Purity or Realism?
    The Dispute between Linguists and Linguistic Purists in Iran

    Bearded Scribe, Isfahan 1626 Critical texts devoted to maintaining the purity of Persian are very popular in Iran. Linguistic criticism has gone through several phases, and now representatives of modern linguistics are resisting defenders of the language and taking the discussion in a new direction.

    The first phase of this traditionalist upholding of Persian was almost entirely limited to combating loanwords from Arabic and to keeping the language free of foreign elements. The assumption was that replacing Arabic words would solve the problems of Persian.

    One of the first representatives of this way of thinking was Prince Jalaluddin Mirza, son of Fathali Shah (1243-89), who engaged in an exchange of ideas with Fathali Akhundzadeh, the celebrated Azerbaijani dramatist, thinker, and fervent opponent of using Arabic words and script in Persian. The Prince also wrote a book on the history of Iran, using a purist style for the presentation of his patriotic ideals. This he called The Book of Kings, after Ferdausi.

    The programmatic work begun with this book remained unfinished because of the Prince’s early death. However, it was not forgotten and attracted a great response. People such as Ebrahim Pourdavud, Ahmad Kasravi, Zabih Behruz, Mohammad Moghaddam and Sadegh Kia continued his work, unsatisfied with anything less than a language purified of all loanwords. The activities of the two Academies of Language during the Pahlavi period were somewhat more conservative and circumspect, but more or less pursued the same approach.

    The emotional and exaggerated trend towards the elimination of foreign words (especially those of Arabic origin) from the Persian language persisted until recent decades. It could be observed both in studies by specific groups and also to some extent in the publications of administrative, university, and cultural institutes.

    Persian is not a scholarly language

    The purist attitude towards language continues to encounter harsh criticism: in the past from writers and thinkers who made use of a Persian that included loanwords from the Arabic, and today from linguists who reject such an approach as unscientific and contrary to the natural development of language. Linguists often refer to the English language, because today’s Persian almost exclusively adopts English rather than Arabic words. They ascertain that more than any other language English has always adopted words, from French, Latin, Greek, even from Persian and Arabic, and has itself now become a donor language because English dominates thinking in most scholarly subjects. So what is at issue is not an incapacity implicit in the Persian language, but rather an incapacity to think in this language. The historical fact – it is maintained – is that the Persian language was not a scholarly language before modern times. During the first centuries of the Islamic period Iranian scholars wrote in Arabic, and their successors, who gradually started to write in Persian, used the same specialist Arabic terminology. However, the mature language of mysticism and the images used in Persian poetry demonstrate that the language does inherently possess the capacity to give expression to thoughts developed in Persian.

    What particularly annoys linguists in this discussion is the purists’ ahistorical way of looking at what is at issue. The purists are charged with leaving out of account the historical development of words and all their associated connotations, with banishing them from Persian and wanting to create another language. Not every borrowing damages the recipient language, say their critics – as can be seen from the European languages. They only adopted words, which are on the surface of language. The same is true of Persian, with only a few exceptions. However, the situation changes when such fundamental elements as grammar or linguistic structure are adopted. Over the long term, they say, that would destroy a language’s structure. Fortunately, though, languages resist that kind of borrowing. Even though there has been give and take between Arabic and Persian for several hundred years, neither has adopted missing sounds from the other. Constant contact with European languages has not resulted in Persian tolerating an accumulation of consonants around a syllable – nor has this happened in Arabic or Turkish. In addition, centuries of linguistic contact with Arabic have not led to gender distinctions being applied to nouns and verbs. Both writers and linguists believe that exceptions such as Arabic plurals should be avoided wherever possible. The Persian language tends in that direction without such recommendations – for instance, if there is congruence between adjective and noun. That is also largely avoided, apart from certain idiomatic expressions.

    The establishment of Academies of Language and the propagation of a ‘language policy’ rejecting the use of foreign words were among the reforms introduced by Reza Shah, following the example of Atatürk. The difference was that in Turkey linguistic purism took on extreme forms and the language was largely ‘cleansed’ of loanwords from the Arabic and Persian. Turkey even implemented a second project, the introduction of the Latin alphabet, which was for a time also discussed in Iran. Turkish experience of these reforms was not always positive. After two generations Turks could not read the literature of the past (as if the centuries of the Ottoman Empire had never been), nor were they capable of understanding publications by other Turkic peoples, since Stalin had also imposed writing ‘reforms’ and introduced the Cyrillic alphabet. As the newly-introduced alphabets were constructed almost phonetically, and the pronunciation predominant in each people’s capital city was used for this phonetic approach, the written link between the Turkic peoples was broken. Before these reforms, when a newspaper was published in Constantinople in Arabic script, Turks who were able to read could understand it from the Balkans to Kyrgyzstan. This Arabic script did not indicate the short vowels and the difference between certain consonants, but both of these appeared in the phonetic script. Iran had once also broken with its ancient tradition when the Arabic script was introduced, with the result that it did not wish to repeat the experience.

    Nevertheless, the Turkish experience was not entirely negative. One of the successes of language policy there was activation of the elements for the formation of new Turkish words, which prepared the language for the age of science and technology: a bold enterprise that is also recommended by some Iranian linguists.

    The campaign against infiltration through translation

    The second phase of criticism concerned words and phrases which found their way into Persian through translation. These are not borrowed words but rather borrowed coinages where an expression in another language is translated, element for element, into the recipient language. Traditionalists hold this treatment of language responsible for the decline of the language and criticise translators whenever a chance arises. Criticism of translation is not our concern here, and it is not the concern of defenders of the language either. They charge translators with other misdemeanours:

    1. When a translator introduces a new word to replace a well-known specialised term. Here traditionalists and linguists are even in agreement. However, the latter believe that if the content of science changes, old terms referring to different subject matter cannot be used for new concepts. For instance, existential philosophy and the grammar of generative transformation require their own terminology.

    2. When a translator introduces a new expression by way of a borrowed translation, traditionalists resist this on the grounds that such terms are absent in Iran’s thousand years of literature. Here too linguists are of the opinion that this objection cannot be generally applied. Khosrow Farshidvar, a Tehran university professor, has published an extensive list of translations into Persian from Arabic, English, and French, making this available for discussion. It seems that critics have no objection to borrowed translations from Arabic since these have been incorporated in Persian to such an extent that only specialists are able to recognise their origin. So such objections mainly relate to translators’ ‘Euromania’. In this case too aversion to neologisms depends on the extent to which they have been incorporated into everyday language. Persian translations of such expressions as ‘birthday’, ‘Have a good trip’, ‘I’m pleased to see you’, ‘surname’, ‘green light’, and ‘railway’, which did not previously exist, are not resisted. Yet renderings of such expressions as ‘to count on someone’, ‘My God’, ‘to open fire’, and ‘considerable’ are regarded as invented. The representative of this group is Abolhassan Nadshafi, a well-known writer and translator, whose critical glosses appeared in a much-acclaimed book entitled Let Us Not Write Incorrectly, intended as a kind of dictionary of problematic issues in Persian. Traditionalists were full of praise for this book, while linguists such as Mohammad Reza Bateni and Ali Mohammad Haghshenas were of the absolute opposite opinion. Bateni subjected Nadshafi to critical analysis in a series of articles headed ‘Allow Us To Write Incorrectly’ and ‘Much Ado about Nothing’ (itself a borrowed translation of one of Shakespeare’s comedies). He came to the conclusion that this book was not the work of a scholar of language and that it was scarcely imaginable a linguist would make such a fool of himself. Bateni continues: ‘This book sets out from the false assumption that language does not, and should not, change … In Mr Nadshafi’s view the language of the past is its noble and pure form, and all the linguistic innovations and changes that have occurred in our time are obvious signs of confusion, leading to degeneration of our forefathers’ unblemished tongue. Clearly this denies the essence and function of language. Precisely such transformations led to Ancient Persian becoming Middle Persian, and Middle Persian New Persian. Romance languages such as French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian etc. arose out of Latin … All of that got under way with the kind of little changes that purists now call innovation, linguistic confusion, and degeneration.’ In Bateni’s opinion, avoidance of new coinages leads ‘to a desiccation of language’. He says that one of the most important processes for the linguistic mastering of modern scientific challenges is the activation of the elements within the language for the formation of new words. He comes to the conclusion that, contrary to what its defenders assert, the Persian language is not threatened and has developed in accordance with the requirements of our times.

    What linguists write about this only reaches a relatively small group of people, whereas critics of today’s language speak to the general public. Scholarly criticism of Nadshafi’s book could not stop several editions attracting enthusiastic readers and imitators. One of the latter was Yussef Aali Abbas Abad, whose Dictionary of Correct Writing is dedicated to Abolhassan Nadshafi as follows: ‘He is justly among the avant-garde in the renaissance of correct writing, purification of the Persian language, and preservation of these pillars of Iranian national identity. This book is mainly based on his ideas.’

    Nevertheless, in the long term the linguists’ response was not without an impact, since, unlike his role model, Aali Abbas Abad takes the language of contemporary literature as his standard, and in so doing accepts the development of language, at least up to the present day.

    Persian as Iranians’ national identity?

    While the discussion about purification of the language continues in Iran, with traditionalists making national identity and even solidarity between Persian-speaking countries dependent upon it, the problem is emerging among the non-Persian peoples of Iran and Afghanistan in another, explosive form. These peoples believe that their non-Persian mother tongue is a mark of identity, and in Iran they are claiming the right to be taught in this language, as is guaranteed in the Constitution of the Islamic Republic but which after three decades has still not been implemented. Paragraph 15 of this Constitution declares: ‘The shared language, spoken and written, of the Iranian people is Persian. Official documents, correspondence, texts, and schoolbooks must be in Persian. However, use of other native languages and dialects is permitted alongside Persian in the press and other media, as well as in teaching their literature in schools.’ Protests against the failure to grant this constitutional right have intensified since 1999 when UNESCO made February 21st the Day of the Mother Tongue.

    In this matter too there are differences of opinion between linguists and traditionalists. Ali Mohammad Haghshenas, the well-known linguist and lexicographer, says that any assertion of the superiority of one language over others is nothing other than racism. Mohammad Reza Bateni is of the opinion that national identity cannot be defined by a single language, since ‘multilingualism is more the rule in the world than an exception’. The learning of a mother tongue – says Bateni – does not lead to the break-up of a multi-ethnic state, but to the neglect of these people’s prosperity.

    In view of the fact that the non-Persian peoples of Iran amount to over half the population, and some of them – especially the Azeris – provided the country’s political and military leadership for much of its long history, it is surprising that their language was not used for teaching alongside the national language. Is this just an outcome of Persian chauvinism, as some extremist representatives of these peoples claim? Historical testimony does not support that assertion. Both the Azeri Turks and other Turkic tribes ruled over this country for centuries. The Pahlavi period is just a brief episode compared with this long history. Not even all the members of the Pahlavi family were Persians. The religious leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran is an Azeri. How can the supposed Persian chauvinism have oppressed them? The court of Mahmoud Ghaznavi, the first Turkish ruler of Iran, was simply swarming with Persian-speaking poets. Did anyone force Nizami, Khagani, or Saeb-e Tabrizi to write in Persian instead of their mother tongue? Did anyone compel Mawlana Rumi, who lived in the Turkish-speaking part of the Seljuk Empire and merely travelled across Iran in order to reach Konya, to write his poems in Persian? Why did Shahriar, who was able to create a masterpiece like Heydar Baba in Azeri-Turkish, acclaimed by Azeris on both sides of the border, nevertheless write most of his poems in Persian? In the case of the Azeris, at least, this state of affairs seems to be an outcome of neglect of their own language rather than of Persian oppression, since when they could their own language, which they could during their eight hundred years of dominance in Islamic Iran, they devoted more attention to Persian – as did the Mughal rulers of India.

    The other side of the coin

    The upholders of a pure mother tongue in Afghanistan also behave like Iranians. In January 2008 the country’s Minister of Information and Culture reprimanded an Afghan Television reporter for having used Persian neologisms for ‘faculty’ and ‘university’ instead of the usual words borrowed from Pashtu. The Minister called these ‘foreign words’ and said the reporter’s behaviour was ‘against cultural and Islamic principles’. Calling Persian words in Dari ‘foreign’ aroused the displeasure of Persian-speaking Afghans, Tajiks, and Iranians. These neologisms have been formed out of living elements in the Persian language, since of course what is designated did not exist in these peoples’ shared past. However, present-day requirements mean that they have also been accepted on the other side of the Iranian border. Now Iranian traditionalists are playing the role of linguists with regard to an Afghan problem, while the Kabul government has taken on the role of establishing linguistic norms. Over the longer term this government will remain as unsuccessful in this as its Iranian counterparts, failing to prevent the acceptance of Persian words formed in Iran. The fact is that speakers of Afghan variants of Persian are not sufficiently inventive to master the linguistic demands of a new age.
    Manutschehr Amirpur
    was born in Iran, lives today in Germany, and has worked for many years as a Persian-German interpreter. He is responsible for the Persian edition of Art&Thought.

    Translated by Tim Nevill
    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    June 2009

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