There’s no end to the idiocy of would-be language purifiers; the latest egregious example has cropped up in Iran, where President Ahmadinejad has decreed that “official documents, schoolbooks and newspapers should follow the rulings of the Farhangestan” (the official body that tries to rein in the natural development of Persian/Farsi) and use its absurd substitutes for loan words: helicopters are decreed to be “rotating wings,” pizzas “elastic loaves,” and the like. You can read more details in Mark Liberman’s Language Log post. I hope we as a species outgrow both the desire to control how everyone else uses language and the apparent need to kill each other off in large numbers, but I’m not holding my breath.


  1. If by “idiocy”, you mean “a waste of time because it won’t work”, that’s not necessarily the case. One of the most interesting books I’ve read recently is Geoffrey Lewis’s The Turkish Language Reform: A Catastrophic Success. In Turkey, language reform was pushed so successfully that people can earn money translating Ottoman texts only a century old into modern Turkish. The Turkish people seem not to have minded. Granted, the hyper-nationalism of Ataturk might have been a rare case that isn’t paralleled by Persian national sentiment, meaning that the populace of Iran might not care enough to make the fiats stick, but it’s certainly possible. And as long as the population desires it, what’s the harm? They are strengthening a vibrant national culture, good for them.
    In fact, regardless of how much linguists are supposed to be puzzed over their interest in reform in their limited professional role as writer of descriptions, it would be hypocritical for an individual concerned about the deleterious effects of globalization to deplore the spread of say, McDonald’s over local cuisine, and yet to give language change a free pass because “that’s just how language works.”

  2. LanguageHat, please correct “over their interest” to “over the interest” and “writer” to “writers” and then delete this. I hate when I spend so much time on a comment that I even use the right Unicode for quotation marks, and yet end up misspelling things.

  3. The irony, of course, is that I began to appreciate Persian culture mostly because my mother tongue, Telugu, has so many loan words from (Indo?)-Persian, especially for administrative, or formal, occassions.


  5. I meant: Happy Fourth Blogiversary!

  6. Melanie's brother says

    Here, here.
    I love your blog. While many other language blogs can’t quite seem to escape the pull of the nitpick, yours has an ever generous heart.
    Four more years! Four more years!

  7. Reading one of those threads, I found the anti-“Farsi” side (the anti-reform side) in the “Farsi”/”Persian” controversy excessive too.
    China’s language reform after 1911 had a similiar effect as Ataturk’s reform. Both reforms really were comparable to movinf from Latin to French, though; they weren’t reforms of the normal spoken language.
    I have a Chinese American friend whose grandfather was a friend of Sun Yat-sen, and she’s had a lot of trouble finding anyone to translate the letters between them.

  8. Siganus Sutor says

    Isn’t it Icelanders who tend to find a typically Icelandic word for each new object or concept? (For instance they have ‘sjónvarp’ while their Scandinavian cousins would for instance just adopt the word TV for the magic box). In their case it doesn’t seem too much imposed by an ideologically motivated leader.

  9. Siganus Sutor says

    BTW, does someone know the etymology of sjónvarp? Many years ago the Dane who told me about this Icelandic habit guessed that it meant something like “watch box”. But today I wonder if it is really the case.

  10. If somebody hasn’t already written a sociolinguistic analysis of language purism, it would certainly make a great read…
    (Thanks for the plug, by the way, and keep up the great blogging!)

  11. I seem to remember the purisms “vernufteling” for “engineer”, and “ophaalbak” for “elevator” in Afrikaans — but I’m unable to check this right now.

  12. I can’t see anything wrong in the acceptance of foreign words for new things (like pizza) — in any language. But, as I see it, there’s something to be said for some sort of check on fashion induced “foreignization” of the language. This is a process English probably doesn’t suffer from so much, but many other languages do! I’m thinking in particular of English / American slang words replacing their perfectly valid counterparts in Dutch (my native tongue), French, etc —
    In part this is the result of the emphasis on youth culture in the media, and it’s probably a natural and inevitable process, but it feels like a loss to me.

  13. By the way, there’s a very interesting article on the subject (sjónvarp etc) on:

  14. I have to say, I’m very disappointed in the level of analysis in this article. The opinion put forth demonstrates a profound misunderstanding and ignorance of the Persian language, its history, and its regulation.
    First of all, this decree is far from a new phenomenon worldwide. It differs little from organizations such as the Académie française for French or the Íslensk málstöð for Icelandic, or from many other language academies. Where is the outrage over those other academies– or more importantly, what’s so outrageous about attempting to preserve a language’s identity when it is being overrun by foreign words? If a group of Nahuatl activists formed an academy to regulate the use of Nahuatl in certain cases (such as government documents), in order to preserve the language from being replaced by Spanish, I can hardly imagine anyone critizing them.
    Furthermore, the idea that the Farhangestan “tries to rein in the natural development of Persian” is ludicrous. How is it “natural” for a language to absorb huge amounts of foreign vocabulary, at the expense of its indigenous vocabulary, but it is not natural to form calques for foreign words rather than adopt them wholesale? Has the Íslensk málstöð been retarding the “natural development” of Icelandic?
    I mentioned that such attempts at preserving a language’s integrity are not uncommon globally, but I want to also mention that such attempts are nothing new in the history of the Persian language. Since the 10th centurt CE, there have been numerous attempts by Persian linguists to create Persian calques of Arabic loanwords in the language, or to return to the use of pre-Arabic Persian words that were replaced by Arabic loans. There have been varying levels of success in this. What’s important to note is that this attempt has nothing to do with Ahmadinejad or the Islamic Republic; it began shortly after the end of the Arab conquest of Persia and never really ended.
    What irks me most of all about this article is its cluelessness about the Persian language itself. The proposed Persian calques (“rotating wing” for helicopter, for instance) are called “absurd,” but they are really run-of-the-mill in Persian. It is extremely common in Persian (as in most languages with small native vocabularies) to form new words out of compounds. Persian is absolutely full of compounds, from hesab-dar (accountant, literally “math keeper”) to khær-gush (rabbit, literally “donkey ear”), or jaru bærghi (vaccuum cleaner, literally “electric broom”), or peleh bærghi (escalator, literally “electric steps”), or hundreds of other examples that I could list all night. Although they might sound cumbersome in English, they are far from “absurd” in Persian. They sound as natural in Persian as do compounds in English like “toothbrush”.
    Usually, when I see stories related to linguistics or language blown out of proportion by the mainstream media (TALKING ANIMALS! 40 WORDS FOR SNOW!, etc.), I can count on such stories being refuted by well-informed language blogs. Sadly, in this case, there seems to be no critical analysis of the issue nor of the coverage, but rather a value judgment of Ahmadinejad and the Islamic Republic being projected onto the Farhangestan. I’m an Iranian, and like most Iranians, I hate the Islamic Republic and its current president. But also like most Iranians, I hate to see my country or its language unfairly defamed by ill-informed outsiders.

  15. “Has the Íslensk málstöð been retarding the “natural development” of Icelandic?”
    Sort of. They’ve invented words few people use in everyday context. Unintentionally they are actually creating an additional register; a strange thing to do in a society as egalitarian as the icelandic.
    Sjónvarp basically transtlates to sight-cast. In danish at least, TV exists quite peacefully alongside the more native fjernsyn (far-sight, probably adopted from german fernseher)

  16. Eskandar: First of all, thank you for your civil response. I’ve gotten quite a few comments over the years with people upset at something I’ve said or linked to that touched on their national/ethnic/linguistic group, and most of them get quite intemperate. I appreciate your thoughtful arguments.
    But you mistake me if you think I’m picking on the Persians in particular. When you say “Where is the outrage over those other academies,” the answer is “right here at Languagehat.” If you use the search box for “academy” or “academie,” you’ll find any number of sarcastic comments about the French and other institutions. I simply don’t believe there is any place for official bodies trying to control the development of any language. English has never had such a body, it’s absorbed huge quantities of foreign words over the centuries, and it’s all the better for it. I don’t understand what difference the etymology of a word can make (other than as a matter of curiosity); does the fact that a word has (in this case) a “native Persian ancestry” somehow make the Persian nation greater? Do all those Arabic loanwords somehow diminish it? How exactly is anyone harmed by the use of the word pizza?
    Of course you’re correct about the form of the calques; clueless reporters eager to emphasize (what they perceive as) the wacky are an inevitable nuisance, like mosquitoes. And there’s nothing wrong with adopting such words instead of borrowed ones… if that’s what the speakers of the language prefer. If they do, that’s what they’ll use. If not, no academy can make them stop saying pizza.
    That’s just my point of view, of course, and I don’t expect you to change yours, but I want you to know that I am a lover of Persian language and culture, not some ignorant Anglophone mocking foreigners. I hope you’ll stick around long enough to see that for yourself. And again, thanks for your politeness!

  17. michael farris says

    This is as good a thread as any to mention this, the city of Cracow has decided that its correct name in English is … Krakow. I can imagine Language Hat’s joy at this.
    link (in Polish) I might try to translate highlights tonite or tomorrow:

  18. Oh joy unbounding. Or would the Poles prefer I spell it “O dzioj”?

  19. Siganus Sutor says

    > Eskandar
    Regarding what Farhangestan edicts, do you have an idea about how it is perceived in places like Afghanistan or Tajikistan, countries where people who also speak Persian should not be bound to accept what is decided in another state?
    If one thinks of the French case, it must be reckoned that what the Académie française says about “proper language” doesn’t seem to always be well accepted in France itself. And when it comes to other countries where French is also used, it tends to be quite irrelevant.

  20. “attempts at preserving a language’s integrity are not uncommon”
    No, and the tendency of language (or rather part of the speakers) to resist changes is an equally natural phenomenon as the tendency of any language to absorb foreign words. One could argue about this attempt at preservation being institutionalized in very often rigid and bureaucratic “academies”, but these can only have an impact if sufficient people judge language preservation sufficiently important. It’s really Hegelian dialectics at work; thesis, antithesis, and finally synthesis — somewhere in the middle. Wild change vs. conservative defence makes a real language live — and both are needed, not just the change…
    If there had been no English resistance to the new French influence at the time of the Norman invasion, English would probably have become much more French-like (vocabulary and grammar) than it is.

  21. Michael, I’m usually annoyed at that sort of thing, but really I thought “Cracow” had died out decades ago along with “Leghorn” and “Tiflis”.

  22. Judy Wyatt says

    It has long been apparent to me that written English and English-as-she-is-spoke are two different languages. Formal (written) English attempts to follow rules laid down by English teachers and prescriptivist grammar writers and publishers, and thus changes more slowly, while spoken English tends to be more open to borrowed words and slang and advertising lingo, and thus changes much more quickly. (People who write as if they were speaking produce some inelegant and often illegible prose!)
    I notice something similar here in Germany (where I’ve been struggling with becoming fluent in the language for 11 years). The Duden prescriptivists can strongly influence the grammar and spelling of German in the publishing world and in schools, whereas the spoken language changes quickly to accommodate borrowed words from English media and the computer world.
    I suspect that in many cultures, what the prescriptivists decree has less influence on how the local language is actually spoken.

  23. > language hat
    I don’t understand what difference the etymology of a word can make
    As I’m sure you know, language makes up a huge part of any people’s identity. Iranians have been trying to assert their own unique identity ever since their conquest by the Arabs. Despite having a rich pre-Islamic culture with a religion, culture, language, literary tradition, and so on, all of which being completely unrelated to the Arabs and their culture, language, religion, etc., Iran is mostly seen by the West as being part of a homogenous “Middle East” or “Muslim world.” Most Iranians, especially the more educated ones, are able to easily differentiate between native Persian vocabulary and Arabic loans, and I can’t count the time that Iranians older than I have lamented the loss of the older Persian words they grew up with.
    Okay, I’m rambling. My point is that, unlike anglophones for instance, Iranians have a strong sense of identity that is partially predicated upon their language, and they are very aware of how their language has been “overrun” by foreign words. A good example of this is the Shahnameh, an epic poem by Iran’s most beloved national poet. It tells the story of Persia, weaving factual history with mythology and religion. I don’t think I’m exaggerating by saying that the Shahnameh could be considered the cornerstone of Iranian identity. Though written over 1000 years ago, it remains readable today, because important literary works such as the Shahnameh have prevented the Persian language from changing too radically. Right or wrong, Iranians fear that as more and more of the native Persian words of the Shahnameh and other works are replaced by Arabic, English, and French words, they will become unreadable to young people (who make up the majority of Iran’s population, with over 25% under the age of 15). Most of the younger generation is unfamiliar with the older Persian words that have been replaced.
    I hope my writing is not too convoluted or obtuse. What I’m trying to convey is that Iranians have a strong sense of their culture being eroded by means of having their language eroded. While I’m very aware that English has absorbed far more foreign influences than Persian (or any other language I can think of!), Anglophone identity does not revolve around a select few literary works the way Iranian identity does. While some may lament the fact that Beowulf or the works of Chaucer are difficult at best (or foreign at worst) to most Anglophones, neither Beowulf nor Chaucer approach the reverence that Iranians have for the Shahnameh (often called the “Persian Qur’an”).
    I agree very much with dirk’s dialectical analysis of the issue. Ultimately, as he points out, if enough Iranians want to preserve their language (and I believe they do), then they will. But if I’m blowing a bunch of hot air and they aren’t as concerned as I make them out to be, then they will certainly prove me wrong, Farhangestan be damned.

  24. > Siganus Sutor
    Regarding what Farhangestan edicts, do you have an idea about how it is perceived in places like Afghanistan or Tajikistan, countries where people who also speak Persian should not be bound to accept what is decided in another state?
    The Farhangestan has no actual power of its own; the academy is only able to “enforce” its edicts when state governments choose to codify said edicts into law. Such is the case here, with Ahmadinejad agreeing that Persian should be purged of foreign words and so decreeing that the Iranian government should conduct its affairs in “pure” written Persian.
    Afghanistan has its own academy to regulate Persian (Dari) as it’s spoken there, and thus I doubt the Farhangestan has any impact on Afghanis. I don’t know if Tajikistan has its own academy, but I doubt that it abides by Iran’s academy, the Farhangestan. And while Iranian Persian (Farsi) has lots of English and French influence, Afghani Persian (Dari) has less Western influence and is considered closer to Middle Persian, whereas Tajiki Persian (Tojiki) has considerable Russian and Uzbek influence.

  25. Eskandar: I certainly appreciate the desire to keep the language intelligible, and I don’t like rapid language change any more than anyone else. I guess the difference between us is that I don’t think official bodies like the Farhangestan or the Académie can have any useful impact other than to provide jobs for a few scholars — if people are going to borrow a bunch of foreign words, there’s no way to stop them. The important thing is that the language and culture will survive just fine, even if the older texts become harder to read. If the example of English doesn’t seem relevant, how about Japanese, which has borrowed foreign words by the truckload? They are extremely attached to their ancient texts, like the Manyoshu (7th-8th century), and the change in the language doesn’t stop them from appreciating them. So don’t despair!

  26. LH, do you happen to have any original explanation for the adverd φαρσί in Greek (Tourkokratia and post-), as in μιλάει Αγγλικά φαρσί, etc.? The usual one (speaking Turkish so well that you use even the Persian words) never quite satisfied me. I wonder if there are similar expressions (based on the presence of Persian loan words in Turkish) in former Otthoman territories.

  27. I meant adverb, of course.

  28. No, I don’t, but I agree taht the explanation you cite isn’t compelling.

  29. Thanks. Never mind, then, maybe we can just dream something up.

  30. “in former Otthoman territories” should read “in other former Otthoman territories”.

  31. And “Otthoman” should read “Ottoman.” And my “taht” should read “that.” Perhaps we should just give in and accept the occasional imperfection!

  32. I just talked about it with a erudite patriot who gave me a more convincing explanation (for the record, the one I referred to is found in various dictionaries and in the Μεγάλη Ελληνική Εγκυκλοπαίδεια): in the Ottoman Empire, a real literatus was supposed to know how to speak and write in Persian (including poetry), an ability that far exceeded the simple use of Persian vocabulary common to all speakers of Turkish.

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