Persian vs. Farsi

I’m still smarting a bit for having been taken to task at NCOLCTL (National Council of Less Commonly Taught Languages) for asking a prominent professor of Persian: “How long have you been teaching Farsi?” His response was “Persian, not Farsi” and that the community is “sensitive about the subject”. Indeed!

What’s the difference between Persian and Farsi? Linguistically, nothing. They’re two names for the same thing. Why then would a person use one or the other?

Politics often intrude on language, and I thought that may be the key. Diaspora communities can have complex relationships with governments in their countries of origin. In the US, Cuban-Americans are hostile to Havana, and many Vietnamese-Americans feel the same way about Hanoi. If the same were true of Iranians, I’d expect those who fled the Iranian Revolution of 1979 to prefer “Persian” because the word evokes pre-Revolution Iran.

But that’s not what I’ve noticed. The Iranian I know best hates the revolution and says “Farsi”. Either politics isn’t in the picture or it’s in the picture for some Iranians and not others or it’s only part of the picture for everybody.

Another reason language names change is to reflect in English the name in the language itself. Clumsy anglicizations like Owhyhee, Chippewa, and Oordoo have over time become Hawaiian, Ojibwa, and Urdu. Swahili is inching towards Kiswahili. “Farsi” is the name of the language in Iran, so “authenticity” suggests that. On the other hand, so what? No one advocates français and nihongo over French and Japanese.

A scholar at NCOLCTL made the observation that “‘Persian’ is an English word, and ‘Farsi’ is a Persian word, so English-speakers should say ‘Persian’ when speaking English.” It was an odd experience to be told by a non-native speaker of English that I shouldn’t say “Farsi” because it’s “not English”. I’m in my 40s, and “Farsi” was the only thing I called the language until two weeks ago.

I’m a newcomer to Middle Eastern languages, so if a professor of the language wants me to say “Persian”, I’ll say it. In that conversation at least. There are Iranians who say “Farsi”, and if they say “Farsi” first, I’m going to too. I’ve known speakers of foreign languages who very gently tweaked my knowledge of what to call a language (Tagalog vs. Filipino vs. Pilipino) or how to say a language (Khmer rhymes with “buy” not “bear”). But I’ve never experienced quite so much passion on the subject without (so far at least) an obvious explanation of why.

If any of you are speakers or students of Persian/Farsi, please write in and tell us which you prefer.

If you’re interested in Persian/Farsi (or the nearly identical Dari), Tuttle has an introduction on the subject in the works now. Look for it next year.

Thanks for all the folks who wrote in about the Tuttle memorabilia. The winners were Fred in Michigan and Paul in Aomori Prefecture in northern Japan. After I wrote, I was curious to know what the lapel pins would have been called in Japanese. I looked on the cover this morning, and in handwritten letters it said: 社員バッヂ shain baddji, or “employee badges”, where baddji is a direct loan-word from English.


3 thoughts on “Persian vs. Farsi

  1. JD,

    It’s not surprising that people argue over the names of languages: all languages are brand new.

    The is because populations have only been homogenised very recently, by radio, by WWI, or by the railroad. Before one or two of those came along “countries” consisted of capital cities plus a few regions; the language of the capital was passed off by writers (a literate bunch, them) as the country’s language. Everybody else spoke whatever they spoke.

    My mother was from Yorkshire, so I grew up knowing that the language around there was Erse with English added. Sapporo speaks Japanese, because it is a suburb of Tokyo by 747, but the in rest of Hokkaido only people under forty grew up speaking the national language naturally.

    In China the Official Story is that Putonghua is the national language, because that’s what they speak in Beijing. This is a lie. Total horsefeathers. The main language of Beijing is Erhua, though no doubt the city has its Cokneys and Stepneys, and Putonghua is being invented before our very eyes — even as we see BBC news announcers with Indian and cockney accents barely disguised on TV — at the command of Chairman Mao. He spoke Hunanese, and his proletarian standing rested on his ability to feign classical poetry.

    I used to think that Cantonese was a difficult language to learn, but I’m coming to the conclusion that this is wrong. Cantonese must be the world’s easiest language to learn because it’s the world’s fastest changing language. They re-create the whole thing from the ground up about once every 36 months — so everybody’s learning it all the time.



    • Ebagum!

      I agree totally. The new twist with Persian/Farsi is that it isn’t that they’re fighting amongst themselves about what to call their language; they’re fighting about what WE call it.

      I have heard the Irish and the Scottish give some thought to what English-speakers call their languages; i.e., Irish, Gaelic, Erse, etc., but the underlying emotion doesn’t seem to be pique. And it’s not as if the Scottish know nothing of pique, right? If it irritated them, they’d say so.

      It seems, somehow, that for advocates of “Persian” the word glows with the majesty of Iran’s ancient cultures more than “Farsi”, but they don’t say that. They say things like “‘Farsi’ isn’t an English word”.


  2. Odd that. I have half a dozen Farsi-speaking acquaintances, a Farsi dictionary, and I’ve done the four-CD Farsi language set once. On the other hand a high percentage of the Torontonians who speak Farsi are Baha’i, which means they aren’t necessarily that enamoured of whatever happens to be curent back home these days…

    On Chairman Mao there’s one thing we should never forget: he had the same advantage George Washington had: tallest guy in the room. Does anybody know how tall that Army Sergeant, uh, King of Kings, Lion of Judah, Shah in an unbroken chain leading back to a week before last Thursday, was?


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