Monday, March 17, 2008

Confessions of a Farsiholic: reviewing a one-letter epic.

The first time I was fined for saying “Farsi” instead of “Persian” I didn’t fight the ticket because back then the action was all about French. French fries had become “Freedom” fries, ruining a flavorful shortcut to khoresh-e-gheimeh. Flag wavers claimed fried potatoes sliced lengthwise should never have been called French fries in the first place. There were “chips” to go with fried fish in England as early as 1864. Surely the US adopting fries in the 1930s, should have named this calorie bomb after her freedom-loving ally, and not after folks who would leave Iraqis in peace.

The Francophile in me worried that the logic of Iran experts who said the term “Farsi” broke ties with prestigious Persia, could also apply to French culture. I was nervous that Freedom fries, instead of French fries, would confuse historians as to the location of the Louvre and the nationality of Inspector Clouseau. If this renaming becomes a trend, I fussed, Americans would no longer think of Descartes when they eat French toast, or of Voltaire when they look out of French windows. Cardinal Richelieu would never again leap to mind as soon as anyone stuck a tongue in someone else’s mouth.

In this crisis, I reached out to an abridged history of the potato, which tentatively placed fries in Paris in 1840, almost a quarter of a century before the first chips greased the streets of London. I could go back to enjoying khoresh-e- gheimeh without feeling a party to the looting of Iraq’s civilization. More importantly, American English could begin reversing its Orwellian decline.

Throughout this time, though, I kept falling off the “Persian” wagon. Supportive friends promised that love would eventually come to my arranged marriage with this word. Yet I philandered with “Farsi,” and English cheerily egged me on. She gets a kick out of making her speakers and writers squabble. For example, did I tell you about the black eye I got over Star Trek’s “To boldly go where no man has gone before?” English has been on red alert status since the original sci-fi series first came out in the sixties. Is it correct English to insert the adverb “boldly” between “to” and “go?” I was in the coalition that said even in the 23rd century Captain Kirk had no right to split his infinitives. He should have said, “To go boldly where no man has gone before.” We thought we had the opposition finally outgunned, when Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker suddenly decloaked in front of us.

In his book, The Language Instinct, Pinker explained the origin of the taboo against split infinitives, making our side look very silly. Showing off your Latin was a sign of good education in England, and in Latin you can’t split the infinitive even if you wanted to. Latin infinitives are like Farsi “raftan.” Where can you put “boldly” in “raftan?” Surely not “raft boldly an!” But natural English does allow us to boldly split infinitives. So for years over-educated English academics had unnecessarily disfigured their beautiful language with the syntax of Cicero.

The Language Instinct, more than histories of the potato, transformed my lust for the word “Farsi” from a sin to a fact of nature. Though Pinker focuses on English grammar rather than word usage and doesn’t mention Farsi, his book exposes the organic, dynamic, and inborn aspects of human language. Pinker’s work made me think that the English language has adopted “Farsi” for natural reasons, not because Iranians have passed on a bad habit to English speakers.

To find out why English speakers feed “Farsi” but shoo away “Persian,” I spoke with American novelist and prolific short story writer Elliot Fintushel. Fintushel’s prose should never be taken with other amphetamines, but this ultra-modern writer has a subconscious so close to his normal awareness that he can explain why he does or doesn’t choose a particular word. By the way, he knew nothing about The Farsibition when I phoned him.

Ari- Hello Elliot, what do you think of when I say, “The Persian language?”

Fintushel- Well, uh…Sanskrit!

This educated and worldly American writer prefers “Farsi” to “Persian” because his image of historic Persia is at odds with his modern interactions with Iranians. He says “Farsi” because his mind can no longer put Iran in a museum. Television, globalization, immigration, Youtube, cheap travel, all conspire to break the “Persian” display glass for him. While the culture of Sohrab allows the old to kill the young, Fintushel ‘s Oedipal culture has no qualms against slipping the dagger of novelty deep into Rostam’s heart. “Persian” withers, “Farsi” flowers. English sighs, remembering her own virgin days when brave men called her “Angelisc.”

As for the Iranian speaker of English, there are also natural reasons why “Persian” sounds like a trademark and “Farsi” the real thing.

First, developmentally. “Farsi” is what our moms said our language was called, and if English wants to imitate us, then she has realized—perhaps by sensing our adamancy—that “Persian” is no longer the right word. Remember, until recently English didn’t have much contact with Iranians except through our classical culture. Never mind that the French don’t use their own word for their language when they speak English. Fintushel’s tongue isn’t allergic to “French” but he does break out in hives with “Persian.” The word “French” doesn’t fight his reality of who the French people are; “Persian” does! Thankfully, the ultimate authority on American English has baptized “Farsi” into the English language and here’s a link that swears to it:

Webster also says that the English word “Persian” primarily refers to ANY of the SEVERAL Iranian languages dominant in Persia. Iranians who tell hapless Webster-toting Americans that they speak Persian are suggesting they may be fluent in several languages including Tajik, Dari and Judeo-Bukharic.

Secondly, there is an organic link between words and voice/body gesturing. Here’s a revealing test for Iranian-American writers and poets: with which concept do you best associate the following sounds? Aakh, oho, evaa, ah’, vaay, digeh, bah’, baabaa. Imperial Persian or Farsi e khodemooni? The interjection I most associate with “Persian” is Maz Jobrani’s famous “meow.

Third, mechanically. Farsi rolls off the tongue better than “Parsi,” or “Persian.” The “P” sound is a sudden plosive consonant; “F” is a smooth fricative, takes less force. In an onomatopoeic sense (the closeness of a sound to its intended meaning), Farsi may reflect our subtler post-Empire maturity better than “Parsi.” Sure, Arabic voice mechanics changed “Parsi “to “Farsi,” but why didn’t it change “Paarsaal” to “Faarsaal?” Yes, we were flattering Arab administrative jargon, but there must have also been a social advantage in the consonant change that somehow served the common speaker. This advantage may not exist today—whatever it was—but it was there. To speculate as to what this utility may have been, poetic ears may notice there is an inclusivity of regional sounds in the lovely name “Khalijeh Fars” that is lost in its unrealistically exclusive—and bumpy-- translation, “Persian Gulf.” When I contemplate why “F” and no longer “P,” I hear songs, not battle cries. I see pens, not swords.

Finally, there are patriotic aspects to using the term “Farsi.” Ironically this has to do with our protective feelings for our classical literature. To an Iranian writing in English, it feels unfair to allow Greece at the height of its splendor to name a language that eventually surpassed Greek in poetic expressiveness. When Herodotus was calling us Persians (Persikos) none of Iran’s classical poets had been born to measure up to Homer, Hesoid and Sappho. But some centuries later, 300 Khayaams kicked ass against a million Greeks. “Persian” reflects Hellenistic cultural supremacy; “Farsi” starts the clock when we had our strongest claim to high culture, documented by our own historians.

In our day-to-day experience “Persian” covers just a small subset of the Farsi that buzzes around our ears. Colloquially we may call it Farsi e Aflaatooni. But this Persian of the distinguished Yarshater, Davis and Nicholson is just one bee in the bustling hive of contemporary Farsi. In fact the other bees are so busy making up new words for modern nuances, they sometimes steal from other languages. Young people occasionally use the English word “money” when they covet a hard-to-afford luxury, and the traditional “pool” when they buy gum. They use the English “number” for digits that dial a date, and the old “shomareh” when they call their parents. Among a different group, the Arabic proper name “Zeid,”--Farsi equivalent of “some dude”-- now also comes with a Russian suffix: “Zeidowfski!

Sometimes there is ethnic influence. Daaf for girl is Kalimi Farsi, so is “Zaakhaar” for “boy,” occasionally meaning, ”mate” in the Australian sense. There are new descriptive verbs like “Yazeed shodan” as in to suddenly explode into anger—from a mean character in Shiite plays—but we also have “love tarakaandan” for public display of affection.

Haveej is used for street cleaners—refers to uniform color, as does kaaktus for police. BBC can be a spy or a cell phone. To this add the journalistic and technical vocabulary factories that coin Farsi expressions daily like the Feds print money, making my Farsi dictionary as useless as a stack of dollars. One Nobel Prize winner throws around words like faraa ravesh (methodology) and shahrvand (citizen). Remind me, which Persian dynasty popularized the word shahrvand? If all this activity makes your head spin, you need a daroon paalaa (exorcist)

In this dynamic linguistic community, I speak a variant that could be termed "Farsi e Dolaari." Yet I am aware that there are Javaads, Ghazanfars, Manijehs and Shahlaas stuck in Tehran traffic in their Jaaroo barghee (vacuum cleaner), jaa saaboni (soap dish), and pejhoo kaarmandi (Dilbert mobile). They watch film e aamoozeshi(over 21 “documentaries”) and spend esken, money, peel, maayeh.

There are narm afzaar (software) geeks kleeking away on their raayaanehs (computers) building taarnamaas (websites). After I explain to Fintushel about the double entendre in daroon gozaasht (input) and beeroon daad (output), you would have to drag him to Egypt and waterboard him before he gives up “Farsi” for a word that conjures up Sanskrit to his readers.

To be sure in academic circles where precision is more important than expressiveness, “Persian” is an indispensable technical term. But should Persian literature academics dictate to English speaking writers, poets, casual speakers, standup comics, or rappers, which English words are allowed? Would they bully little Luke on Valentine’s Day if he’s hard up for something to rhyme with “Marcy?” The attempt reveals a disappointing absence of communication with the social science building next door where they study how communities create and use language. The intrusion of our culture’s dictatorial vices into the common man’s English is ungracious, whereas our tolerant and humble flip side is magnetic.

The marketing approach, promoting “Persian” as a brand name, has been harmful to Iran’ s sincere modern culture. For example, my interview with contemporary Iranian-American playwright Sepideh Khosrowjah rankled a commenter who was frustrated about the article’s use of the term “Farsi.” This commenter obviously has an interest in the arts or he/she wouldn’t have read the piece. In the spirit of this shared love, I propose we redouble our efforts in encouraging our living cultural treasures, even as we struggle to rescue our threatened antiquity. Artists like Khosrowjah wield a formidable language. They contribute to one day making “Farsi” as prestigious as “Persian.”

The commenter asks rhetorically if my use of “Farsi” has a political motive.

You bet!

Some notes:

1.For an informative and entertaining study on Tehrani Farsi vernacular see Farhag va Loghaateh e Zaban Makhfi, by Dr. Seid Mehdi Samaai.

2.The touching and beautiful Zoroastrian Gathas do compete with, and arguably transcend, ancient Greek poetry, but their number is few in comparison and their subjects limited to devotional concerns.

3.To explore why Greeks had historians and pre-Islamic Iranians possibly had only mytholgy, see anthropologist Donal E. Brown's work on hereditary caste societies.


Anonymous said...

You are absolutely wrong. The line you are towing is the line of Islamic Republic establishment.

Farsi intself is not Farsi, it is Arabic. Parsi is not an ancient term and you can find it used in both old and modern linterature. Just because Farsi became popular does not make it correct.

From your name I guess you are Jewish, how would you feel if a German insisted that English speakers should use the term 'Detusch' instead of German? I can imagine your cries of foul. Iranians have no right to impose Farsi or Parsi instead of Persian on westerners. More importantly it breaks the link between what is written in the west about Iranian culture pre-1935 and today.

Ari Siletz said...

Thank you anonymous for your thoughts.
1. What is the IRI line you seem to believe I am towing? Have they petitioned the UN to change the official English name for Iran's language from "Persian" to "Farsi?" I would not support such a change.

2. The imposing of words on the speaker has been from the "Persian" sayer to the "Farsi" sayer, not the other way around. Some Iranians jump down your throat when anyone says "Farsi."

3. A big discussion is being carried out on this article at this website. Feel free to join, as no one yet has brought in the IRI angle explicitly. It is worth discussing