In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Juliet famously sums up her exasperation with the war between the Capulets and the Montagues by lamenting, “…a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet.” I think Shakespeare was showing that Juliet was wise beyond her years when she made that observation.
This scene came to mind recently while I was having an email exchange with another linguist. I had originally asked this person to participate in an initiative of the American Translators Association (ATA), so I was surprised to receive a slightly critical response:
By the way, why do you use the word “Farsi” rather than Persian? The word Farsi was introduced to the American public by some uneducated reporters during the Islamic Revolution when both groups were ignorant that English already had its own word for the language spoken in Iran and other countries. Many years ago, the scholarly communities in the United States, Canada, and elsewhere voted for a resolution to refrain from the use of this word in English.
I certainly wasn’t shocked, the Persian v. Farsi debate is well known, and not unique among the world’s languages. I replied that I understood his point of view, and that I had in fact heard this before from other linguists. “It is unfortunate,” I wrote, “that the scholarly community chooses to discriminate based on word usage,” when we could be working together.
I decided to take a stand because, when it comes down to it..a rose by any other name smells just as sweet! We’re talking about the language that is spoken in Iran. Either of the words Persian or Farsi has the currency to convey that meaning to people all over the world.
Another question is whether the use of Farsi is appropriate at the ATA level. I think that it is appropriate because there is overwhelming evidence that people in America know my native language as Farsi.
We can choose to either alienate the people who say Farsi, or we can say, “You know what, let’s put this aside. Let’s put whatever the differences aside, and we can cooperate to develop a test, to do something that will be fruitful in the future.”
With hindsight, I realized that my critic was not really confronting me, he just had his mind set on something and he didn’t want to budge. I prefer to leave such questions to politicians or sociologists, not linguists.
And, by the way, whoever brought the word Farsi to America is irrelevant right now.
Farsi Translation Center