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Arabic-Persian Language Contact 1015

60. Arabic-Persian Language Contact

1. Introduction
2. Language contact in pre-Islamic times
3. Language contact in the Early Islamic Era
4. The emergence of New Persian
5. Later developments in language contact
6. Language contact in modern dialectal Arabic and Persian
7. References

The linguistic interference between Arabic and Persian manifests itself most strikingly in
the reciprocally borrowed lexicon. In the course of time, the contact between the two
languages varied according to which culture was more sophisticated. In the pre-Islamic
and early Islamic era Arabic adopted Persian lexemes that covered a wide range of terms,
such as botany, science and bureaucracy. After New Persian has emerged in the 9th
century AD, its vocabulary was inundated with Arabic language elements that were later
fully incorporated into the Persian language. However, it was not only lexical elements
that entered Persian: Arabic morphological and even syntactic features also found their
way into the language. In modern times, direct contact between Arabic and Persian is
clearly detectable in their geographically adjacent regions, e.g. Iraq and the Gulf. In these
two areas, local Arabic and Persian dialects embrace a number of words from the other
language; words that never became an integral part of the respective literary language.

1. Introduction
Linguistic interference between Arabic and Persian embraces two reciprocal processes
in the course of history. In the pre-Islamic and early Islamic era, when Iranian culture
was more sophisticated than the developing Arabic culture, Iranian language elements
entered Pre-Classical and Classical Arabic. After the first centuries of the Islamic rule,
when Arabic culture became well-established in the conquered territories, it exerted an
unprecedented effect on the emerging New Persian language, which in turn borrowed
numerous Arabic elements (Eilers 1971). Interestingly, whereas Arabic borrowed al-
most exclusively lexical items from Persian, Persian also incorporated Arabic grammat-
ical elements. The examination of the reciprocal process of these borrowings is the
examination of the evolution and the cultural history of the two languages.

2. Language contact in pre-Islamic times

Political and economic ties between Arabs and Persians go back well into the Achae-
menid period (559330 BC), although no linguistic contacts can be demonstrated with

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1016 VI. The Semitic Languages and Dialects IV: Languages of the Arabian Peninsula

certainty before the Sasanian era (224651 AD). The Sasanians exerted intense politi-
cal influence on the Arabian Peninsula. During their reign, Eastern Arabia, Oman and
parts of Yemen were principally subject to direct Persian control, but Persian influence
was also introduced in Yarib and even in Mecca. The most significant direct rule over
parts of Arabia was, however, imposed by the Arab Lakhmid dynasty, whose chiefs
were allies of the Sasanians. There was evidently a considerable Persian influence exer-
cised by Sasanian Persia over pre-Islamic Arabic culture and literature, mediated, in
particular, via the Lakhmids.
The vocabulary of pre-Classical Arabic mostly comprised words inherited from a
previous Semitic phase, but also incorporated many loans (muarrab or dala) from
Syriac, Aramaic, Greek, Latin and, of course, Persian. In many cases Aramaic was only
a mediator between Persian and Arabic, so the absence of a Persian loan-word in other
Semitic languages points to direct borrowing. These Persian loan-words came into Ara-
bic directly from Middle Persian (MPers.) or Pahlav, and probably from its spoken
variant called Dar.
ra, the capital of the Lakhmids, played an important role in the earliest phase of
lexical borrowings, since many of the greatest poets of the hilya went there to seek
the help and patronage of its rulers: Abd b. al-Abra, Labd and al-Nbia al-ubyn
to name but a few. The most important poet in this respect was al-A, a contemporary
of the Prophet, who was famous for his fondness for using Persian words in his poems,
including names of musical instruments, e.g. an cymbal; castanet (< MPers. ang
harp) with its derivative ann cymbal player; flowers, e.g. ysamn jasmine
(< MPers. ysaman); and other miscellaneous words, e.g. ahanh ruler, king of kings
(< MPers. hnh). Although some of these words subsequently fell into disuse, a
good number of them have gained ground in Arabic and are in use to this day (for a
list of Persian words in pre-Islamic poetry, see arn 1374/1995, 127144). These
borrowings did not exclusively affect poetry, but also found their way into the Qurn.
When Muammad founded Islam, he even borrowed the very term for religion (dn <
MPers. dn) from Persian. Furthermore, when he wished to amaze his followers by
describing what pleasures await the righteous, he frequently had recourse to Persian
terms. In general, Persian words tended to be borrowed by the Arabs for objects and
concepts which their own language, despite its richness, lacked: for cultural and, to a
lesser extent, religious and ethnic terms (for a list of such words, see Bosworth 1983,
In this early period, some Arabic forms preserved the Middle Persian ending -ag,
but in an Arabicized form, e.g. za fresh, new (< MPers. tzag). The existence of
this -a ending in Arabic words points to early borrowing, because Middle Persian -ag
disappeared later in New Persian, where it became -a. Persian words borrowed by
Arabic in the New Persian era took over this latter ending, cf. Ar. barnma pro-
gramme; index (< MPers. war-nmag head of a book) and Ar. rznma calendar,
almanac (< NPers. rz-nma journal, diary). As early as in the 8th century, Sbawayh
discussed in his Kitb what changes occurred in Iranian words when they entered
Arabic. He realised that these words were adapted to Arabic nominal morphology and
that sounds that did not have equivalents in Arabic were replaced by sounds close to
them in pronunciation, thus g by , k or q, e.g. h high rank; prestige (< MPers. gh
place, throne), kanz treasure (< MPers. gan), abaq plate, dish (< MPers. tbag
frying-pan); and p by b or f, e.g. fl elephant (< MPers. pl). Another phenomenon

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60. Arabic-Persian Language Contact 1017

of the lexical adoption was the emphatization of certain consonants, e.g. rawa (well-
watered) garden or meadow (< MPers. rd river) (Bosworth 1983, 610; the etymology
given by Asbaghi for this word is dubious, see Asbaghi 1988, 138).

3. Language contact in the Early Islamic Era

In the case of many Persian lexemes, however, it is not easy to determine whether they
entered Arabic before Islam or in the early Islamic period. As a result of the Arab
conquests, borrowings from the languages of the conquered peoples inevitably in-
creased. After the fall of the Sasanian Empire, Middle Persian started to lose ground
to Arabic, although for a short time it retained its original position as an administrative
language. When Abd al-Malik (d. 87/705) introduced Arabic as the language of admin-
istration in his empire, the indigenous Persian aristocracy (dihqn) became integrated
into the political and social fabric of Islam, and played an important role in setting up
the government of the eastern Islamic provinces. In this way, many Iranian words were
adopted in the field of statehood and military; notions that had antecedents in Sasanian
Iran, but were alien to the desert Arabs, e.g. dwn account books of the treasury;
collection of poems (< MPers. dwn archive, collected writings), wazr vizier, minis-
ter (< MPers. wizr decision, judgement). Arabic phonology was also slightly affected
by Persian. A well known feature of this is the pronunciation of postvocalic alveolars
as interdentals, e.g. bad Baghdad, although later on these interdentals shifted to
their corresponding plosives (Fischer 1982, 92).
In Persia, during the first centuries of Islam, Arabic remained the dominant lan-
guage in administration, religion, theology, science and culture. In the everyday inter-
course of the Iranian population, however, Arabic did not take root at all. Although
literary Middle Persian became limited to use by the Zoroastrians and their literature,
spoken Persian (Dar) remained a vernacular language in the new cities of the eastern
Islamic empire. Yet, the cultural role of Persian was diminished by the dominant posi-
tion of Arabic, and many Iranian scholars of the time became bilingual in Arabic/
Persian or even switched to Arabic completely. Indeed, some of the most important
scholars of Arabo-Islamic culture had Persian as their mother-tongue, such as the
grammarians Sbawayh (d. 177/793), al-Fris (d. 377/987), and later al-awlq (d.
540/1145), who compiled a dictionary on loanwords from Iranian and other languages
in Arabic. Loans in spoken Arabic dialects seem to have been more abundant than in
al-Fu. Al-arr (d. 516/1122) already quoted in his Durrat al-aww f awhm al-
aw the word ham also, too (Fischer 1982, 93), which never made its way into
literary Arabic (though the word has lived on to modern times, but its use is restricted
to Iraq, hamm, see Woodhead/Beene 1967, 483; and the Gulf region, ham, see Holes
2001, 545). In these early centuries Arabic was also characterized by regionalism; the
vernaculars of Iraq were subject to the influx of Iranian words to a greater extent than
those of Syria. This can be attested in Classical Arabic poetry: arr (d. 110/728) and
al-Farazdaq (d. 110/728) used more Iranian words in comparison with al-Aal (d. 92/
710), who lived in Syria.
Another outcome of the Islamic conquests was the settlement of many Arab tribes
in various parts of Iran. Due to their contact with the local population, it is probable

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1018 VI. The Semitic Languages and Dialects IV: Languages of the Arabian Peninsula

that the Arabic spoken in Iran had a huge impact on the Persian of the time, including
the adoption of the Arabic script in the emerging New Persian language and the bor-
rowing of a large amount of words.

4. The emergence of New Persian

In the eastern periphery of the Abbasid Caliphate, the Persian colloquial language
(Dar) emerged in a new form in the middle of the 9th century, now to be called New
Persian (NPers.). The weakening and the disintegration of the Caliphate must have
played a significant role in this Iranian cultural renaissance. There was, however, abso-
lutely no split from Islam or the Arabic language, and Arabic remained the main
language for scholarly pursuits. New Persian could only fill niches that Arabic could
not: local history writing, lyric and epic poetry. Even then, Persian was not a national
language in the modern sense of the word; it was usually kings of Turkish origin in the
courts of the newly independent Iranian dynasties (e.g. the Smnids in the 10th cen-
tury) who preferred Persian to Arabic. Given the universal cultural power of Arabic,
it was now this language that started to lend many of its words to enrich the vocabulary
of the developing New Persian language. On the whole, the most influential source of
loans into New Persian was Arabic. The earliest loanwords began to penetrate New
Persian in the 9th10th centuries (2030%). This process must have taken place in a
rather smooth fashion, as the phonological inventory of Early Classical Persian (the
first phase of New Persian, 9th12th centuries) was still close to that of Middle Persian
and also very close to that of Classical Arabic (e.g. NPers. mubriz fighter < Ar. mub-

4.1. Arabic elements in New Persian

Persian has never been inhospitable towards Arabic lexemes, which is manifested by
the fact that by the turn of the 11th and 12th centuries the proportion of Arabic loans
heavily increased (to ca. 50%). The majority of Arabic loans were already incorporated
into New Persian by the late 12th century and have, until recently, showed a remarkable
steadiness. But, as will be seen later, the impact of Arabic showed itself not only on
the lexical level but also on the morphological and even syntactic level. After the fall
of Baghdad in 1258, Arabic lost its foothold in the eastern provinces, thereby drawing
the final border between Arabic and Persian. The Mongol Ilkhnids, who as non-
Muslims were not dependent on Arabic, made Persian their language of education and
administration. Despite the great loss they caused to Iran through their conquest, this
period (13th14th centuries, the starting point of the second phase of New Persian,
called Classical Persian) is considered to be the climax of Persian literature. This is
also the epoch when literary Persian was, probably in the most extreme way, immersed
in Arabic. Writers of this era, such as Sad (d. 691/1292), not only inundated their
works with Arabic elements, but even used Arabic morphology and semantics freely
by coining new and innovative meanings to words, e.g. aqa lightning instead of the
current Arabic/Persian iqa, and bal liar instead of its regular meaning inactive,
unemployed man (whereas the word for liar in Arabic would be mubil).

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60. Arabic-Persian Language Contact 1019

4.2. Types of Arabic elements in New Persian

The linguistic influence of Arabic is most evidently detectable in the lexicon of Persian,
and somewhat less so in phonology and morphosyntax (Perry 2005). The initial step
in the adoption of Arabic lexemes was the adoption of the script itself. New Persian
began to use a vaguely modified Arabic script; it had 32 letters, 28 were taken from
Arabic and 4 new letters supplied with three dots were added to represent Persian
phonemes. Because of the impact of Arabic loanwords, the phonological inventory of
Early Classical Persian was augmented with new phonemes compared to Middle Per-
sian. The most distinctive new phoneme is the glottal stop, which originated in two
separate Arabic phonemes represented by the letters hamza and ayn.
As regards morphosyntax, some grammatical elements of Arabic were also trans-
mitted into Persian, especially in nominal morphology. These include regular and bro-
ken plurals (musfir-n passengers the acc./gen. form is used instead of the nom.
form , iss-t emotions, nigri-t writings, qurn centuries, supplemented with
innovative Persian usages, e.g. awla-t money orders, arab-h Arabs); ifa-
structures (bayt ul-ml treasury, dastr ul-amal prescription); feminine gender and
gender agreement (quwwa-yi darrka perceptive power, umar-yi aw noble
emirs). A remarkable feature is the re-borrowing of words of Persian origin that had
previously been adopted by Arabic and furnished there with a broken plural, e.g.
MPers. ghr substance, essence; jewel > Ar. awhar, pl. awhir > NPers. awhar
substance, essence; acid, NPers. awhir jewel, pl. awhir-t; or MPers. byestn
flower garden > Ar. bustn garden, pl. bastn > NPers. bustn, pl. bastn. In the
field of word-formation Persian shows ingenious methods based exclusively on Arabic
patterns, on the one hand through derivation (dilat or dalat interference, together
with the original Arabic form mudila: awl-tar prior, superior, bal-dan to swal-
low, aqall-an with the tanwn-ending meaning at least), and on the other hand, by
forming compounds. The formation of compounds was one of the most developed
means in New Persian of enlarging vocabulary with Arabic loans. Compounds can
either be word-compounds (waan-parast patriot, muwfiqat-nma letter of agree-
ment, contract, ib-naar clear-sighted person) or phrasal-compounds (tamm gir-
iftan to decide, l-ubl-gar carelessness, ala l-u particularly).
In the Arabic lexicon of the recipient Persian language certain other characteristics
can be observed, such as phonetic changes (man meaning < Ar. man, madrisa
school < Ar. madrasa, ikl shape, form < Ar. akl, where the Persian pronunciation
may follow the Arabic dialectal form), semantic changes (ubat speech < Ar. uba
companionship, kitbat writing and kitba inscription < Ar. kitba writing), and
occasional imla in elevated style (iz iz).

5. Later developments in language contact

Persian words continued, although with much less intensity, to penetrate into Arabic
in later centuries, e.g. ar stable (< NPers. ur/r) via Turkish in the Mamlk
era, or qunbula bomb (< NPers. umpra) in Ottoman times (Fischer 1982, 152).

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1020 VI. The Semitic Languages and Dialects IV: Languages of the Arabian Peninsula

Modern Persian (the third phase of New Persian, from the 19th century onwards)
is still deeply rooted in Arabic, since Arabic loanwords constitute more than 50% of
its vocabulary, and in elevated styles (religious, scientific) they may exceed 80%. Even
if the proportion of Arabic loans may fluctuate according to age, genre, social context
or even idiolect, a Classical or a Modern Persian style entirely deprived of Arabic loans
is almost impossible, despite intermittent linguistic purity and reawakening movements
(bzgat-i adab) over the centuries. In the modern era, no education in Persian is
conducted in the Arabic-speaking world, whereas in Iran compulsory education in
Arabic is part of the curriculum. Nonetheless, since Arabic is not taught as a living
language, Iranians are unable to read Arabic texts, let alone to converse in Arabic,
and may even find it difficult to understand the Arabic insertions in the Persian liter-
ary works.

6. Language contact in modern dialectal Arabic and Persian

This linguistic situation is more complicated due to the presence of an Arabic-speaking

minority within the boundaries of Iran. How much of the population of present-day
Iran is ethnically Arab and Arabic-speaking is hard to say, but it is estimated that
3% of Irans 70 million citizens are Arabs, which would put the Arab population at
approximately 2 million, of whom the majority live in zistn (for other figures, see
Oberling 1986, 216). Since the Sasanian era, this region has been extensively Arabized,
so that until 1925 it was called Arabistn but owing to the large-scale immigration of
Persian families into the larger towns over the past decades, only the countryside is
still mostly Arabic-speaking. Although the province is politically part of Iran, linguisti-
cally its Arab population forms a unit with the southern Mesopotamian area, more
precisely with the Muslim gilit-dialects current among the sedentary and non-sedentary
population of Southern Iraq. Similar to the wide range of Persian lexical elements in
Iraqi Arabic (e.g. parda curtain < NPers. parda), zistn Arabic is significantly
influenced by Persian. The speech of the zistns can most easily be distinguished
from that of the neighbouring Iraqi townspeople by the great number of Persian words
they employ, especially administrative terms (for a list of words, see Ingham 1997, 25).
The use of these words generally occurs through code-mixing.
zistn is not the only province inhabited by Arabs in Iran. In many corners of
its vast territory small pockets of Arab communities can be found, such as in several
districts of ursn (Zr Kh, Saras) and the large Sunni Arab population along the
coast of the Persian Gulf (for other areas with Arab tribes, see Oberling 1986, 215 ff.).
The coastline stretching from bdn to approximately the town of sk has a distinc-
tive Arab character due to its interrelation in an ethnic, commercial, cultural and lin-
guistic sense with the territory of the present-day Arab Gulf states. As a result, dozens
of Arabic words penetrated into the Persian dialects spoken on the Iranian side of the
Gulf (generally technical terms of pearl-diving, fishing and traditional shipbuilding, e.g.
mur shellfish, oysters < Ar. mar, miflaga knife for opening clams < Ar. *maflaqa
tool for breaking something open), just as a substantial number of Persian words
became part of the Arabic dialects along the southern side (in Kuwait, parts of Saudi

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60. Arabic-Persian Language Contact 1021

Arabia, Barain, Qatar, the UAE and Oman, e.g. mwa fruit (< NPers. mwa), dir-
wza gate (< NPers. darwza). Both groups of lexical items underwent certain
changes in order to meet the standards of the phonology of the host language.

7. References
arn, .
1374/1995 Rhh-yi nuf-i frs dar farhang wa zabn-i arab-i hil [Ways of the Influ-
ence of Persian on the Culture and Language of the Pre-Islamic Arabs]. Tihrn: Inti-
rt-i Ts.
Asbaghi, A.
1988 Persische Lehnwrter im Arabischen. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz.
Bosworth, C. E.
1983 Iran and the Arabs before Islam. In: E. Yarshater (ed.). The Cambridge History of Iran,
Volume 3 (1) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) 593612.
Eilers, W.
1971 Iranisches Lehngut im Arabischen. In: Actas. IV congresso de estudios rabes e islmi-
cos. Coimbra Lisboa 1 a 8 de Setembro de 1968 (Leiden: Brill) 581660.
Fischer, W. (ed.)
1982 Grundriss der arabischen Philologie. Wiesbaden: Reichert.
Holes, C.
2001 Dialect, Culture, and Society in Eastern Arabia. Volume One: Glossary. Leiden, Boston,
Kln: Brill.
Ingham, B.
1997 Arabian Diversions. Reading: Ithaca Press.
Oberling, P.
1986 Arab. iv. Arab Tribes of Iran. In: E. Yarshater (ed.). Encyclopaedia Iranica (London,
Boston and Henley: Routledge & Kegan Paul) 215219.
Perry, J. R.
2005 Lexical Areas and Semantic Fields of Arabic Loanwords in Persian and Beyond. In: .
A. Csat et al. (eds.). Linguistic Convergence and Areal Diffusion: Case studies from
Iranian, Semitic and Turkic (London: Routledge) 97109.
Woodhead, D. R. and W. Beene (eds.)
1967 A Dictionary of Iraqi Arabic, Arabic-English. Washington, D. C.: Georgetown Univer-
sity Press.

Dnes Gazsi, Iowa City (USA)

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