Persian or Farsi? The debate continues…

By Dr. Kamran Talattof
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 as detrimental.(1) Here, I would like to focus on
the latter issue and explain the reasons behind the
growth of tendencies to call Persian; Farsi.

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 Parsa, 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 Farsi, the Arabized form of
Parsi, 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

This attempt to replace the word Persian with Farsi is
not only incongruous with the history of the language
but also creates confusion and misunderstanding. While
the use of the word Farsi 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 Farsi 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 Farsi 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 Farsi 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 English.

No matter who does it, there are three reasons why it
is a mistake to refer to the Persian language as
Farsi. First, it is ignoring the above historical
facts about this language. It is as incorrect as
calling the Persian Gulf as the Farsi Gulf. Moreover,
the name Farsi 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 Farsi 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 Farsi has the same impact and may sound
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 Farsi not only voids these
historical and cultural associations, but it also adds
to the recent portrayal of Iran as a strange and
distant society.

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
Farsi. The issue is even more problematic in the case
of French because the word Farsi 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 Farsi
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 [Persian] culture.

* This Article published

1. See Ehsan Yarshater, Zaban-i Nozohur.
IrnianShenasi: 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),

2. See Edward G. Browne, A Literary History of Persia
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1902-4) and
Jan Rypka, History of Iranian Literature (Dordrecht,
Holland, 1968).

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., text
books published by the Ministry of Islamic Culture and
Guidance, and materials published for tourists often
refer to Persian as Farsi.