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History of Persian or Parsi Language
By: Fariborz Rahnamoon
Parsi or Persian was the language of the Parsa people who ruled Iran between 550 - 330 BCE. It belongs to what scholars call the Indo-Iranian group of languages. It became the language of the Persian Empire and was widely spoken in the ancient days ranging from the borders of India in the east, Russian in the north, the southern shores of the Persian Gulf to Egypt and the Mediterranean in the west.
Over the centuries Parsi has changed to its modern form and today Persian is spoken primarily in Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and parts of Uzbekistan. It was the language of the court of many of the Indian kings till the British banned its use, after occupying India in the 18 century. The Mogul kings of India had made Persian their court language. Engraved and filled with gold on walls of Delhi's Red Fort is the sentence "Agar Ferdows dar jahan ast hamin ast o hamin ast o hamin ast"; - 'If there is a paradise on earth it is here it is here it is here.'
Although the name of the language has been maintained as Persian or Parsi or its Arabic form Farsi (because in Arabic they do not have the letter P) the language has undergone great changes and can be categorized into the following groups.
Old Persian is what the original Parsa tribe of the Hakahmaneshinian (Achaemenid) era spoke and they have left for us samples carved on stone in cuneiform script.
Middle Persian is the language spoken during the Sasanian era also known as Pahlavi. We have plenty of writings from that era in the form of religious writings of the Zarathushti religion, namely the Bundahish, Arda Viraf nameh, Mainu Khared, Pandnameh Adorbad Mehresfand etc.
Classical Persian the origin of this language is not very clear. Words have their roots in different languages spoken in various parts of the country but the majority of the words have their roots in Old Persian, Pahlavi and Avesta. They are represented in classical writings and poems. Ferdowsi claims to have gone through great pains for a period of thirty years to preserve this language, which was under pressure from the Arab invaders, and was on the verge of being lost.
It is noteworthy that every country that the Arabs conquered lost its civilization, culture and language and adopted the Arabic language and way of life. For example Egypt whose people could build Pyramids, were good astronomers and possessed the art of mummification lost their culture and language to the Arabs and started living like them. It was only Iran that broke the trend and stood against the Arabs and preserved its culture and language and even adopted their own version of Islam by creating Shiaism.
Later when the Moguls invaded Iran the Iranians converted them into ambassadors of Iranian language, culture and art. The Moguls made Parsi their court language in India.
Modern Persian language or Farsi (Arabic pronunciation of Parsi) as spoken today consists of a lot of words of non-Iranian origin. Some modern technical terms, understandably, have been incorporated from English, French and German and are recognizable, but Arabic has corrupted a major part of the language by replacing original Parsi words. What Ferdowsi worked so hard to preserve is finally being lost.
The European words have usually come into use because there was no existing Persian word to describe the situation or product. Instead of coining a word the foreign word was imported with the product. For example with the imported car came the French form of its name 'Automobile'. It took some time and effort and support from the government to coin a Parsi word 'Khodrow' and replace the foreign word. Another example is the word 'Television', which has a less successful replacement 'Sadah va Seema', so also is the word 'Radio'. There are some non-technical words like 'Merci' (Thanks) that has settled into the Farsi language and many Iranians do not consider it as foreign, and the Parsi word 'Tashakor' is alternatively used in speaking but in writing it more often replaces 'Merci'.
Another example is the word "Salaam" which has been borrowed from the Arabs and is used by Iranians as a salute when two friends meet each other, instead of the Parsi salute "Rouz-e-gar Neek" and "Dorood". In Arabic "Salaam" means Peace but no Iranian is aware of its meaning or origin. The Arabs who lived as a tribe were always at war with each other; they always had their sword ready by their side. When they came close enough to each other they had to call out "Salaam" meaning I come in peace otherwise he was considered an enemy who had to be killed. Not replying to a Salaam, even among the Iranians who do not know that the word means peace, is considered as a sign of enmity.
These are example of some very common words. The corruption by Arabic words has done great damage to the Parsi language because it has not only replaced original Parsi words but also driven them out of the language, to the extend that reintroduction of these original Parsi words sound alien to many readers. The damage has been so extensive that Arabic words have even found their way into the latter editions of 'Khordeh Avesta' the prayer book of the Zarathushties, which one expects to be in Avesta language.
Parsi-e Tajik & Parsi-e Dari
The people of Tajikistan and Afghanistan have maintained a somewhat purer form of the Parsi language and call it Parsi-e Tajik in Tajikistan and Parsi-e Dari in Afghanistan.
The Dari language spoken by the Zarathushties of Yazd and Kerman has nothing in common with the Dari of Afghanistan. In fact the Zarathushti Dari is not understood by Farsi speaking people and is a language that has no script and has not been written. Children learn it as a mother tongue and it has been preserved in this fashion for centuries. The Zarathushties of Kerman born after 1940's do not speak Dari, because their parents, who thought that by speaking Dari their children would develop a Farsi accent unique to Dari speakers and thus be recognized as Zarathushti in school and thus be harassed by the Muslims, did not teach them Dari. Fortunately the Zarathushties of Yazd have maintained a strong link with this language and every child learns and speaks this language.