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The Persian Language

October 10, 2019 by  

Shiraz Mitra Ara

As languages are lost, so are their dialects and accents. To combat this, the standard approach to language preservation usually focuses on the language used by the most people, thus ensuring the language survives in its most popular form. While better than nothing, this process often fails to maintain less common versions, which eventually become lost forever, impacting identity. Because speakers most often associate their identities with their own specific dialects over a shared language and thus preserve that identity through the continuation of traditional speech, when language forms are lost identities are too.
Dialects, viewed as personal identities, serve as links to the past and a way to relate to and understand a history and culture. Individuals who share a common form of speech communicate with one another much more easily and effectively than with those who don’t share the same speech form. Furthermore, a shared dialect communicates a collective likeness and sense of belonging to a unique community, distinct from all others; because of this, it tends to be more protected by its speakers, and therefore harder to research, than the language spoken by the larger population.
Today, the 87 known Iranian languages constitute one of the world’s major language families, with an estimated 150–۲۰۰ million speakers. The Iranian languages spoken in various regions by diverse peoples are linguistically categorized as the western group of the Indo-Iranian language family, one of the earliest of the Indo-European language families, and is comprised of Indic, Iranic, and Nuristani, of which only the first two languages were recorded in antiquity. Indo-Iranian languages, much like all other languages in the Indo-European family, were initially spoken languages without writing systems.
The Iranian linguistic division is chronologically categorized by three periods: (1) Old Iranian (until c. 3rd century BCE); (2) Middle Iranian (from c. 3rd century BCE to c. 9th–۱۰th century CE); and (3) New/Modern Iranian (from c. 9th–۱۰th century CE to the present). The only Iranian language known in all three periods is Persian (Old, Middle, New/Modern), and was the language originally spoken in the ​southwestern province of Pars.
Old Iranian languages found in texts are written in Avestan and Old Persian, as well as the lesser-documented Median and Scythian; Middle Iranian languages, such as Alanic, Bactrian, Chorasmian, Khotanese, Middle Scythian, Middle Persian (also known as Pahlavi), Parthian, Sogdian, and Tumshuqese; and New/Modern Iranian languages, with several hundred variations, among which the most widely spoken forms are New Persian (also known as Farsi, Dari, Hazaragi, and Tajiki in the native language), Pashto, Ossetic, Zazaki, Kurdish, Talysh, Lori, and Baluchi.
Historically, the name Pars first appears as Parsuwash/Parsua in Assyrian records as early as the 1st millennium BCE, during the reign of Salmanassar III. The name Parsua (Old Iranian—Parsava; Old Persian—Parsa) is mentioned when denoting the Iranian tribes, and was also adopted to refer to a region in southwestern Iran (Eran) where Persians first settled in today’s province of Pars, previously referred to as Anshan by the Elamites.
The term Persian is derived from Parsa (Old Persian, the language of the first Persian empire, the Achaemenid), Greek Persis, and Latin Persia. After Alexander’s invasion and defeat of the Persian Achaemenid in the 4th century BCE, Greeks began using Persis to refer to several things, including Cyrus the Great, the founder of the first Persian Empire, the Achaemenid, and his domain and people, thereby establishing his language for all in the entire territory under the dominion of Cyrus. Thus the term Persia/Persian—as the general name of the territory, as well as the language, people, literature, poetry, arts, and music—remained in use.
Today, the term Farsi, referencing the Persian people, culture, literature, and language, is the Arabic pronunciation of Parsi, after the province where the language originated in the state of Pars (Arabicized pronunciation, Fars). Due to the lack of the p phoneme in Standard Arabic, p was replaced with f; thus Parsi became Farsi.  Further, in identifying the “Persian” language, we refrain from referencing the language using its autoglottonyms (a word that a language uses to refer to itself), such as Dari, Farsi, Hazaragi, and Tajiki (native names for Persian used only in their language and writing), so the name of the language in English remains as Persian.
Shirazi-Persian, an assortment of modern western Iranian languages and dialects, is spoken in the city of Shiraz, the capital of the southwestern province of Fars/Pars in the country of Iran (Persia), located on the West Asian continent. The name Shiraz perhaps came from the name T/Shirazzish, engraved on the 2nd millennium BCE Elamite clay tablet recovered in southwestern Shiraz, in reference to a fortress by the same name on the site, later referred to as the Qasr-e Abu Nasr (Palace of Abu Nasr) or Takht-e Sulayman (Throne of Solomon). Early and late Sasanian rock-relief carvings and the major fire temples found in and near the city suggest Shiraz was a highly-populated administrative town. 
Marked as the cultural center of the country, the city of Shiraz is traditionally named the Tower of Saints (borj-e awlia‘), the Abode of Knowledge (dar al-‘elm), and the Seat of Government (dar al-molk). Shiraz is celebrated for its world-renowned poets, mystics, saints, gardens, roses, nightingales, and many other wonderful attributes. Among the luminaries of Shiraz are the world-renowned mystic poets Sa‘di (13th CE) and Hafez (14th CE), and the master of Illuminationist philosophy, Mulla Sadra (16th–۱۷th CE). Shiraz is also known for its wine, and so Shiraz was appropriately chosen for a type of red wine mainly produced in Australia. 
Linguistically, variations of a language, with differences in vocabularies, structures, and phonetics, are recognized as dialects, and, if the differences are limited to phonetics, they are recognized as accents. For this reason, every language may have several dialects, and each dialect may have several accents.  
In numerous cases of Shirazi Persian, which is usually considered an accent of the F/Pars dialect, vocabulary, word usage, and structure differ greatly from Standard Persian. For this reason, they are uniquely Shirazi, and considered a dialect and not an accent. For instance, numerous verbs have two separate meanings, usages, and structures–one similar to Standard Persian, and one with a totally separate meaning, usage, and conjugation format that is specifically Shirazi. Further, there exist key phonetic differences between Shirazi and Standard Persian, two of the chief ones being vowel and consonant alterations in Shirazi.  
As a final point, Shirazi can be considered both a dialect and an accent because, in addition to the distinctive way it is spoken, it is comprised of particular sounds, individual vocabulary, and unique grammatical inflections. The dialect of Shiraz is spoken with various accents, based on different geographical regions, as well as diverse social groups. Even so, because the argument is beyond the scope of this introduction, for the sake of generalization and to avoid confusion, I refer to Shirazi as an accent. 
As one of the oldest living accents of the Persian language, Shirazi continues to use many words and expressions rooted in the Pahlavi Middle Persian. Further, the city of Shiraz, positioned at the crossroads of myriad cultures and languages for centuries, has also been influenced by the English, French, Italian, and Spanish, as well as by the nomadic, migratory tribes of the Arabs, Lors, and Turks.  
Today, the Shirazi accent is commonly recognized in three distinct forms: (1) pedigree (asīl) Shirazi; (2) moderate (ma‘moli) Shirazi; and (3) new (no) Shirazi. Despite their particularities, they are all still rooted in old Shirazi (Shirazi-e asīl). As the city of Shiraz continues to expand and merge with neighboring non-Shirazi towns, receiving migrants from the surrounding provinces and countries, both its language and culture continue to experience rapid change. 
This observable transformation further adds to the divide as to how the language is spoken among the generations. Old Shirazi, similar to other regional accents, is often deemed retrograde by the new generation simply because it is so different than the Tehrani accent—the way the language is spoken in the capital city of Iran—which is recognized as the standard city accent, causing many think of Old Shirazi as being inferior, much in the same way some think certain geographical American English accents are “backward.” Because of this cultural aspect, some speakers feel forced to adopt a more conventional mode of speaking. 
Today, various ethnicities inhabit the state of F/Pars, mostly with their own unique languages and dialects. The major ethnic groups in the state are Arabs, Armenians, Assyrians, Circassians, Georgians, Kurds, Lors, Persians, Qashqais, Tajiks, and Afghanis (including Pashtūns, Hazaras, and other Iranian language speakers from Afghanistan not associated with the aforementioned ethnic groups). 
The book, A Lexicon of the Persian Language of Shiraz, focuses on the Shirazi accent of the Modern Persian language, with speech forms that are characteristic of diverse cultural and social communities. The goal of this compilation is to emphasize the major vocabulary and phonetic processes in today’s Shirazi Persian in order to contribute to an understanding of the similarities, as well as the differences, between Shirazi and Standard Persian.  Further, it is intended to highlight the importance of preserving the Persian language, dialects, and accents, showing this lexis to be important as a conveyor of history, the arts, culture, and folklore. 
Those teaching and learning Modern Persian outside the language’s native homeland (Afghanistan, Iran, and Tajikistan), with its myriad dialects and accents, will benefit from viewing Standard Modern Persian next to its non-standard equivalent, as well as their multilingual translations. This polyglot is designed for English speakers learning Standard Persian and/or Shirazi, and for Persian speakers studying Shirazi and/or English. It is also a valuable dictionary for translators of these languages, and enthusiasts of the Persian lyric poets of Shiraz. Moreover, this volume establishes a model for the creation of similar projects aiming to preserve Iranian languages and their many dialects.  
 In review of this book, Dr. Wheeler M. Thackston Jr., Professor of the Practice in Persian and Other Near Eastern Languages at Harvard University, comments: “While Iranian languages, ancient and modern, have received a good deal of scholarly attention, little attention has been paid to regional variants of modern Persian. Dr. Mitra Ara has made a significant contribution in this regard with her glossary of Shirazi vocabulary and idioms. The user will find a number of interesting items in this list, some cognate with standard Persian but with slightly different significations and others with no discernible Persian antecedents. This collection is particularly valuable because it has been made before the push for standardization of Persian will have succeeded in annihilating regionalisms in the language. If we had such a glossary for thirteenth-century Shirazi we would understand more of Sa‘di’s dialect poetry.”

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