Persian: Historically incorrect & divisive
December 17, 1997
The article debating whether Farsi or Persian needs to be used as the name for the Iranian lingua franca ("Persian or Farsi?") was interesting but I found the statements made by Mr Talattof rather one-sided.
The first argument Mr Talattof put forward was a historical one. I am afraid his assertions were erroneous in places. The name Parsa is by no means of Iranian origin. The nomads who migrated to Iran (long before 1000 BC, read about the Mittani for example or the Medo-Assyrian wars) called themselves Aryans (the archaic form of the word Iranian). In the Achaemenian inscriptions the "Persian" kings never refer to themselves as "Persian" but rather as "Aryan".
However it is true that the area which the Achaemenes clan originated from was called Parsa (Persis in Greek). However the name was not an ethnic designation and was merely a geographical one rooted in Aramaic. According to the "Cambridge History of Iran", the Assyrians had two appellations for the people of Iran, the Parshuash (meaning those of the border country) and Umman Mada (meaning the people of the mountain). The native name for Persis was Anshan which dated back to the period of Ilamite rule. Aramaic became the language of the empire and consequently many of the administrative terminology of the Assyrian empire crept into Persian.
Though, as mentioned in Mr Talattof's essay, Greeks referred to Iranians as Persians, Hellenic historians were aware that people living between the Euphrates and the Sindh in fact called themselves "Ariani". Even the language was never called Persian or even Parsi before the advent of Islam.
The ancient Iranian language used in the inscription of Iran's ancient great kings was referred to, by the authors themselves, as Aryan (also it would be a mistake to assume that Old Persian was the spoken language of the pre-Alexandrian Iran, read the "Golden Age of Persia" by N. G. Frye).
During the Arsacede and Sassanid eras also, our language was not referred to as Persian. Pahlavi means Parthian not Persian. It is in fact the Arabs who first refer to the language of Iran as Persian or Farsi (all the time not having Persis in mind but rather using the designation Fars to mean Iran). So using "Farsi" for our language is not incongruous with history, it is in fact true to the original form it was first used for our tongue.
Mt Talattof's second major point was the public relations advantage that the use of the word "Persian" entails. I agree with the assertion that we should use Persia for Iran and Persian for Iranian (as Germans, Japanese and Chinese use names different to their local designations in the international arena) , but this is the very reason we should not use the name Persian for Farsi.
Before 1936 the world knew Iran as Persia and Persian simply meant Iranian. So Persian Gulf means Iranian Gulf and has no linguistic overtone. In nineteenth century one could refer to Persian Turks and Persian Kurds without sounding paradoxical. The Persian civilisation, arts and sciences refer to the achievements of Iranians of all linguistic background including the great peoples Azerbaijan, Kurdestan and so on.
Today a confusion has been created between the words Persian and Farsi Speaker. So an Iranian Kurd may feel that he is not Persian because he speaks Kurdish as his principal language.
The use of Persian for Farsi is divisive and assumes that Farsi-speakers are the true Persians or Iranians. The same confusion has crept into historiography of Iran, where the Turkic speaking dynasties of Seljuq, Qaznavi etc are seen as oppressive foreign powers within Iran. Who can doubt the patriotism of Sultan Mahmoud who commissioned the writing of Shahnameh or Sattar Khan and Bagher Khan the authors of Iran's constitutional destiny.
The lingua franca of Persians (Iranians) is Farsi but Persians speak a variety of languages including Kurdish, Azeri, Arabic, Baluchi, Gilaki...
What about Persian literature? Well we should continue to refer to Farsi literature as Persian literature and include in the corpus of Persian literature (read Iranian literature) all the various provincial masterpieces written in other Iranian languages.
Arash Salardini <email@example.com>
Faculty of Medicine
University of New South Wales