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Persian or Fársi: the debate continues...
by Kamran Talattof, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of University of Arizona
December 16, 1997
In recent years, there has been a
growing tendency to refer to Persian as Farsi. Professor Ehsan Yarshater, editor
of the Encyclopaedia Iranica, has written about the damage wrought by changing
Persia to Iran and has pointed out that the use of Farsi in foreign languages is
Here, I would like to focus on the latter issue and explain the reasons behind
the growth of tendencies to call Persian, Fársi.
Persian, the term used for centuries in the West, originated in a region of
southern Iran formerly known as Persis. It was the language of the Pársa, an
Indo-European nomadic people who migrated into the region about 1000 BC. The
older forms of the language are known as Old and Middle Persian. Old Persian was
spoken until approximately the 3rd century BC and Middle Persian, or Pahlavi,
was spoken from the 3rd century BC to the 9th century AD.
The use of the names Persia and Persian were gradually extended by the ancient
Greeks and other Western peoples to apply to the Iranian Plateau and the
official language in the region respectively. New Persian is closely related to
these ancient forms. Persian became the lingua franca of the region during the
Islamic period. It was the official language of countries such as India for many
centuries during which time numerous annals, chronicles, and court volumes of
poetry were compiled outside Iran.(2)
Today, Persian is not only the name of the official language in Iran but also of
the Republic of Tajikistan, and Afghanistan, and different dialects of this
language are spoken in many regions of south and central Asia.(3)
In recent years the word Fársi, the Arabicized form of Pársi, the name of the
language in Persian, has become the standard word used by many English and
non-English speakers to refer to modern Persian. Some Iranian authorities have
actually encouraged this and have engaged in a systematic attempt to change the
name of the language in the international communities to Fársi.(4)
This attempt to replace the word Persian with Fársi is not only incongruous with
the history of the language but also creates confusion and misunderstanding.
While the use of the word Fársi is a political statement for some Iranian
authorities, for others it may indicate a lack of knowledge about the history of
this language. It indicates that those who carelessly promote the use of the
word Fársi are indeed engaging in an equivocal representation of this language
and may not, by any means, be promoting Iranian culture.
Three main groups use the word Fársi instead of Persian while speaking English:
non-Iranians who are somewhat familiar with the country and its culture;
second-generation Iranians who know some Persian, and Iranians, including some
officials, who do not have a sound knowledge about their culture and language.
The first two groups find it more comfortable to refer to the language as Fársi
and the third group finds it more politically correct to do so. In either case
they do not do justice when they try to change the name of this language in
No matter who does it, there are three reasons why it is a mistake to refer to
the Persian language as Fársi. First, it is ignoring the above historical facts
about this language. It is as incorrect as calling the Persian Gulf as the Fársi
Gulf. Moreover, the name Fársi is obscure and under the best conditions refers
only to certain dialects such as the Persian of Iran as opposed to Tajiki, the
Persian of Tajikistan or Dari, the Persian of Afghanistan, or even one may say
Isfahani, the Persian of Isfahan. Second, the use of word Fársi in English
strikes a discordant tone to the native speaker. Imagine someone speaking in
English about their recent trip to Paris saying, I went to Paris and there I
spoke Francais. To use the word Fársi has the same impact and may sound not only
pretentious at times but also destructive of English syntax.
Third, the word Persian in the mind of an English speaker, consciously or not,
recalls many other historical and cultural legacies about Iran. Persian is
closely associated with Persian poetry, Persian carpets, Persian cats, Persian
poetry, Persian pistachios, and so on. When you refer to this language as
Persian, the audience may associate it with one or more of these relevant ideas.
On the contrary, the word Fársi not only voids these historical and cultural
associations, but it also adds to the recent portrayal of Iran as a strange and
This problem is not limited to the use of this word in English. Similar problems
exist among French speaking Iranians and their friends who refer to Persian as
Fársi. The issue is even more problematic in the case of French because the word
Fársi sounds similar to the word Farci (stuffed) and therefore does not evoke
any cultural connotations at all.
We should therefore avoid the use of the word Fársi instead of Persian (or
Persan in French) because it not only violates historical fact but also some of
the regularities of the language in which we speak. I believe that Persian is
the true and proper name of this language in foreign tongues and international
communities and changing it does not benefit the representation of Iranian
* This article is also published in:
1. See Ehsan Yarshater, Zaban-i Nozohur.IranShenasi: A
Journal of Iranian Studies, IV, I (Spring, 1992), 27-30;
Iran Ra dar Zabanha-ye Khareji Cheh Bayad Khand? Rahavard: A Journal of Iranian
Studies, V & VI, 20/21 (Summer & Fall, 1988), 70-75;
and Nam-e Keshvar-e Ma Ra dar Zaban-e Engelisi Cheh Bayad Khand? Rahavard, VIII,
29, (Spring, 1992), 22-26.
2. See Edward G. Browne, A Literary History of Persia (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1902-4) and Jan Rypka, History of Iranian Literature (Dordrecht,
3. For more information see, Kent, Roland G. (Roland Grubb), Old Persian:
grammar, texts lexicon. 2d ed. (New Haven, American Oriental Society, 1953);
Dandamaev, M. A. Iranians in Achaemenid Babylonia, (Costa Mesa, Calif. : Mazda
Publishers in association with Bibliotheca Persica, 1992);
and Johnson, Edwin Lee. Historical grammar of the ancient Persian language (New
York: American book company, 1917).
4. English language journals published in Iran, textbooks published by the
Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance, and materials published for tourists
often refer to Persian as Farsi.
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