Persian? Or Farsi? Redux

by Michael S. Kaplan, published on 2006/05/23 11:56 -04:00, original URI:

In the post from the other day (Persian? Or Farsi?) I briefly touched upon one of the common and reasonable answers to the question of what to call the language, which first came up a few years ago:

The language name has become a confusing issue: Not only are Dari and Tadjik often considered to be different languages by many non-linguists because of their names, but also is the native name “Farsi” now increasingly used for “Persian”. This is like calling Spanish “Español” in English, though.

The story does not completely end there, however. Since there are people who will use "no habla Español" or "sprechen zie Deutsch" freely in English and then take those language names into the language in other contexts. And it is not like the ISO codes used for languages don't tend to encourage this tendency in a small way....

Since in this case the use of the word Farsi as a word in English does in fact exist (and a typical speaker of English may not know that Farsi is a transliteration of فارسی) it is perhaps not as simple of a matter of this (though that 'fa' ISO code does help/hinder the issue). What are some of the reasons for the more recent push, both inside and outside of Iran?

Well, not all of the push is completely recent, and it is not like people were ever talking about serving in the Farsi Gulf if they were a part of Desert Storm, were they? There is a reason why you see more search hits on Persian than you do on Farsi if only for the reason that we don't buy Farsi rugs or eat Farsi food or own Farsi cats!

Certainly there are connotations that may be attached to both words, it seems more likely that the Farsi -> Persian push has a lot more to do with a 'connotation preference' than anything else, right? I suppose we should be pleased that no one has been pushing the notion of a language known as 'Iranian' to further confuse matters. :-)

Is Persian more familiar to people speaking English? In one sense it is since we are more likely to know the word in the first place, but in another sense it may suggest something much older. My own first experience with the word was the ancient kingdom of Persia as the home of Esther in the story of Purim. And it is not just the memory of a past adloyada or two that I attended that makes me more likely to smile here; I enjoyed the Purim holiday growing up, if for no other reason than the argument for costumes seemed so much more wholesome than for Halloween....

Even now I do some mental gymnastics to seperate the older and the newer use of the word when I think off things like the PersianCalendar class. Thankfully, my lack of coordination does not hinder such gymnastics.

And in the end, I'd rather use the name that speakers of the language prefer I use, and the trend clearly seems to favor Persian. Easy enough for me!


This post brought to you by "ف" (U+0641, a.k.a. ARABIC LETTER FEH)

# bmm6o on 23 May 2006 2:15 PM:

If my experiences generalize, it's not a matter of people consciously switching from calling the language "Persian" to calling it "Farsi".  I didn't realize that they were two names for the same thing...  I thought that Farsi is what is spoken today and Persian was an ancient predecessor.  I guess the cause is general ignorance of the culture of that area, coupled with the fact that native speakers of the language consistently refer to it as "Farsi" when they mention their mother tongue.

Since it's not an intentional switch, it makes sense that rugs, gulfs and cats would not be renamed.

# Alun Jones on 23 May 2006 4:54 PM:

Maybe other languages should become uncoupled from location - after all, something approaching English is spoken in so many different countries outside of England, often as the national / unifying language.
There are even English speakers who are unaware that English is the language spoken in England. [Many Englishmen in America report the phenomenon of being congratulated by Americans, in all seriousness, on how well they speak English for a foreigner.  I've experienced it first-hand.]
With languages spreading past their usual geographic locations, and presumably in some cases, even being spoken entirely outside the locale for which they were once named, it seems artificial to tie language and location together with the same word.

# Michael S. Kaplan on 23 May 2006 5:12 PM:

Reminds me from a quote from Jonathan M. Ford:

Dr. Tagore nodded. "That suffix is common in several of Standard's root languages,
including, dear me, Regeliian Trade Dialect, to turn a nation-name into the nation-
language -- which itself is a less than wholly useful notion.

# Gabe on 23 May 2006 6:14 PM:

This is a problem with many names of places, languages, people, etc. For example, my brother was confused by the fact that sometimes the Winter Olympics were in Torino, while other times they were claimed to be in Turin.

It seems that for some reason various languages come up with new names for things in other languages. Sometimes they're a translation, other times they're a transliteration, and sometimes they're unrelated. Why do the English call Deutschland "Germany", while the Spanish call it "Alemania" and the Norse call it "Tyskland"?

Why is Christopher Columbus called Cristóbal Colón in Spanish and Cristoforo Colombo in Italian, but nowadays people's names always get approximately the same spelling or pronunciation in their target language?

# Mark on 14 Aug 2006 3:57 PM:

Pitching in my $0.02.  Farsi is derived from the word Parsi (meaning of Persia).  Farsi uses 'feh' because when the Arab conquerers took over, they didn't have an equivalent sound for the letter 'P' in their alphabet, thus many Persian words were altered to fit Arabic.

When the country was known as Persia, I believe the language and the people were both called the same thing, much like English (I speak English, I am English).  Now that the country is known as Iran (ee-rahn) Parsi/Farsi now refers almost exclusively to the language.

Still, many Iranians don't like the name Iran (land of aryans) and refer to themselves as Persian.  And due to the current political climate, with Iran being part of the 'Axis of Evil', most Iranians in America tend to refer to themselves as Persian.  Silly, I know, but you'd be surprised how many Americans believe the two are completely different places.

Khoda hafez,

Kellen on 13 Dec 2008 10:45 AM:

to quote something i recently wrote elsewhere, The Academy of Persian Language and Literature issued a declaration on 19 November 2005 to the effect that in English, the proper name of the language should in fact be called Persian, going so far as to call Farsi "incorrect".

They're the official keepers of the language in relation to the government of Iran, so i'm going to go with what they say, despite previously using 'Farsi' as the name in English.

loved this + the uyghur/uighur post, btw.

Otaku on 13 Aug 2010 7:40 PM:

The word "Farsi" is used in English to mean "the language spoken in Iran." The fact that "Dari" is the "language spoken  in parts of Afghanistan" is inconsequential (note: Hazaragi is generally lumped in with Dari, but the Hazara would never call it Dari unless they are with a non-Hazara person). I know many Americans who have never said "I speak English" - they say "I speak American" and they tend to mean what they say because they don't speak English as spoken in England. Also, it's not the same as calling Chinese "Zhongguo Hua", "Putong Hua" or "Hua Yu" (or the other names for Standard Mandarin Chinese), which are wholly foreign in English.

Back to Farsi though. "Farsi" is the lingu-franca in Iran, and in particular the Tehran version of it. There are other dialects, like Despili, that folks from Despil would argue is the "original" Persian language. It was the Arabs that started calling it "Farsi" (from Fars province, which is about as far north as they went) and standarized that term (amongst Persian speakers).

Back to the first paragraph and the "I speak American" thing. There are plenty of Iranians who don't say "I speak Farsi" - they say "I speak Iranian". (Note to self-rightous Persian-speaking critics who are overly educated in school systems - yes, many Iranians say that all the time). But generally, like the Chinese, their happy to accept a number of names for their language - "Farsi", "Tehrooni" (no, not Tehrani), and some times even "Dari" (which evokes a sense of pride).

If you're asking me, I would generally say Farsi. But I'm happy with Persian as well. Either or. In either case though, I'll usually have to explain that it is the language spoken in Iran. Oh, I'm not Iranian. Just standard white American fella, but I have a degree in Persian (not a degree in Farsi).

Interesting fact - there are 5 heads of state that speak Persian. Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Israel.

referenced by

2008/11/12 "We" don't tell you how to spell *our* language in *yours*, so...

2008/03/12 Chaudhuri vs. Chaudhary?

2008/02/02 Bangalore or Bengaluru (Bengalūru)?

2007/08/12 Hello Madda, Hello Father (Iranian style)

2007/07/24 Pluralization(s) can be singularly difficult

2006/07/15 Uighur or Uyghur?

go to newer or older post, or back to index or month or day