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The Persian Language (Part 1)

molana rumi

The Old Persian of the Achaemenian Empire, preserved in a number of cuneiform inscriptions, was an Indo-European tongue with close affinities with Sanskrit and Avestan (the language of the Zoroastrian sacred texts).  After the fall of the Achaemenians the ancient tongue developed, in the province of Pars, into Middle Persian or Pahlavi (a name derived from Parthavi - that is, Parthian).  Pahlavi was used throughout the Sassanian period, though little now remains of what must once have been a considerable literature.  About a hundred Pahlavi texts survive, mostly on religion and all in prose.  Pahlavi collections of romances, however, provided much of the material for Ferdowsi's Shahnameh.

After the Arab conquest a knowledge of Arabic became necessary, for it was not only the language of the new rulers and their state, but of the religion they brought with them and - later - of the new learning.  Though Pahlavi continued to be spoken in private life, Arabic was dominant in official circles for a century and a half.  With the weakening of the central power, a modified form of Pahlavi emerged, with its Indo-European grammatical structure intact but simplified, and with a large infusion of Arabic words.  This was the Modem Persian in use today.

Arabic continued to be employed in Iran, though on a decreasing scale, as Latin was used in Europe -that is, as a language of the learned.  As such it was employed by Avicenna, al-Biruni, Rhazes, Al Ghazali and others; indeed, many of the most famous names in Arabic literature are those of men of Persian birth.  But in general the use of Arabic declined; Persian developed rapidly to become the vehicle of a great literature, and before, long spread its influence to neighboring lands.  In India, Persian language and poetry became the vogue with the ruling classes, and at the court of the Moghul emperor Akbar Persian was adopted as the official language; spreading thence and fusing later with Hindi, it gave rise to the Urdu tongue.  To the west of Iran, Persian heavily influenced the language and literature of Turkey; Turkish verse was based on Persian models as regards form and style, and borrowed an extensive vocabulary.

A notable feature of Persian is the small extent to which it has changed over the thousand years or more of its existence as a literary language.  Thus the poems of Rudaki, the first Persian poet of note, who died in the year 940 A.D., are perfectly intelligible to the modem reader.  Persian literature too has a number of noteworthy characteristics, the most striking of which is the exceptional prominence of poetry.  Until quite recently there was practically no drama, and no novels were written; prose works were mostly confined to history, geography, philosophy, religion, ethics and politics, and it was poetry that formed the chief outlet for artistic expression.  Classical Persian literature was produced almost entirely under royal patronage whence the frequency of panegyric verse.  An influence of at least equal strength was religion, and in particular Sufism, which inspired the remarkably high proportion of mystical poetry.

 

Persian Poetry

Classical Persian poetry is always rhymed.  The principal verse forms are the qasida, masnavi, ghazal and ruba'i.  The qasida or ode is a long poem in monorhyme, usually of a panegyric, didactic or religious nature; the masnavi, written in rhyming couplets, is employed for heroic, romantic, or narrative verse; the ghazal (ode or lyric) is a comparatively short poem, usually amorous or mystical and varying from four to sixteen couplets, all on one rhyme.  A convention of the ghazal is the introduction, in the last couplet, of the poet's pen name (takhallus).  The ruba'i is a quatrain with a particular metre, and a collection of quatrains is called "ruba'iyyat" (the plural of ruba'i).  Finally, a collection of a poet's ghazals and other verse, arranged alphabetically according to the rhymes, is known as a divan.

A word may not be out of place here on the peculiar difficulties of interpreting Persian poetry to the western reader.  To the pitfalls common to all translations from verse must be added, in the case of Persian poetry, such special difficulties as the very free use of Sufi imagery, the frequent literary, Koranic and other references and allusions, and the general employment of monorhyme, a form highly effective in Persian but unsuited to most other languages.  But most important of all is the fact that the poetry of Persia depends to a greater degree than that of most other nations on beauty of language for its effects.  This is why much of the great volume of "qasidas in praise of princes" can still be read with pleasure in the original, though It is largely unsuited to translation.  In short, the greatest charm of Persian poetry lies, as Sir E. Denison Ross remarked, in its language and its music, and consequently the reader of a translation "has perforce to forego the essence of the matter".

In the following brief sketch of the vast field of Persian literature we cannot hope to do more than mention a few of the most eminent authors, and to devote a paragraph or two each to the most famous of all.

 

Early Literature

Though existing fragments of Persian verse are believed to date from as early as the eighth century A.D., the history of Persian literature proper  begins with the lesser dynasties of the ninth and tenth centuries that emerged with the decline of the Caliphate.  The most important of these were the Samanids, who established at Bokhara the first of many brilliant courts that were to patronize learning and letters.  Here Abu Ali Sina, better known in the west as Avicenna, developed the medicine and philosophy of ancient Greece, and wrote numerous works that were to exercise considerable influence not only in the East but in Europe -where, translated into Latin, they were in use as late as the seventeenth century.  Avicenna wrote mostly in Arabic, but composed an encyclopaedia -- the Danish Nameh-ye Ala'i - in Persian.

The most famous of the court poets were Rudaki and Daqiqi.  Rudaki, generally regarded as the first of the great Persian poets, wrote a very large quantity of verse, of which but little has survived.  His style direct, simple and unadorned - was to appear unpolished to some of the over-elaborate versifiers of later ages, but appeals more to modem tastes.  Daqiqi, a composer of epics, was commissioned to write a work on the ancient kings of Persia, but only completed a thousand couplets before his death.  Some of these were later incorporated in the celebrated Shahnameh.

Source: Wikipedia.org


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