Language & Literature
History and Origins of Persian (Parsi or Farsi) and Dari-Persian language
Persian is spoken today
primarily in Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan, but was historically a more
widely understood language in an area ranging from the Middle East to India.
Significant populations of speakers in other Persian Gulf countries (Bahrain,
Iraq, Oman, Republic of Yemen and the United Arab Emirates), as well as large
communities around the World.
Total numbers of speakers is
high: about 55% of Iran's population are Persian speakers; about 65% of the
Tajikistan's population are Tajik-Persian speakers: over 25% of the
Afghanistan's population are Dari-Persian speakers; and about 1% of the
population of Pakistan are Dari-Persian speakers as well.
Persian is a subgroup of West Iranian languages that include the closely
related Persian languages of Dari and Tajik; the less closely related
languages of Luri, Bakhtiari and Kumzari; and the non-Persian dialects of Fars
Province. Other more distantly related languages of this group include
Kurdish, spoken in Turkey, Iraq, and Iran; and Baluchi, spoken in Afghanistan,
Iran, and Pakistan. Even more distantly related are languages of the East
Iranian group, which includes, for example, Pashtu, spoken in Afghanistan;
Ossete, spoken in North Ossetian, South Ossetian, and Caucusus of former USSR;
and Yaghnobi, spoken in Tajikistan. Other Iranian languages of note are Old
Persian and Avestan (the sacred language of the Zoroastrians for which texts
exist from the 6th century B.C.).
West and East Iranian comprise the Iranian group of the Indo-Iranian branch of
the Indo-European family of languages. Indo-Iranian languages are spoken in a
wide area stretching from portions of eastern Turkey and eastern Iraq to
western India. The other main division of Indo-Iranian, in addition to
Iranian, is the Indo-Aryan languages, a group comprised of many languages of
the Indian subcontinent, for example, Sanskrit, Hindi/Urdu, Bengali, Gujerati,
Punjabi, and Sindhi.
Scholars recognize three major dialect divisions of Persian: Farsi, or the
Persian of Iran, Dari Persian of Afghanistan, and Tajik, a variant spoken
Tajikistan in Central Asia. We treat Tajik as a separate language, however.
Farsi and Dari have further dialectal variants, some with names that coincide
with provincial names. All are more or less mutually intelligible.
Dari Persian, mainly spoken in Afghanistan, until recently, deferred to the
Tehran standard as its model, and although there are clear phonological and
morphological contrasts, due partly to the influence of neighbouring Turkic
languages, Farsi and Dari Persian remain quite similar. The dialectal
variation between Farsi and Dari has been described as analogous to that
between European French and Canadian French. Dari is more conservative in
maintaining vowel distinctions that have been lost in Farsi.
Luri and Bakhtiari, languages in the southwest part of Iran, are most closely
related Farsi, but these are difficult for a speaker of the Tehran standard to
understand. While speakers of Luri regard their speech as a dialect of
Persian, speakers of Farsi do not agree. Judaic Persian, written in Hebrew
characters and used by Jews throughout Iran, is close to the Persian standard
in its written form. However, many Iranians of Jewish descent have left the
country and no longer form a significant portion of the population.
Persian in Iran and Afghanistan is written in a variety of the Arabic script
called Perso-Arabic, which has some innovations to account for Persian
phonological differences. This script came into use in Persia after the
Islamic conquest in the seventh century. A variety of script forms: Nishki is
a print type based closely on Arabic; Talik is a cultivated manuscript, with
certain letters having reduced forms and others occasionally elongated in
order to produce lines of equal length; and Shekesteh is also a manuscript,
allowing for a greater variation of form and exhibiting extreme reduction of
The richly inflected morphological system of Old Iranian has been drastically
reduced in Persian. The language has no grammatical gender or articles, but
person and number distinctions are maintained. Nouns are marked for
specificity: there is one marker in the singular and two in the plural.
Objects of transitive verbs are marked by a suffix. The morphological features
of Arabic words are preserved in loans, thus Persian shows "broken" plural
formations, that is, a word may have two different plural forms.
Verbs are formed using one of two basic stems, present and past; aspect is as
important as tense: all verbs are marked as perfective and imperfective. The
latter is marked by means of prefixation. Both perfective and imperfective
verb forms appear in three tenses: present, past and inferential past. The
language has an aorist (a type of past tense), and has three moods:
indicative, subjunctive, counterfactual. Passive is formed with the verb 'to
become', and is not allowed with specified agents. Verbs agree with the
subject in person and number. Persian verbs are normally compounds consisting
of a noun and a verb.
Word order in Persian is Subject-Object-Verb although modifiers follow the
nouns they modify and the language has prepositions.
Persian distinguishes short and long vowels. Words are stressed on the last
Role in Society
Persian, until recent centuries, was culturally and historically one of the
most prominent languages of the Middle East and regions beyond. For example,
it was an important language during the reign of the Moguls in Indian where
knowledge of Persian was cultivated and encouraged; its use in the courts of
Mogul India ended in 1837, banned by officials of the East Indian Company
(British Colonialism). Persian scholars were prominent in both Turkish and
Indian courts during the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries in composing
dictionaries and grammatical works. A Persian Indian vernacular developed and
many colonial British officers learned their Persian from Indian scribes.
Persian is the first language of about 55 percent of the population in Iran,
and is the country's official language. It is the language of government, the
media, and school instruction. Of the rest of Iran's population, 20 percent
speak related Western Iranian languages and 25 percent speak Arabic, New
Aramaic, Armenian, Georgian, Romany, and Turkic languages.
In Afghanistan, Dari Persian, along with Pashtu, are official languages of the
country. The language is taught in schools and radio Afghanistan is promoting
a standardized pronunciation of the literary language. The Persian spoken in
Teheran serves as a model for more formal styles, but some colloquial styles
are closer to Tajik. Only minor lexical differences exist between the literary
forms used in Iran and Afghanistan. Although both Pashtu and Dari are official
languages, Dari has a special social status in the country because of its
historical prestige; it is the preferred language for communication among
speakers of different linguistic backgrounds.
Old Persian is attested from the cuneiform inscriptions left by the Achaemenid
dynasty (559 to 331 BC.) that ruled the lands known as the Realm of the Aryans
(from which comes the name of the modern country Iran) up until the conquest
of Alexander the Great.
Middle Persian, also known as Pahlavi, after the Parthians who ruled Persia
after the collapse of Alexander's Empire, is known chiefly through its use in
Persian's pre-Islamic Zoroastrian religious writings.
The origin of Modern Persian is not clear. Although greatly influenced and
closely affiliated to Middle and Old Persian, there is no conclusive evidence
that it is directly descended from these languages. It may instead derive from
a Pahlavi dialect once spoken in northeast Iran.
Old Persian, by contrast, and its immediate descendant Middle Persian,
originated in a province in southwest Iran that was once the center of the
Persian Empire -Parsa or Fars-, hence the contemporary Persian name of the
The Early Modern period of the language (ninth to thirteenth centuries),
preserved in the literature of the Empire, is known as Classical Persian, due
to the eminence and distinction of poets such as Roudaki, Ferdowsi, and
Khayyam. During this period, Persian was adopted as the lingua franca of the
eastern Islamic nations.
Extensive contact with Arabic led to a large influx of Arab vocabulary. In
fact, a writer of Classical Persian had at one's disposal the entire Arabic
lexicon and could use Arab terms freely either for literary effect or to
Classical Persian remained essentially 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. This Modern Persian dialect
became the basis of what is now called Contemporary Standard Persian. Although
it still contains a large number of Arab terms, most borrowings have been
nativized, with a much lower percentage of Arabic words in colloquial forms of
The term "Persia(n)" derives from the Greek and is based on the Ancient Greek
reference to the whole region. "Farsi" is the Arabic equivalent for the name
of the southwestern province of Parsa the locus of various Persian dynasties.
"Iran" derives from an Old Iranian word.