Arabic VS Persian (AKA Farsi or Iranian) – Are They The Same Language?

People often ask if Arabic and Persian is the same language.

Let me start by saying this: No. They aren’t.

Many people think that Arabic and Persian (or Farsi) are the same language. There are probable three main reasons for this misconception: Both are written with the Arabic script, they’re spoken in the Middle East and they’re spoken by peoples who are, for the most part, Muslim. The reality is that Arabic and Persian belong to two different language families, they have complete different grammar and pronunciation, and while Persian has a lot of Arabic loan-words, most words are very different.

In reality, Persian is closer to English than it is to Arabic, because it belongs to the Indo-European language family. Arabic, on the other hand, belongs to the Semitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic language family, meaning that Arabic is a cousin of Hebrew.

If you still find it strange that the two languages are utterly unrelated despite (superficially) resembling one another, think of a language such as Finnish. Finnish is written like the Latin alphabet, just like English, and if you didn’t know either language, they’d look alike. But they’re not even remotely related. (And if you don’t know how foreign Finnish is, check out this Finnish translation of the famous “I Have A Dream” speech).

In the following, I’m going to go a little more into detail on the differences between Persian and Arabic history, their alphabets, how they’re pronounced, their grammar, and their vocabulary.

Before I do that, let me just mention a few key data about the two languages:

  • Persian, also known as Farsi is an Indo-Iranian language of the Indo-European language family. Arabic is a Semitic language of the Afro-Asiatic language family.
  • Persian has around 70 million native speakers in Iran, Afganistan and Tajikistan. In Afganistan it’s known as Dari and in Tajikistan as Tajik. Arabic is spoken by 310 million native speakers (in some form) across the Middle East and North Africa.
  • While different dialects of Persian are relatively close, Arabic dialects are sometimes considered distinct languages and are not all mutually intelligible.

The Shared – And Not So Much Shared – History Of Arabic And Persian

Persian and Arabic were two isolated languages spoken by two very different cultures up until the 7th century when the Arabs began their conquest of what is today Iran. The war-efforts were no easy feat, and since the Persians were a well established and developed civilization at the time, it took two centuries before Persian territory came under Arab rule.

From the 9th century, the Arabic language replaced the Middle Persian language in the administration and government, and with the introduction of Islam to Persian lands, it became the all-dominating language of religion.

While ordinary Persians still spoke a form of Middle Persian, a vast number of Arabic loan-words were gradually introduced, especially in religious vocabulary. The grammatical structure of Middle Persian was largely unchanged, however, and Arabic words were adapted to be able to work with Persian grammar.

In this same period, the Arabic script was introduced for writing the Persian language. It replaced the Pahlavi script as well as other scripts that were used in different regions of Persia. The Arabic script wasn’t entirely adequate for rendering Farsi phonology, however, and a few modifications were made to it in order to make it work.

In the following centuries, multiple attempts have been made to “purify” the Persian language and replace Arabic loan-words with Persian vocabulary (much like it happened with Turkish in the 20th century), but to this day, a significant amount of Persian vocabulary still has Arabic roots.

Arabic And Persian Share An Alphabet, But There Are Differences

I’ve already mentioned that Persian and Arabic use the same alphabet, but it’s only a half-truth. While Persian has all the letters present in Arabic, many of them are pronounced differently from how they’re pronounced in Arabic because the sounds they represent simply don’t exist in the Persian language.

Persian equally has a few sounds that aren’t present in the Arabic language, which has called for the need of a few extra letters, which have been created for the Persian language.

In the following I’m going to try and list the Arabic and Farsi scripts side by side to see how they compare. When the letters have different pronunciation or no equivalent, they are bolded.

Arabic letterEnglish pronunciationFarsi letterEnglish pronunciation
ءGlottal stop (How the British block the air when saying “butter” (bu’er)ءSame as in Arabic
اPlaceholder for “A”, “I” or “U”اSame as in Arabic
ب“B”بSame as in Arabic
N/Aپ“P”
ت“T”تSame as in Arabic
ث“TH” as in “These”ث“S”
ج“J” as in “Jack”جSame as in Arabic
N/Aچ“CH” like in “Chutney”
حEmphatic “H” pronounced with a constriction in the gorge. Like the English “H”, but stronger. (example)حLike an English “H” (Same as “ه”)
خLike the “ch” in Scottish “loch”, or the Spanish “J” or the Dutch “G”. (example)خSame as in Arabic
د“D”دSame as in Arabic
ذ“DH” as in “there”ذ“Z” (Same as “ز”)
ر“R”, but thrilled. (example)رSame as in Arabic
ز“Z”زSame as in Arabic
N/Aژ“ZHE” like the “S” in “measure”
س“S”سSame as in Arabic
ش“CH” as in “Chimpanzee”شSame as in Arabic
صEmphatic “S” (example)ص“S” (same as “س”)
ضEmphatic “D” (example)ض“Z” (Same as “ز”)
طEmphatic “T”
(example)
ط“T” (same as “ت”)
ظEmphatic “DH” (example)ظ“Z” (Same as “ز”)
عA “forced” sound from the throat while vibrating the vocal chords. (example)ع“A” or as the glottal stop “ء”
غLike the French “R”. Thrilled from the back of your mouth. (example)غSame as in Arabic
ف“F”فSame as in Arabic
قA special “Q” that sounds a little like a combination of “G” and “K”. (example)ق(Same as “غ”)
ك“K”کSame as in Arabic
N/Aگ“G” as in “good”
ل“L”لSame as in Arabic
م“M”مSame as in Arabic
ن“N”نSame as in Arabic
ه“H”هSame as in Arabic
و“W”و“V” as in “value”
ي“Y”یSame as in Arabic

From the above, you can see that Persian, or Farsi has a few letters that don’t exist in Arabic. These are:

  • پ – Pronounced like a “P”
  • چ – Pronounced like the “CH” in “Chutney” or “Church”
  • ژ – Pronounced like the “S” in “Measure”
  • گ – Pronounced like the “G” in “Good”

The Persian language equally has several letters that sound the same as other letters. These are mainly used for writing Arabic loan-words. They are the following:

  • غ and ق which are both pronounced the a “French R”.
  • ع and ء which are pronounced like a glottal stop, like when the British say “Butter” as “Bu’er” or when you say “uh-oh”. They can also be pronounced like an “A”.
  • ذ ,ز ,ض ,ظ  which are all pronounced like “Z”.
  • ح and ه which are both pronounced like “H”.
  • ث ,س ,ص  which are all pronounced like “S”.
  • ت and ط which are both pronounced like “T”.

In terms of vowels, Arabic and Persian are relatively close. They both have three short vowels and three long vowels. The short vowels are normally not written whereas the long vowels are represented by the letters “ا”, “و” and “ي” in different variations.

While the above alphabet comparison is valid for Persian and the Dari of Afghanistan, the variant spoken in Tajikistan is written with the Cyrillic alphabet.

How Arabic And Persian Grammar Compare

Arabic and Persian are extremely different grammar wise and have almost nothing in common. This is obviously due to the fact that they’re two languages from different language families, but they could have had at least a few things in common!

Well, they don’t.

Morphology

Arabic is well known for its “triliteral root system” which is the morphological system that builds up almost every word in the entire language from “root” words of three (or sometimes four) letters. The most common example is the root “k-t-b” which has to do with everything about writing, and books. “Kataba” means “he wrote” “kitaab” is a “book”, “kaatib” is a writer, “maktab” is an library, “muktabun” means “dictated” and the list goes on.

Conjugation of verbs, noun declension and other kind of word inflection follow strict rules and the language, while extremely complicated, is very logical.

Persian doesn’t use this system and each word is just a word in a way that seems much more “organic” than it’s the case with Arabic. While “book” is also “kitaab”, because it’s a loan-word from Arabic, the plural doesn’t follow an Arabic pattern and other “related” words aren’t formed from the same root.

The Persian language does, however, have a system of prefixes and suffixes that it uses to form new words, and it’s possible to form a great variety of words based on these principles.

What’s different from the Persian prefixes and suffixes to the Arabic system of triliteral roots, is that the Persian system ads and subtracts elements to or from words and that these elements have meaning by themselves. This isn’t the case for Arabic where only the root is to be considered a proper word, where as the modifications are meaningless when isolated.

In Arabic, words commonly change internally as well in accordance with repetitive patterns, like the broken plural where the word “kitaab” (book) becomes “kutub” (books). This doesn’t happen in Persian, where word “parts” are simply added one after another.

Word Order

The syntax or word order is also different between the two languages. While Arabic (surprisingly) shares the same word-order as English (Subject-Object-Verb), Persian builds up sentences in the SVO order, or Subject-Verb-Object.

Gender

The Arabic language has two grammatical genders, a little like in French. Unlike French, however, the article “al” is the same for both masculine and feminine nouns (where the French language uses “le” and “la”). Nouns can either be feminine or masculine and any adjective will take either a masculine or a feminine form depending on which gender noun it attaches to.

In Persian there’s no gender – much like in English.

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Like English, Persian uses definite and indefinite articles like “the” and “a”. But not exactly in the same way.

In the Persian language, all nouns are simply definite unless the indefinite article is used. So in other words, if you need to make a noun definite like “the bicycle”, you simply say “bicycle” and it’ll be definite. If you want to make it indefinite you add the indefinite article (in English “a” bicycle).

Formal And Informal Registers

Another difference between the two languages is that Persian has a “polite” and “familiar” pronoun, much like it’s the case with French.

The French familiar pronoun “tu” (which corresponds to “thou” in English) is “tó” in Farsi and the polite form which we know in French as “vous” is “šomā”. “Vous” and “šomā” alike are also the plural pronouns.

Like it’s the case with French, the pronoun used in the Persian language also influences how words are conjugated and different verb-conjugations are used whether you use “tó” or “šomā”.

Arabic, on the other hand, doesn’t have a polite and familiar pronoun. At least not one that’s ever used. Some sources mention the possibility of “antum” being used as a extremely formal way of addressing a single individual, but this is very rare.

Diglossia

The Arabic language is known for its diglossia, which is the phenomenon of two forms of a language being spoken in a society. With Arabic there’s a formal, universal version of the language called Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) which is used for writing, news, politics, public announcements and anything “official”. In everyday life, however, Arabs and Arabic speakers all over the word use a great number of different dialects to communicate.

These dialects are so different from MSA in some cases, that some consider them separate languages. This is especially the case from the dialects spoken in North Africa or the Maghreb, where the spoken languages are strongly influenced by the local Berber languages as well as French, Spanish and other languages in addition to the gradual changes that the dialects have undergone over time.

The diglossia of the Arabic language(s) represents a serious obstacle for people learning Arabic, because if you want to master both conversation and the written words, you’d need to effectively learn two forms of the language. And then there’s the question of which dialect to learn, because the individual Arabic dialects aren’t always mutually intelligible.

The Persian language, on the other hand, doesn’t have this problem. While different dialects of the language exists, not only between the different countries that speak different variants of Persian, but also regionally, the differences are far from being as great as they are in Arabic.

Vocabulary In Arabic And Persian

So how do Arabic and Persian compare in terms of vocabulary?

The two languages have many words in common, but Arabic loan-words in Persian is much more common than Persian loan-words in Arabic.

While it’s hard to come by exact numbers, everyday spoken Persian probably uses around 10% words of Arabic origin. In writing, it’s probably closer to 20%, and the more formal and academic the writing, the higher rises the number. In religious texts, it’s not uncommon to see almost half of the words used being of Arabic origin.

Arabic words aren’t imported directly into Persian “as they are” however. Most words of Arabic origin will be modified and adapted to work with Persian grammar and despite the Arabic words being based on the triliteral root system where conjugation and new word creation follow very specific principles, in Persian, they’re considered individual words which can only be modified through the Persian system of prefixes and suffixes.

Apart from loan-words, however, Persian and Arabic have nothing in common vocabulary wise. The basic vocabulary in the two languages are unrelated and have no common ancestor, which makes for two distinctly different languages vocabulary-wise.

Conclusion: How Similar Are The Two Languages?

So how much do Persian and Arabic actually have in common?

Not a lot! The only similarity actually seems to be the script and the Arabic loan-words that you might find in Persian. The grammar is completely different, there’s no relationship between the lexicon (apart from loan-words) and the pronunciation doesn’t have any more in common than it would be the case between any two languages.

In other words: There isn’t really a good reason to compare Arabic and Persian in the first place. It’s like comparing apples and oranges, and apart for the shared history where the two languages have influenced one another superficially, they aren’t very much alike.

So wouldn’t it be an advantage to know Persian if you were to learn Arabic for example?

Well, the more languages you know, the easier it gets to learn any new language – in general. And sure – if you know a few Arabic words from the loan-words already present in Persian, you might find it a little easier to learn the equivalent Arabic words. But it won’t help you as soon as you need to actually use the words.

And knowing the script beforehand is great, but you’ll still need to learn to pronounce it like it’s pronounced in Arabic which is no small feat. And learning the writing system is actually one of the easiest tasks when learning foreign languages.

Conclusion: Arabic and Persian are very different and they’re definitely not the same language!

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