Languages generally have two sets of names: internal and external. The internal name, which is technically called “endonym”, is the name used by its native speakers. External names (exonyms) are used by the speakers of other languages. For example, Germans call their language “Deutsch” but it is known as “German” in English, as “allemand” in French and as “tedesco” in Italian. “Deutsch” is the internal name of the language. “German”, “allemand” and “tedesco” are some of the external names for “Deutsch”.

Persian or Farsi

The same is true of Persian language. Its internal name is “Farsi” but it is known as “Persian” in English, as “persan” in French, as “persiano” in Italian, etc. In recent decades, many Persian speakers have immigrated to Western countries. Many of them do not know their language has “external” names in the western part of the world and simply use “Farsi”, the name that is natural to them.

Using “Farsi” is not always due to ignorance. However, whether it is unintentional or otherwise, the point stands: saying, for example, “I learn Farsi” is like saying “I learn Deutsch”. That is not how these languages have been called in English and are known to English speakers. “Farsi” does not connote any historical or cultural background. In English, it has been “Persian” Magi, “Persian” carpet, “Persian” cat, … and of course, “Persian” language.

“Iran” is also the “internal” name of the country. It was known in the West as “Persia” since ancient times until 1935, when King Reza Pahlavi officially asked the international community to adopt “Iran”. In contrast, the Academy of Persian Language and Literature has delivered a pronouncement on the name of the Persian language, rejecting any use of the word “Farsi” in foreign languages.

Persian, Dari and Tajik

Persian has official status in Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Thanks to its long and rich literary heritage, written Persian and its literary form in particular, is the same in all Persian-speaking countries. Tajiks and Afghans cherish the works of Ferdowsi, Rumi, Hafez, … just as Iranians do. We are historically and culturally one nation.

English is not spoken the same everywhere. Persian has also many dialects, including three official dialects. Official variants of a language are conventionally named by territory. We say “American English”, “Canadian French”, “Swiss German”, “Brazilian Portuguese”, “Mexican Spanish” and so on. Following the same norm, official variants of Persian are: “Iranian Persian”, “Afghan Persian” and “Tajik Persian”.

This universal naming convention is not completely received, mainly for political reasons. Native speakers refer to their language as “Farsi”, but officials call it “Dari” in Afghanistan and “Tajik” in Tajikistan. There is no mention of “Farsi” in these names as though what they speak in Afghanistan and Tajikistan is not Persian.

“Dari” is a historical attribute and is not exclusively applicable to the varieties of Persian spoken in Afghanistan. Its use dates back to the ninth century, when both Middle Persian and New Persian coexisted. Middle Persian was locally called “Pahlavi” and New Persian was called “Dari”. That is to say, all the modern forms of Persian are actually “Dari”, and not just Afghan Persian.

Since 1939, when Tajikistan was under Soviet rule, Tajik Persian is written in Cyrillic alphabet. It is not unprecedented for Persian to be simultaneously written in more than one alphabet. Jewish dialects of Persian are written in Hebrew alphabet. As another example, Middle Persian was written in more than four alphabets during Sasanian Empire.