I was waiting for the elevator on the 9th floor of a quiet office building in midtown. It was noon and I was headed to have lunch after a productive morning at work. A colleague approached me and asked, “How different are Arabic and Farsi?” I had been asked the question many times and I always knew the answer: Arabic and Persian (commonly known as Farsi) have the same alphabet but Persian has 4 extra letters and they are two different languages. This time, however, the question made me re-think my answer.
Growing up in Iran, I never asked myself what’s the story behind these two languages being so similar. I always assumed that since Iran is geographically close to many of the Arab countries, it’s only reasonable for the languages being similar.
I remembered how we learned in school that Iranians and Arabs fought for over 100 years after the adoption of Islam by the Persian Empire and how the introduction of Islam and the Arabic language has influenced the Iranian society and culture. I did some research and the results showed a much better explanation of the relationship between the two languages. As it turned out the background is much more complicated than an accidental geographic proximity.
Since the Arab conquest of Iran in the seventh century and the subsequent conversion of a majority of the population to Islam, Arabic, as the language of contact, of the Muslim scripture and liturgy, and of a large volume of wide-ranging scholarly literature for more than a thousand years thereafter, has exercised a profound influence on the Persian language. Apart from the writing system, this influence is evident chiefly in the large Arabic vocabulary that has been incorporated into the Persian lexicon.
I also grew up learning Ferdowsi’s literary masterpiece Shahnameh and how valuable it is for the Persian language. Shahnameh is one of the best examples of how the introduction of the Arabic language into Persian was perceived by Iranians.
Consisting of some 60,000 verses, the Shahnameh is the world’s longest epic poetry written by a single poet…. Ferdowsi went to great lengths to avoid any words drawn from the Arabic language, words which had increasingly infiltrated the Persian language following the Arab conquest of Persia in the 7th century. Ferdowsi followed this path not only to preserve and purify the Persian language, but also as a stark political statement against the Arab conquest of Persia.
Now I have a better understanding of the relationship between the two languages. I am glad that my colleague had been forthcoming about his confusion. It is understandable that the two languages have common words and similarities but if research reveals so many layers of events and history, the answer to “Are Farsi and Arabic the same?” would not be as simple as we wish it were.
- ARABIC LANGUAGE v. Arabic Elements in Persian http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/arabic-v
- Shahnameh https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shahnameh#Influence_on_Persian_language