Plenty of Net.

Sara Goudarzi, a Brooklyn writer, has a wonderful NY Times piece called We All Speak a Language That Will Go Extinct that starts with a striking anecdote:

“We can’t play tennis because you don’t have a net.”

I was standing on a quiet, suburban street in Bristol, Conn., when Eric, the boy next door, said that to me. Two rackets in hand, I felt my face ablaze. Then anger spread through my slight 10-year-old frame and my mouth erupted.

“I don’t have net?” I yelled. “I don’t have net?” I repeated for effect. “You don’t have net. Your father doesn’t have net. Your mom doesn’t have net,” I continued, bombarding him with what I thought were insults. I wanted to hit him where it hurt — his family — a common tactic among my people, Iranians. I just had to make my playmate understand that I had plenty of net.

Eric was dumbfounded. He confessed that indeed, he and his family had neither a tennis court nor a net, but he seemed unable to make sense of my reaction to this shortcoming.

For reasons I still don’t understand, as a new arrival to the United States, armed with a limited palette of English words, I had presumed that “net” meant “manners.” Eric didn’t want to play with me because I lacked good manners. It was only after I stormed back into the house that my brother, who had been breathing American air for close to a decade, explained where I had gone wrong.

She goes on to talk about language and culture, and continues:

By the time I reached early adulthood, English had become my dominant language and made a sprawling home in my brain, forcing Farsi into a tiny corner, so much so it worried me at times. To lose that connection, or have it weaken, felt devastating. But as it turns out, a language doesn’t just slip out of your mind. In fact, in a 2014 study, researchers found that our mother tongue creates neural patterns on our infant brains that stay with us even if we don’t use the language. […]

My parents are both from an area in western Iran. People from that region of Lorestan Province speak a dialect. Some words and phrases are different from the equivalent in Farsi, at times funnier, sharper, tangier. I enjoy these words and associate them with laughter and the smell of tea, with summers at my grandmother’s house.

Because I left Iran before I was 10, I forget that not all Iranians know those words. At times, I use them with Iranian friends here in New York. I’ve said the word “gamelas” to signify a lazy or incompetent person — but I can’t translate it. It’s more than just lazy; it’s a feeling, really, weighed by cultural context. I start laughing, because it’s a funny word. But my friends look at me with inquisitive eyes, waiting for a translation of what to me is our mother tongue. But it’s not. It’s my mother tongue, concentric circles of English, Farsi and a Borujerdi dialect of Luri (in which I’m not even close to fluent) that center in to some unique amalgamation of all those things, the language of my family, population five. Now four. A language that will go extinct.

That’s the thing with languages. Though we can give each a name, no two people really speak the same one. But in a quest to feel understood, we hold on to what we presume is a common one like a life raft in a sea of expressions, often orphaning old words and sayings to make room for new ones. And as the old float farther out, they become as unfamiliar and foreign to us as Tehran is to me now. They are our “ghorbooni,” the victims of the sacrifice, what we give up in order to be recognized, to expand. As if I had to give up Farsi to gain all this English.

But though the words might disappear, or occupy a smaller parcel of our minds, they continue to lurk in our unconscious brain, and the feelings, well, “gamelas,” will always make me laugh, even if I don’t quite remember why.

I love stories about bits of language hanging on and enriching us. (I do wish, though, that I knew the length of the a‘s in gamelas; needless to say, it’s not in my Farsi dictionaries.) Thanks, Trevor!


  1. As a small child my cousin lived for a few years in the ‘fifties on the island of Sylt in the North Sea and acquired, she says, fluent German but I’m wondering if what she learnt was Söl’ring. Perhaps it’s imprinted and appears like a palimpsest on an MRI; nowadays she can’t remember a word. I want her to get it back but short of a BIG surprise as you might try with hiccups like shaking her by the shoulders and shouting the Friesian equivalent of vielleicht denkst du noch mal drüber nach!, I don’t know of a method. She’s 68 and maybe it’s time to move on. She has a French boyfriend who’s a chef, perhaps that ought to be enough for anyone.

  2. John Cowan says

    At first I thought this was going to be about a russophone being told that she and her family had nyet.

  3. Pohaku Nezami says

    Steingass has کمله (kumla; prob. more like kumleh in standard modern Persian) meaning “Foolish, ignorant, stupid.” The kafs and gafs often switch, but I don’t know about the sin. Perhaps gamelas is a child’s way of hearing and remembering کمله است ( kumla ast), meaning “he (or she or it) is foolish, ignorant, stupid”? I’m not claiming that the case is closed, but this seems a possible candidate. I don’t know anything about how Luri pronunciation works at all.

  4. Thanks, that’s very helpful, and your guess is quite reasonable.

  5. and now i want to know about “ghorbooni,” the victims of the sacrifice!

    seems like it must be cognate to yiddish קרבן /korbn/ “sacrifice, victim”, which is from the semitic component (with the קרב root that looks like it’s there, as far as i can tell from the related yiddish words). but via a shared aramaic root (because western iran)? or hebrew & arabic cognates? or what? i don’t have the dictionaries or script-competency for farsi or luri, but surely there’s a hatter with a theory?

  6. Yup, the Persian word is borrowed (like almost all religious vocabulary) from Arabic, and Arabic قربان qurbān is cognate with the Hebrew word (see that Wiktionary link).

  7. Yet the Arabic term, it says there, derives from Aramaic [ קורבנא‎ (qurbānā)]. Given that Aramaic was widespread in the Middle East before Arabic was, is it certain that Persian didn’t get the term from Aramaic directly?

  8. My Persian dictionary says it’s from Arabic, and in general such terms are from Arabic — Aramaic may have been widespread in the Middle East, but as far as I know it didn’t have substantial input into Persian. But I’ll let those who know more than I weigh in.

    And I have learned from Wiktionary that there is an English word corban “An offering to God, especially in fulfilment of a vow”! Who knew?

  9. I knew the word from Mark 7:11, though the meaning was not exactly clear.

  10. Clicking on the Aramaic word shows that one of the meanings is “Eucharist”. Really? Huh.

    The Holy Qurbana or Holy Qurbono (ܩܘܪܒܢܐ ܩܕܝܫܐ Qurbānā Qadišā in Eastern Syriac, pronounced Qurbono Qadisho in Western Syriac, the “Holy Offering” or “Holy Sacrifice” in English), refers to the Eucharist as celebrated in Syriac Christianity.


  11. Interesting indeed!

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