“Farsi” or “Persian”?

Pejman Akbarzadeh, a member of the Tehran chapter of Artists Without Frontiers and the author of a two-volume work on Persian music, writes in response to Melody Zagami’s review in our March issue of Nasrin Alavi’s book We Are Iran: The Persian Blogs. Akbarzadeh takes issue with Zagami’s use of the word “Farsi” rather than “Persian” to denote the language of Iran. He points us to a piece he wrote in December for the Iranian news and culture website Payvand.com entitled “Farsi” or “Persian”?:

Persian (Iranian) people in the English-speaking countries are the only community who use two different terms to refer to their language, “Farsi” and “Persian.” This behavior has caused some confusion among the Westerners as to the appropriateness of these terms.

“Farsi” (an Arabic adaptation of the word “Parsi”), is the indigenous name of the Persian language. Just as the German speaking people refer to their language as ‘Deutsch’, the Greek ‘Ellinika’ and the Spanish ‘Espanol’, the Persians use ‘Farsi’ or ‘Parsi’ to identify their native form of verbal communication.

In English, however, this language has always been known as “Persian” (‘Persane’ in French and ‘Persisch’ in German’). But many Persians migrating to the West (particularly to the USA) after the 1979 revolution continued to use ‘Farsi’ to identify their language in English and the word became commonplace in English-speaking countries.

In the West when one speaks of ‘Persian Language’, people can immediately connect it with several famous aspects of that culture and history such as Persian Gulf, Persian Carpet, Persian food, Persian poetry, Persian cat, etc. But “Farsi” is void of such link which is only obvious for people in Persia (Iran) and a few other nations in the Middle East.

The Academy of the Persian Language and Literature (Farhangestan) in Tehran has also delivered a pronouncement on this matter and rejected any usage of the word “Farsi” instead of Persian/Persa/Persane/Persisch in the Western languages. The first paragraph of the pronouncement states: “PERSIAN has been used in a variety of publications including cultural, scientific and diplomatic documents for centuries and, therefore, it connotes a very significant historical and cultural meaning. Hence, changing ‘Persian’ to ‘Farsi’ is to negate this established important precedence. Changing ‘Persian’ to ‘Farsi’ may give the impression that it is a new language, and this may well be the intention of some Farsi users.”

Fortunately all International broadcasting radios with Persian language service (e.g. VOA, BBC, DW, RFE/RL, etc.) use “Persian Service”, in lieu of the incorrect “Farsi Service.” That is also the case for the American Association of Teachers of Persian, The Centre for Promotion of Persian Language and Literature, and several American and European notable universities.

Some mistakably believe that, in English, the official language of Iran should be called “Farsi,” while the language spoken in Tajikistan or Afghanistan should be labeled as “Dari,” and “Persian” should be utilized to refer to all of them! However, the difference between the Persian spoken in Iran, Afghanistan, or Tajikistan is not significant and substantial enough to warrant such a distinction and classification. Consider the following case. An Egyptian and a Qatari engage in a conversation in Arabic. They will encounter a great deal of difficulties in comprehending each other. Despite this fact, however, the language used in their conversation is referred to as “Arabic.” No one will even attempt to classify their respective dialects separately and refer to them as “Qatari” and “Egyptian”! On the other hand, Persians, Tajiks or Afghans can converse in Persian and easily understand each other. Then, why should their dialects be classified separately and referred to by different names?

In English, usage of “Farsi” in place of “Persian,” that has been common since 1980s, is as inaccurate and odd as using “Farsi Gulf” instead of “Persian Gulf.”

Akbarzadeh provides some historical background on the controversy in a September 2005 piece for Payvand.com, A Note on the terms “Iran” and “Persia”:

There has been much debate as to what to call Iran in common usage of the English language. The two possible names are “Iran” and “Persia”; their adjectives being “Iranian” and “Persian”, respectively.

Serious argument on this matter began in the 1980s, when Professor Ehsan Yarshater (Editor of the Encyclopedia Iranica) started to write several articles on this matter (in both English and Persian) in Rahavard Quarterly, Pars Monthly, Iranian Studies Journal, etc. After him, a few Persian scholars and researchers such as Kazem Abhary (Professor at the South Australian University) followed the issue. Several times since then, Persian magazines and websites have published articles from those who agree or disagree with usage of ‘Persia’ and ‘Persian’ in English.

In view of many of these articles, it seems that the subject has not been explained sufficiently. Some think the name Persia belongs to antiquity, and ought not to be used now. Others believe that “Persia” includes only one province within Iran, and should not be used for the whole country. There are also many Persians and non-Persians in the West who prefer “Persia” and “Persian” as the English names for the country and nationality, similar to the usage of “La Perse/Persane” in French, and “Persien/Perser/Persisch” in the German language.

Most countries and languages have different names in other languages. For example, Germans call their language “Deutsch”; in English people say “German”, and Persian-speaking people say “Almaani” (The Persian word Almaani comes from the French word “L’Allemagne”). People of Greece, Finland, India and Japan call their countries Hellas, Suomi, Bharat and Nippon in their respective languages. Similarly, the native name of “Persia” is Iran.

Since 600 BC, Greeks used the name “Persis” for Persia/Iran. Persis was taken from “Pars” (the name of the region where the Persian rulers lived). Persian people likewise used the name of “Younaan” (instead of internal term of “Hellas”) for Greece. “Younan” in fact is taken from the name of “Lonia”, in the south-east of Greece. “Persis” since then has been used as the name of Iran in all European documents, maps, etc. Only in later centuries did some Europeans (in view of their languages) changed it to “Persia” (English, Italian and Spanish), “La Perse” (French), “Persien” (German), etc. The name “Persia” until 1935 was the official name of Iran in the world, but Persian people inside their country since the Sassanian period have called it “Iran” meaning “the land of Aryans”. They also used “Parsa” in the Achaemenids period.

In 1935, Reza Shah announced that all Western countries should use the name of “Iran” in their languages too. This act brought cultural damage to the country and separated Iran from its past in the West. Also, many people confused it with Iraq (an Arab state West of Iran). For many westerners, “Persia” became a dead empire that does not exist anymore.

After some Persian scholars protested this announcement, in 1959 Prof. Ehsan Yarshater made a committee to research this matter. The committee announced that “changing the name has not been right”, so Mohammad Reza Shah announced that both ‘Persia’ and ‘Iran’ can be used interchangeably.

Any of our Iranian readers are especially encouraged to weigh in on this question.

See our last post on Iran.

  1. thank you so much
    Thank you for addressing this issue and clearly clarifying and giving us background knowledge crucially needed for this to be resolved in the right manner.

  2. Persian or Farsi
    As Mr. Akbarzadeh has correctly stated, Persian is the correct translation of the native word Parsi which following Arab invasion of Iran in the 7th century was altered to Farsi due to absence of the letter “P

  3. farsi vs. persian
    I have received a lot of feedback on this issue. The author made reference to Farsi though the book is called “We Are Iran: The Persian Blogs”. And also in the book Iranians refer to other Iranians as Persians. It’s good to note, I was keeping in sync with what the author presented in relation to the blogs.