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.

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