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Farsi

The Farsi language, also known as the Persian language, is the most-widely spoken of all the Indo-Iranian languages.

An estimated 40 million people in Iran alone claim Farsi as a native language. Other countries in which Farsi is spoken include Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Iraq. The modern Farsi language is a direct descendent of the Old Persian, dating back to approximately the 6th century BC and making it the oldest living Iranian language.

Classification and Early History of the Farsi Language

The Farsi language is classified as an Indo-Iranian language, part of the subgroup of Indo-European languages. The Indo-Iranian language family has three categories of development: Old, Middle, and Modern.

The Old Iranian languages include Old Persian and Avestan, the language of the ancient scriptures of Zoroastrianism, known as the Avesta. Evidence of the Old Persian language can be found in the cuneiform inscriptions of the Persian Achaemenid Dynasty, which lasted from approximately 550 to 330 BC. As a spoken language, Old Persian existed until about the 3rd century BC.

Although it is believed that other Old Iranian languages existed, only Avestan and Old Persian are known due to their appearance in ancient texts and inscriptions. While Avestan is believed to have died out after the ancient period, Old Persian continued to exist in various forms of Middle Persian.

Developments in the Middle Iranian Period

Map of Iran

During the Middle Iranian period, a new form of Persian developed, now referred to as Middle Persian. Dating from approximately 300 BC to 950 AD, Middle Persian developed around the same time as a number of other Middle Iranian languages, including Parthian, which is believed to have been very similar.

The modern Farsi (or Modern Persian) language we know today developed from the Middle Persian and is believed to have developed by the 9th century. Changes were seen in the Middle Persian as the language picked up influences from other Iranian languages, which were developing in the Middle Period.

The Birth of Modern Farsi

Of all the Iranian languages, Persian is the only one definitively known to have existed throughout all three phases of the Iranian language group’s development – Old, Middle, and New. Modern Farsi is a direct descendent of the Old and Middle Persian languages, and developed around 950 AD.

Since then, it has served as the predominant language throughout the area of Persia. Modern Farsi exhibits a simplified grammar system in comparison to Middle Persian, and it also has an increased amount of adopted Arab language vocabulary.

The Farsi Language Today

Flag of Iran

Today, the Farsi language is the national language of Iran, where it is spoken by approximately 40 million people. The contemporary term “Farsi” is named after the Parsa, or Fars, which refers to the geographic area of Persia (present-day Iran).

The standard Farsi of Iran is also sometimes referred to as Western Farsi. A form of Farsi known as Dari, or Eastern Farsi, is also spoken in Afghanistan, while an ancient form known as Tajiki Persian still exists in Tajikistan. If all of these various forms of Farsi are taken into consideration, the Persian language has approximately 80 million speakers.

Dialects of the Farsi Language

The large number and diversity of Farsi language dialects and languages closely related to Farsi often make it difficult to determine whether a speech is simply a dialect of Farsi or another language altogether.

Within each of the varieties of the Persian language – Farsi, Dari, and Tajiki – there are a number of unique dialects, mostly closely related and mutually intelligible. Distinct languages similar to Farsi include Tat, a language spoken in parts of Azerbaijan and Russia, and Lari, a language spoken in southern Iran.

Farsi and the Arabic Language

Farsi and Arabic are related in multiple ways.

For one thing, modern Farsi has many loan-words from the Arabic language, many dating back to the middle Iranian period. Other languages that have added words to the Farsi vocabulary in more recent years include English, French and a number of Turkic languages.

Another way in which the Arabic language has influenced Farsi is seen in the written Farsi language. Due to the conversion of Persia to Islam during the Islamic conquest of Iran, the modern Farsi alphabet is based on the Arabic language alphabet. Consisting of 32 letters, the Farsi language alphabet has added some letters to the basic Arabic alphabet in order to convey certain sounds not found as commonly in the Arabic language.

Written Farsi Language

Farsi is written in a flowing Perso-Arabic script that reads from right to left. Much like cursive writing in English, most of the letters are connected to one another. In writing, Farsi generally makes use of only consonants and long vowels, not showing short vowels in the written form (although they are pronounced).

In some cases, diacritic marks – dots over the letter that convey a certain sound – are added; however, this is generally done only by children or by older people who are learning Farsi as a foreign language.

Use of the Latin Alphabet in the Farsi Language

There have been standardization movements to translate the written Farsi language into a Latin alphabet that can be understood by people unfamiliar with the Farsi language alphabet.

Fingilish or Penglish are two common terms referring to the writing of the Farsi language using a Latin alphabet. The Universal Persian Alphabet, known as UniPers for short, was instituted by the Iranian Mohamed Kayvan, who made use of it in Farsi books for foreigners and travelers.

A more recent effort at a Latin-based Farsi alphabet is evident in the International Persian Alphabet, or Parsik, developed by the linguist A. Moslehi. Although a number of such efforts have been made, there is no standardized form of the Farsi language written with a Latin-based alphabet.


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Farsi Quick Facts

Alternate Names & Spellings: Persian, New Persian, Parsi, Irani

Language Family: Indo-European, Indo-Iranian, Iranian, Western, Southwestern, Persian

Official Language of: Iran

Spoken by Approximately 24,316,000 people

Also Spoken In: United States

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