Persian Language

  July 18, 2022   Read time 2 min
Persian Language
The Arabic alphabet was adapted for writing Persian after the Arab conquest of Iran in the seventh century A.D. by adding four characters to the twenty-eight characters of the Arabic alphabet in order to represent four Persian sounds that do not exist in Arabic: p, g (as in get), ch (as in chair), and zh (as in leisure).

Because the Persian language is written in Arabic script, it is often mistakenly thought to be related to Arabic. In fact, Persian belongs to the Iranian branch of the Indo-European group of languages, together with English and German (Germanic branch), French, Italian, and Spanish (Italic or Latin branch), Scots, Irish Gaelic, and Welsh (Celtic branch), and Greek (on its own), whereas Arabic is classified under the AfroAsiatic or Hamito-Semitic language family.

The Arabic alphabet was adapted for writing Persian after the Arab conquest of Iran in the seventh century A.D. by adding four characters to the twenty-eight characters of the Arabic alphabet in order to represent four Persian sounds that do not exist in Arabic: p, g (as in get), ch (as in chair), and zh (as in leisure). Persian pronunciation is quite easy to master, except perhaps for three consonant sounds that may sound unfamiliar to English speakers: • /x/, as in the Scottish loch or German doch and usually transliterated as /kh/, as in Khomeini • /gh/, similar to /x/, but with voice, approximating the French /r/ • /q/, similar to the English k but articulated toward the back of the mouth, on the soft palate

Persian has only six vowels, which are similar to English. These have been represented in English characters as /a/ (hat), /â/ (bath), /e/ and /i/ (bee or bin), and /o/ and /u/ (zoo).

Spelling proves a bit trickier. After the Islamic conquest, numerous Arabic words entered Persian and are in current use, their pronunciation being adapted to the simpler consonantal system of Persian while retaining their original spelling. As a result, words like zaferân (saffron), nazr (pledge), zarbeh (a blow), and zarf (container), which all contain the sound /z/, are each spelled with a different letter with the sound /z/, reflecting their pronunciation in the original Arabic, where each of these letters is pronounced differently. A similar situation occurs with the sound /s/, which is represented in writing in three different ways, for example, sang (stone), sabr (patience) and mesâl (example), and with /t/ with two, as in tâbe (follower) and tâher (pure). Schoolchildren and teachers have a tough job!

However, once past the initial hurdle of the alphabet, the similarities of Persian with its sister languages become apparent. Cognate words such as mâdar (mother), pedar (father), and barâdar (brother) are easily recognized across the Indo-European languages, but numerous others are less obvious. For example, dokhtar (girl, daughter) must have borne a closer phonetic resemblance to the English daughter a few centuries ago when gh was still sounded in the English word. Biveh is a cognate of the English widow, the French veuve, and the Italian vedova. We could go on looking at other examples for a long time, but the point is clear: the Persian language is much closer to English than one may tend to think at first glance.