Languages (other than Persian and English)

After covering how to say “I don’t speak Persian” and “Do you speak English?” it occurred to me that some people might prefer it if they could encounter someone who spoke something other than English. What can I say? I’m an American; it takes me a while to remember that not everybody is a native English speaker. So here’s a list of languages and their Persian translations. Language names in Persian are (with a few exceptions) constructed grammatically as adjectives, because they are all technically meant to modify the noun زَبان (zabān), or “language,” even though that word is generally omitted (at least in speech). This is no different from how we treat languages in English, if you think about it.

  • French = فرانسه (frānsah, “fraan-seh”) or فرانسَوی (frānsavī)
  • German = آلمانی (ālmānī)
  • Spanish = اسپانیائی (ispānyāʾī, “es-baan-yaa-ee”)
  • Portuguese = پُرتُغالی (purtughālī, “por-to-qaal-ee”)
  • Italian = ایتانیائی (ītālyāʾī)
  • Russian = روسی (rūsī)
  • Chinese (Mandarin) = چینی (chīnī)
  • Japanese = ژاپُنی (zhāpunī)
  • Hindi = هِندی (hindī)
  • Urdu = اُردو (urdū)
  • Hebrew = عبری (ʿibrī)
  • Arabic = عَرَبی (ʿarabī)
  • Turkish = تُرکی (turkī)

See the same list in Turkish here and Arabic here. I can throw more languages up in comments if anybody needs them.


Can you speak?

For people who go traveling and aren’t fluent in the local tongue, it’s obviously helpful to at least be able to use the verb “to speak,” as in “I don’t speak [your language].” or “Does anybody here speak English?” I’m here to help you out, in Persian, in Arabic here, and in Turkish here.

The verb “to speak” is صُحبَت کَردَن (ṣuḥbat kardan). There are other verbs that have similar meanings (to talk, to converse, etc.), but for the physical act of speaking this is what we’re going with.

The two key sentences are “I don’t speak Persian” and “Do you speak English?” so that’s what we’ll look at. In the first case you’ll see first-person, singular, negated form of the present-tense verb, and in the second you’ll see the second-person, plural form since that is more formal than the singular (and presumably if you’re asking someone if they speak English, you’re on formal/unfamiliar terms with them).

“I don’t speak (the) Persian (language)” is مَن) (زَبانِ) فارسی صُحبَت نمی کُنَم) (man zabān-i fārsī ṣuḥbat nimī kunam, “man-za-baan-e-faar-see-soh-bat-neh-mee-ko-nam”). مَن is the first person singular pronoun, and may be omitted since the verb conveys the same information (first person, singular). زَبان means “language” and is also optional—as in English we can just say “Persian” instead of “the Persian language.” Adding the “ni” particle in front of the progressive marker () negates the verb.

If you prefer to say “I don’t know Persian,” which isn’t as polished as “I don’t speak Persian” but still worth knowing, you can say مَن) (زَبانِ) فارسی (را) نمی دانَم) (man zabān-i fārsī rā nimī dānam, “man-za-baan-e-faar-see-raa-neh-mee-daa-nam”). را marks the word before it as the direct object of the verb, but you can get away without it in this case. The verb for “to know” is دانِستَن (dānistan, “daa-ne-stan”).

“Do you speak English?” is going to be آیا شُما زَبانِ انگیسی صُحبَت می کُنیم؟ (āyā shumā zabān-i inglīsī ṣuḥbat mī kunīm?, “aa-yaa-sho-maa-za-baan-e-in-glee-see-soh-bat-mee-ko-neem”). آیا is untranslated and just introduces a yes/no question, and is quite often left out (but be sure your tone of voice conveys that you are asking a question if you do leave it out). شُما is the second-person, plural pronoun and can be omitted here since the verb conveys the second-person plural information. Again, زَبان can be omitted (and probably should be in conversation).

How “gawhar” became “jawhar”

I realized after writing yesterday’s post that the reason why Persian reincorporated the Arabic variant (جَوهََر, jawhar) of an originally Persian word (گَوهَر, gawhar) is probably unclear. It’s unclear to me too, not being a linguist or an expert in this kind of thing, but I can offer a guess.

Arabic was the language of the ruling elite in the developing Islamic World from the first Arab conquests of territory outside Arabia, in the 630s, and became the official language of the empire under the Caliph Abd al-Malik, who reigned at the end of the 7th century and died in 705. However, by the end of the 8th century a movement had sprung up called the Shuʿubīyah (شُعُبیه) from the root shaʿb (شَعب, meaning “people,” or “race”) that tried to protect the cultural and linguistic heritage of the peoples who had been conquered by the Arabs. Persian was the focal point of the movement, so much so that, when scholars talk about THE Shuʿubīyah, they are talking about the movement to preserve Persian heritage. This movement dovetailed with the political weakening of the Caliphate in the 9th century, and the rise of Iranian principalities in the eastern (i.e., formerly Iranian/Persian) parts of the empire, principalities that paid nominal allegiance to the caliph in Baghdad, and whose rulers were nominally invested by the caliph, but that were, for all intents and purposes, fully autonomous.

These kingdoms employed an eastern Persian dialect as the spoken language at court, and by the 10th century this “New Persian,” now written in Arabic script, became a literary language through the poetry of Rudaki and, especially, the epic Shahnameh (شاهنامه), composed by Ferdowsi. The new language took hold fairly quickly, and spread even among the Turkic tribes of Central Asia, becoming the lingua franca of the region. In 945, when the Iranian Buyid Dynasty took Baghdad and reduced the caliph to the status of captive pawn, the new Persian got a pretty big boost as it became the official language of the court for political matters. Official letters and documents were written in Persian. Official histories started being written in Persian. Poetry and literature would be written in Persian, starting with the aforementioned Rudaki and Ferdowsi. Arabic had lost its lofty perch as the only literary language in the part of the Islamic world between Iraq and Central/South Asia, and really wouldn’t get it back until modern times, and then only in Iraq (the one majority Arab part of the region I’m talking about).

However, Islam was still a religion whose origins were particularly Arab, and whose holy book was written in Arabic (translations of the Quran have always been considered “interpretations” of the authentic book, OK for study but not of the same holy stature as the original/Arabic Quran). The subsidiary fields of thought that came out of the Quran, primarily theology, jurisprudence, mysticism, and philosophy, were debated and written about by scholars whose work needed to be informed by and read by scholars throughout the Islamic World regardless of any particular region’s official language. Arabic was the natural choice for scholarship in these areas, because any serious scholar of any of them would obviously need to learn Arabic to understand the Quran and all the scholarship that had already been written. This is not to say that there was no Persian scholarship in these areas, but for many centuries a great deal of it derived from Arabic, and many scholars and mystics would write in both languages depending on their audience.

So my guess is that the Persian “gawhar,” meaning “gem” or “essence,” became the Arabic “jawhar,” was used in Arabic mystical/philosophical writing with its more esoteric meaning of “essence,” and found its way back into Persian through those writings.

What does “Dzhokhar” mean?

There was some bizarre and frankly inappropriate attention paid over the weekend to the origins of Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s first name, which I wrote about here. Purely for the vocabulary, without trying to make any strange or arcane connection between his name and his alleged acts, I thought Dzhokhar’s name should get some attention as well. This took me a few days because I didn’t put together what seems to be a very particularly Chechen transliteration with the original Persian word, but it turns out to be a word that I like quite a bit, because it perfectly illustrates the historical flow of vocabulary between Persian and Arabic.

“Dzhokhar,” written that way, looks like it was transliterated from a Persian word spelled ژوخَر or ژوخار, or something like that, but no such word exists in any Persian dictionary I can find. It wasn’t until I Googled “Dzhokhar meaning,” thinking that it was some Caucasian or Central Asian Turkic name, that Wikipedia schooled me. “Dzhokhar” is a transliteration of the Chechen Dʒouxar, or the Russian Джохар, which derive from the Arabic/Persian جَوهَر (jawhar). In Persian it means “essence,” “substance,” and “ink” (as a compound verb, جَوهَر کَردَن means “to ink”).

The reason I like this word so much is that it is an Arabic loanword of a Persian loanword, meaning it came into Persian via Arabic after first going into Arabic via Persian. The original Persian word is actually گَوهَر (gawhar), meaning “jewel” or “essence.” Presumably, at some point (I think pre-Islam, because I think the word appears in pre-Islamic Arab poetry, although those were only written down post-Islam so who knows?) Arabs picked up this word from the Persians, but changed the first consonant to a “j” sound (see my Arabic blog for more detail). Later, presumably after the Arab armies had conquered Iran and destroyed the Persian Empire, جَوهَر was incorporated into Persian as a new loanword, but with the emphasis on the meaning of “essence” since گَوهَر was still used to mean “jewel.”

UPDATE: More here, and here.

The Seasons

Nothing too complicated here, but it is in keeping with the timekeeping theme I’ve had lately. “Season” is فَصل (faṣl), just as in Arabic.

  • winter = زَمِستان (zamistān, “za-meh-staan”): zam, archaically (at least as far as I know), can mean “cold,” and the Persian suffix –stān means “place of” (so, for example, Uzbekistan is “the place of the Uzbeks”), and “the place of cold” seems appropriate, no?
  • spring = بَهار (bahār): has a number of more obscure, but related meanings, like “blossom” and “beauty,” but it’s hard to know whether they came into use before or after the word came to mean “spring.”
  • summer = تابِستان (tābistān, “taa-beh-staan”): tāb is the root of a verb that, among other things, can mean “to shine” or “to glow,” so combined with the –stān suffix it’s not hard to see how this came about
  • autumn = پاییز (pāyīz): pāy is the root of a verb that can mean “to become fatigued,” and pāyīz can also mean “autumn of life” in the sense of getting old, so this seems to be where the word originated

Months of the Year

If you ask an Iranian what date it is, please be compassionate if it takes them a minute to process the question. They may be trying to figure out which calendar to use out of the three that they regularly encounter. The official Iranian calendar is the “Solar Hijri calendar,” which takes our Gregorian year 622 as year 1, as the lunar Hijri calendar does, but is a solar, 365-day calendar like our Gregorian calendar, with the New Year (“Nowruz“) being celebrated on the Spring Equinox. Iranians also use the lunar Hijri calendar for determining purely religious holidays, and the Gregorian calendar purely for international dealings. I have talked at some bewildering length about the lunar Hijri calendar on my Arabic blog, so I won’t repeat that here. Instead, I’ll list the names of the Solar hijri months (bearing in mind that the first month of the Iranian year begins at the start of spring, so these don’t align with Gregorian months), and the Persian versions of the Gregorian months.

Solar Hijri months:

  • فَروَردین (farvardīn)
  • اردیبِهِشت (urdbihisht, “ord-be-hesht”)
  • خُرداد (khurdād, “khor-daad”)
  • تیر (tīr)
  • مُرداد (murdād, “mor-daad”)
  • شَهریوَر (shahrīvar)
  • مِهر (mihr, “mehr”)
  • آبان (ābān, “aa-baan”)
  • آذَر (āẕar, “aa-zar”)
  • دَی (day)
  • بَهمَن (bahman)
  • اِسفَند (isfand, “es-fand”)

Converting between the Solar Hijri calendar and the Gregorian calendar is certainly easier than converting between the lunar Hijri calendar and Gregorian; subtract 621 from the Spring Equinox through December 31st to get the Solar Hijri Year, and 622 for dates from January 1st through the first day of Spring. If you need the specific date rather than just a month or year, you may want to employ an online converter just to be sure, given that the Solar Hijri calendar reckons the first day of spring, and thus of the new year, by astronomical observation rather than fixed dating.

Gregorian months rendered in Persian (there is an unmistakeable French influence here for anybody familiar with French):

  • January = ژانوِیه (zhānviyah, “zhaan-vee-ye”)
  • February = فِورِیه (fivriyah, “fev-ree-ye”)
  • March = مارس (mārs)
  • April = آوریل (āvrīl)
  • May = مه (mah, “meh”)
  • June = ژوئن (zhūʾin, “zhoo-in”)
  • July = ژوئیه (zhūʾiyah, “zhoo-ee-ye”)
  • August = اوت (ūt)
  • September = سِپتامبر (siptāmbr, “sep-taam-br”)
  • October = اُکتُبر (uktubr, “ok-tow-br”)
  • November = نُوامبر (nuvāmbr, “no-vaam-br”)
  • December = دِسامبر (disāmbr, “des-aam-br”)

Sizdah Bedar and April Fool’s Day

The first of April coincides with what seems to be a broad Indo-European tradition of pranking one’s fellow man a few days after the start of Spring. April Fool’s Day takes on many forms in Europe as well as those nations where European colonials brought their customs with them, but they all involve playing tricks on family and friends. Interestingly, Wikipedia tells me that Spanish-speaking nations have a prank festival on December 28th, not April 1st, in commemoration of Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents after the birth of Jesus. That seems like an odd choice for a feast day devoted to pranking people, but at least they know why they celebrate it; the origins of April Fool’s Day are unclear to say the least. It may go back to the Roman festival of Hilaria, which honored Mother Earth for the arrival of another Spring, or its origins may be found in medieval European literature (possibly the Canterbury Tales) or in the movement to change the calendar to make January 1st New Year’s Day (the idea being that adopters of the new calendar ridiculed those who continued to celebrate the end of New Year’s Week on April 1st).

Sizdah Bedar (سیزده بدر), which translates as something like “Thirteen, get out” or “Thirteen passes by” is a holiday celebrated by Iranians on the thirteenth day after Nowruz, which in the modern Solar Hijri calendar is the thirteenth day of the month of Farvardin. Because the exact date of Nowruz is determined by astrological observation, Sizdah Bedar may fall on either April 1st or April 2nd. Thirteen being associated with bad luck, the holiday is based on the idea of expunging as much ill fortune as possible in order to get past the thirteenth day of the year without misfortune. Customarily, observances of the holiday involve getting out of the house, and heading to the countryside to picnic and otherwise enjoy nature. The sabzeh (greens, usually sprouting grasses) that were kept on the traditional Nowruz Haft Sin table will be thrown into running water (river, stream, something) on Sizdah Bedar, the idea being that they have collected a family’s bad luck, illness, and general misfortunes for the coming year and must be thrown out to get rid of those things. Competitive games are played, bundles of grasses and/or fresh herbs may be made. Another tradition, Durugh-i Sizdah, “the lie of thirteen,” involves lying to a mark and trying to convince him or her that the lie is true; in other words, pranking them.

The origins of Sizdah Bedar are certainly pre-Islamic, similar to Hilaria in the sense that it helped to mark the passage of the seasons and the survival of another winter, and to begin the new year in happiness and good fortune through laughter. Its observance seems to have waned somewhat after the Islamic conquest of Iran in the 7th century, at least in official circles and if the observations of European travelers to Iran are assumed to be accurate. It’s once again widely celebrated today.