In love with Persian (2)

(if you missed it, it starts here)

Home sweet linguistic home

In Iran I was feeling linguistically at home. It sounds weird, right? Let me try to explain. On many accounts I can easily establish links between French and Persian, and I think that’s part of the reason why I fell for Persian. I already mentioned the spelling systems, but the similarities don’t end there.

There is this interesting habit they have of contracting the words. You know how in French class they teach you that “I don’t know” translate into Je ne sais pas? And how you will never hear a French person in everyday life actually say Je ne sais pas, but you’ll hear everything from Je n’sais pas to Chépa? Well the same happens in Persian. To say “I am going” you’re supposed to say miravam, but what you actually hear is miram. To say “I’m not” you’re supposed to say Ne hastam but you say nistam. I know this happens in English also (“I am not” vs “I’m not”) but I think Persian and French do it to a greater extent.

Then of course there are all the odd French words you come across like shans (chance, luck) or mersi (merci, thank you), but they are the same in most languages in this area.

However there are other factors that played a big role in giving me this homely feeling. They are somewhat more subjective but also definitely related to each other: a definitive language awareness and an inclination to play with the language. I’ll talk about the first some more in a while. As for the second one, it is difficult to describe, but I had a feeling listening to people talk that they liked their language, they enjoyed using it. They were very inclined to playing with it, words, tones, intonation, everything. They like it. The oral culture still seems is still much alive, too. Anybody in Iran, down to the very humble villager, can quote some classic poetry…

Will you play Persian with me?

So, I often felt like my interlocutors had certain pleasure in manipulating the words. I have been very quickly taught some little rhyming games for kids (a hit every time I used them later). It translates into something like

- Say “bicycle” (Begu docharkhe)
- “Bicyle” (Docharkhe)
- (with a grin) Your father’s moustache is curling up! (Sibile babat micharkhe!)

There absolutely no point to it, it’s just that it rhymes and it’s cute. I am sure other languages have those games as well, but until I came to Iran, I no where got that feeling of playfulness. And until Iran, even though I was actively trying to learn the local language every time, no one bothered teaching me those things. To me, that seems relevant.
Oh, I got taught another one, that people either loved or hated. I find it funny but eh, you know, it’s not my language, so what do I know :) . To say “sweetheart” or “dear” in Persian you say azizam. They use it A LOT. For little kids, for anything cute (and apparently I was cute whenever I spoke Persian ;) ), for adults they care about. Now, they use it sometimes with a very mellow tone. If it gets too mellow, you can adjust it and add, both as a joke and to state that you are aware of how ridicule you sound baraat peshkel berizam which means… “I throw goat’s pooh after you”. I know I know… don’t try to get it, again, there is nothing to it!
I get that feeling of playfulness in some British people though, now that I think of it. But maybe I just get fooled by the accent :) .

A few other expressions and usage that I really enjoyed over there:

- if you give someone something, food for example, and they thank you for it you say nushe jaan which means “may it do you some good”. Sweet, right?
- if you are looking at something someone owns and you’re like “wow, that’s beautiful!”, as part of tarof, the complicated politeness rules, they can answer tarof qobel nadore “if you want it you can have it!” – but don’t get your hopes too high, they have no intention of really parting with the object, they are just being polite :)
- after a good drink you can say che govara (almost like che guevara, yes), “how nice” (only for drinks though, not for food)
- and then, as in Armenia already, if you really like someone you can show your affection saying that you want to “eat their liver”, or that you want to “take their pain away”

You’ve got a lot of attitude!

Have you ever heard of “attitudes towards language”? It’s a very broad and very fascinating part of linguistics, pertaining to social studies and psychology. It’s the study of how people behave regarding language, how languages are perceived, how different varieties of one language might convey different things. It’s particularly striking with accents. To study attitudes towards accents, you ask different groups, exposed to the same speech but performed in different accents, to rate several criteria such as the competence, intelligence, trustworthiness etc. of the speaker. I remember reading about one study where they analysed the amount of trust obtained by the pilot of an airplane depending on its accent. It was quite funny but I can’t find a link to it.

As I evoked earlier, there is a lot of awareness around Persian. The reason is pretty simple: most Persian speakers feel like their language is being threatened by Arabic, because of the forced influence of Islam. This feeling of threat is not limited to the language, mind you. I have heard many times people say that they felt like the whole Persian culture was constantly under threat. As for the language, Persian actually nearly died after the arrival of Islam. Although it is a bit of an historical short-cut, I have heard many times that the salvation of the Persian language could be all attributed to one single poet, Ferdowsi, who lived in the 10th century.

How does this acute awareness of the Persian language translate into everyday life? Well, you’ll find different attitudes regarding very common words for which you have different versions available, of different origins. Let’s take the very simple example of “thank you”. To say thank you, you have at your disposal mersi (obviously French), mamnun (Arabic), shukran (Arabic as well, not as widely used though but surely understood) and the Persian word sepes. Depending on where and with whom I was and which word I was using, I got very different reactions. In an upper-class educated liberal home, I was advised to use mersi rather than mamnun (I enjoy pronouncing mamnun so I tend to use it more, mersi, I have the same at home so it’s less fun). “It’s just better” they said with a blink meaning “you know, we don’t want too much Arabic in our home, a French influence is much more welcome”. However, in a conservative family whose member were dutifully doing all their prayers at home and going to the mosque, mamnun was used most of the time without any problem. When I reached the south of Iran, I met a sort of language extremist who was insisting on making me us sepes, the Persian thank you, rather than mamnun – I had never encountered sepes before. He even pushed it to teaching us doroud and bed(o)roud for “hello” and “bybye”. Everywhere else in the country you’ll hear the Arabic salam and khodahafez for those two words. But some people very energetically want to defend the Persian words against their Arabic counterparts – and that’s also a question of attitude (remember that in linguistics we do not judge, we just observe).

I feel like the same kind of attitude can often be found in French native-speakers towards French. You know how infamous French people are for not wanting to learn or speak English for example… well it might not be entirely untrue (although the new generation is not so stubborn anymore), and it might very well have to do with language attitude. Maybe you’ve heard of the French-speakers in Québec trying to fight English away from their language… All these little similarities made me feel like French and Persian weren’t so far away form each other, I guess.

So in the end…

While in Iran, I have never spontaneously opened a book the right way (because it’s the wrong way for Europeans :) ). But all hope is not lost: I had a proper conversation with the taxi driver who took me to my last host in Iran. And I know one thing for sure, it’s that I want to learn more Persian. I want to learn it properly. I bought a little book of Khayam’s poems, in Persian, my aim being to one day be able to read them without a translation.

And if the day I start learning Persian properly I have any doubt about why I wanted to do that in the first place, then I’ll listen to the man singing at the end of this mix  and it shall be self-evident again!

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