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Clear but not pure: the ideal use of language

Language has often been described as a central issue in the process of modernization in Iran.47 The linguistic question pertained not only to the unity of Iran as a multi-ethnic and multi-lingual country but at the same time to the restoration of Persian as a symbol of the nation’s identity and independence. Bahar does not stand apart from the chorus of voices that consider the status of the national language an indicator of the nation’s state. In an article dating from 1938, he argues for the conservation, thorough editing, and study of old

Persian texts48 because the preservation of these books made the language survive, which in turn affected “the persistence of the independence and political personality of Iran.”49

The Persian language is one of those languages that [ ... ] rest for their greater part buried under the ground. One part of it has been excavated, another part has been unearthed to a certain extent; one part has been damaged, another part has remained sound and beautiful in the depths of the earth. These should be unearthed by virtue of expertise and learning and the dust of oblivion and non-existence should be wiped off their surface.50

Language and fatherland (zaban va mihan) are closely connected through reciprocal exchange and influence. Whenever the fatherland is conquered by a foreign (-language) power, the mother tongue may decline, and whenever the language is not properly maintained, the nation will decline. The 4th-6th/ 10th-12th centuries saw great efforts to keep both fatherland and language alive, but the subsequent foreign conquests destroyed the linguistic achievements of these efforts: “And the main reason for this situation is the overthrow of the emperors of Iranian race (padeshahan-e irani-nezhad) and the rise of the foreign sultans (salatin-e ajnabi).51

The lines cited above suggest a historical view correspondent to the exigencies of Pahlavi nationalism. In this context, we have to address the problem of the Arabic influence on Persian and, concomitant with this question in the nationalist discourse of the twentieth century, what is generally called the “purification” of language.

To catch up with the “civilized world”, the architects of Iranian nationalism sought to “reawaken” the nation to self-consciousness by reactivating and inventing memories of the country’s pre-Islamic past. The simplification and purification of Persian were corollaries of this project of national reawakening. Like the glorification of the pre-Islamic past, these language- based movements helped to dissociate Iran from Islam and to craft a distinct national identity and sodality.52

The academy Farhangestan, the main body concerned with language planning, was established in 1935 and can be regarded as the institutional culmination of the idea of language “purification” and as an integral part of the Pahlavi concept of nation building. The Farhangestan and Sabk-shenasi are comparable both in terms of institutional linkage and of their focus on language. But whereas the Farhangestan is generally perceived as an institution that advocates Persification,53 Bahar’s position is not so easy to grasp.

Bahar’s analysis of changing stylistic preferences over the centuries relies for the greatest part on the introduction and use of Arabic vocabulary in Persian prose. The evolution from simple, fluent prose towards a complex, adorned style runs parallel to the quantity of Arabic words used in the texts - in other words, “the establishing of the literary-aesthetic (versus referential) function of Arabic in prose texts written in Persian.”54 Bahar draws up painstaking statistics of how many Arabic words are used in Persian texts during a given period of time. The amount of Arabic lexis and grammar in the Persian sources forms Bahar’s main criterion for the construction of stylistic epochs,55 an instance of heightened linguistic influence being tantamount to the deterioration of the language as a whole. On the structural level of its “plot,” Sabk-shenasi appears as “a study of the increasing (and increasingly degenerate) Arabization of Persian prose” and its “history (or story) [ ... ] appears to have been one of unsullied pristine origins, lofty early elegance, and increasing adulteration, corrosion, and decay.”56

Still, Bahar cannot be called a fighter for language purism and his set of arguments is worth a more detailed consideration. As a true evolutionary theorist, Bahar suggests that each and every cultural contact entails linguistic blending. A language takes what it needs from the other and adapts these elements to its own conditions: “The result of this kind of mixture is linguistic wealth, abundance in speech, broad thinking, and competent speakers who will be able to express the most varied meanings and intentions.”57 The fittest, who will survive, are neither the most noble nor the purest, but rather the ones able to adapt to new circumstances. According to Bahar, after the Islamic conquest the Persian language was able to respond to Arabic influence in a creative way and was greatly enriched by it. Indeed, we find in Bahar’s Sabk-shenasi many of the arguments that Bert Fragner put forward in his Persophonie.58

A lot of Arabic words which tended to be shorter, more simple in respect to form and rhythm (vazn) and which were better suited for common usage, replaced these [difficult Persian] words. In particular when a lot of synonyms had entered literature, the range of the Persian language expanded considerably.59

In Sabk-shenasi, the complex of “purification” is discussed within the framework of the development of the Persian language on the Indian subcontinent. Linguistic research, according to Bahar, was not promoted in Safavid Iran, but in Mogul India, which became the main producer of Persian lexicography. Performed in the service of Persian poetry in India, etymological research - as a result of a lack of reliable sources - often lead to false and “constructed” results. Bahar’s criticism is directed against linguistic deterioration and decline brought about by false etymologies rather than by “foreign” influence.

The style [of the court poets] encouraged people to take up ancient Persian words, and some of them began to prepare dictionaries. So they accumulated ancient words in books, no matter whether they had understood them or whether these words were correct or not. In order to augment their books, they turned to Zand and Avesta and asked the Zoroastrians for help. It is through them that constructed words found their way into the dictionaries.60

Bahar was definitely not an advocate of the unthinking replacement of Arabic by Persian words, and he considered the restoration of a pseudo-historical or pseudo-archaic stage of Persian, as had been attempted in the nineteenth century with recourse to Indian dictionaries of dubious reliability, to be detrimental to the language and an outright mistake. He carefully distinguishes the restoration of an earlier linguistic stage from the cultivation and revitalization of the actual language in his own times. He does not call for the reconstruction of the language of Ferdowsi and Hafez but for a language that functions as an efficient means of both literary and ordinary usage as it did in the times of Ferdowsi and Hafez. His credo rests in the communicative functions of the language, and he opts for simplification, general comprehensibility, and linguistic correctness, but not for “purification.”

Central to Bahar’s evolutionary argument is the notion of the “natural” as opposed to the “constructed.” In fact, by referring to tabi‘i (natural) and sakhteh (constructed), he modifies the long-standing opposition of matbu (natural) and masnu ‘ (artful/artificial), which appears in literary anthologies as early as pre-Mongol times.61 As “natural” factors for the evolution of languages, Bahar considers the influence of foreign words, the availability of certain quantities of competent speakers and authors, inventions and discoveries in other cultural, scientific, and technical fields, as well as the emergence of new sciences; whereas conscious fabrication and propagation of words and phrases are “artificial” and detrimental to the development of the language.

Another central issue in Bahar’s reflections about language is how the written/literary and the spoken/colloquial idioms (in his words zaban-e ketabi and zaban-e bumi) relate to each other. Whilst the everyday spoken language forms the actual basis of a living language, both idioms create a balanced system through their mutual monitoring. The conservation of historical strata of the language, in Bahar’s view, is not a value in itself but warrants the balance of the language system. While the colloquial is open to environmental influences the literary language remains conservative. Whenever the equilibrium is lost and a gap opens between the two, the language will suffer from communicative deficiencies as has occurred e.g. in Arabic.62 Bahar considers the problem to be virulent in Persian as well, but he recognizes that various measures may efficiently keep it in check. These are, on the one hand, the conservation of authoritative literary sources referred to above and, on the other hand, the preservation of local languages and dialects.63 Moreover, a comprehensive dictionary should register the fund of the contemporary lexis, and contemporary literary production should narrow the gap between the colloquial and the written idioms. These encyclopaedic ideas - at this time

‘Ali Akbar Dehkhoda was working on his Loghat-nameh - may be regarded as a call for standardization and control. In their comprehensive quality, however, they do not pave the way to static normativity but to the creation of a reservoir for linguistic change.

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