An insatiable appetite for ancient and modern tongues

Alternative Names: New Persian, Farsi.

Classification: Indo-European, Indo-Iranian, Iranian, Southwestern Iranian.

Overview. Modern Persian or New Persian is a descendant of Old Persian, the official language of the Achaemenid dynasty, and of Middle Persian (Pahlavi), the official language of the Sassanian dynasty. Persian originated in the Iranian province of Fars (Pars) in southwest Iran and during the Achaemenid (c. 558-330 BCE) and Sassanid (224-651 CE) empires was established in eastern Iran, northern Afghanistan and Central Asia. In many parts of Asia, Persian became the literary language, the language of administration, and also a lingua franca. 

    After the fall of the Sassanids and the conversion of its empire to Islam, Arabic acquired a great influence on Persian providing it with a new writing system (which replaced Pahlavi) and a great deal of vocabulary. The modern language has lost in great measure the inflective character of Indo-European.

Distribution. Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and parts of Iraq, Turkey, and scattered areas of the Caucasus Mountains (see Indo-European map).

Varieties. There are Western and Eastern ones. The Western varieties include Persian of Iran (Farsi, with many regional dialects), Khorasani prevalent in the eastern part of the country, and Caucasian Tat Persian spoken in Azerbaijan, Dagestan and Armenia.

The Eastern varieties are those of Tajikistan (Tajik) and Afghanistan (Dari, Hazaragi, Aymaq). Tajik, spoken in Tajikistan and parts of Uzbekistan, is considered by some as a separate language.

Status. Persian is the official language of Iran, Dari is one of the two official languages of Afghanistan (Pashto is the other), Tajik is the official language of Tajikistan.

Speakers. There are about 67 million Persian speakers (including those the Afghan varieties and Tajik) distributed in the following countries (numbers in millions). Farsi is the mother tongue of around 60% of the total population of Iran.
















Oldest Documents. The earliest texts in Modern Persian are three brief inscriptions dating from the middle of the eighth century found in eastern Afghanistan written in Hebrew characters. Literature in Modern Persian emerged in the 9-10th centuries.


Early Modern Persian (10th-12th c.). It differentiates from Late Middle Persian by the inclusion of Northwest Iranian features, by the loss of certain morphological and syntactic characteristics and, by the increasing influence of Arabic. The major document of the period is the long epic poem Shāh Nāmeh (Book of Kings) by Ferdowsi.

Classical Persian (13th-18th c.). Coincident with the great flourishing of Persian literature.

Late Modern Persian (19th c.-present). Characterized by simplification of style in the literary language and by the inclusion of features of the spoken language in it.


Syllable structure: syllables begin with a consonant and no initial consonant clusters are allowed.  For example, Middle Persian brādar ('brother') becomes Modern Persian barādár. Thus, CV, CVC, CVCC are the permitted syllables. A glottal stop may also be found in final position.


  1. a)Monophthongs (6). The eight-vowel inventory of Middle Persian and Early New Persian was reduced to six. Vowel length lost importance or disappeared. [i], [u] and [ɒ] are usually considered long, tense or stable while [e], [æ] and [o] are considered short, lax or unstable.


  1. b)Diphthongs (2): ai, au.

Consonants (23). Modern Persian stops-affricates and fricatives are articulated at four main points (labial, dental, palatal, velar) grouped in pairs of contrasting voiceless and voiced varieties. [ɢ] in initial and final position is partially or fully devoiced; intervocalically it is a voiced fricative.


Stress: falls on the last non-enclitic syllable, in nominals, verbal infinitives and verbal forms without prefixes. Verbal prefixes are always stressed.

Script and Orthography


Modern Persian is written with a version of the Arabic script, except Tajik that employs the Cyrillic script. Because of its Semitic origin, the Arabo-Persian script is consonantal. Four letters, representing sounds not found in Arabic, were created for [p], [tʃ], [ʒ] [g].

Some consonantal signs serve also to represent vowels: the letter y serves both as [j] and [i], v as [v] and [u], alef as the glottal stop [’] and [ɒ].

The remaining vowels are represented in final position by consonantal letters as well: final [o] by v, final [e] by h, final [æ] by h. These vowels sometimes may be symbolized by diacritics.

In the first column the Persian alphabet is shown, in the second its transliteration into the Latin alphabet, and in the third one the equivalents in the International Phonetic Alphabet.


Grammatical marking is done mainly by suffixes though there is a small number of prefixes. New words are formed from nouns, adjectives and verbal stems by derivation and compounding.

  1. Nominal. Nouns are marked for number and definiteness by suffixes. Adjectives are not marked for number. There are no articles.

  1. gender: there is no grammatical gender.

  1. case: there is no inflection for case but the suffix -ra is used to mark the definite direct object of a verb. The indirect object is marked by the preposition be ('to').

  1. numbersingular and plural are distinguished in nouns but not in adjectives. The unmarked noun denotes a class of objects rather than a single one. To express singularity the indefinite marker may be used (see below). The plural markers are -hā for inanimate nouns and animals, and -ān for humans. However, nowadays, there is tendency to use -hā indiscriminately. Some nouns have adopted the Arabic plural ending -āt, especially nouns ending in e. Some nouns of Arabic origin may preserve the Arabic 'broken plural', involving vowel change in the stem. Thus ketāb (book) may be pluralized as:

  1. kutub (broken plural) or ketāb (with plural suffix)

  2. After numerals, the singular noun is used but accompanied with a noun classifier. The most common is (‘piece’) e.g., se tā ketāb (‘three books’).

  1. definiteness: nouns are indefinite or definite. The indefinite marker is -i in both singular and plural (‘a, any, certain, some’). The unstressed particle -e connects any attributive constituent (adjectives, nouns, noun phrases, etc.) to the head noun:

  1. ketab-e geran-i

  2. book-e expensive-a

  3. An expensive book.

  1. adjectives: are placed after the noun and are unmarked for number. The indefinite marker -i and personal suffixes may be attached to them. Their comparative and superlative are made by adding the suffixes -tar and -tarin: bozorg (‘big’), bozorgtar (‘bigger’), bozorgtarin (‘biggest’).

  1. pronouns: personal, demonstrative, interrogative.

  1. Personal pronouns may be independent or enclitic. The former serve as subject and object pronouns. The latter are used to indicate possession and may be also used as object pronouns.

  1. Possession is indicated by suffixed pronouns or by the “addition construction”, in which the unstressed particle -e combines with an independent pronoun:


  1. Demonstrative pronouns distinguish two deictic degrees (this, that): in (‘this’), in (‘these’), ān (‘that’), ān (‘those’).

  1. Interrogative pronouns are ki (‘who?’) and če (‘what?’). For yes/no questions the particle āyā is placed at the beginning of the question.

  1. Verbal. The verb system is based on three stems: present, past, and perfect to which are added personal endings and modal prefixes. For example, the three stems of ‘to do’ are:

  1. present stem: kon-

  2. past stem: kard-

  3. perfect stem: kard-e (past stem + -e)

  1. The perfect stem is the same as the perfect participle. For negation the particle na is used before the entire verb form. Compound verbs are much more frequent than simple ones.

  1. person and number: 1s, 2s, 3s; 1p, 2p, 3p.


  1. aspectimperfective, aorist, resultative or perfective.

  2. The imperfective expresses an action not yet completed. It is represented in the present and imperfect tenses. The aorist aspect, represented in the preterite, indicates a completed action. The perfective or resultative aspect, represented in the perfect tenses, expresses a completed action that has a bearing on the present.

  1. tensepresent, preterite, imperfect, present perfect, past perfect, future.

  1. The personal endings are the same for the three stems except in the 3rd singular (which has no ending in the past tenses):

  1. Tenses with imperfective aspect (present and imperfect) take the prefix mi-. The present derives from the present stem and the imperfect from the past stem. The preterite is unmarked and derives from the past stem.

  1. The resultative or perfective tenses (present perfect and past perfect) are formed with the perfect stem (= perfect participle); the past perfect with the aid of the past conjugation of budan (‘to be’). In addition, there is a future construction with the modal xāh (‘to wish, want’) followed by the plain past stem.

  2. The conjugation of raftan (‘to go’) in the indicative mood is:


  1. mood: indicative, subjunctive, conditional, imperative.

  1. The subjunctive expresses a potential action, and it is often used for exhortations. The subjunctive present and the imperative are marked by the prefix be-. The second person singular of the imperative has no personal ending. The perfect subjunctive consists of the perfect participle plus the present subjunctive of ‘to be’ (bāš).

  2. The imperfect and past perfect tenses of the conditional are formally identical to the same tenses of the indicative. The function of the conditional is to express unlikely situations, including wishes.

  1. voice: there is no morphological passive, which is expressed periphrastically by the perfect participle and the paradigm of šodan (‘to become’).

  1. non-finite forms: the perfect participle has the same form as the perfect stem and the infinitive is formed with the past stem plus the suffix -an.


    The basic sentence word order is Subject-Object-Verb. The marker for direct object is -rā, and that for the indirect object is the preposition be ('to'). Word order in a noun phrase is demonstrative-number-(classifier)-head noun-adjective.

    Adverbial phrases are marked by prepositions. Relative clauses are postnominal and introduced by the particle ke which is preceded by the indefinite marker (-i) attached to the head-noun in restrictive clauses (those serving to specify the particular instance or instances being mentioned).


Arabic has had an enormous impact on Persian being the source of 50 % of the vocabulary of literary Persian and of 25 % of spoken Persian. Turkic languages had a lesser, but significant, influence.

Basic Vocabulary

one: yek

two: do

three: seh

four: čahār

five: panj

six: šeš

seven: haft

eight: hašt

nine: noh

ten: dah

hundred: sad

father:  pedar

mother: mādar

brother: barādar

sister: xāhar

son: pesar

daughter: doxtar

head: sar

eye: češm

foot: pā

heart:  galb, del

tongue: zabān

Key Literary Works (forthcoming).

  1. © 2013 Alejandro Gutman and Beatriz Avanzati                                                                               

Further Reading

  1. -'Persian and Tajik'. G. L. Windfuhr & J. R. Perry. In The Iranian Languages, 416-544. G. Windfuhr (ed).  Routledge (2009).

  2. -'Persian'. G. L. Windfuhr. In The World's Major Languages, 445-459. B. Comrie (ed). Routledge (2009).

  3. -Grammaire du Persan Contemporain. G. Lazard. Klincksieck (1957). Translated as A Grammar of Contemporary Persian (Mazda Publishers 1992).

  4. -La Formation de la Langue Persane. G. Lazard. Peeters (1995).

  5. -Persian Grammar. History and State of its Study. G. L. Windfuhr. Mouton De Gruyter (1979).

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Modern Persian

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