Detailed explanation of why Persian / Farsi is actually easier than the major European languages most people study
Friday, August 01, 2008
I've written about why Persian / Farsi is not only not a difficult language as a lot of people seem to think, and why it's actually easier than the languages most people study in university, such as German, French, Spanish, Latin, and so on. Today I think I'll try to write up a more complete overview that can put the matter to rest and act as a good reference point for the next time you notice a discussion on which language is easier / harder than others.
First, a general overview of what kind of language Persian is: Persian is an easy language cloaked in an air of seeming difficulty. It's not easy to learn for two reasons: 1) it uses the Arabic alphabet; 2) it's just not as easy to find places to use it as with languages like Spanish, French, German, and so on.
The language itself is quite easy to learn though, and because of reason 1) above I would recommend that anybody seriously learning or teaching the language over a long period of time (say over a 4-year period in university) should spend the first six months or so without learning the alphabet. It's much easier to get an idea of what the language is like when you don't have to up and learn a whole new alphabet at the same time.
Lastly, before beginning a detailed explanation of where Persian is easier to learn than a lot of other languages, I'd like to make clear the distinction between passive and active understanding. German is a perfect example of a language with relatively high passive understanding but with a complex grammar. Something like this for example:
Die deutschsprachige Wikipedia gratuliert der chinesischsprachigen Wikipedia zu 200.000 Artikeln.is quite easy for anyone with an elementary knowledge of German: it says "The German language Wikipedia congratulates the Chinese language Wikipedia on (to) 200,000 articles". Writing this is on your own is a different level of difficulty however, because you need to know that Wikipedia is feminine (die), that deutschsprachig (German speaking) becomes deutschsprachige after die, and so on. It's certainly not the world's hardest language but there's a lot to remember when writing things by yourself.
Persian is the opposite - it has much lower passive understanding for the English speaker but it's much, much easier to use. Now, let's get into the details:
Persian verbs are ridiculously easy.
Verbs in Persian are extremely easy. Like most Indo-European languages, they conjugate by using suffixes after the stem of the verb. Unlike most Indo-European languages, they are extremely regular. This regularity is seen in the following:
- Every single verb is regular in the past tense.
- The only verb irregularity ever seen is in verbs that have an irregular present stem. Once you have learned this stem, however, it conjugates regularly like any other.
- All verbs end in -tan or -dan in the infinitive.
- Take off the -an from this to get the past stem.
- Now we add a suffix to this. Suffixes are: -am for I, -îd for you, -îm for we, -nd for they, and no ending for he/she/it.
- All done! Close your book, there's no more learning the past tense anymore.
To be is budan. Take off the -an and we get bud. Now put on the suffixes, giving budam (I was), budîd (you were), budîm (we were), budand (they were), bud (it/he/she was). Another example is raftan, to go. Raftam, raftîd, raftîm, raftand, raft.
The present tense is like this except it takes off the whole -tan or -dan whereupon you add a mi- prefix, and some verbs have the irregular stem that you will need to learn once. Some examples:
To read is khândan. Take off the -dan and you have khân. Put the mî- prefix in the front, then put the same endings on the end (add an extra -d in the 3rd person). Now you have Mikhânam (I read), mikhânîd (you read), mikhânîm (we read), mikhânand (they read), mikhânad (he/she/it reads). That's easy. For verbs with the irregular stem you just remember that along with the regular stem when you learn it, and you're done. One example:
The verb to go, raftan, has an irregular rav- present stem. When learning raftan, remember that its present stem is rav, and you're done. Now it conjugates as regularly as the rest: miravam (I go), miravîd (you go), miravîm (we go), miravand (they go), miravad (he/she/it goes).
This may seem complicated at first glance, but remember that I've just explained just about everything you need to know to form the past and present tense in Persian. Let's compare this to a Western European language. We'll go with French:
être, to be:
Hmm, all irregular. How about:
aller, to go:
Irregular again! Hm, thinks the French student, maybe French verbs in the first person all end in -s. Nope:
donner, to give:
Up to six irregular forms for each verb in French. In Persian you'll find maybe one, and after you know that both past and present tense conjugate using the same suffixes.
Persian has no articles.
Persian has no words for the English the/a. That means that mard-e-khûb for example means good man, a good man, or the good man. But since English has articles too, not having them wouldn't be such an advantage, would it? Admittedly this is a bigger advantage for people that have a mother tongue that has no articles, but note that articles aren't used in the same way between languages, which is why you'll see the definite article for general terms like philosophy in French ("the" philosophy) and place names ("the" Canada), whereas German is the opposite in that you don't use the indefinite article when talking about professions (Ich bin Portier - I am doorman). That's where the Ich bin ein Berliner bit comes from, that Kennedy would have been better off saying Ich bin Berliner. With Persian you don't even have to think about that in the first place.
Persian has no cases.
(Note: this depends a bit on what you consider to be a case, but the main point here is that there's much less to learn)
Cases almost don't exist in English except in pronouns, which is why you have to say "she gives it to me" as opposed to "she gives it to I", and "for them" instead of "for they". Cases are bad enough when they apply to all nouns like in German, but even in languages where they don't you have to learn extra words with I, me, my, his, him, her, hers, their, them, and so on. Persian doesn't have this.
I is man in Persian. To is be, so "to me" is be-man. You is shomâ, so to you is beshomâ.
Genitive case (her, my, his, their, etc.) is the same thing. You take a noun, put an -e- in between, and then put the pronoun on the end. Water is âb, so my water is âb-e-man. Office is daftar, so your office is daftar-e-shomâ.
Persian adjectives can be used as adverbs.
For the most part adjectives can be used as adverbs. This means that khûb, good, can also mean well, just like how English often says "you did good" instead of "you did well". In Persian this is grammatically correct, however.
Persian words are intuitive and easy to build.
Here are a few examples:
- Kaghaz (paper) + khosk (dry) + kon (present stem of 'to do') = Kaghaz-e-khosk-kon (blotting paper, literally paper of dry make).
- Shahr (city) + dâr (present stem of 'to have') = shahrdâr, municipality. Adding an î to the end of this makes it into an adjective, giving shahrdârî, municipal.
Given the large amount of Arabic and Turkish loanwords these aren't as frequent as the student might like, but a lot of words are the same or almost the same: bad (bad), mâdar (mother), barâdar (brother), pâ (foot, think pedestrian), ast (there is, think German ist), nist (there isn't, think German nicht), pedar (father), to (informal 'you', think thou), etc.
And some other random notes:
- Ordinal numbers except 1st are all regular. Just put -om on the end of the number.
- Plurals are regular, ending in -hâ or -ân for living things. There are Arabic plurals for some words but there is nothing wrong with not using them (like Latin plurals of words like octopi for octopus).
- Relative clauses are easy, just using ke to join two clauses. "The coffee that he drank" for example is literally "Coffee ke he drank it". "The boy that went to school" is "Boy ke he went to school".
This post was written not with the intent of convincing anyone to drop German/French/what have you for Persian, because in spite of its grammatical simplicity Persian remains difficult to use in terms of finding places to use it, and economically it doesn't have that much clout.
However, due to the script there seems to be a lot of grouping it in with Arabic as one of those insanely hard languages capable of breaking even the most dedicated of minds. Arabic is certainly up there in terms of difficulty. Persian is not. If for example you are entering university and thinking of a career to do with the Middle East / intelligence gathering / international diplomacy and fluency in languages such as Persian / Arabic / Turkish is a plus, you might want to give Persian a closer look. Avoid the Perso-Arabic script for the first six months, focus on sentence structure and grammar, and then you'll realize that this language you've chosen to study is not the grammatical demon it's made out to be. And then after you learn it you can pretend that it was insanely difficult.
See, even Wikipedia agrees with me:
Persian grammar is similar to many other Indo-European languages, especially those in the Indo-Iranian family. Since Middle Persian it has had a relatively simple grammar, having no grammatical gender and few case markings.
Anything else to add on or any corrections? Feel free to leave comments below and I'll add them to the article if necessary.
Edit August 2nd: A member on reddit.com has made the point that I didn't really address how Persian is easier to learn than Arabic, which is a valid point because the title I used there was in reference to how much easier Persian is to learn, and that people interested in the Middle East / intelligence gathering / foreign relations and the like that don't like the thought of trying to learn Arabic might be interested in learning Persian instead. Since the two are unrelated (Arabic is a Semitic language whereas Persian is Indo-European) besides a lot of foreign loanword borrowing and using the same script (much in the same way that Japanese is unrelated to Chinese but has borrowed a lot of vocabulary) there are many ways in which Persian is easier for your average English speaker to learn than Arabic. I won't go over them all but here are a few good examples:
- Plurals: Persian plurals are regular; Arabic, like Latin, pluralizes words depending on what kind they are (gender for example). In Persian you can pluralize a few Arabic loanwords in the Arabic way if you want, but it's not necessary. Here are a few examples (note that the Arabic pronunciation is probably a bit different): hêivân (animal) becomes hêivânât, mîvé (fruit) becomes mîvéjât, manzel (house) becomes manâzel, khatar (danger) becomes akhtâr, zarf (bowl) becomes zorûf, mosâfer (traveler) becomes mosâferîn. In Persian the basic rule is just that -hâ is suffixed to non-living things, and -ân to the living.
- Arabic also has dual number in addition to the singular and plural.
- Arabic has 28 consonant phonemes, Persian 23.
- Arabic nouns and adjectives are marked for case, number, gender and state.
- Arabic verb conjugation is more complex, and depends on gender, number (including dual), etc. Here's a good example of how Arabic conjugation works.
- Being a Semitic language, there are almost no cognates like the Persian bad (bad), mâdar (mother), barâdar (brother) etc. given above. They certainly aren't the majority in Persian, but at least there are some. There are quite a few French loanwords as well; here is a list of some of them.