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Persian language and its Indo-European roots

A question about languages origin was in a center of linguistic researches for a long time. There even was a thought that ‘it is a very jibbing but the most researching theme in a historical linguistics’. Among language families covered by the historical linguistics, the Indo-European languages are in the important place for those who deeply study this sphere. The Indo-European or also called Indo-German languages consist of the most European languages including Hindi, Sanskrit, Persian, and dead languages such as Latin and Hittite. Regardless of geographical distance, this exact belonging to the general family explains similarity of the certain words’ group morphological elements. For example, word mother – ‘mere’ in French, ‘mother’ in English, ‘mutter’ in German, ‘mater’ in Latin, ‘matr’ in Sanskrit, and finally ‘madar’ in Persian. Linguist William Johns defended a thesis in Indo-European languages during his third speech about the Asian society in Calcutta in 1786. His speech begun with such words: “Sanskrit is an ancient language; it has a unique structure; it is more exquisite than Greek, easier than Latin and has clearer structure. But nevertheless, it is much alike Greek and Latin in verb roots as well as in grammatical forms what can not be the result of accidental development. This connection was so strong for any philologist could not miss it without thinking of a common ancestor, which is most of all doesn’t exist any more.” Along with that, the existence of the mutual mother language always leaves a place for theories development since there is no written tracks of the mother language that probably go to the prehistoric times. The only way to judge the existence of this big family is to compare common features (phonetic and grammatical etc) that were preserved in the resulting languages. Franz Bopp, the creator of the comparative grammar (1791-1867), compared such languages as Sanskrit, Persian (Avestan language), Slavic, German, Gothic, Greek, Latin, and Lithuanian between 1833 and 1852, and that confirmed the doubtful and wrong at the moment theory even more.

The comparative linguistics differ twelve language groups among which the most important is Indo-Iranian branch. In its turn it is divided in three sub branches i.e. languages of the southwestern group, northeastern and language of the east. New Persian language is a part of the first group: the south-western languages that included Old Persian, Middle Persian (Pahlavi), Persian or Farsi. This is the language our article devoted to. To fully acquaint with this question it is necessary to think of Old Persian and Middle Persian, and to compare them with New Persian with which they preserved a lot of common features.

Chronological development of the Persian language

Old Persian, Middle Persian, Greek, Latin and Sanskrit were announced the Classic languages among world’s ancient languages at the academic conference in Berlin in 1972. Basing upon estimations the report insisted on the antiquity and richness of these languages and confirmed that the languages did not lose their important features within the last century. Old Persian language from time to time was used in notes, tablets and seals of the Achaemenid kings such as Darius I (550-486 B.C.). He was the first to use this language for scripts on monuments and sculptures (there are a lot of examples in Iran, Turkey and Egypt). Old Persian was not the language of the common people only. It rather was a dialect widespread among Persian nobility and was in more usage at the beginning of Darius I rein in Persepolis in 521 B.C. to 330 century B.C. Understanding that this language is not supported in all parts of his big empire rulers issued their orders in two or three languages. The perfect example of such document is Behistun Inscription, a big royal document in Kermanshah carved in Old Persian, Babylonian (Akkaditum dialect) and Elamite. This cuneiform language accounts 36 symbols for consonants and vowels, it has eight ideograms, one separator, nouns and three numbers: 1, 10, and 100. One of the language characteristic features is its alphabet and structure. These features were discovered due to the notes in Behistun Inscription that was decoded by Henry Rawlins (1810-1895), the orientalist and assyrologist from Britain in 1835. To underline an importance of the discovery it should be said that inscriptions in the Behistun is in cuneiform as in Rosetta stone with the Egyptian hieroglyphics; it is as an unchanged element in the process of language decoding without which we could not have an access to the royal Achaemenid writings. Among Old Iranian dialects such as Midian, Hotenian, Avestan and Old Persian, only the last had a status of the Achaemenid Kingdom language. Other languages were used by a limited amount of inhabitants. Midian was spoken in the western part of Persia, Khotanese in the north up to the Black Sea among Hellenes and Parthian. Only few words reminded from these dialects, but Old Persian and Avestan allow us to preserve another big and valuable material of the one of epochs that exists in the modern world; Persian is the royal court language and Avestan is the language of the Zoroastrian holy books.

Middle Persian (Pahlavi) is a direct continuation of Old Persian. Its usage was widespread during the Arshakid (Parthian Empire 248 B.C. - 226 B.C.) and Sassanid (226 - 651) epoch. Nevertheless, it was not an obstacle for other regional languages such as Parthian, Khotanese, Sogdian, Bactrian and Khwarazmshahiyan usage on Iranian territory. Characters of this language were formed not only due to cuneiform hieroglyphics but due to Pahlavi as well. First of all the language was used in the Parthian empire and than during the reign of Iranian dynasty in 226 to 651 in Sassanid. Middle Persian was greatly influenced by Parthian, the folk dialect in the Parthian empire, but here it never has changed as in case with Sassanids. During its development morphology and grammar of Middle Persian were greatly simplified. Among other things, one can remind a conjugation system of adjectives and difficult conjugation aspects of Old Persian which were forgotten or lost in Middle Persian. Just the same with nouns’ number (singular, dual and plural) that was diminished to singular and plural and gender (nouns had masculine, feminine and neutral gender) disappeared from Middle Persian vocabulary because the language itself was less exquisite. In the third century Sassanids took close to heart creation of writing in three languages: Parthian, Middle Persian and Greek. In the 4th century Middle Persian was an official language of the Sassanid empire what has had a bad impact on Parthian, and it was quickly forgotten. This was the reason to keep all documents of the epoch in one recognized by Sassanids language – in Middle Persian.

Middle Persian and Avestan were the languages of a big Zoroastrian literature group. Due to these two languages it is possible to explain a great amount of rituals and religious methods in Zoroastrian tradition of that epoch. Zoroastrian religion as we know it today is a religion of Sassanids and Achaemenids mainly in Iraq. It was an official religion on all territories of the Persian Empire till 651; this date is marking the coming of Islam (the beginning date of 634 Omar’s caliphate conquest) and falling of the Sassanids dynasty that was enduring along with the Persian Empire difficult political, religious and cultural upheavals. Language and writing changes had its outcomes. As a result of sudden unexpected changes in ancient Persian Empire it became one of the Ottoman caliphate’s parts, two new languages that were more appropriate for the new social cultural situation in the country had appeared.

According to the researchers, New Persian that is originating from Middle Persian appeared along with Arabic conquest of Persia and sharply forced out Middle Persian for good. Nevertheless, the language needed 200 years to change into what we called today New Persian language. From the grammatical point of view, this language does not differ much from Middle Persian. But it differs from its previous form in Persian-Arabic alphabet and numerous loan elements from Arabic. Except this, a lot of idiomatic expressions and sayings were borrowed what signifies the appearance of a new Arabic Islamic culture. This language showed all its richness in monumental works of such Persian poets as Ferdowsi, Rumi, Khayyam, Hafis, and Saadi. Without them this language would stand in a second place and would become one of the modern dialects in the better case.

As it was said before, at the moment Persian is spoken in Iran using the Arabic alphabet which accompanies evolutionary form of Kufa letters, an old form of the Arabic language originated from the ancient Syriac language. According to the materials of such Persian language researchers as Mohammad Reza Bateni, modern Persian morphology doesn’t correspond to this language on practice. Giving as an example the absence of some vowels in transcription, existence of different letters to mark one phoneme and lots of dots upon some letters, what makes difficulties during writing. Changes of the Persian writings according to Pahlavi, occupies minds of many researchers among whom one can underline Sadeh Hedayah and M.R. Bateni. There even was a project to discover language insufficient during king’s reign which should be developing for a long time. This project was never realized. One can see Ganjameh writings which were carved on the stone by order of Darius I in 5 km in southwest of the city of Hamadan in the valley of Abbas Abad. Hamadan or also called Hagmataneh also was a capital of Achaemenid state.

Territorial expansion of Persians around the world

Persian customs were not limited be the inner part of the Iran geographical boundaries. Their presence can be spotted in Central Asia, on Caucasus and Middle Asia. There are a lot of people speaking the language in Uzbekistan (among Tajikistan minorities) and Tajikistan (approximately 7 millions speakers), in Afghanistan (approximately 16 millions speakers), Iraq and some parts of Pakistan and India, and also as the spoken language in some countries of the Persian straight as Bahrain. Firstly for a long time the language was wide spreading from east to west to the Byzantine boundaries and Central Asia. In the western territories of the Muslim world as South Asia and Ottoman Empire Persian language was even used as lingua franca. Persian on par with Arabic was one of the unique scientific languages of the Islamic world and with its help the scientific knowledge was spreading on the West at the Muslim epoch.

First connections between Persian language and Indian subcontinent, exactly with India and Pakistan date back to the 5th century B.C. to times of Achaemenid king Darius I. It was Darius who sent his fleet to Kabul and Indus Rivers’ tributary to the city of Kaspatiry (modern Kabul) to mark the territory on the map before sailing to Egypt. He intended to join eastern Achaemenid territories to western lands through the sea. This journey took 30 weeks during which Darius gathered an army to invade lands from Indus to Punjab in 518 B.C. Darius founded his satrapies in this region after Herodotus times. India was invaded for the fourth time and was described in Avesta, the first part of Vendidad, the main part of which is devoted to Punjab. Names of the 8 Indian rivers were also mentioned there. They are Wiz, Jammu, Chenab, Ravi, Bai, Sutlej, Sindh and Kabul. The excavated ruins of Achaemenid period of the first archeological excavations in Timurgarha, Pakistan proved strong cultural and architectural ties between Persia and Indian subcontinent in the 5th century B.C. During later archeological excavations in 1967 the dig out items of everyday life and pottery resembled the one used in the North Iran of the 5th century B.C. This period coincides with Alexander Macedonian conquest of Persia. Most likely the Persian Empire had a huge influence on all territories up to the Parthian Empire. The information about Mehrdad I, the Arshakid king in 173 to 136 B.C. who had under his control territories up to the Jammu River was found in the notes of Oresius, the Greek historian.

Political contacts between the Kushan Empire (territories from Tajikistan to Caspian Sea) and the Persian Empire were developing in the 2nd century A.D. The Kushan Empire with its capital in Peshawar and its territory up to the Persian boundaries was in good relations with Israeli. They spread propaganda about Persian language and culture on the Indian subcontinent and Pakistan in the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D. In 558 after Balh invasion on the north of Afghanistan by Sassanid’s army, Persian became an official language on all Afghanistan territories, forcing out Balham language. The reason for that was its simplicity comparing to Balham. This had prepared ground for the spreading of Persian language in Central Asia.

In the 7th century Persian became a freely spoken language of the Iranian southern part population from Xuzestan to Sistan. Persian became an international language used in trade in Xorasm and Sogdyana. As for the northern and eastern countries on the Iranian plateau the Danish expert in Iran Arthur Christesen found out that spreading of the Persian language connected with establishment of the military centers to protect country from Central Asia tribes. That’s why having come to Central Asia Arabs chose Persian as the common language to communicate with the Sassanid Empire population. Later the Muslim conquest assisted the language to be in use in the eastern parts of Central Asia. Thus, the contacts between military man and Muslim traders who easily spoke Persian created a base for the Persian language development on the East. Tradition of using Arabic alphabet in Persian writings came from the western Iran, Khorasan in a period of Zoroastrian wizards’ existence, who used the Middle Persian language and its written form just alike New Persian. It was done to avoid misunderstandings during conferring a new alphabet which appeared to be much easier and more flexible to the new changes in Persian at the times of Arabic invasion. The name Farsi Dari was written in Arabic alphabet which was easily adapted to differentiate them from those using Middle Persian in communication. Meanwhile, there was no need to use term ‘Dari’ after disappearance of the Middle Persian language, so that Farsi was considering the only name for the new country’s language.

During Samanid dynasty reign in the 9th century, the field Capitan from Samanid dynasty and future founder of the Saffarid dynasty Ya’qub ibn-Layth al-Saffar offered to use Persian not Arabic as the main language of the court for the first time. At this time Samanid’s rulers made great efforts to learn Persian encouraging writers and elite to write in the Persian language preserving this way its richness. Achieving this goal they took care and even sheltered elite representatives who came from other parts of Abbasid Empire looking for refuge. Gradually the new literature in Farsi Dari started to form in Sistan in the 9th century. And this process was much faster than in Samanid (815-1005) and Ghaznavid (982-1187) in Khorasan when high belles-letter works were created exceptionally in Muslim world due to such outstanding poets as Balhi, Rudaki, Abushagur, Dahihi, and word’s master Ferdowsi. The later became an inspiration source for future poets not only in Persia but in other parts of the eastern world like India, Central Asia and other Turkish-speaking countries of the Middle Asia as well. During all its existence Farsi was a live language used by millions of speakers in Ferdowsi times (940-1020) who was nicknamed ‘the complier of the Persian language’ and was an author of more imposing Iranian epopee Shahnameh (the book of kings). While creating this work a lot of Persian words that could be lost in a result of the Arabic language impact were revived. As the matter of fact, it was Ferdowsi initiative that gradually all cities of Iran and Central Asia adapted Persian (Farsi) as a local and official language of their countries. The Persian language played an important role in prosperity of culture and science in neighboring states and resulted in Persian culture development in the Muslim communities of the epoch. Its impact was so great that Richard Nelson Fray, the expert in Iranian issues and honored professor in Harvard University wrote: “Arabs did not recognize Persian impact on the Muslim culture forming. Maybe they tended to forget the past. But they did not even suspect that they were destroying their own roots both moral and cultural (…)”.

Linguistic filling of Iran

According to Abu Eshagh Abraham Estahri, the cartographer and geographer of the Middle Iranian period, Persian was used by inhabitants of Makran on the south of Belujistan in the mid 10th century. The language was gradually spreading through all territories of the Indian subcontinent and Pakistan. Estahri added that inhabitants’ of Multan, Pakistan culture of wearing clothes as pants and toga strangely resembles traditional clothes of Iran at the time people spoke Arabic and Persian. Similarities in Persian and Indian sub continental language developed before Ghaznavid epoch (962-1187) in times of the Iranian Sunnis dynasty of the Turkish origin. At this time Indian men of letters and philosophers used Persian to write their literature and philosophical works greater part of which is available now. All state territories were filled not only by Persian expressions of the Indian creators, mysticism in medicine, lyrics, history and astronomy but also by the epoch’s literature genres as rubaiyat, ghassideh, ghazal, hagiography (description of saints’ lives) etc. Also there was created a new type of art, the imitation of the main literature models of the Persian literature, e.g. Nizami Gencewi whose most prominent work is Leyli and Majnun. With spreading of the Muslim invasion closer to the east and south all big cities of the country began to use Persian. The mass arriving of the Iranian saints escaping from the Mongolian conquest greatly enriched literature world of Delhi Sultanate of Indo-Persian epoch. Probably Mohammed Auf, the poet from Khorasan who created the first collection of Indo-Persian poets’ biographies is mentioned among others as well. Another important domain of Indo-Persian literature is Sufism literature that combines praising songs for God and Prophets and glorifying songs foe ecclesiastics. Also you can find here recollection about Oceans merging where Muslim and Indian mysticism is discussed.

One of the most means that allowed Persians to spread their influence in the whole eastern part of Asia up to China in the 13th century was a trade. Chinese kept good financial contacts with all Muslim countries. Persian spoken Muslims traveled to the south of China to make deals and some of them even lived on these territories. Southern Iran, the less damaged from the Mongolian conquest part comparing to the other parts of the country transformed into important center of Iranian trade in the 13th century. Travelers and merchants signed their agreements while traveling to China or at meetings with Chinese traders; agreements also were signed in the southern ports of the costal Persia. Soon enough they extended their business and could travel on further distances. They established connections with countries of India, Sri-Lanka, Moldova, including islands of Java and Sumatra. Thus, one can explain impact of the Persian language in Asia and East. At the same time there were developing contacts between Persians and Chinese people resulting in learning Persian by many Chinese to ease their work what in its turn resulted in development of bilingual culture among inhabitants of these regions. The impact of the Persian language was so great that it began to affect Chinese emperors and stewards. This historical fact was described in many works and was mentioned in works of Moroccan Ibn Battuta (1304-1377), the Muslim traveler and explorer who visited China during his trip. He also wrote about the city of Hangchow: “Emir Gurta, the ruler of Hang-chow received us in his palace. He held a banquet called ‘turi’ in Chinese. Emir had Muslim cookers who cut lamb only after acquaintance with Muslim culture. (…) Than accompanied by his son we returned to the port. We boarded a boat that resembled a military ship. His son boarded another ship with a group of musicians. They quickly changed their clothes to sing Chinese, Arabic and Persian songs. It seemed to us that the Persian songs were sung more often. Listening to the Persian songs ruler’s son was merry and invited others to sing with them. Songs were repeated so many times that I’ve learned them by heart.” From reliable sources it is known that Ibn Battuta spoke Persian during his trip to China and time to time he noted that with Chinese emirs and rulers who invited him he communicate in Persian. “I visited sultan. He took my hand eagerly squeezed it and gladly told me in Persian: “Your presence here is a big pleasure to us. I assure you behave so generously and decently that everyone you’ve met wanted to visit us in China.”

The Persian language and literature greatly developed in Safavids (1501-1736) and Qajars (1786-1925) times. Also it should be remembered that after Constitutional Revolution of 1905 the new era came to the world. It deals with substantial changes in Persian mainly due to the Academy of Persian Language and Literature foundation and rising of translation movement in the result of which Persian was not only preserved but considerably refined: expressions and borrowings from Arabic were thrown away. Persian was actively developing in Iran during the last century but there occurred an opposite situation when the language was becoming less popular. It concerns language daintiness, its important role in the eastern countries as India where Persian displacing English, Uzbekistan in Samarkand and Bukhara, or in Turkmenistan, city of Merw where Persian moves away to the background because of Russian. In the past decades of the 20th century the Afghanistan kingdom’s Pushto policy was against Persian that resulted in its decay in Herat and Kabul which beside other cities were the main centers of the Persian civilization. In spite of this Farsi remains one of the most popular languages of Afghanistan. It is the official language of the Tajikistan population bigger part as well as in Tashkent, Uzbekistan and in the valley of Ferghana.

Today Persian is spoken by lots of people who use different dialects, every one of which shows richness and adaptive capacity of the language with thousand years history. In the conclusion it is possible to classify different variants of Persian used in the world: western Persian is spoken in Iran, eastern Persian, Hazaragi, Darvaset and Pahlavi in Afghanistan, Tajik is used in Tajikistan, Ammiak and Hazara in Hazarstan, Bukhara is spoken in Israel and Uzbekistan, Dehravi in Pakistan. 


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