The Cultural Influence of Persian.

Joel at Far Outliers posted a passage from A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind, by Michael Axworthy, that ends with a nice summation of a phenomenon that’s been mentioned here before:

Nader’s campaigns are a reminder of the centrality of Persia to events in the region, in ways that have parallels today. A list of some of Nader’s sieges—Baghdad, Basra, Kirkuk, Mosul, Kandahar, Herat, Kabul—has a familiar ring to it after the events of the first years of the twenty-first century. It is worth recalling that Persians were not strangers in any of the lands in which Nader campaigned. Although he and his Safavid predecessors were of Turkic origin and spoke a Turkic language at court, the cultural influence of Persian was such that the language of the court and administration in Delhi and across northern India was Persian, and diplomatic correspondence from the Ottoman court in Istanbul was normally in Persian, too. Persian hegemony from Delhi to Istanbul would, in some ways, have seemed natural to many of the inhabitants of the region, echoing as it did the Persian character of earlier empires and the pervasive influence of Persian literary, religious, and artistic culture.

I might add that Persian/Farsi is quite an easy language to learn (and well worth it for the poetry alone).


  1. As it happens I was just listening to an ABC podcast about Sir Alexander Burnes (“Bokhara Burnes”), an officer in the East India Company army, a relative of Robert Burns. He took a present of horses from King William IV to Maharaja Ranjit Singh in Lahore, secretly surveying the Indus River on the way. He next surveyed the route from Kabul to Bokhara, returning through Persia. He was not the first Englishman in Bokhara, but he may have been the second. He then published a very successful book about his adventures in 1834. He then had another visit to Sindh and later became a political agent to the Shah of Afghanistan.

    All of this was very much aided by his ability to speak Persian (also Hindi). He was able to have an extended conversation with the Vizier of Bokhara about such topics as increasing Russian interest in the region. So it seems that in those days you could get along pretty well in what is now Uzbekistan speaking Persian.

  2. Well, in Bukhara and Samarkand many people are biliingual in Tajik and Uzbek even today.

  3. David Marjanović says

    …and the differences between Farsi, Dari and Tajik seem to consist mostly of different vowel system rotations.

  4. I suspect Farsi, Dari, and Tajik are only considered distinct languages because they wound up in different nation-states. If they were all part of a Persian Empire of whatever sort, they would all be seen as dialects of Persian.

  5. January First-of-May says

    I’ve heard of a linguist who went to Tajikistan to study Tajik, because he wanted to learn Persian (don’t recall why), but the terrible US-Iran relations didn’t allow him to go to Iran to study Farsi.

  6. Tajik is much easier to learn than Persian. It only took me one day to learn as much Tajik as I learned in years of studying Persian!

    Dari took me a little longer to learn than Tajik did, but that was because my Dari grammar book was written in Japanese.

  7. J.W. Brewer says

    Tajikistan is these days the normal/default place for US students who want to study “Persian” in proximity to L1 speakers to go. At least as of 5 or so years ago when a friend of mine spent the summer in Dushanbe doing that, there was a guy everyone in the program recognized after the first few weeks (because he was always hanging out across the street from locations where Americans tended to congregate) who was understood to be the agent of Iranian intelligence tasked with monitoring US students in town. (Although presumably the US government itself employed various agents to keep tabs on Iranians in town …)

  8. I suspect Farsi, Dari, and Tajik are only considered distinct languages

    They’re certainly not considered distinct languages with a vengeance, in the way that Croatian is not Serbian.

  9. Is there some misnegation there? Should the first “not” be deleted?

  10. Jen in Edinburgh says

    Alexander Burnes can’t really have been any number of Englishman anywhere – he was from Montrose – but it was at least partly his linguistic skills that took him from a basic EIC army posting into its diplomatic service.

  11. SFReader says

    Persian cultural and linguistic impact goes much further east than mere India.

    The most exotic probably would be the Papuan word for ‘tribal council’ – dewan.

  12. January First-of-May says

    Is there some misnegation there? Should the first “not” be deleted?

    I don’t think so – I think the Croatian/Serbian clause clarifies the “vengeance” part, and the whole sentence is basically saying that they’re only considered distinct languages mildly (if at all).

  13. Tajik is much easier to learn than Persian. It only took me one day to learn as much Tajik as I learned in years of studying Persian!

    This was my experience too, but then I started meeting up with speakers in everyday life, and there are an awful lot more Iranians than Tajiks, which makes a dramatic difference in the exposure!

    The various dialects of English is the best parallel. The spoken (and written) standard in Tajikistan is closer to the Iranian standard written language than is spoken Iranian Persian, despite the use of Cyrillic script in Tajikistan. (And if we ignore the Russian loans, admittedly a big deal). The vowel differences that are the main dialectal differences are from vowels that are not usually written in Persian script (cf. the weakness of the Lain alphabet in representing English vowels.) Iranians have no issues with written Dari and vice-versa. The production of TV and film in Iran is so rich that the Afghans and Tajiks watch more Iranian media than vice-versa, which means that the Iranian innovations are understood more generally. BBC Persian uses Iranian and Afghan (Tajik, Hazara) presenters indifferently. The BBC’s Tajik service is part of its Persian service. Persian in India was essentially Afghan in its dialectal features, not Iranian.

    Compare that standard written English is rhotic, so that back when England (and Scotland, but this complicates my point 🙂 was running the world it was teaching (in many ways) the American dialect of its language in India; British Africa did learn a non-rhotic pronunciation, but the <r>s were there in the written language to be picked up on when the Yoruba watched US films. And that Britain today watches US television avidly, where British TV ends up remade for the US; but the British and the Americans happily admit that they speak the same language, and British journalists and TV writers manage good careers in the US, without needing to make Hugh-Laurie-level efforts to change how they communicate.

  14. Persian cultural and linguistic impact goes much further east than mere India.


    هزار‎ /he’zɒr/
    ezer (Hungarian)
    ezar (эзар)(Chechen)

  15. Ouch, sorry for the ambiguity.

    Persian cultural and linguistic impact goes much further east than mere India.

    Indeed, the vocabulary of Islam and Islamicate culture in Chinese is almost totally Persian. Arabs do their five salats every day: fajr, ẓuhr, … Chinese people do their naimazi: bangda, pieshen, digele

  16. Here’s a story from Benedict Sarnov’s Our Soviet Newspeak. He tells it from from the mouth of Semen Lipkin, who was an eyewitness. It’s about page long in the book, I will translate only key parts.

    Stalin hosted a banquet in the Kremlin to honor a decade [I guess, it means 10 days, not years] of Tajik literature and arts. In the middle, he rose and began his toast “The great Tajik poet Ferdowsi…” At this moment an old frail man jumped up from his seat and cried “Biraf! Biraf!” He was immediately put back by two strong men in identical blue suits. The Leader repeated “The great Tajik poet Ferdowsi…” The two guys were holding the old man’s hands, but he managed to get away and cried again “Biraf! Biraf! Literary studies are dead!”

    The old man was Sadriddin Ayni, a celebrated Tajik man of letters. For many years he conducted a campaign against traditional literary studies claiming that Ferdrowsi was Tajik rather than (or at least in addition to) Persian poet. [“biraf” is eyedialect for “bravo”]

  17. Yeah, декада is a false friend and should be translated “week” (or “festival”) in most contexts, unless the actual span of ten days is important, because in English “decade” can only mean ten years.

  18. Yes, you are right. декада is a slightly weird word in Russian as well, but I should have just changed it for fortnight for comic effect.

  19. Decade was and is used for the ten-day period called a décade in the French revolutionary calendar, but that is a very obscure use. Originally it meant ‘ten of anything’, like dozen ‘twelve of anything’, and modern decade began as a shortening of decade of years.

  20. Jen in Edinburgh says

    The only other context I know it in is a decade on a rosary, but being on the other side of the Scottish religious divide I don’t know if that’s current use!

  21. Decade has a probably obsolete meaning in analog electronics. It means a set of nine identical electronic components of which any number from zero to nine may be turned on via a switch. The would be arranged in decade boxes, containing, for example, nine 1-ohm resistors, nine 10-ohm, and nine 100-ohm. With three switches, you could give the box any resistance between 0 and 999 ohms. I have not seen this meaning in any kind of recent works on electronics; the decade boxes are pretty much obsolete in the era of digital electronics.

    One particularly prominent use of this meaning of decade was for crude digital readouts. You would have rows of nine lights, and how many lit up in each row indicated the digit value for a particular decimal place.

    Moreover, there is another, current meaning that I believe is derived from the digital readout meaning. Decade is used to indicate a factor of ten in values on a logarithmic plot. It is related to the term order of magnitude, but order of magnitude can be used for numbers themselves (e.g. “The new constraint represents an improvement over the previous value of more than fourteen orders of magnitude.”), while decade can, so far as I am aware, only be used to describe visual representations (“This plot of the electromagnetic spectrum covers eight decades in frequency.”). Unfortunately, this meaning specific meaning is not found in the OED yet, so I cannot trace the history of its development.

  22. Juha, Hungarian ezer is not from Persian but rather from Alanic. Of course, in both languages it is an inherited Iranian word.

  23. Treatment of a few claimed Persian loans into Yeniseian (via Turkic):

    Stachowski, Marek (2006). Persian loan words in 18th century Yeniseic and the problem of linguistic areas in Siberia. In Krasnowolska, A., Maciuszak, K., Mekarska, B. (eds.), In the Orient where the Gracious Light… Satura orientalis in Honorem Andrzej Pisowicz. Krakow, Księgarnia Akademicka: 179–184.

    Vajda is more circumspect about Ket/Yugh na’n ‘bread’ (compare [Yenisei Turkic] Khakas nan), suggesting it could well be a “nursery word” or a less specifically Indo-Iranian Wanderwort (while Middle Persian has nān, Sogdian for instance has nγn–). Very interesting discussion of Indo-Iranian bread words by Francesco Brighenti here.

    nan ‘bread’ has also gone into Selkup. Curiously enough, it has an apparent reflex still further beyond the limits of farming in Tundra (Taimyr) Nenets (ńań) – a naïve guess is that the proximate donor is Komi but this bears some further consideration.

  24. Modern colloquial (Tehrani) Persian has an interesting shift where ān becomes ūn (with exceptions), thus turning nān into nūn. I’m not sure how far east this shift extends, but I’ve seen a 19th-century source noting that the Persian spoken in India lacked it.

  25. Not related directly to Persian, but to its sister branch.

    1. Is Indo-Aryan known for turning its affricates into fricatives?

    Feni (sometimes spelled fenny or fenim) is a spirit produced exclusively in Goa, India. There are two types of feni; cashew feni and toddy palm feni, depending on the original ingredient.
    The word feni is derived from the Sanskrit word phena (“froth”); this is thought to be because of the bubbles that form a light froth when the liquor is shaken in a bottle or poured into a glass. It is generally accepted that coconut feni was produced before and then followed to adapt the same procedure for distilling the exotic cashew fruit.

    2. Has feni/fenny/fenim made it into the OED?

  26. In Even language of Kamchatka peninsula, 10,000 is ‘tuman’. Same as in Persian.

    Though in this case it’s likely to be a common borrowing from Turkic/Mongolian in both languages.

  27. David Marjanović says

    Hungarian ezer is not from Persian but rather from Alanic

    So, could the Chechen version be from Ossetian next door?

  28. @juha: From WP’s article on Konkani phonology:

    The aspirate/non-aspirate contrast is found in all stops and affricates except for the voiceless labial stop as the old voiceless aspirated stop has changed into the fricative (/f/) in Standard Konkani. Some dialects have /pʰ/ as well which freely alternates with /f/.

    Apparently there’s a similar free variation in Bengali too. (In Hindustani, at least, my understanding is that [f] is limited to Perso-Arabic or English words and may be replaced with [pʰ] by Hindus.)

  29. January First-of-May says

    I’m reminded of the dispute about whether a particular river in north-eastern India is called the Falgu or the Phalgu.

    Specifically, the debate showed up in the comments to the original draft posts of Dmitry Gayduk’s somewhat famous Russian retelling (i.e. very free translation) of Vikram and Betal; after some discussion, he decided to take a third option and call it the Niranjana (i.e. by its Sanskrit name).

  30. Has feni/fenny/fenim made it into the OED?

    Only indirectly, as foam and spume.

  31. No, the OED has nothing for feni(m) and lists fenny n. only as an obsolete English word for pfennig: “In most of the king of Prussia’s dominions, the moneys are expressed by crowns..grosses, and fennins.” (1749)

  32. Further on this topic, Persian saw many words shift from /p/ to /f/, I guess under Arabic influence – notably including Pārs.

  33. nan ‘bread’ (…) has an apparent reflex still further beyond the limits of farming in Tundra (Taimyr) Nenets (ńań) – a naïve guess is that the proximate donor is Komi but this bears some further consideration.

    Either Komi or Khanty, really no way to tell, since it is /ńań/ in both of these as well. The word is usually considered a loan from Komi in both Khanty and Mansi, though this being a fairly widespread Wanderwort, I would not bet too much on it. Still, the palatalized /ńań/ group, as separate from the main nan type, must be surely a single unit.

    As many may know, the most widespread descendant of this sub-group is surely pelmeni / пельмень, originally from Komi or Udmurt пельнянь ‘ear-bread’.

  34. David Marjanović says

    …No, I’m afraid this knowledge is probably limited to Uralists. I, for one, had no idea – and the stuff is sold (in high quality) in supermarkets here in Berlin.

  35. Yeah, I didn’t know that as well and I like the stuff…

  36. Well, I can hope to make it an “as many readers of this thread may now know” at least.

  37. could the Chechen version be from Ossetian

    Desheriev says it’s from Persian

  38. In Ossetian, the usual thousand word is min (from Turkic), and the Persian cognate, ӕрзӕ, is not an everyday word.


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