Without asking the right questions and finding the right answers we often jump to conclusions.
It’s only natural without the information, to make an assumption. One such assumption with language learning is that Persian is an Arabic Dialect.
Persian or Farsi, is an independent language system and sounds very different.
Yet, with its shared writing and alphabet crossover, people interested in languages and language learning often have a lot of questions.
So we are here to set the record straight on the key similarities and differences between Persian and Arabic.
The best place to start with that is to look at the history, the alphabet, pronunciation, and sentence structures.
So let’s Begin with our overview.
Farsi (Persian) vs Arabic Overview – Similarities and Differences
Persian Vs Arabic Language History
As our intro clarified, Arabic and Persian are different languages, both share a common alphabet aside from a few distinct letters and differences in pronunciation.
To understand why first we should think about the origins of the alphabet and script.
- Arabic is one of the six major Semitic languages.
- In the early days, Arabic was mostly an oral language rarely written down.
- Over the years Classical Arabic, Modern Standard Arabic, and Dialectal (Colloquial) Arabic evolved and formed, bringing with it distinct dialects such as Egyptian, Gulf, Maghrebi, and Levantine.
Before we look at the evolution of Persian, we want to clarify in this article we are referring specifically to the culturally dominant Tehrani accent spoken in Iran.
(Although we may make mention of the Persian spoken in Afghanistan and Tajikistan if so we will as Dari or Tajik.)
- Persian, known as Farsi (originally Parsi) to Persian speakers, is an Indo-European pluricentric language.
- It has more in common with Latin, Germanic and Slavic Languages!
- It was originally written in Cuneiform, rather than the script it appears in today.
- Over the years it began to borrow from the many Semitic languages that developed in the Middle East.
- For this reason, it has some overlapping vocabulary that translates from Arabic to Persian. This generally concerns words with Islamic ties and sophisticated language.
Farsi which is written in Perso-Arabic script may appear the same as Arabic to someone who doesn’t speak either language.
But Farsi isn’t always written with these characters! Tajik, the language spoken in Tajikistan is the same as the Persian spoken in Iran, it has its own accent but is written in Cyrillic script, like Russian, and has adopted a few Russian words!
But for this article, we are focusing on the written Persian of Iran and Afghanistan that uses a Perso-Arabic script.
In this case, Persian and Arabic are more or less the same to read. They are written and read from right to left and many letters only differ in pronunciation.
Therefore a speaker of either language who hasn’t learned the other could pick up a newspaper and read each word, pronouncing the letters their own way, but even if a word had the same triconsonants they could have totally different meanings.
With lexical connotation, they may be able to pinpoint some major words with a similar meaning, and with that, they may be able to take a good guess at the topic of the article, but wouldn’t be privy to any details.
But if they had to listen to a spoken report they would find themselves totally lost. The oral differences are much bigger.
Look at the verb roots for “to look” in Persian and Arabic;
دیدن (dīdæn) Persian
لترى (ra’ā) Arabic
Both speakers could read and pronounce the word in their own pronunciation but neither would understand the meaning of the other’s word.
A good comparison would be the many diverse colloquial branches of Arabic itself.
Despite being closely related to “Modern Standard Arabic” (MSA) the variations in grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary are distinct enough to cause confusion.
Think about how over time our own language changes, how we use the word “cool” to mean something impressive, this would be lost on someone who had only ever used the word for temperature.
The same with the word “wicked”, meanings change with time.
If ancient words change over many many years in different parts of the world then the significance of a word can evolve dramatically.
If they were to read older texts and older literature in one another’s languages, they would probably understand a lot more!
The Persian V’s Arabic Alphabet
The best way to give a clear overview is to present the letters of the alphabet in Persian and Arabic side by side.
If you have read our Arabic alphabet guide you may remember Arabic has 28 letters in its Ajad and you’ll notice below that Persian has four extra, totaling 32.
The pronunciation in the chart correlates to the Tehrani/Shirazi accents of Persian.
|Name (Persian)||Letter (isolated)||Arabic/Persian|
|ʾalef||ا||In both, but pronounced in Persian like o in American Bob, and in Arabic like ar in the British car|
|pe||پ||Persian only, pronounced p|
|se||ث||In both, pronounced s in Persian, but th in MSA (although s in several dialects)|
|che||چ||Persian only, pronounced ch|
|haa-ye jimi||ح||In both, pronounced as a hard H in Arabic, but a soft h in Persian (same as ه)|
|zaal||ذ||In both, pronounced dh in Arabic, but as z in Persian (same as ز). In colloquial Arabic, this is often pronounced z|
|zhe||ژ||Persian only, pronounced like g in French rouge|
|saad||ص||In both, pronounced s in Persian, but as hard S in Arabic|
|zaad||ض||In both, pronounced as hard D in Arabic, but as z in Persian (same as ز)|
|taa||ط||In both, pronounced as hard T in Arabic, but as regular t in Persian (same as ت)|
|zaa||ظ||In both, pronounced as hard DH in Arabic, but as z in Persian (same as ز)|
|ʿayn||ع||In both, in Arabic pronounced as a guttural back-of-throat sound, and in Persian as a glottal stop (same as ء)|
|qaff||ق||In both, pronounced q in Arabic, but gh in Persian (same as غ)|
|gaaf||گ||Persian only, pronounced g|
|vaav||و||In both, pronounced v in Persian vs w in Arabic|
|haa-ye do-cheshme||ه||In both|
Some of these letters differ in pronunciation regionally in certain parts of Afghanistan for example the qaff (ق) as it retains the Arabic pronunciation.
Another thing to note is that Arabic has no letter that equivalates to ‘p’ but Persian does. However, with the adoption of modern brands such as Pepsi, they pronounce the ‘p’ as a softened ‘b’ and they write it for street signs.
Persian vs. Arabic Pronunciation Differences
The most notable differences in pronunciation above concern the “harder” and more “guttural” Arabic sounds.
All are gentler in Tehrani/Shirazi Persian, or have become dropped letters, like the letter ‘t’ with some British accents, and are seemingly not pronounced at all.
Below are the letters with the biggest differences in pronunciation;
- Qaff (ق): Persians pronounce this in the same way as they use ghayn (غ)
- 3ayn (ع): Resembles a hamze/glottal stop ( )
- He (ح): Is uttered much more softly, more like the letter he (ه)
- dhaal (ذ) and the (ث): Persians pronounce these letters z and s, with the names changing to reflect that.
The harder letters are all softened;
- Daad (ض) ‘z’
- Zaad (ظ) ‘z’
- Taa (ط) ‘t’
- Saad (ص) ‘s’
Are you noticing a lot of pronunciation overlap?
Us too! Although it has 32 letters, many are pronounced in the same way.
Four different letters are pronounced as a ‘z’, understandably, this can confuse spelling!
This is because the language is so old and has seen so much influence from other languages.
Some letters are no longer distinct, as they once were but still exist in the alphabetic form to be able to write the old words correctly.
Many of those imported words are French or Arabic, both of which have distinct letter sounds.
Colloquial Arabic accents vary by region. Egyptian and Lebanese are considered the “softest” of all Arabic accents but each is distinct.
Surprisingly, although a different language the Persian accent is less distinct.
Because of the softening of guttural-sounding letter pronunciation Persian can at times sound very french.
French is notoriously difficult to pronounce with the subtle nuances of a native but Persian migrants have much less trouble pronouncing French than English.
One of the Persian alphabet’s extra letters is zhe ژ a letter that sounds decidedly french, that the Arabic abjad doesn’t have at all.
Another pronunciation that plays an important part is the syllabic stresses, where the emphasis is put upon a word.
It is very noticeable in Arabic loanwords. Persians accentuate the last syllable of the word which also affects their inflection and intonation.
A multisyllabic word spoken by an Arab will instead be stressed on its second-to-last syllable.
This can be seen demonstrated in the following words;
“School” (مدرسة): in Arabic is madrasah, and in Persian is madreseh
“Pen” (قلم): in Arabic is qalam and in Persian is qalam
This brings us quite nicely to discussing vocabulary overlap.
Vocabulary Overlap Persian Vs Arabic
The majority of overlaps are Arabic words found in the Persian language. There are very few Persian terms that Arabic Speakers have incorporated.
Around 40% of the Persian dictionary is thought to be words of Arabic origin. Lexicographical analysis of printed texts estimates the figure at 25%.
Much like our own language, everyday Persian conversation requires very little of the full dictionary.
So in reality you are looking at a figure more like 10-15%.
In an article for Discover Discomfort, Dana Hooshmand gave a good breakdown with the following example of Persian speech;
“I want a kilo of red apples, please. I love apples so much! How much is it? Four dollars? Wait, that’s too much!”
لطفاً یک کیلو سیب قرمز می خواهم. من سیب را خیلی دوست دارم! چند است؟ چهار دلار؟ صبر کنید ، این خیلی زیاد است
Of the 23 words in the Persian sentence above, only three are of Arabic origin;
- لطفا Please
- صبر Wait
- زیاد Too much
Some of the words have the same spellings of entirely different words in Arabic and the rest is illegible nonsense.
To get a really good idea of how much an Arabic speaker would be able to ascertain you can run the Persian above through translation software as Arabic, and here is the English equivalent of what you get;
“Please leave a kilo of crimson water. I will not leave my mind, Dost Dharm! Chand Est? Chahar Dilar? Patience, this is my imagination!”
Hopefully, that is an eye-opener and good insight into how different the two languages are.
It’s a bit like reading a Spanish newspaper with no knowledge of Spanish, the alphabet’s are written in the same script, with a difference in pronunciation. Spanish also has a few extra letters in the mix like Persian and Arabic.
The following paragraph from Euronews is a good example.
You might be able to guess a few roots in the cognates and names of people or things, I’ve made a few of them bold;
“Una búsqueda que según CNBC comenzó hace muchas semanas. Se desconoce si se está realizando dentro o fuera de la compañía muy descapitalizada de recursos humanos después de que Musk descabezara a la dirección, despidiera a la mitad de los empleados y que otros cientos se fueran voluntariamente.”
The above reads something like; CNBC…realize… company… capital… humans… Musk… direction… voluntary…
You may if you follow the news be able to guess the topic of the article but the details are lost.
Trying to catch it with your ears rather than reading it in print is far more difficult and more so for Persians listening to Arab and vice versa!
Persian vs Arabic Grammar
Grammar is where the differences become their most apparent!
Many in-depth academic explanations delve into the origins of each language and compare them.
Most are long-winded and full of language-specific terms that will give headaches or send the reader to sleep.
It is much simpler to say that practically everything is different between the two. The concept of verbs, the grammatical gender, and how they determine plurals
Arabic verbs are very different, each has a triliteral or quadriliteral root structure and many words stem from the three, meaning relative words are very similar as the language branches out from a root verb concept.
Persian verbs are free-standing words, much like French or Spanish. The verbs then conjugate.
The structure of sentences is also different. While they both start with the subject, in Arabic they prioritize the verb over the object in Persian it comes after the object/
- Arabic: subject-verb-object
- Persian: subject-object-verb
- The nouns in Arabic have gender and gender rules like in Spanish.
- Persian has no grammatical gender, like English.
Arabic words also follow gender agreements in plural forms. Pluralization is easier in Persian.
Standard Arabic uses grammatical “cases” and Persian and colloquial Arabic do not.
There are big differences between spoken colloquial and written Arabic. Spoken Persian is far closer to how it’s written.
Persian has a grammatical version reserved for formal use much like the French Vous.
Does knowing Arabic help with learning Persian?
If you are here because you are wondering if knowing Arabic helps to learn Persian or vice versa, then the answer is yes and no!
Learning Persian doesn’t directly help you to learn Arabic or the other way around, aside from helping you learn how to recognize the characters of the alphabet, which leads to reading and writing in each.
Of course, learning any language helps to learn another as it is a cognitive process.
But with a shared alphabet having either Persian or Arabic under your belt, to begin with, can take some of the hassles out of learning the fundamental building blocks.
Obviously, with the vast differences that we have pointed out, it won’t be an enormous advantage just more of a sense of familiarity.
Another language demonstration would be to look at the phrase “Het is koud” “Es ist kalt” and “It is Cold” in Dutch, German, and English respectively.
Despite being totally different languages, the sentence structure is familiar enough to make one reminiscent of the other. The sounds are also similar for each word.
Now look at “Ik vind je nieuwe jas leuk”, “Ich mag deinen neuen Mantel” and “I like your new coat”, again Dutch, German, and English.
Though the structure is similar, they are very different.
The differences in Persian and Arabic grammar are much like the above.
Below are the benefits of knowing Persian or Arabic to learn Arabic or Persian;
- Knowing one or the other before learning the other gives you a jump start on reading/writing. The first obstacle to learning either is the alphabet with new characters. Knowing one of them, to begin with, you will only have to focus on the pronunciation differences and take the extra letters into account if going from Arabic to Persian.
- Knowledge of Arabic gives you a head-start in Persian vocabulary. Knowing Persian first still gives you mnemonics. Think of the word souvenir and the phrase “Je ne m’en souviens pas” which means “I don’t remember”. In English we use the word souvenir for a keepsake; something to remember something else by. It also translates to keepsake in French but they rarely use it that way. More often it is used as the verb “to recall”. But something cognates. You will find similar recognition if you speak Persian and learn Arabic and vice versa.
- Despite different pronunciations, you will find the sounds in either language less foreign to your ear. Some letters require mouth shapes that we are unaccustomed to as English speakers.
That said, to communicate as a speaker of either Arabic or Persian you would have to physically learn the other language.
But it stands to reason you might advance a little faster than someone without the same advantage of knowing one or the other already.
An advanced learner of Persian would recognize a lot of Arabic, most of the Arabic loanwords are sophisticated and professional vocabulary in Persia.
Should I Learn Persian or Arabic?
Choosing between the two is purely subjective.
Each has its own merits to find the right answer for you, ask yourself the following question;
- Do you want to communicate or learn to read texts?
If the answer is to read texts we suggest learning Modern Standard Arabic.
If you want to speak the language and communicate with other speakers, then the language you learn is specific. In which case, ask yourself this;
- What parts of the world do you want to travel to?
Arabic is spoken in the Middle East, whilst Persian is spoken in Central Asia.
- Do you get pleasure out of learning specific languages?
Consider that Persian is spoken by almost entirely native speakers. It is the official language of 3 major countries and one of those is written in Cyrillic!
Arabic is Spoken in 22. Many non-native speakers understand Arabic, even if it is solely for religious purposes.
A Few Final Thoughts and Our Verdict
In today’s article, we set out to highlight the similarities between Persian and Arabic, and determine which to learn.
In most cases, we’d say learning an Arabic dialect is a great idea, study the alphabet and pronunciation and later move on to MSA.
Unless you are specifically traveling in a Persian-speaking country or prefer to master lesser-known languages.
Learning Persian is a challenging idea, starting with learning to recognize Arabic characters which you will do either way, but it is less widely spoken, and Arabic opens more doors.
Plus, with so many loanwords, learning Persian after Arabic may be a little easier for you.
But if you do decide to opt for Farsi, Persians are going to be more than impressed with your efforts.