Farsi or Persian?

Farsi vs Persian?

by Peyman Nasehpour

Introduction. We Iranians, today, use the word "Farsi فارسی" for the official language of our country "Iran ایران", but using the word "Farsi" for the Persian language in English texts is an error allowed by usage. All the familiar expressions such as "Persian cat", "Persian empire", "Persian garden", "Persian music", "Persian palace", and "Persian rug" hint that it is better to emply the expression "Persian language" to indicate our language. This is a brief introduction to the use of the words "Iran", "Iranian", "Persia", "Persian", and "Farsi" in English texts.

A short lexical discussion of the name "Iran". Since the Sasanid era or even earlier, we Iranians have called our country "Iran ". In fact, on the Great Inscription of Shapur I, the King of Persia, Shapur I calls his country "Iran".

On the other hand, many Persian poets have included the name "Iran" in their works. For example, Rudaki who is considered to be the first major poet to write in "New Persian" says:

آن مه آزادگان و مفخر ایران

Persian poet Ferdowsi has used the word "Iran" extensively. Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi has included the word "Iran" at least thirty-one times in his works. I bring some of his verses including "Iran ایران" in the following:

مینگیز فتنه میافروز کین خرابی میاور در ایران زمین

In the above verse, Nizami recommends people "not bring failure and destruction to Iran".

همه عالم تنست و ایران دل نیست گوینده زین قیاس خجل

چونکه ایران دل زمین باشد دل ز تن به بود یقین باشد

In the above verses, Nizami analogizes the whole world and Iran to the body and its heart, respectively, and he adds that he is not ashamed of this comparison!

A short lexical discussion of the name "Persia". Native English speakers have called our homeland "Persia" and have called us "Persians" for centuries. Apparently, this originated in Greek texts. The Greeks, and later, the Romans and other Europeans called us Persia and anything related to us "Persian". Note that the words "Persia" and "Persian" are found in the oldest English texts. However, in 1789, the British philologist Sir William Jones used the word "Iranian" in English to describe different branches of the Persian languages in the family of Indo-European languages.

In the 1930s, the Government of Iran, in fact, Reza Shah decided to do something about the confusion between the words "Persia" and "Iran" and wanted the world to call our country "Iran" not Persia and after that, we became "The Kingdom of Iran" and now we are "The Islamic Republic of Iran". As of today, the United Nations and all countries refer to us as "Iran" with the abbreviation, IRN, and ".ir" is the Internet country code top-level domain (ccTLD) for Iran.

The use of the word "Persia" never ended in English-language newspapers and magazines. In fact, the confusion between Iran and Persia still exists, and maybe even more!

Fortunately, the meaning of Persia remains the same as before. It is the ancient land of fine arts! For instance, people love Persian famous poets such as Ferdowsi, Hafiz, Khayyam, Nizami, Rumi, and Saadi. However, the meaning of Iran is still not clear to some people! I have seen that people always ask the following questions:

  • Is Iran the same as Iraq?

  • Are Iranian people Arab?

  • Is the official language of Iranians Arabic?

It is evident that the country "Iran" is not the country "Iraq" and most Iraqi people speak Arabic. It is true that different ethnicities live in Iran and they speak different languages, but the official language of Iranians is Persian.

Based on this argument, the following suggestions are given:

  • Whatever is official or governmental should be translated into "Iran" and "Iranian". Some examples are "The Iranian Government", "Government of Iran", "Iranian President", and "President of Iran".

  • Whatever is related to culture, civilization, and art should be translated into "Persia" or "Persian". Some examples are "Persian art music", "Persian calligraphy", "Persian carpet", "Persian painting", "Persian rug", and "classical music of Persia".

  • It is better not to use the expression "Iranian language" except in the case that a linguistic discussion is on the table. The expression "Persian language" is more familiar to English-speaking people. Note that not all Iranians are native Persian speakers. For example, the mother tongue of almost one-third of Iranians is Azerbaijani and the Azerbaijani language is a branch of the Turkic languages.

  • Some use the word "Farsi" instead of the Persian language. This is right that we Iranians use the word "Farsi فارسی" for our language, but this is quite unknown to the rest of the world and a source of confusion. Let me add that the word "Farsi فارسی" is Arabicized of the word "Parsi پارسی" which means Persian. In some cases where the text is historical, it is better to refer the words "Persia" and "Persian", and not "Iran" and "Iranian", to show the antiquity of the text.


[Sa] Kamran Safaeian, Iran and Iranian in English, BAZ publications, 2001.

[Sp] Martin Sprengling, Third Century Iran: Sapor and Kartir, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953.

Keywords. Farsi, Persian, Dari, Tajik, language.