Thinking Aloud: What’s in a Name?

Oct. 24, 2015 by Darius 

Have you ever wondered, when referring to the language spoken in Iran, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan, which term should be used, “Farsi” or “Persian”? The two aren’t actually complete synonyms.

Both the terms “Persian” and “Farsi” derive from the same origin. “Persian” comes from the Greek name for the region in what is today southwest Iran, Pars or Fars, which the Greeks transformed into “Persia.” The inhabitants of this region knew it as Fars, however, and the term “Farsi” came to be used by Persian speakers to describe their own language. Native preferences notwithstanding, though, “Persia” has come to be the term used by Westerners to refer to several major Iranian empires and was even the official name of the modern country of Iran until 1934.

Up until the early part of the 20th century, there was no distinction in terminology, syntax, or writing systems in the language spoken in what is today Iran, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan, though small differences in accent were present. However, shortly after the birth of the Soviet Union, Soviet authorities renamed the variant of Persian spoken in Tajikistan “Tojiki” and changed Tojiki’s writing system from the Perso-Arabic alphabet to first the Latin and eventually the Cyrillic alphabet. The Soviets had explicit political motivations: they sought to sever Tajikistan from the Persian Muslim culture it shared with the regions to the south and reorient Tajikistan towards the rest of the atheist, socialist USSR to the north. The Soviets encouraged the development of further differences between Tojiki and Persian, widening the gap between the two. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Tajiks have attempted, with mixed success, to reattach themselves to the Persian world. The language spoken in Tajikistan remains mutually intelligible with the language spoken in the rest of the Persian world.

In Afghanistan, the other country where Persian is spoken widely, a similar process occurred. Traditionally, Persian in Afghanistan was also called Farsi by its speakers. In 1964, though, the Afghan government, seeking to escape the shadow of Iranian cultural domination, ordered that the name of the Persian language in Afghanistan be changed from “Farsi” to “Dari.” As in Tajikistan, the Persian dialect spoken in Afghanistan has subsequently drifted away from Iranian Persian, but the two remain mutually intelligible.

Today, then, “Farsi” properly refers only to the variant of Persian spoken in Iran, and it is only in this strict sense that the term “Farsi” should be used in English (i.e. when referring to the Iranian dialect of Persian). “Farsi” is explicitly not a synonym for “Persian,” as Farsi is the language of a single country, Iran, while Persian is the primary language of three countries and is spoken in several more.

Moreover, Persian, not Farsi, is the vehicle for a rich literary tradition stretching back more than a millennium, as many of the greatest Persian writers were not nationally Iranian. To use the term “Farsi,” then, is to downgrade the status of the Persian language from an international language of classical literature to the language of a single modern nation-state. The difference between the terms “Farsi” and “Persian” may seem semantic, but names have real consequences. If Persian is referred to as Farsi, it is categorized with other languages spoken in a single nation-state, such as Vietnamese, Armenian, and Serbian. In a university setting, for instance, these languages are often left out of budgets and attract few students. On the other hand, more prominent international languages, languages with a rich historical, geopolitical, and literary tradition, such as Arabic, Russian, and Spanish are taught at nearly every institution. Persian deserves to take its place among the latter. In today’s world, Persian is not confined to Iran. Its name should not be either, which is why you should think twice before using “Farsi.”

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