How Similar are the Arabic and Persian Languages
By Evan Ploeckelman / Arab America Contributing Writer
Arabic and Persian are two of the most important and widely spoken languages in the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asian regions. One might think they would be similar at first glance, as they have lived alongside each other in the region for centuries. While they do share a number of features in common, especially in terms of vocabulary, the languages are also extremely different in many ways.
Each language has extremely different origins. Arabic is categorized as a Semitic language, meaning it is closely related to languages like Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac, and Amharic. The Semitic languages are a branch of the larger Afro-Asiatic language family, meaning that it is more distantly related to Somali, Oromo, Tamazight, and Coptic/Ancient Egyptian. While there is one standard variety of Arabic, Fusha, or Modern Standard Arabic, every country has its own distinct dialect.
Persian, however, is a member of the Indo-Iranian language family, with its closest relatives being languages like Kurdish, Pashto, and Balochi. More distantly, this family includes Punjabi, Hindi-Urdu, and Bengali, among others. The Indo-Iranian family is one branch of the larger Indo-European language family, which includes other languages like Armenian, Greek, Russian, and nearly all European languages including English, French, and Spanish, among others. With knowledge of European languages, you will be able to notice some cognates in Persian. Here are some words: tondar, setaare, dandaan, dah. If you guessed thunder, star, tooth, and ten, you would be correct. Persian has three standard varieties: Farsi in Iran, Dari or Afghan Persian in Afghanistan, and Tajiki in Tajikistan, with Tajiki written in Cyrillic instead of the Arabic alphabet. Each region also has its specific dialect.
In terms of vocabulary, there has been borrowing in both directions, but Persian has borrowed far more from Arabic than the other way around due to the centuries Persian speaking regions spent under Arab rule. Many words have been borrowed and are used in everyday speech. For example, this is how you ask “How are you?” in both Arabic and Persian, formally:
Kayf Halukum? كيف حالكم؟
Hal-e shoma chetowr ast? حالِ شما چطور است؟
Each sentence is exactly parallel in meaning, with them both using Hal to mean condition. The Arabic sentence literally translates to “how your condition,” while the Persian sentence literally translates to “The condition of you how is?” We will discuss grammar later on. Other loan words into Persian include aHsas (feeling), SoHbat (conversation), vaght (time), Sabur (patience), mesle (like, similar to), and fahmidan (to understand), among countless others. Some Persians loans in Arabic include barnaamaj (schedule), banafsaji (purple), shaTaranj (chess), and bis (only, just).
In terms of their sounds, Arabic and Persian have some similarities, but also numerous differences. In general, they share the same alphabet; however, numerous Arabic sounds do not exist in Persian, so they are pronounced differently. Persian also has additional letters not in Arabic for sounds it does not have. These include a letter for the english P (پ), CH(چ), G (گ )(always g as in “goat), and a sound like the S (ژ) in leisure.
The grammar, however, is where the languages show the most differences. The word order in Arabic is Verb-Subject-Object in Fusha, and Subject-Verb-Object in most dialects. Persian, however, is Subject-Object-Verb. This explains the sentence structure in the previous sentences; in Persian, all of the nouns in a sentence must be before the verb (in this case, ast, or is), while in Arabic, the verb (which in this sentence is implied) comes between the nouns or before the first noun.
The two languages are different in other ways as well. Arabic forms vocabulary out of triconsonantal roots, fitting these roots into certain patterns to affect meaning. Persian, on the other hand, tends to use prefixes, suffixes, and root changes to change meaning. Arabic has two genders, masculine and feminine, whereas Persian does not have grammatical gender at all. Formally, Arabic has three cases (lost in nearly all dialects), whereas Persian uses prepositions and postpositions to mark cases. Arabic also has the dual number unlike Persian, whereas Persian has perfect tenses like English and Spanish but unlike Arabic.
The languages do have some similar grammar, however. They both have adjectives following nouns, and they both have a similar structure called iDaafa, or ezafe respectively. In Arabic, this structure links two nouns in the structure ____ al-_____, with the final noun in the genitive case. In Persian, this structure involves an -e (either unwritten or written with a kisra), and is used to connect a noun with another noun, adjective, or pronoun. In addition, both languages have suffixed pronoun endings that can be used to show the object of a sentence or to show possession; however, these endings are required in Arabic but in Persian can be replaced with free pronouns or the ezafe construction.
While Persian and Arabic developed in the same general region, they share many differences that make them certainly distinct. However, the similarities they possess make learning one after the other much easier, and should, in theory, allow for better connections between the people of these regions.
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