By: UCLA Language Materials Project


Number of Speakers: 23 million

Geographical Center: Iran

Persian is spoken today primarily in Iran, 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, People's Democratic Republic of Yemen, and the United Arab Emirates), as well as large communities in the USA.

Total numbers of speakers is high: over 23 million Persian speakers (about 50% of Iran's population).

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 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, Pashto, spoken in Afghanistan; Ossete, spoken in North Ossetia, South Ossetia, and the Caucasus; 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 BC).

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 (see maps in Crystal 1987:299, and in Payne 1987:516). 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, Gujarati, 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 and Dari as separate languages, however. Farsi and Dari have further dialectal variants, some with names that coincide with provincial names. All are more or less mutually intelligible.

Dari, 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 neighboring Turkic languages, Farsi and Dari 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 Teheran 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 some letters.

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 syllable.

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. 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 50 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, 25 percent speak related Western Iranian languages and 25 percent speak Arabic, New Aramaic, Armenian, Georgian, Romany, and Turkic languages.

In Afghanistan, Dari, along with Pashto, 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 (Grimes 1992). Although both Pashto 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 language: Farsi.

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 Rudaki, Firdowsi, 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 display erudition.

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 language.

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 (Windfuhr 1987).

Campbell, G. L. 1991. Compendium of the World's Languages, Vol. 1 -2. London and New York: Routledge.

Central Intelligence Agency. 1992a. "Ethnolinguistic Groups in Afghanistan." (Map number 724842 (R00434) 4-92).

Central Intelligence Agency. 1992b. "Major Ethnic Groups in Tajikistan." (Map number 725416 (R00144) 6-92).

Crystal, D. 1987. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.

Levy, R. 1951. The Persian Language. New York: Philosophical Library, Linguistic Society of America. 1992. Directory of Programs in Linguistics in the United States and Canada. Washington, DC.

Mir-Djalali, E. 1992. Persian Language and Culture. Berkeley, CA: University of California, Berkeley, Department of Linguistics.

Obolonsky, S., K. Danan, and F. Nouri. 1963. Persian Basic Course: Units 1 - 12. Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics of the MLA of America.

Payne, J. R. 1987. "Iranian Languages." In B. Comrie, ed. The World's Major Languages, pp. 514-522. London: Croon Helm.

Windfuhr, G. L. 1979. Persian Grammar. History and State of its Study. The Hague, Paris and New York: Mouton.

Windfuhr, G. L. 1987. "Persian". In B. Comrie, ed. The World's Major Languages, pp. 523-546. New York: Oxford University Press.

Windfuhr, G. L. 1992. "Persian," In W. Bright, ed., International Encyclopedia of Linguistics, Vol. 3:183-188. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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Iranian Languages
Persian Literature and Poetry

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