<< Back to Index
Is the Persian Language Dying?
By: Vahid Isabeigi

Most of us, Iranians have been rather vigilant about not to be culturally classified in the same category as Arabs for the sake of endeavouring to retain the intrinsic facets of our Iranian Culture. In fact, this vigilance has reached such considerable levels that great majority of Iranian-Americans and other Iranian expatriates , rather than mustering up to stave off the pervasive anti-Iranian xenophobia that has been existent in the USA for the past two decades, have almost been spending their entire energy on trying to point out the fact that we Iranians aren't Arabic and that we, as Iranians, possess highly distinguishable features such as our language and our pre-Islamic traditions to tell us apart from Arabs. On the other hand, the perseverance of Iranian expatriates and a considerable number of Iranians inside Iran to try to promulgate the fact that Iranians aren't Arabic, despite being completely rightful and highly indispensable, has not really gained Iranians anything; in other words, their efforts have been completely in vain since nothing has been done in practice. In fact, the language we speak, Persian, attests to the fact that nothing appreciable has indeed been done.

This could sound to be rather convoluted; hence, let me explicate my point as follows: Although we Iranians arguably speak a different language, an Indo-European Language, as opposed to the Semitic nature of Arabic, our language has been completely inept at fighting against the encroachment of Arabic hot on the heels of the advent of Islam. In fact, an estimated 45-50% of today's Persian Language in daily use is comprised of Arabic Words. This tendency of incorporating Arabic Words into one's speech and writing has notably gained momentum after the outbreak of the revolution, as a result of which, the regime, with an outright policy, has been encouraging the further Arabisation of the Persian Language. Presumably, our post-revolutionary press ranging from our newspapers to magazines and everyday written language is now completely awash with Arabic Words. In fact, this propensity has reached so extreme levels so as to incorporate our everyday colloquial language, which is the clearest manifestation of this preposterous tendency.

Unfortunately, our exiled press consisting of expatriate-writers and newscasters also seem to have been caught up in this trend. This is the clearest indicative of the fact that although Iranians are rather attentive when it comes to taking pride in being endowed with one of the oldest and most affluent languages of the world, there has hardly been a significant manouvre, except for the mathcless piece of Shahnaameh, with respect to the promotion of Persian Language and minimising the effect of Arabic. This, in turn, very explicitly exhibits our inadvertence despite, paradoxically, our arrogant stance about our language.

Arabic, in spite of being far more expressive and having a far greater amount of vocabulary as opposed to Persian, has inevitably dominated the languages of most Islamic States varying from Turkish to Urdu and Malay. However, in none of these languages has the effect of Arabic Element been as cumulative as it has been in Persian. In Fact, most people insinuate that if it wasn't Ferdousi's Shahnaameh, which resuscitated our language in the midst of invincible impact of Arabic in the bulk of the Middle East, our language would have faded into oblivion like the way the instrinsic languages previously being spoken in Syria and Egypt have fallen victim to the domination of Arabic.

Nevertheless, it would be erroneous to affirm that the effect of Arabic element has been totally futile in Persian. In fact, the affluence of Arabic Language, which has filled the gap of expressiveness in Persian, has enabled our most of our poets to produce glamourous masterpieces, each of which are highly appreciated by Iranians from various ages and from various strata of the society. Arabic has immeasurably enriched the Persian Language with some of the words and concepts that were completely non-existent in our pre-Islamic Persian Language. Nonetheless, current influence of Arabic, which has not only subdued our literature, but has trespassed on as far as our colloquial language, needs moderation. In fact, some of the Arabic words already have their equivalents in Persian. One should research the still extant dialects of the Persian (Gilaki, Tati, Lori, Kurdish), to see the equivalents of some of the very widely used Arabic words really existed in the ancient Persian Language. There certainly are ways in which the Arabic element cannot be eradicated from Persian. On the other hand, in contrast to Turkish or Urdu, in which communication would be rather arduous without the inclusion of foreign words, our Persian Language is rich enough to minimise this intense effect of the Arabic languages with a huge profusion of words it is already endowed with to replace their Arabic equivalents.

Furthermore, it is would be timely to note that the efforts of moderating the Arabic element in Persian by resurrecting some of our own words should by no means exhort one to espouse the notion of "purity"since in today's circumstances there doesn't exist a pure language all languages in the world have unavoidably borrowed a multitude of words from others to enrich their expressiveness capabilities. In this case, purity, though sounds very mesmerising to most patriots, is the number of enemy of the progress of a language. We can give some paradigms for this from Iranian Languages: For instance, some of the dialects of Persian such as Tati, Gilaki, Lori and Kurdish (which is my mother tongue by the way), have never been able to develop as fully as the Persian Language has. As a result, these dialects have barely been able to get out of their confines to fully develop themselves and have largely remained as rural lamguages. Although many people especially many patriot Iranians, preach the necessity of possessing a very pure language, not many are aware of the adverse repercussions of such a desire in terms of the expressiveness capability of a language.

Meanwhile, it would not be an exaggeration to affirm that Persian Language, by virtue of its intrinsic richness, is endowed with the capability to reduce the Arabic Element from the current ratio of 45-50% to as little as 20% by employing its existent words more often, which will indubitably proliferate the incidence of the usage of Persian words as opposed to their Arabic equivalents. The examples of this are innumerable, as indicated below with just a handful of examples. Here are some examples denoting the fact that moderation of Arabic element in Persian is likely.

vatan: This Arabic word meaning "homeland" is used more frequently in our language than its Persian equivalent, Mihan, which is gradually fading into oblivion for being less frequently used.

mariz: Meaning ill, it is deployed more often in both colloquial and written Persian, while our own word, bimaar, has a relatively low incidence of usage. In the mean time, the same word's derivative, maraz, meaning trouble, though not used as commonly as dard, is somehow has gradually started to be favoured more in colloquail speech.

tashakkor: one of the most widespeard Arabic words that has found refuge not only in Persian, but in most other non-Arabic Islamic World, is a typical paradigm of a non-eradicable Arabic words. In fact, tashakkor has become so prevalent in Persian that our own word sepaas has become rather obscure due to seldom usage.

kalimeh: Mostly used in the context of "word". Nevertheless, the prevalence of this word has mounted so immeasurably as to surpass that of sokhan, our Persian equivalent for the same word in the same context.

soal: Despite some visible effort made by our writers and journalist to stear clear of this word and instead resort to its Persian equivalent, porsesh, which is unfortunately that common even in colloquial language, not a considerable achievement seems to have been attained.

javaab: By the same token, the word javaab is way more common than its Persian equivalent, paasokh.

lahzeh: One of the words that is probably more in the ascendant amongst the speakers of colloquial of Persian. In fact, this word has so much superseded the Persian one, hengaam, that the new generation, both inside and outside Iran, has grown completely inconspicious to its Persian equivalent.

makhsoos: This is one of those words that has prompted its Persian equivalent, vijeh to start to gasp for breath for the battle of survival.

Evidently, these are just a handful of those striking examples denoting the intense effect of Arabic Element in Persian. It is timely to point out that despite the meagre efforts of some scholars, whose efforts in the realm of language have been met with the frowning stance of the regime whose authorities are undoubtedly averse to the moderation of Arabic element, no considerable scheme has been implemented in this highly relevant issue. In fact, even during the reign of the so-called patriotic outgoing shah, no substantial effort seems to have been made in deeds despite the some very flowery rhetorics put forward in this field just in words.

In conclusion, solemn efforts need to be made to deal with this highly paramount issue. On the other hand, there lies a very relevant question: should we totally discard the Arabic Element in Persian? Absolutely not. There should be a momentous and entrenched policy of further encouraging the usage of Persian words while Arabic ones should remain as choice to embellish writings or orations for eloquence. On the other hand, priority should invariably be given to Persian. In other words, when one speaks of the word "homeland", the first thing that should come into mind should be mihan, rather than vatan.

(end)
Contributed by Vahid Isabeigi, Ottawa, Canada
Khorsheed.com - Jul 2002