Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Merci: Another Linguistic Mystery Solved

I went to dinner the other night with some friends at North, a Persian restaurant, in Vaughan. The food was quite good, though I think I enjoyed the interior more. There was a mural of an Iranian village with mountains in the distance. The houses in the mural extended into three-dimensional, physical houses, so that you could eat inside. There were even some fake mountains extending from the mural. I wish I had taken a photo, especially since there seem to be no photos online!

Towards the end of the meal our friend, Aiden, told us that "Merci" is the way to say thank you in Farsi -the same as French (though the pronunciation is not quite the same). I was very surprised, but then I was reminded of a time when I noticed that there were other similarities between French and Farsi (how I noticed this, I do not know). So I wondered how there could be similarities between two languages that don't have common roots. Yes, both are Indo-European languages, but their proto-languages don't really share a common history.

I discovered the article "The Iranian Language Policy: A Case of Linguistic Purism" by Katarzyna MarszaƂek-Kowalewska. The author notes that French words began being borrowed into Farsi at the turn of the 18th century as a result of modernism in then-Persia: "For Persia, [French] was the most important model of modern secular culture" (91)  The esteemed position of French was strengthened with the the creation of modern education systems, such as the first institution of higher education, Dal al-Fornun, (now existing as the University of Tehran). Academics used French to transmit technical and scientific vocabulary. More importantly for the dissemination of French words into Farsi,  the education system of the 20th century was modeled after the French education system. Additionally, French was nearly the only language studied by students at the post-secondary level. As the author notes, "the importance of French on the educational level resulted in a situation where almost all scholars in scientific and technical, as well as in other 
disciplines, studied in French-speaking countries or otherwise received a French-influenced education in Persia" (91). 

I find that within my interest in linguistics and culture I am especially interested in the attitude that elites take on the direction of the language. With my little training in linguistics, I've been taught to not make judgements on language for what "should" and "should not" be, but to simply study language. Thus, I am fascinated when elites act prescriptively with specifically dictated language policy, changing the direction that the language would naturally take. More on language policy and examples another time. 

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