David Blow has a brief TLS review (subscription only) of what sounds like a very interesting book, Literacy in the Persianate World: Writing and the Social Order, edited by Brian Spooner and William L. Hanaway (Table of Contents; note that the last article in the book is “Persian Scribes (munshi) and Chinese Literati (ru): The Power and Prestige of Fine Writing (adab/wenzhang)” by Victor H. Mair, a frequent Language Log contributor), and I thought I’d quote the final paragraph for its summary of the spread of Persian:

Persian as a lingua franca spread not only through much of the Islamic world, but even as far as China during the thirteenth century, when Iran was loosely incorporated into the Mongol Empire. David Morgan shows how Persian became for a time the most important foreign language in China, where it was used in commercial exchanges with Muslim merchants profiting from the Pax Mongolica. But it was the Muslim realms in India that most fully adopted the Persian language and culture. The high point was reached in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when the generous patronage offered by the wealthy Indian courts, and especially the Mughal court, attracted many poets from Iran. Muhammad Aslam Syed traces the decline of Persian in Muslim India and the rise of Urdu, a related vernacular language, to the second half of the eighteenth century. He associates it with the “humiliating” sack of Delhi by the Iranian ruler, Nadir Shah, in 1739, and the rise of a “new nobility” of poets who were merchants and shopkeepers and were uncomfortable with Persian as the language of the “old nobility”. The final blow to the status of Persian in India came in 1835 when the East India Company replaced it with English as the official language and in 1837 with Urdu as the language of the law courts. But for many, the loss of Persian was a cause for lament. Syed quotes the Indian poet Ghalib (1797-1869), who is regarded as the greatest Urdu poet, but who also composed poems in Persian: “If you want to see all the colours of life, read my Persian poetry, my Urdu diwan does not have all those colours. Persian is the mirror (of life) and Urdu is just like rust on that mirror (with which you start but when it is clean, it is Persian)”.


  1. dearieme says

    Persian, English, Urdu: and those too will pass away.

  2. OK, well, I’m at most sequiglot (see the last thread but one), but now you’ve got me wishing I had learned Persian.

  3. Today, I often hear claims that Urdu is a uniquely poetic language. Strange how things change.

  4. I wonder if there are any Persian loanwords in Chinese from that era.

  5. SFReader says

    Mongolian has a number of Persian borrowings, the most important being “nom” – “book” from Persian “nameh” (ultimately from Greek “nomos” – “law”) and “devter” – “notebook” from Persian “daftar”,also ultimately from Greek “diphthera” (“parchment”)

  6. I believe I am correct in saying that the Chinese word for the animal that is one of the commonest sights outside the entrances to the larger buildings in Hong Kong and Macau, shī, 狮, “lion”, is supposed to be from the Persian shar,شیر

  7. Hmm, never knew that Persian was so widespread in those days, I learned something new there. Given the Turkic influence along the Silk Road I would have thought Turkish (which I can speak at a basic level) would have been more of a ‘lingua franca’.

  8. now you’ve got me wishing I had learned Persian.
    It’s not hard! The morphology is quite simple (probably at least in part from use as a lingua franca), and a great many verbs are compounds of nouns with kardan ‘to do’ (and a few other basic verbs). To speak basic Persian is a great deal easier than to speak, say, basic Russian. Give it a try!
    Given the Turkic influence along the Silk Road I would have thought Turkish … would have been more of a ‘lingua franca’.
    But Turkish was not a high-culture language; the Turks used Persian for literary purposes (and Persian was officially used in the Ottoman Empire right up till its demise). I’m sure a lot of people learned some Turkish for practical purposes, but Persian was as ubiquitous in Central Asia and adjoining regions as French was in eighteenth-century Europe.

  9. 1-Hat: in your comment I think “reasons” in the last line is supposed to be “regions”.
    2-I believe Antoine Meillet was the first linguist to claim that the history of Persian as an imperial language is what explains the structural simplivity of Persian.
    3-The relationship between Turkic and Persian (the former the L, the latter the H language) in Central Asia sounds very similar to the relationship between the two languages among the early Muslim elite of the Indian subcontinent, whose Persian was apparently tangibly Turkic-influenced.
    4-However, while no variety of Persian is spoken natively in China today, there exists a language (cryptolect), Eynu, which combines Uyghur grammar and Persian vocabulary. Spoken as it is by a low-prestige nomadic group in Xinjiang, its existence suggests Persian in the region was more than an elite written language.

  10. in your comment I think “reasons” in the last line is supposed to be “regions”.
    its existence suggests Persian in the region was more than an elite written language.
    I didn’t mean to suggest it was, though I see how my comment could have been read that way. The interrelationship of Persian, Turkic dialects, and other local languages in that region is an extremely complex subject I wish I know more about.

  11. This is a 10 minute documentary by an Iranian who goes looking for a village in China along the border with Tajikistan where he has heard people still speak Persian. They do not.

  12. David Marjanović says

    Anyway: Pffft! Äynu language.
    [Apologies—I’ve deleted references to a troll I don’t want infesting the thread even secondarily. –LH]

  13. Part of the confusion arises because the Wakhi- and Sarikoli-speaking people of China are known officially as Tajiks, though their languages are Eastern Iranian (whether Northeastern or Southeastern is disputed) rather than Southwestern Iranian like Persian/Dari/Tajik-proper (in increasing order of Turkification).

  14. marie-lucie says

    Language prestige can come and go. In the 13th century the prestigious language in Southwestern Europe was Occitan. After the culture of this language was destroyed through the pretext of a religious war, Occitan was pretty much reduced to a series of village dialects, such as the one spoken by my grandparents in Languedoc. One or two centuries later the prestige language was Italian because of the considerable artistic and literary activity in Italy at the time. In the 17th and 18th centuries French was the prestige language in Europe and was strongly established in Canada, but after Québec fell to the English it lost a lot of its prestige in Canada (and still has not regained it in regions where speakers are a minority). English lost all prestige in England after the Norman conquest and the advent of a French-speaking upper class. Even in the early 17th century, when English had regained its value at home, English writers could deplore the fact that the language was useless once they crossed the sea into continental Europe, where hardly anyone had reason to learn it. Nobody could have predicted that two hundred years later most of the world would want to learn English.
    What causes prestige or not is not the language itself, it is the ideas, values, political and economic interests, literature, etc which (rightly or wrongly) are associated with it in the minds of both its speakers and their contemporaries in other lands.

  15. Richard J says

    I was reading a History of the World in Twelve Maps last week (highly recommended, which, in discussing medieveal Chinese cartography, contained the interesting snippet, relevant to this, that a Korean map of the 14th century included Europe and Africa (as the latter was defined then) in a form recognisably derived from Ptolemy. (The obvious implication being that this had been transmitted through the Persian route above.)

  16. @Richard J That’s a definitely a nice read!
    Persian was really wide spread those days

  17. J.W. Brewer says

    Here’s my question. Did the influence/prestige of Persian within the Islamicized part of the world stop rather abruptly when it hit the boundary of the Arab-speaking regions proper (even those under Ottoman rule)? That’s sort of my inference from silence, but I’m not sure, and it seems like the answer and the possible reasons for it could be interesting either way.
    These days, US grad students with a plausible professional motive for increasing their competence in Farsi can fairly readily (for fairly obvious strategic reasons) secure federal funding to spend a summer studying with native speakers (or close enough for government work, to extent the local dialect varied from what is spoken in Iran) in Tajikistan. My younger daughter’s godfather did that as part of his doctoral studies.

  18. marie-lucie says

    AD, not necessarily. The first “lingua franca” was a mixed language used in the Northwestern Mediterranean, not the language of a specific nation.
    [Oops—I deleted Adam D’s comment as spam, based on the URL! He wrote: “The lingua franca of different times is language of the most powerfull country in those days.” –LH]

  19. Christopher Culver says

    I first learned of Persian literature from India when I heard the Tajikistan-based Academy of Maqam’s album The Invisible Face of the Beloved. The shashmaqam cycle played ends with an absolutely stunning poem by the 19th-century poet Bedil who, as I was very surprised to find out, was based in Delhi. Sadly, any memory of these poets’ accomplishments (or of 19th-century belles-lettres at all) has vanished from Delhi, yet another casualty of India’s focus on economic development at the expense of its own past.

  20. JWB: I assume you mean to exclude Turkish itself from your query: certainly it was and is very Persianized. Well, there’s a whole Wikipedia article on Persianization, and the obvious answer to your question is that Persianization spread not only to speakers of other Iranian languages (notably Pashto) and Turkics, but also to the whole northern part of the Indian subcontinent. It’s quite impossible to speak either Hindi or Urdu without a great deal of Persian being involved.

  21. J.W. Brewer says

    JC: Well, yeah, I know about (esp. pre-Kemalist-purge) Turkish, that’s why my question was specific to Arabic. Persianization seems to have radiated in all directions from Isfahan (or Persepolis or Ctesiphon or whatever starting point you like) except the direction in which people spoke Arabic (or other Semitic languages). A “needs expansion” section of that wiki article suggests that Persian was the language of the Ummayad court in the very early days but then replaced by Arabic by circa A.D. 700 and then says in a wholly conclusory way that there were further unspecified Persian “cultural influences” once the Abassids set up their capital in Baghdad. But were those linguistic?
    It seems plausible to suppose that, unlike every other language in the region broadly construed, Arabic as the language of the Koran had a unique inherent prestige that the various sorts of prestige Persian enjoyed simply could not compete against. But it’s not inevitable that it would have played out that way. And I assume that as Arabic became a language used for administration, scientific treatises, etc., it may have needed new technical vocabulary the Koranic-era lexicon lacked. Did it get that from Persian, or coin it from existing roots, or what?
    Note fwiw that’s it seems probable that more Anglophones have read at least one Persian-language poet whom they could name (either Omar Khayyam via Fitzgerald, or Rumi via some New-Agey translator or other) than have read a single Arabic-language poet whom they could name. (OK, I had to check wikipedia for this, but the very-in-vogue-within-living-memory Khalil Gibran actually wrote in English, so you don’t even need to decide if he counts as a “poet.”).

  22. J.W. Brewer says

    Re Christopher Culver’s point, I don’t know how much of the problem is lack of focus on the past versus the search for a past that is politically useful for modern purposes. I have no idea how the legacy of the Mughals and associated Indo-Persian culture is viewed by today’s nationalists. Well, scratch that. I would guess with some confidence that the Hindutva subset of nationalists doesn’t like it at all; those guys were just the colonialist invaders we had before the British colonialist invaders and they all need to be wiped away as part of the project of the restoration of echt-Indian culture. But whether the people on the more secularist-pluralist-Congress-voting side of things are pro-Mughal-nostalgia or not, I couldn’t tell you. Plus I assume that however Persianized Urdu is, the old stuff that was actually written in Persian is still a closed book to people who only know Urdu. They’d have to learn Persian (and possibly an archaic literary variety of it) as a foreign language and I doubt the educational system in either India or Pakistan or Bangladesh is focused on the necessary instruction for anything other than a small cadre of specialists.

  23. Ah, I see I misunderstood your query. EI has an article on Iranian loanwords in Arabic. It’s mostly details on individual words, but does say this:

    After the Arab conquest of Iran, the new Muslim rulers, who had no experience with imperial government, sought the assistance of the Iranians in administering the newly established states, and in succeeding centuries, the Iranians also made important literary and scientific contributions, including the translation of a number of Pahlavi books into Arabic.

    There are also some very early loanwords that went Old Persian > Aramaic > Arabic: the article lists half a dozen, none of them particularly prestigious. Then again, as I like to point out, brush and puppy aren’t hifalutin words either.

  24. David Marjanović says

    Where do brush and puppy come from?

    Re Christopher Culver’s point, I don’t know how much of the problem is lack of focus on the past versus the search for a past that is politically useful for modern purposes.

    Witness the number of people called Ashok.

  25. David: French brousse and poupée, or rather their Old French ancestors. The latter shifted from ‘toy (dog)’ to ‘young dog’ around 1590. They partially displaced the native equivalents broom and whelp.

  26. marie-lucie says

    JC: I did not know that puppy came from la poupée, currently ‘doll’.
    About brousse and broom, were they ever really equivalent? La brousse means ‘the wild forest, intermixing trees with bushes and shrubs making travel difficult’, a word used especially about tropical locations. Within Canada this type of wild forest is called in English “the bush”. Broom is French le genêt, an actual bush which can grow quite large, with yellow flowers and with branches formerly used as “brooms” for sweeping floors (the word supplanted older “besom”). The Plantagenet family which ended up ruling England was so named from an ancestor who liked to wear a sprig of broom flowers in his hat or perhaps the helmet of his armour, in order to be identified by his followers.
    Brousse has a derivative la broussaille, often used in the plural, a word referring to a thick mass of inextricably entwined bushes, perhaps best translated as ‘brambles’ or ‘brush’.

  27. marie-lucie says

    Third World definition
    Both French and English Wikipedia articles on the “Third World” place Eastern Europe together with all of Asia North of the Himalayas in the “Second World”, not the Third. According to a terminology developed during the Cold War, the First World comprised most capitalist countries, the Second World the Socialist ones, the Third World everything else. The choice of “three” worlds is suppposed to have been influenced by the Three “Estates” of society in pre-revolution France: clergy, nobility and “the people”.

  28. Sir JCass says

    Note fwiw that’s it seems probable that more Anglophones have read at least one Persian-language poet whom they could name (either Omar Khayyam via Fitzgerald, or Rumi via some New-Agey translator or other) than have read a single Arabic-language poet whom they could name.
    That’s not really surprising given the British connection with India. In fact, Persian was the administrative language of the East India Company until well into the 19th century. So you had a lot of British civil servant/scholars who were familiar with the language. Sir William Jones’ A Grammar of the Persian Language basically teaches you Persian through examples from Persian poetry. Plus, as Hat says, Persian is a hell of a lot easier for an Anglophone to learn than Arabic. So the chances of someone with genuine literary talent like Fitzgerald picking up on Persian poetry in 19th century Britain were pretty high. IIRC Tennyson was learning Persian until his wife told him to stop because looking at all those little squiggles might ruin his eyesight.

  29. Sir JCass says

    In fact, Persian was the administrative language of the East India Company until well into the 19th century.
    D’oh. Should have read the extract in Hat’s post, shouldn’t I? “The final blow to the status of Persian in India came in 1835 when the East India Company replaced it with English as the official language and in 1837 with Urdu as the language of the law courts.” Bear with me, it’s very, very hot already and I’m out of practice posting here.

  30. Sir JCass says

    Sometimes, knowing Persian in India could be a drawback. In the Sikh-controlled Punjab in the early 19th century, the administration was run by clerks writing in Persian. On one occasion when the Sikh army mutinied over pay, they went round looking for anyone who could speak Persian and killed them.

  31. I never knew that Persian was that widespread in those ancient days. I think the spread of Persian started to shrink due to another factor which is the arrival of Islam along with Arabic.

    Many Persian people converted to it and started learning Arabic; hence Modern Farsi is written in the Arabic script.

  32. Trond Engen says

    You think? When did Islam come to Persia? What was the religion of the Moghul empire?

  33. (N.b.: Krimo’s comment was held up for moderation, and after vacillating a bit — it was on topic but, as Trond notes, pretty silly — I approved it; having since seen Krimo comment even less substantially on another post, and noting he has a commercial URL — which I’ve removed from this comment — I think I’ll be sending any future comments straight to the circular file.)

  34. Trond Engen says

    Oh, right. Nice to see a spammer again! I thought he was another unaware nationalist, mistaking prejudice for wisdom. Either way, I didn’t expect anything worthwhile to come out of it — as is evident from my choice of sarcasm over enlightenment — so I should have kept quiet.

  35. Persian is one of the great lingua francas of world history. Yet despite its recognition as a shared language across the Islamic world and beyond, its scope, impact, and mechanisms remain underexplored. A world historical inquiry into pre-modern cosmopolitanism, The Persianate World traces the reach and limits of Persian as a Eurasian language in a comprehensive survey of its geographical, literary, and social frontiers.

    (Open access)

  36. Ooh, that looks wonderful, and I’ve downloaded it (you get your choice of epub, mobi, or pdf) — many thanks!

  37. Also:

    Writing Self, Writing Empire examines the life, career, and writings of the Mughal state secretary, or munshi, Chandar Bhan Brahman (d. ca. 1670), one of the great Indo-Persian poets and prose stylists of early modern South Asia. Chandar Bhan’s life spanned the reigns of four emperors: Akbar (1556–1605), Jahangir (1605–1627), Shah Jahan (1628–1658), and Aurangzeb ‘Alamgir (1658–1707), the last of the “Great Mughals” whose courts dominated the culture and politics of the subcontinent at the height of the empire’s power, territorial reach, and global influence.

    Christianity, Islam, and Orisa Religion
    Three Traditions in Comparison and Interaction

    Imperial Matter
    Ancient Persia and the Archaeology of Empires

    Polemics and Patronage in the City of Victory
    Vyasatirtha, Hindu Sectarianism, and the Sixteenth-Century Vijayanagara Court

    Islamic Shangri-La
    Inter-Asian Relations and Lhasa’s Muslim Communities, 1600 to 1960

    Language between God and the Poets
    Maʿnā in the Eleventh Century

    Sounding Islam
    Voice, Media, and Sonic Atmospheres in an Indian Ocean World

    The Stranger at the Feast
    Prohibition and Mediation in an Ethiopian Orthodox Christian Community

    Language of the Snakes
    Prakrit, Sanskrit, and the Language Order of Premodern India

    Ginseng and Borderland
    Territorial Boundaries and Political Relations between Qing China and Chosŏn Korea, 1636–1912

    Placing Empire
    Travel and the Social Imagination in Imperial Japan

    The Pitfalls of Protection
    Gender, Violence, and Power in Afghanistan

    Finding Jerusalem
    Archaeology between Science and Ideology

    Modernizing Composition
    Sinhala Song, Poetry, and Politics in Twentieth-Century Sri Lanka

    Hindu Pluralism
    Religion and the Public Sphere in Early Modern South India

    Afghanistan’s Islam
    From Conversion to the Taliban

    A Vietnamese Moses
    Philiphê Bình and the Geographies of Early Modern Catholicism

  38. Music of a Thousand Years
    A New History of Persian Musical Traditions
    (open access)

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