Notes on Persian pronunciation and transliteration

I would recommend everyone read this post on my Arabic Word a Day blog, which describes Arabic pronunciation and transliteration, then read this as I explain how you can ignore everything you just read when dealing with Persian.

I’ll wait.

OK. The Persian alphabet consists of 32 letters, the 28 letters of the Arabic alphabet and four Persian additions, plus a handful of sounds represented by non-alphabetic characters. It is written right-to-left in Arabic script (though numbers appear to us to be written left-to-right because in Arabic script you read the smallest unit first and the largest unit last, like “six-and-thirty” instead of “thirty-six”). All letters connect at least to the preceding letter (on the right), and most connect on both sides. Each letter has multiple written forms depending on where it falls in the word (e.g., the way the “be” character is written at the beginning of the word differs from how it is written in the middle of the word and both differ from how it is written at the end of the word). Rather than show all the forms of each letter, which out of context strikes me as useless and confusing, I only show the solitary form below. It will become clear what the other forms are as we proceed through the vocabulary. After the break is a table, wherein I have listed the Persian letter, its name in plain Latin characters, an undoubtedly feeble attempt to describe its pronunciation, and the character(s) typically used to transliterate that sound into Latin script.

Letter “Name” Pronunciation Transliteration
ا “alef” “a” as in “father,” vowel ā
ب “be” “b” as in “boy” b
پ “pe” “p” as in “pay” p
ت “te” “t” as in “tap” t
ث “se” “s” as in “seen”
ج “jeem” “j” as in “jump” (Egyptian colloquial: hard “g” as in “grab”) j
چ “che” “ch” as in “church” ch
ح “he” “h” as in “has”
خ “khe” sounds like the German “ch” in “ich” or the “kh” in “shaykh” kh
د “dal” “d” as in “day” d
ذ “zal” “z” as in “zebra”
ر “re” “r” as in “run” r
ز “ze” “z” as in “zebra” z
ژ “zhe” as the “s” in “measure” zh
س “seen” “s” as in, er, “seen” s
ش “sheen” “sh” as in, um, “sheen” sh
ص “sad” “s” as in “seen”
ض “zad” “z” as in “zebra” ż
ط “ta” “t” as in “tap”
ظ “za” “z” as in “zebra”
ع “eyn” glottal stop, as the short break in the middle of “uh-oh” ʿ, ‘
غ “gheyn” like a blending of the “q” in the French “quatre” (i.e., a “q” without the obligatory “u” sound immediately following) and the French “r,” or blending the Arabic “ghayn” and “qaf” gh
ف “fe” “f” as in “far” f
ق “qaf” like a blending of the “q” in the French “quatre” (i.e., a “q” without the obligatory “u” sound immediately following) and the French “r,” or blending the Arabic “ghayn” and “qaf”
ک “kaf” “k” as in “king” k
گ “gaf” “g” as in “gong” g
ل “lam” “l” as in “lamb” l
م “meem” “m” as in “mark” m
ن “noon” “n” as in, well, “noon” n
ه “he” “h” as in “has,” at end of word may add a final “e” or “eh” sound (deriving from the Arabic ة) h
و “vav” “w” as in “way,” “v” as in “very,” or “u”/“oo” as in “pool” or “rune”; may be vowel u, ū, w, v
ی “ye” “y” as in “yellow” or long “e”/“i” as in “me”; may be vowel i, ī, y

Non-Alphabetic Characters

َ “fatha” (fat-ha) short vowel “a” as in “bat” a
ِ “kasra” short vowel “e” as in “bet” i, e
ُ “damma” short vowel “o” as in “pot” u, o
ّ “tashdid” signifies a doubling/lengthening of the consonant on which it sits doubled consonant
ْ “sukoon” signifies the absence of any short vowel, very rarely used and will be very rarely used here N/A
ء “hamza” glottal stop, like the short break in the middle of “uh-oh”; usually attached to a “seat” in the form of one of the long vowel characters, like ئ ؤ أ, in which case it turns the long vowel it’s sitting on into a short vowel with a stop ʾ, ’

Note that the Persian “ye” in its standalone form does not retain the two dots beneath from the Arabic “ya”; however, in its initial and medial forms the dots reappear. Note also that vowels may be transliterated in ways that do not reflect their actual pronunciation (the Persian “kasra” really sounds more like a short “e” than a short “i”, for example, but may still be transliterated as “i”); this is done to preserve continuity of form with Arabic transliteration. Specialists in Persian who don’t care about such things may transliterate differently, and indeed there are other transliteration systems for Persian that are quite different from the one I’ll be using that emphasizes continuity with the Arabic.

Also, because, as you may notice, Persian simplifies Arabic pronunciation (removing, for example, any “emphatic” pronunciations), but retains all the Arabic characters, it creates situations where multiple characters have sounds that are totally indistinguishable from one another. I have bolded those characters that are most often used when spelling authentically “Persian” words; the others are mainly used in spelling Arabic loanwords. Other differences from Arabic include the fact that Persian is genderless and that it uses no obvious definite article but rather relies on context and one grammatical construct (later) to convey the distinction between definite and indefinite.

There are other characters and forms that we may encounter as we proceed, but we’ll deal with them as they arise.

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