- To which language family does Persian belong?
- How much has Persian changed over time?
- In which countries is Persian spoken?
- How important has Persian been?
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 belonging 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 Persian was simplified greatly. Among other simplifications:
- Middle Persian does not distinguish grammatical gender. Old Persian had three genders: masculine, feminine and neuter.
- Middle Persian does not have dual form. Old Persian had singular (one), dual (two) and plural (more than two) forms.
- In Old Persian, grammatical cases were indicated by declension. In Middle Persian, words are not declined and grammatical cases are indicated by case marking.
Much of the literature in Middle Persian was unfortunately destroyed 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. As a comparison, Old English dates from 450 to 1150. New Persian per se spans much of the known history of English language from Old to Modern.
Through its long journey into the modern times, New Persian has developed an extensive lexicon and rich literature. It has introduced many renowned poets including Ferdowsi, Khayyam, Rumi, Saadi and Hafez. 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 (known as “Persia” until 1935), Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Bahrain. It has official status in the first three countries and is spoken by more than 130 million people. Persian was once the official or cultural language of many more regions and Islamic dynasties including Ottoman Empire. Persian 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. Its status in literature is 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. For instance, 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 in the region, particularly among the educated elite.