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What is the difference between Persian and Farsi?

Jan 16, 2020 in Persian Language

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There are thousands of languages spoken on Earth. And each of these languages is part of the identity of its speakers.

Thus, it should not be surprising that sometimes the name of a language becomes a matter of importance.

In the three countries in which Persian is an official language - Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan - it has different names: Persian/Farsi (Iran), Dari (Afghanistan) and Tajiki (Tajikistan). 

Why do we have such a confusion, and which name is more correct to use for the language of Iran: Persian or Farsi?

Here I am going to approach the question from different angles. I hope this will help you to clarify this issue. 

Legal approach.

“What is the official language of such and such country?” is a very important question in the modern world. Each country conducts its official business in a particular language, which is intelligible to every citizen of that country (at least in theory).

Imagine what chaos would ensue, if everyone would suddenly decide to use only their own language in the USA, instead of English! Hispanic lawyers would write contracts in Spanish, Chinese professors would suddenly start lecturing in Chinese, and Indian manufacturers would write their instructions in Hindu or Gujarathi! 

But this doesn’t happen, because there is one standard language, English, recognized by everyone as a language of communication.

This is why, as a general rule, countries define their official languages in their constitutions (ironically enough, English has never been recognized as an official language by the US Federal Government). 

Thus, the above-mentioned countries define their official state language in their constitutions.

Let’s compare the official names of those languages and their English translations.

Observe that while Afghanistan and Tajikistan call their language “Dari” and “Tajiki” in the English versions of their constitution, Iranian constitution calls the language “Persian”. This means, that they officially consider “Persian” as the English equivalent of “fārsi”.

Academy of Persian Language and Literature

In 1935 an institution called “Iran Language Academy” was established by the government of Iran. This institution was responsible for the language reforms and other issues related to Persian. 

In 1990, the opening of the Third Academy (called “Academy of Persian Language and Literature”) was officially announced. 

This academic body carries official weight on the matters related to the Persian language. Hundreds of respected scholars are members of this institution. 

In 1993 it released an official statement, by which it recommended strongly against the usage of “fārsi” instead of “Persian”. 

Of course this statement was more directed against its usage in the official correspondence of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. But from it we can still see the official stance of such an authoritative body as APLL, concerning this particular issue. 

Academic approach

It is much more advisable to refer to linguists about these sort of issues. So which name do linguists use themselves?

In the 19th century and early 20th century, along with the rise of interest in the Persian literature, a number of Persian textbooks and grammars were published. All of them referred to the language as “Persian”, despite the fact that even then the language was called “fārsi” by the majority of its native speakers. Here are the title pages of some of those textbooks:

Modern specialists in Iranian studies overall prefer the usage of “Persian” over “Farsi”. Thus, for instance, Gernot Windfuhr, a distinguished authority on the Persian language, calls the language of modern-day Iran “Modern Standard Persian” or simply “Persian” (Windfuhr, G. L. (2009), ‘Persian and Tajiki’, in Windfuhr, G. (ed.) The Iranian Languages, pp. 416-544).

This is only one case among many. The absolute majority of scholars and textbooks (G. Lazard, L. Paul, E. Yarshater etc.) use “Persian”, while rarely if ever you can find a specialist in Iranian Studies, who would prefer to use the term “Farsi” in an academic publication.

Historical approach

Abdullah Ibn Muqaffa was a Persian scholar and translator (8th c. AD). All of his works have disappeared.

But still many excerpts from his books survive until today. In one of these he speaks on the languages spoken in Iran (preserved in Ibn al-Nadim’s Al-Fihrist).

According to him, at his time there were five major dialects of Persians: al-Fahlawiya, al-Dariya, al-Fārsiya, al-Xūziya and al-Sūryāniya. 

From this list we can leave out the last two languages. Xūziya was the language of the modern Xuzistan, probably the successor of the ancient Elamite. So, it wasn’t an Iranian dialect. This was also the case with Sūryāniya, which is the Syriac language (a Semitic language spoken up until today).

Now about the first three. Among these Fahlawiya or Pahlavi, was the language of the north-western quarter of the modern-day Iran (Isfahan, Ray, Hamadān, Māh-Nihāwand and Āzarbāijān). 

Fārsiya or Pārsi was the language of the Zoroastrian priests and scholars and the people of Fars. This is the same language we find today in Middle Persian Zoroastrian literature.

Well what about al-Dariya or Dari? 

According to Ibn Muqaffa, Dari was the language of the city-dwellers and the royal court, which in the Sassanian times resided in Mesopotamia. 

It was also spoken in Khurasan and the eastern regions of the Empire. In fact, “darī” itself is an adjective, meaning “[the language] of the court”. It was also called “pārsi-i darī”, i.e. “court Persian”.

Dari and Pārsi were two versions of the same language. Dari was the court dialect, which gradually spread to the eastern regions of the Empire, while Parsi was the southern dialect.

The speakers of both could understand each other. Later Dari Persian spread also to the southern regions, and became the standard literary language.

Persian, Dari, Tajiki.

Today Persian is spoken in three countries: Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. In each it has a different name: Persian (Farsi) in Iran, Dari in Afghanistan and Tajiki in Tajikistan. 

To someone who is not familiar with Persian, it might seem that these are three different languages. But this is not entirely the case.. 

There are indeed slight lexical and phonetic (and small grammatical) differences between all three “languages”. It would make more sense to consider them different regional versions of the same Persian language. This is why Dari and Tajiki are called sometimes Afghan Persian and Tajiki Persian. They are mutually intelligible. 

Then why do we use three different names for three regional varieties of one language? Especially interesting is the fact, that those differences are in the level of those between the British and American English. Remember that we don’t use separate names for these (even for Scottish English).

The answer to this question lies in national politics. 

In the beginning of the 20th century, all speakers of Persian (in Persia, Afghanistan and Central Asia) were calling their language “fārsi”. In the 1920's, during the formation phase of the Tajik SSR, the policies were mostly aimed at the formation of a separate nation. This nation needed to have its own language, alphabet and literature. Thus the term “tajiki” began to be used for the language of the Persian-speaking population of Central Asia.

Similar is the case with Dari. Before the 1964 constitution, the Afghan Persian (spoken mostly in the western and northern parts of the country) was called [Afghan] Persian (fārsi). After the new constitution was accepted in 1964 the language was officially renamed “Dari”, after the older name of the Classical Period.

It is exactly after this (1960’s and 70’s) that we can see the rise of the term “Farsi” for the official language of Iran. Among other reasons, it seems likely that this was done in order to avoid the confusion between the Persian of Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. 

But I think there is no special need in doing that. If the languages of the last two countries have changed their name to Dari and Tajiki, no confusion will ever arise if we’ll continue to use “Persian” for the Persian of Iran. 

So which is the better name to use?

As you may see from the discussion above, Iran recognizes “Persian” as the equivalent of the name of its official language. 

In the academic circles the language of Iran is called Modern Standard Persian or simply Persian. 

For the last couple of centuries Persians call their language “fārsi”. Despite this, when linguists and masters of Persian wrote textbooks for this language, no one called it “fārsi” instead of Persian. So why should we?

This is why I think using “fārsi” for Persian is a redundancy.

Let me bring you an example on my own native language, Armenian. 

Now today the language I speak as a native, is internationally called “Armenian”. Well, not so in Armenian itself. We call our language “hayerēn”. 

Suppose someone is uncomfortable with the name “Armenian”, and wants to call it “Hayeren”. What do you think, should this “willy-nilly” act be accepted and promoted by others? If people are used to call Armenia and Armenians by this name for millennia, would the change of this traditional name be of any use to anybody? 

This is why I would recommend using the traditional name, instead of jamming the language with different names that have the same meaning.

But whichever name you prefer to use, mind to use it in “good thoughts, good words and good actions”, as Zoroastrians would say.