earlier forms of Persian, and its loanwords have come from the Russian language, as opposed to Arabic. But in terms of general sentence structure and grammar, Tajik remains similar to the other dialects of Persian, and all three dialects are mutually intelligible with each other.
Because of its colorful and long history, Farsi has significantly influenced many languages, especially those in its nearby vicinity. Urdu, in particular, has been heavily shaped by words in the Persian languages and uses a modified version of the Persian alphabet for its writing system. Other Indian languages, such as Hindi, have several words that have roots in Farsi and Persian.
Farsi has also affected the Turkish language significantly. Despite coming from two different language families, Turkish has around 1% Persian vocabulary due to the countries’ close geographical proximity.
Even in English you can see some Farsi. Words like 'bazaar', 'pajama', and 'caravan' have Persian origins. This influence reflects the historical interactions through trade, conquests, and cultural exchanges done over time.
In today’s world, despite the assistance of technology, language still plays a crucial role in building, connecting, and maintaining relationships across borders.
Farsi, with its millennia of history, continues to be a language of relevance and beauty. Its journey from the ancient courts of Persia to the modern-day internet reflects its adaptability and enduring appeal. Understanding its history, evolution, and influence not only provides insights into the language itself but also into the rich tapestry of human civilization. As Farsi continues to bridge cultures, its story is one that resonates with the shared human experience of language and communication.
Raphaella Funelas is a creative writer who graduated from the University of the Philippines Diliman with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Studies, specializing in Language. She likes learning about anything new in any field, and has pursued that interest through a writing career. She always has an ear on the ground for any exciting topics, and an enthusiasm to share any newfound knowledge through her words.