A Guide to Persian - 10 facts about the Persian language

Persepolis, Iran © HR. Rahmani, fotolia.com

Translation in Persian

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1. Where is Persian spoken?

Persian, also known as Farsi, is primarily spoken in Iran, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan

Historically, the areas where the language is spoken range from the Middle East to India, but today, Persian is understood in parts of Armenia, Azerbaijan, India, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Turkmenistan and Turkey

There are large groups of Persians who migrated to the USA and Europe, and Los Angeles is often referred to as ‘Tehrangeles’

2. What you already know about Persian

It's very common to use the word   مرسی [Mersi] in Persian to say Thank you, as in the French ‘merci’

In fact, there has been a long historical relationship between Iran and France, and you’ll find hundreds of French words in everyday Persian vocabulary. For many years, French was the second language in Iran and words relating to science and technology are commonly used. For example:
  رادیو [râdio], radio
  شوفر [shoufer], chauffeur
  شوفاژ [shauffage], heating
  دوش [doush], shower
  اتومبیل [otomobile], automobile
  اتوبوس [otobus], bus

Due to historical links with Britain, many Persian words have been borrowed and crop up in the English language, such as:
 پسته [pesteh], pistachio
 سوپ [soup], soup
 اسفناج [s-fenaj], spinach
 قندی [ghandy], candy
 لیمو [lim-ou] , lemon
 زعفران [zafarân], saffron
 بازار [bâzâr], bazaar

3. How hard is it to learn?

Persian is a relatively simple language to grasp grammatically. Nouns have no gender and there are no articles

Persian is a very poetic, soft and song-like language and has been described as one of the most beautiful languages of the world. The stress is generally placed on the last syllable of a word

One of the characteristics of the language means that it’s often hard to distinguish whom a person is referring to, as the same word is used to describe both ‘he’ and ‘she’!

Questioning is fairly simple and is formed by a rise in intonation of the voice at the end of a sentence. The word order doesn't change. For example:
 میاین [miâin], You are coming میاین؟ [miâin?], Are you coming?
 اونا اومدن [ounâ oumadan], They have come -  اونا اومدن؟ [ounâ oumadan?], Have they come?

English speakers often have difficulties in pronouncing some sounds in Persian, and words can easily be mispronounced or misinterpreted
KH as in ‘loch’ is often mispronounced K, which can lead to saying  کر [kâr], deaf instead of  خر [khar], donkey.
GH is a guttural sound, so be careful not to say  گند [gand], bad smell instead of  قند [ghand], sugar

4. The most difficult words and tongue twisters

There are many words which may be difficult for English speakers to pronounce. Here are a few examples:
 سپاسگزاری [sepâsgozâry], to be appreciative
 دوچرخه [docharkhé], bicycle
 کتری [ketrey], kettle

Here’s a tongue twister:

شب شبی دیشب شبی در شهر ما اشوب شد

[Shab shabey deshab shabey dar shahr e mâ âshoob shood]
One night in our town there was a riot

5. Know any good Persian jokes?

Persians generally have a good sense of humour and love sharing jokes amongst friends and family. Jokes are sometimes directed at cultural and ethnic differences, as well as members of the family

There are many great Persian satirists, Ubayd Zakâni being one of the most celebrated. Born in 1370, here’s one of his famous jokes

پدر و پسری درراه دیدند که تابوتی را میبرند.
پسر پرسید: " کجا میبرند؟ "
پدرگفت: " به جایی که نه غذا هست، نه اب و نه روشنایی!"
پسرگفت: " پس به خانه ما میبرند!! "

[Pedar va pesarey dar râh tâbotey râ dedand ke bordeh meyshod.
Pesar porsid, “khojâ meybarand?”
Pedar goft, “be jâyee ke na qazâ hast, na âb va na roshanâyee.”
Pesar goft, “pas be khâneye mâ meybarand!!”]

A father and son are watching a funeral procession.
The boy asks: “Where is the coffin going?”
The father replies: “It’s going to a place with no food, water or light!”
“So they must be going to our house then!!” the boy replied.

6. If I learn Persian, will it help me with any other languages?

Persian is part of the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European language family. Therefore, learning some Persian will certainly assist with Arabic, Kurdish, Urdu and Hindi

Similarities across the languages as a percentage are 90% of the facts, 40% of the words and 30% of the grammar

7. What not to say and do

When you’re invited to someone’s house, it’s advisable not to comment on the beauty of your host’s wife or give her a kiss ‘hello’ as it would be deemed as disrespectful and most inappropriate to do so. This rule of etiquette applies to all countries in the Middle East

In terms of body language, you shouldn’t turn your back on anyone but if you do, you must always say,  ببخشید [bebakhsheed], excuse me.
It can also be seen as inappropriate to stretch your legs out in front of you or sit in an ‘informal’ manner

Some words in Persian have a double meaning, so be careful about what you really want to say as only the context will define the right translation:
 شیر [shir] can mean tap, milk or lion
 سیر [sir] can mean garlic or full (ie: not hungry)
 ماه [mâh] can mean moon or calendar month

8. Famous quotations

Poetry plays a very important role for Persians and famous quotes and verses from their great poets are recited in everyday life. For example, if you’re disputing a business deal, arguing with a family member or even trying to set an example for youngsters, often the power of poetry can diffuse or completely resolve the situation!

Some of the great Poets are:

Sa’di (1184 – 1283)
President Obama quoted one of this medieval poet’s poems on 20th March 2009 in a videotaped message greeting the people of Iran and marking the Persian New year and the spring equinox. The poem is inscribed in the Halls of the United Nations:

بنی آدم اعضای یک پیکرند
که در آفرينش ز یک گوهرند
چوعضوى به درد آورد روزگار
دگرعضوها را نماند قرار
تو کز محنت دیگران بی غمی
نشاید که نامت نهند آدمی

[Bani âdam aazayé yek paykarand
Keh dar âfarinesh ze yek goharand
Cho ozvi be dard âvarad roozegâr
Degar ozvhârâ namânad gharâr
To kaz mehnaté degâran beghamé
Nâshâyad ke nâmat Nahand âdamé]

Human beings are members of a whole,
in creation of one essence and soul.
If one member is afflicted with pain,
other members uneasy will remain.
If you have no sympathy for human pain,
The name of human you cannot retain.

Rumi (1207 - 1273)
The work of this 13th century poet was famously translated by Coleman Barks:

اندیشه مکن بکن تو خود را در خواب
کاندیشه زه روی مه حجابست حجاب
دل چون ما هست در دل اندیشه مدار
انداز تو اندیشه گری را در اب

[Andîsheh makon, bekon to khod râ dar khâb,
Ke-andîsheh ze roy-è Mâh hejâb ast hejâb.
Del chon Mâh ast, dar del andîsheh madâr,
Andâz to andîsheh-ghary râ dar Âb]

Don't even think, just let yourself dream.
Thoughts are veils that hide the moon's bright face.
The heart's a moon, where thinking has no place.
Toss these thoughts away into the stream.

9. First written records

One of the oldest texts, discovered in 6th century BC, is the clay Cyrus cylinder inscribed in Babylonian cuneiform script, which is the earliest known writing system in the world. Persian writing has evolved over the years and this would be classed as ‘Old Persian’

The text refers to the Great King Cyrus of Persia, his genealogy, his great conquest of Babylon in 539BC and capture of Nabodinus, the last Babylonian king. The cylinder is currently on display at the British museum

The first handwritten book dates back to 1055. It was a medical book by Asadi Tusi, an eminent poet and linguist

10. How to be polite and show respect

Similar to other European languages like French, there are different ways of saying ‘you’:
 تو [to], for people you can be on first-name terms with, and  شما [shomâ] in other cases. The plural in both cases is  شما [shomâ].

Greetings are very important and are usually accompanied by a handshake. Friends and relatives sometimes give a kiss on the cheek
Only close friends and children are addressed by their first name
 آقا [Âghâ], Mr or  خانم [Khânom], Miss is otherwise used
When saying the name and title, they are joined together by an e:
 خانم آغاسی [Khânom e Âgâssi], Miss Agassi

Guests are made very welcome in the home and are lavished with hospitality. As a guest, you’ll find you’re always offered the best seat, in fact, the best of everything to make you feel more than welcome

Etiquette and formalities referred to as  تعارف [târoof], a form of courtesy, are a must amongst Persians. Patience is definitely a virtue here, e.g. when a group of people enter a house, it takes quite a while as each person ushers the others in first and vice versa!
Or in a shop or taxi, when you ask how much they should pay, the usual answer is:  قابلی نداره [ghâbeli nadâre], It’s not worth anything for you and you would reply  خواهش می کنم [khâesh mikonam], If you please, and this can be repeated many times until a payment is taken!

Other common phrases are:
 بفرمایید [befarmâyed], which has different meanings, for example, if you please, welcome to our house, after you, please sit down, eat, etc.
 دستتان درد نکنه [dastetân dard nakone], I hope your hands don’t hurt, Thank you or Well done
 چشمتان روشن [cheshmetân roshan], May there be light in your eyes, is mainly used when there is a new baby in the family or a relative arrives to stay as a guest

Azadi Tower, Tehran © Dartus, fotolia.com

Persian key phrases

Get started with 20 audio phrases

Good thoughts, good speech, good action - a Zoroastrian creed in Persian (Farsi) calligraphy © Stewart J. Thomas, palmstone.com

The Persian alphabet

Learn the 32 letters of the Persian alphabet

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