In love with Persian

If you want to listen to what Persian sounds like first, you can go this way.

Note: If you have met me at least once, it will not have taken you long to get that I am some sort of an amateur linguist or at least language enthusiast. Linguistics is what I have studied for my masters a few years ago. On this blog, I have written several articles on the languages I have come across so far, but those articles were only in French. I know that my French readers have enjoyed them. I have decided to this time write in English as well. I try to make it easy to read, and not to use technical terms without explaining them. Please do tell me if this article is of any value to you, in the comments or personally. Because if no one finds it interesting, I’ll stick to French next time :) . Oh, and by the way, everything here is very much empirical. It’s an account of my learning experience during the five weeks I spent in the country. If you’re looking for more scientific and precise information, Google is your friend.

Persian… An interesting field for any linguist! So much at stake, so much history, so much to talk about. I think the best way to describe my relationship to Persian is that… I fell in love with it! I’ll tell you why, and what I have learned and how I have learned it.

 The script

 First thing first

The Persian script wasn’t easy to learn. I was arriving from Georgia and Armenia, which also have their own script (and I had been learning both), so the third new script in a row might have found me tired of trying. Every time I end up leaving the country anyway, just right when I start feeling comfortable with the language. But I love the challenge it represents and the mental gymnastic required, so I got into it, again. The beautiful calligraphy you find everywhere does help to keep one motivated. And bonus, the Persian script being based on the Arabic one, I get two alphabets in one. Good deal!

I started with the numbers. It’s the first country were the numbers were not the same as ours. But I had them in two days, it wasn’t that hard. Zero is a dot ۰, one is a vertical bar ۱ , for two and three you add respectively two and three little waves to the bar ۲ ۳, five is an upside-down heart  so it’s cute and it’s the first one you learn ۵, seven is like the V in seVen (thanks Küç for the tip!) ۷, put it upside-down and you’ve got eight ۸, nine looks just like a normal nine but with its bar straight ۹ … it just leaves you four and six, ۴ and  ۶. The six is actually easy to confuse with a nine, and since for us six is an upside-down nine, they are connected as well, right? So only four is left and by deduction you know what it is and here you go, you’ve got them all! No big deal. Then of course, you start seeing phone numbers everywhere, because it’s the only thing you can make out around you! Oh, and one funny thing is that the words are read from right to left, but you still read the numbers from left to right – which doesn’t make the least sense if you ask me.

For the letters, I found a willing victim in Pedram, my host in Teheran, who patiently drew all the letters for me, and pronounced them, and corrected the way I was drawing them myself, and let me struggle with the first thank you note I tried to write on my own, based on the phonetic version I had of the words. Then, consistently, every time I met a new person, I asked for their names and tried writing it down in the Persian script, and asked them to correct it. They found it amusing and/or impressive and it helped me a lot with the writing (it was a lot of fun for me to write from right to left), but still the reading wasn’t at all straightforward.  For individual letters, I did at some point start practicing on the number plates of vehicles around us, whenever I was in the car with Pedram. Poor Pedram! He must have felt like he was taking a six-years-old around :)

 As screwed up as French

The problem is that the Persian script is based on the Arabic one. Out of the whole alphabet, about three letters are specific to Persian, and that’s it. But the script does retain letters for sounds that are not differentiated in the Persian language, but are in Arabic. What did it mean for me? It meant that I would never knew which kind of “z” to choose, because there are four of them, and they are all pronounced the same (but they are all different in Arabic). So, for the first time, I found myself in the position of the French learners I used to teach. How can you know that you’re supposed to write bateau (boat in French) and not *bato or *batau? Well, you can’t, you just have to learn it. I got the same comment all the time learning Persian. “It’s written like that. But you just have to know it”.

Then, there is the vowel problem. They just skip the vowel, like in Hebrew. Well, not all of them actually, they do write three of them, the long (or stressed) ones. But they leave out all of the others. When I was practicing reading with the help of my last host’s flatmate and a children’s book, I would just randomly choose a vowel to connect two consonants. You do get a feeling of which one fits the best, after a while. But when I tried writing all the words I had collected in the Persian scripts (it was faster to write it down in phonetic English mixed with IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) than to bother everybody to show me how to write the thing correctly), I really struggled. With the ‘a’ vowel, mostly. For me, the sound /a/  is the stressed version and /ə/ (like the ‘a’ in about in standard British pronunciation*) is the unstressed one. But in Persian it’s the other way around, you write down the /ə/ and not the /a/. So I had to reaaaaally concentrate hard to try to figure out which vowels were meant to be written down and which not.

As for the consonants, they tend to be like series of strokes, differentiated by dots. So you get one horizontal stroke with little edges and a dot underneath, it’s ‘b’ ب . Three dots underneath, it’s ‘p’ پ. Two dots above it, it turns into ‘t’ ت, and three dots above it, it becomes ‘s’ ث. And you can replace the dots by a shifted stroke above it (sometimes it connects to the closest edge but it’s the same), it’s now a ‘k’ ک, two strokes and it’s a ‘g’ گ. When the sounds are phonetically related, like /k/ and /g/, I find it easy to remember. It’s similar to Japanese, you add a sign or the other to a hiragana (the syllabic Japanese alphabet) and you get the mutated form of the consonant, you go from /k/ to /g/ or from /p/ to /b/ (pronounce them out-loud and you will feel how they are clearly related). But when one letter is ‘b’ and change-the-dots-it-becomes ‘t’, I find it completely random and therefore harder to learn.

Oh, and of course, the form changes if the letter is in the middle of the word, or at the end of it.  But if you think of it, that’s like most scripts with capital/cursive letters. A capital ‘A’ doesn’t quite look like an ‘a’, even in the Latin alphabet. You’re just too used to it to notice! Only the Cyrillic and Georgian scripts were kind enough to be monocameral (only one version of the letters). Just for some weird reason, in Persian you use the stand-alone letter, equivalent to a capital, at the end of the word (on the left, that means). And you can attach some letters to the previous one (the one on the right, that is), and some you can’t. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? :) But well, it was really interesting for me, because I somehow managed to learn and use all of that… little bit somewhat proud of myself, I was – but don’t worry, it’s already all gone! But it was foremost interesting because I really could experience what it is to just have to accept random rules for a script, as my students had to do when learning French.

Here is the very messed up sheet I was always referring to:


Don’t they ever say no?

After a while in Iran I started wondering – don’t they ever say no? I had been taught two versions of yes and no: the higher forms bale/khair and the colloquial areh/na. The problem was, I was never hearing na nor khair! So, do Iranians say yes to everything? No they don’t! They have a third way of saying “no”. It’s a slight click of the tongue against the front of the palate, accompanied by a slight lift of the chin. You can also only do the lifting up of the chin (French readers know how long it took me to learn that way of saying no in Turkey). The sound you make isn’t unknown to French people, I don’t know about English speakers. We do it to show we are annoyed by something. Well in Persian (and Turkish) it doesn’t evidence that you’re annoyed. It just means no. Takes some getting used to :) .  As the lift of the head, in Europe it usually means something like “Come again? What did you say?”.

At some point towards the end of my stay, I also came across old women silently using the chin-lift up, but adding a sort of slight lips-lift up. I thought it was funny so I started using it as well… my mistake being that as a reflex I was also using the click of the tongue, which had become my normal way of saying no. Combine all three options together, and you’ll end up like me, looking stupid like you’re air-kissing the person you’re saying no to :)

 To be continued, if you please… :)

* /ə/ is actually not the official transcription for the “alef” letter. But that’s what it sounded like to me in most words back then, or that’s the closest I could get to it…

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