Sunday, March 16, 2008

Farsi/Persian: A beautiful language, a deep attachment

My relationship with Farsi, also known as Modern Persian, goes back over 30 years. We learned that my dad, an Air Force officer, had been assigned to go to Tehran to join thousands of other American military personnel in upgrading the training of the Iranian Air Force. As a confirmed language fan even then, my first interest was to study the language of the country, generally known as Farsi (though some people in academia prefer the name Persian). With the help of Elementary Persian Grammar by L. P. Elwell-Sutton, I set out on this interesting journey. It took some time and concentration to learn the alphabet. I even made a large poster of it. I also started to learn some words.

We arrived in Iran about November 1, 1976. In January 1977 my parents and I started taking the first level of Farsi courses offered by the Iran American Society. After a few months of memorizing dialogues and vocabulary lists, and drilling numerous grammatical patterns with the help of our teacher, Homa Salehizadeh, I had gained a basic conversational ability.

My knowledge proved useful for handling purchases at the corner store and also at the U.S. Army Motor Pool, which gave summer jobs to many American high schoolers. We worked under Iranian employees who did not know English (there was a floating interpreter who went from shop to shop to facilitate communication where needed). My modest command of Farsi proved very helpful as I worked in the carpentry shop. Also, the son of the shop supervisor came in sometimes. He was a university student studying English, with the goal of becoming a translator.
I learned the Farsi names of quite a few tools from him, and he learned their English names from me.

Over time, I continued to acquire vocabulary and gain better (though never excellent) control of the grammar. One thing that greatly hampered my study was the lack of an adequate dictionary. There were large dictionaries by S. Haim readily available, but they were designed for native speakers of Farsi who were studying English, not native English speakers learning Farsi. What this meant was that most Farsi words did not have vowels marked, which meant that a non-native had to guess among many possibilities. In practice, this meant that I never shelled out the many rials that such a dictionary would have cost.

Instead, I used the one dictionary that I knew of that showed the vowels of every word: Ann K. S. Lambton's Persian Vocabulary. This was great as far as it went, but it didn't go all that far. It was designed to be used in a classroom with her Persian Grammar textbook. It was definitely not designed to be practical in everyday use in the life of a city. I became so frustrated with its frequent failure to include words I came across, or to include the right meanings for many words, that I added some uncomplimentary words above and below the title on the half-title page: "Greatly Abridged, Short" Persian Vocabulary "For the User of Impractical Persian." My favorite example of an inadequate selection of meanings has to do with the word roughan. I saw this word regularly on billboards. When I looked it up in Lambton, I found the glosses "clarified butter" and "grease". I finally learned, probably from context, that on the billboards it meant "motor oil". One of the words in the vocabulary that struck me as most useless was "Transoxania"--what on earth could that be? What was it doing in this crazy dictionary when it lacked such obviously necessary words as "airport" and "driver"? I suppose that these words just did not occur in the literary texts that Lambton designed her vocabulary for. I eventually learned that Transoxania is a geographical term which refers to a region of Central Asia to the northeast of Iran. A lot of good that did me on the streets of Tehran, but I guess it proved useful to Lambton's classroom students way off in Britain.

One thing I did to help reduce the shortcomings of Lambton's vocabulary was to add every word in Elwell-Sutton's vocabulary that was not already in Lambton. I also added some words from my IAS texts. Probably some of my additions came from other sources as well. The dictionary still lacked many necessary words, but that was as much as I could do at the time. Fortunately, much better dictionaries have appeared in the intervening years. For discussion of some of these, see my reviews on Amazon.

Moving on from my griping, I remember when our family went on a tourist trip to some northern towns. I was able to have limited but interesting conversations with people on the street. That felt very rewarding. By the time I left Iran, I had arrived at what I later learned to call an FSI 2+ level, which meant "limited working proficiency." (FSI stood for "Foreign Service Institute." It has now been changed to ILR, "Interagency Language Roundtable.")

I have dabbled in Farsi off and on over the years since, because it has always had a powerful esthetic appeal to me. It is a beautiful, poetic language. However, my current level is probably around 1+ or 2. I have been sitting in on a Farsi class at a nearby university once a week, which is as often as my schedule permits. This has helped revive some dormant bits of knowledge, as well as adding some new bits. I'm sure I'll keep working on Farsi from time to time. It just fascinates me. Who knows, maybe one of these years I'll be able to read the fine poetry which is the heart of Persian literature.


Keivan said...

go make some Persian friends say your half iranian, they wont leave you alone, youll learn teh language rapidly

Reza Hosseini said...

Best way is to spend some weeks in Iran & you will learn everything !

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