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Persian is one of the oldest written languages in the world.  Like English, Persian has gone through many changes in its long history.  English and Persian are related Indo-European languages.

      The Behistun inscription, 400 BCE, earliest known
       written use of Persian, © Ali Daneshgar, limited reuse
       per CC BY-SA 3.0 .
Persian, English and many other European and Asian languages have a common vocabulary core from a reconstructed ancestor language which linguists have called Proto-Indo European (PIE).  (The * marks hypothetical words.)    Another of these languages, also from the Indo-Iranian group, is Pashto, widely spoken in Afghanistan and the border areas of Pakistan.

Persian has been heavily influenced by Arabic, one of the non-PIE Semitic languages.  English of course has been strongly impacted by French, but there are a surprising number of Arabic-derived words in English.

Hebrew, another Semitic language, contributes a number of words to English, typically religious (e.g. hallelujah, cherubim).  Hebrew's greatest influence in English and other European languages is probably in proper names, cognates for many of which exist in both Persian as well as the Semitic languages.  (e.g. David / Daud, Mary / Maryam, Hannah / Hania, Eli / Ali, etc.)  

The Behistun inscription
The earliest known written Persian is the Behistun inscription, which was placed on a mountain in western Iran by order of Darius the Great (550–486 BCE).  The inscription is a laudatory history of the reign of Darius.  The same text is written in cuneiform in three different languages, Old Persian, Elamite and Akkadian.  Philologists were able to decipher the Old Persian text first, and then use that to unravel the texts in the other languages.  This allowed the reading of cuneiform texts in Akkadian as old as 2600 BCE.

Avestan, an extinct PIE language is another ancestor of Persian.  Its name comes from the Avesta (circa 330 BCE?) which is the collection of the sacred writings of Zoroastrianism.  

Common features of English and Persian.
There are very deep roots of connection between Persian and English, as there are between Persian and the numerous other Indo-European languages.  Vocabulary is one of the easiest ways to see these commonalities. See here for a thread discussing the numerous cognate words that Persian has with other Indo-European languages.  

Building blocks of language
Persian, like German, is a language composed of smaller words which are assembled like Lego blocks into multiple different larger words.   Apparently the technical word for these languages as "agglutinative", (glued together),  but "Lego language" evokes better the assembly of linguistic building blocks.  

Dr. Ali Nourai has published on his work, An Etymological Dictionary of Persian, English, and other Indo-European Languages in which, working from the Persian language (and using Latin transliteration) he uses an easy to understand flow-chart format to show how Persian word roots, both PIE and non-PIE, have cognate word forms in many different languages.

A simple example.  In Persian, behar means spring.  There' s no obvious connection between the English and the Persian word.  

But an English adjectival form for spring, vernal, from Latin ver, and ultimately from PIE *wes / *wesr.  Through Avestan and Pahlavi, *wes / * wesr with a sound shift (v to b) eventually became Persian behar.  

Similarly, from the same *PIE roots, Sanskrit acquired vasantah, Old Norse var, and Lithuanian vasara ("summer").

Divas and devils
The PIE root *deiwos (also deiw, dyeu, dye) meant "to shine", and was used to describe sunny days and heavenly spirits.  It passed into Avestan as daev and daevoh, meaning God, but under the influence of Zoroastrianism, the previous gods came to be considered demons, so in modern Persian div means demon (compare English devil, German Teufel, Latin diabolus), and divaneh means mad. (compare English divine and Italian diva.)

Latin acquired deus (God), dies (day) and jovis, julius (relating to Jupiter), which passed into English in many words, such as deity, divine, diary, diurnal, journey, etc.  French also acquired many similar words, such as journal, which Persian adopted in recent times as zornal.  

*Deiwos came into other PIE languages, including Proto-Germanic as tiwaz, the sky god (later becoming the name for English Tuesday), into Greek, as Zeus, and into Lithuanian devas (god.)

What's right is rast.
There are many such PIE-rooted cognate families.  For example Persian rast (right, straight), from the PIE root *reg / rekto, is related to Germanic *rehtaz (English right, rich and rake, German Recht) and also to the Latin regere, regula and surgere.  The Latin forms gave rise to many French words, some of which came into both English and Persian in fairly recent times, for example address / adres and regime / rezim.

Genesis in general
PIE *gen is easily recognizable as the root in many Latin-based English words such as genetic, genius, generation, etc.  Another Latin form of *gen, gnatus, became English pregnant, nature, and nation.  PIE *gen entered Avestan as zan (to give birth to), zata (born), azata (free born, noble), and nizati (race, generation), and later became Persian zadan / zaidan (to give birth to), azad (free), and nezad (race).  Note the closeness in sound and meaning between nezad and nation.

Red worms
The PIE root, *Werb, *wermi, *kwermi, *werp, etc., meaning to turn or bend, which entered Sanskit as krmi, Avestan as kerma, Latin as vermis, and Proto-Germanic as *wurmiz, all meaning worm, which in modern Persian is the cognate form kerm.  (PIE *werb / werp also became English warp as in warp drive).

Going back to PIE *gen, this root entered Sanskrit as ja (made of).  Sanskrit combined ja with krmi to product krmija, referring to a red dye made of worms.  From Sanskrit, krmija entered Arabic as qirmaz and Persian as qermez, both meaning red.  English crimson, carmine, and kermes are derived from Arabic germiz.

Layla and Majnun
The Arabic name Leila ("dark beauty) exists in various spellings in a number of languages, and Persian and English are two of them.  One of the great love stories in Arabic is Layla and Majnun, about a princess forced by her father to marry someone she doesn't love, and how her true love, a poet, is driven mad (Majnun means "madman") and wanders off into the wilderness.  

This story was popularized in Persian by the great poet Nizami Ganjavi (1141-1209).   Many centuries later, Eric Clapton read a book of Nazami's poems, and decided to use the princess's name in his own work, a gift to air guitarists everywhere:

Clapton's lyric seems to sum up Layla and Majnun's predicament:

Let's make the best of the situation
Before I finally go insane.
Please don't say we'll never find a way
And tell me all my love's in vain.

Well, that's all for now.  Folks who are interested will find a fine collection of etymological sources in and for a variety of languages (mostly older sources, but still useful) at under the tag "etymology".   Or you can get out your bean bag chair and spin your old Clapton records.


Originally posted to Plan 9 from Oregon on Fri Jun 15, 2012 at 03:16 PM PDT.

Also republished by History for Kossacks, Cranky Grammarians, DKOMA, and Community Spotlight.


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