Persian is one of the oldest languages of the world and one of the few remaining "alive and kicking" after several thousands of years. Like Greek and Latin, it belongs to the Indo-European family of languages. The known history of Persian language is divided into three distinct periods: Old Persian, Middle Persian and New Persian.
The earliest example of the language is the Behistun Inscription established by the Persian king Darius I (522 - 486 B.C.E.). However, this inscription does not represent the language form spoken at that era but an archaic form that belongs to at least, several centuries earlier. Therefore, Old Persian dates back to more than 3000 years ago. Here is a sample text from the first line of Behistun inscription:
Middle Persian can be divided into two remarkable eras: the Persian spoken at the era of Parthian Empire (248 BCE - 226 CE) and the Persian during Sasanian Empire (226 - 651 CE). Over this period, the morphology of the language was simplified greatly. For example:
- Middle Persian does not differentiate genders. In Old Persian, there are three grammatical genders: masculine, feminine and neuter.
- Old Persian has three numbers: singular (one), dual (two) and plural (more than two). In Middle Persian, the dual form has died out.
- In Old Persian, nouns and adjectives are declined in seven cases. Middle Persian has lost the declension system.
- Verb conjugation is significantly simplified.
Much of the literature in Middle Persian was unfortunately destroyed with the Arab invasion during the Islamic conquest of Persia. It took about 200 years until Middle Persian transformed into New Persian. Therefore, the starting point of New Persian is around 850 C.E. to this day. That is, New Persian is about 1200 years old. Through its long journey into the modern times, Persian has developed an extensive lexicon and rich literature. It has seen world-famous poets such as Ferdowsi, Rumi, Khayyam, Hafez and Sa'di. New Persian is not very different from Middle Persian in grammar. The main difference is in vocabulary because many Arabic words entered the language after the Arab invasion of Persia.
Today, Persian is mainly spoken in Iran (Persia), Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Bahrain. It has official status in the first three countries and has more than 130 million speakers. Persian was once the official or cultural language of many regions and Islamic dynasties, such as Ottoman Empire. It was the lingua franca of the western parts of Islamic world and of Indian subcontinent for five centuries (prior to the British colonization).
Persian has been a medium for literary and scientific contributions to the Islamic world as well as the Western. Its status in literature was comparable to Latin. Many Persian poets emerged from Indian subcontinent, Central Asia and regions under the control of Ottoman Empire. The heavy influence of Persian can still be witnessed across the Islamic world. Virtually, all of the originally Arabic words that exist in Turkish and Urdu are Persian borrowings, having the spelling and senses as they do in Persian rather than in Arabic. Persian is still appreciated as a literary and prestigious language, particularly among the educated elite.