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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 into Persian.

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

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