SOAS University of London

Department of the Languages and Cultures of the Near and Middle East

About Persian (Farsi)

Persian language (Farsi) and literature

Persian, known to its native Iranian speakers as Farsi, is the official language of modern day Iran, parts of Afghanistan and the central Asian republic of Tajikistan.

Persian is one of the most important members of the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European family of languages. It is distantly related to Latin, Greek, the Romance, Slavic and Teutonic languages, and English. Kurdish, Baluchi, Pashtu and Osetic are the other modern Iranian languages.

The Persian of Iran is written in a cursive Arabic script that can be highly ornamental. In this respect Iranians have made the art of calligraphy and refined penmanship their own.

The Persian spoken in Afghanistan is known as Dari. The dialectal variation between Farsi and Dari has been compared to that between European French and Canadian French.

The Persian language of Tajikistan is called Tajiki. During the Soviet era Tajiki had minimal contact with other Persian speaking countries; it contains a large number of Russian words and is written in the Cyrillic (Russian) script.

Sizeable minority populations in other Middle Eastern countries (Bahrain, Iraq, Oman, Yemen and the United Arab Emirates), also speak Persian, as do large communities in Europe, Turkey, Australia, the USA and Canada.

In the past Persian was widely understood in an area ranging from the Middle East to Central and South Asia and to Xinjiang in China. Persian is the second language of Islam and was instrumental in the spread of the faith during the reign of the Moguls in the Indian subcontinent, where it was cultivated and held in high esteem until the end of the Mogul rule in 1837. Persian poetry is still a significant part of the literature of the subcontinent. The presence of many Persian words in Urdu offers a high degree of mutual intelligibility to speakers of these languages.

Turkish also contains many Persian words. The study of Ottoman Turkish literature without knowledge of Persian would be meaningless.

Is it Difficult to Learn?

Compared with the other major language of the Middle East and some European languages, Persian is relatively easy for English-speaking people to learn, and is regarded as extremely sonorous and beautiful to listen to.

Persian is remarkably simple in terms of formal grammar. There is no gender, no noun inflection, no adjectival agreement, and no irregularities in verbal conjugation. However, rather like English, what Persian lacks in inflection it makes up for in syntactic and idiomatic complexity. But acquiring a sound, basic foundation in the language will enable you gradually to expand and develop your knowledge of Persian and appreciate the ornate vernacular, adored and used by all speakers of Persian.

Persian literature

A notable feature of Persian is the small extent to which it has changed over the thousand years or more of its existence as a literary language. For example, a modern reader should have no difficulty in reading and comprehending the poems of Rudaki, the first Persian poet of note, who died in the year AD 940.

A striking feature of Persian literature is the prominence of poetry in this language, particularly in the classical period. Western audiences are also familiar with the works of some of the more popular medieval Persian poets such as 'Attar, Molavi (Rumi) d.1273 and Hafez d.1390. The works of these poets are deemed as the most perfect expressions of Persian mysticism.