Arabic vs Farsi: Are they similar?

Some people tend to think these languages are somewhat similar, with speakers of one being able to understand speakers of the other. But how similar are they, really? Answer: not much.

Differences between Arabic and Persian

Historical context and language families

Arabic and Farsi come from two different language families, highlighting the difference between Arab and Persian languages. Arabic is a Semitic language related to Hebrew and Aramaic, with deep historical roots in the Arabian Peninsula, and has influenced many other languages due to the spread of Islam. On the other hand, Farsi is part of the Indo-European family, which includes languages like English, Spanish, and Hindi, making it more similar to European languages than to Arabic.

Script and writing system

Arguably the most visible similarity between Arabic and Farsi is their script. Both languages use a form of the Arabic script, but Farsi has modified it by adding four letters to accommodate sounds not present in Arabic. These additional letters are:

  • پ (pe) – pronounced “p” as in “paper.”
  • چ (che) – pronounced “ch” as in “champion.”
  • ژ (zhe) – pronounced “s” as in “measure.”
  • گ (ge) – pronounced “g” as in “go.”

This adoption of the Arabic script by Farsi dates back to the expansion of Islam into Persia, where the script was adapted to fit the Persian language.

A map of the Abbasid empire (The map taken from https://www.worldhistory.org/image/12000/map-of-the-abbasid-empire/)

The map above shows the extent of the Abbasid empire in the year 850 CE, incorporating vast swathes of the Middle East and North Africa, including modern day Iran. At this point in time, the heirs of the Umayyad caliphate had established their capital in Baghdad, and conquered many new territories to the East and West. As was common with empire expansion, with new rulers came a new language. In most countries ruled by the caliphate, the local languages eventually gave way to Arabic (such as Coptic, Aramaic and Syriac). However, in Persia, the local language continued to live on, adapting and incorporating new vocabulary from Arabic. In some ways, the flexibility of Farsi in incorporating new words from Arabic may have contributed in part to it remaining the main language in Persia. This contributed to the continuation of rich Persian linguistic heritage, and even now, modern day Farsi speakers can understand poems from the 9th century CE.

Diacritical marks and pronunciation

Diacritical marks:
Arabic sometimes uses diacritical marks such as (fatha- َ ), (kasra ِ ), (dammaُ ), and (sukun ْ ) for clarifying pronunciation. These marks guide pronunciation in a language where many words share the same roots

  • but have different meanings, making them essential for both understanding and learning the Arabic language. Typically, they’re used in some education and religious texts, which require precise pronunciation for correct interpretation, but generally omitted in most contexts.
  • Persian also uses diacritical marks to aid in pronunciation. In Persian, these marks are primarily found in educational or religious texts where accurate pronunciation is crucial for understanding. This limited use highlights their role as a tool mainly for learners and in contexts where clarity of speech is paramount.

Both languages utilize diacritical marks to enhance comprehension, especially in formal or learning environments where the exact pronunciation significantly impacts meaning.

Pronunciation:

  • (ع): The guttural sound used for this letter in Arabic is not present in Persian. It’s one of the unique sounds in Arabic that doesn’t have a direct equivalent in English. To produce this sound, constrict the muscles in the back of your throat and use your voice to create a slight vibration or friction. It’s somewhat similar to the noise you might make when clearing your throat gently. The sound is deep and comes from the throat, distinct from any typical sounds in most Western languages.
  • (ح and ه): In Arabic, the letters “ح” (ḥā’) and “ه” (hā’) represent two distinct sounds. “ح” is pronounced as a voiceless pharyngeal fricative, which is a deep, harsh “h” sound produced at the back of the throat. In contrast, “ه” is pronounced as a voiceless glottal fricative, similar to the English “h” but produced by airflow restriction at the glottis. In Persian, however, these letters do not have distinct pronunciations. Both “ح” and “ه” are pronounced as the voiceless glottal fricative, akin to the English “h.” Despite the scriptural distinction between “ح” and “ه” in Persian, due to its Arabic script origins, phonetically, they converge into a single sound.
  • (ذ, ز, ض, ظ) – In Persian, these letters lose the distinctive sounds they carry in Arabic. They are all pronounced like the Arabic ‘Zay’ (ز), which is similar to the ‘z’ in English. 
  • (ث), (س), and (ص) – These three letters are all pronounced with an ‘s’ sound in Persian, akin to the Arabic ‘Seen’ (س) and the English ‘s’. This simplification means that the ‘th’ sound in Arabic (ث) and the emphatic ‘s’ sound in (ص) are not differentiated in Persian.
  • (ء) and (ع) – In Persian, the hamza (ء) is often neglected or omitted from writing, and it is never pronounced. In Arabic, it is known as the glottal stop, and is produced by briefly restricting the vocal cords.

Consonants and vowels

Consonants:

  • Arabic: some consonants can be pronounced without any vowel sound, which is indicated by a special mark (sukun ْ ).
  • Persian: uses a similar system but adapts it according to its own language rules and word formations.

This means while both languages share a common feature, they apply it differently based on how their words are structured.

Vowels:

  • Arabic: Uses three vowel letters:
    • Alif (ا): Pronounced as ‘aa’ like the ‘a’ in (car)
    • Waw (و): Pronounced as ‘oo’ like the ‘oo’ in (tool)
    • Ya (ي): Pronounced as ‘ee’ like the ‘ee’ in (see)
  • Persian: Uses the same vowel letters, but drops the two dots from the last one.
  • ā (آ): Pronounced like the ‘a’ in (father)
  • ū (و): Pronounced like the ‘oo’ in (tool)
  • ī (ی): Pronounced like the ‘ee’ in (see)

Additionally, Persian includes:

  • Heh (ه) at the end of a word can also function to create a long ‘eh’ or ‘aah’ sound depending on the word.

Farsi vs Arabic

Arabic and Persian borrow many words from each other. Here are some Arabic words that originate from Persian:

  1. Ditch or Trench
    • Arabic: خندق (Khandaq)
    • Persian: کندک (Kandak)
  2. Chess
    • Arabic: شطرنج (Shatranj)
    • Persian: شترنگ (Shatrang)
  3. Garden or Orchard
    • Arabic: بستان (Bustan)
    • Persian: بوستان (Boostan)
  4. Notebook or Register
    • Arabic: دفتر (Daftar)
    • Persian: دفتر (Daftar)
  5. Wooden Board or Platform
    • Arabic: تخت (Takht)
    • Persian: تخت (Takht)
  6. Glass
    • Arabic: بِلَّوْرْ (Bellawr)
    • Persian: بُلُوْر (Bolur)
  7. Cucumber
    • Arabic: خِيَار (Khiyar)
    • Persian: خِیَار (Khiyar)
  8. Model or Example
    • Arabic: نَمُوْذَجْ (Namudhaj)
    • Persian: نَمُوْنِه (Namuneh)
  9. Fresh or New
    • Arabic: طَازَجْ (Tazaj)
    • Persian: تَازِه (Tazeh)
  10. Festival or Celebration
    • Arabic: مَهْرَجَانْ (Mahrajan)
    • Persian: مِهْرِگان (Mehregan)
  11. Constitution
    • Arabic: دَسْتُور (Dastoor)
    • Persian: دَسْتُور (Dastoor)
Farsi vs Arabic

A lot of the Persian loan words to Arabic don’t follow the Arabic root pattern. This can be a trick to guessing whether a word is originally Arabic or not. 

Here’s a list of classical Arabic words that have been adopted into Persian with minimal modifications:

  1. آبا (Aaba)
    • Arabic: أَبْ (Ab), plural آبَاء (Aabaa’)
    • Persian: آبَا (Aaba)
    • English: Father
  2. آسَار (Aasār)
    • Arabic: آثَار (Aathaar), plural of أَثَر (Athar)
    • Persian: آسَار (Aasaar)
    • English: Traces or Relics
  3. آجَال (Aajal)
    • Arabic: أَجَل (Ajal), plural آَجَال (Aajal)
    • Persian: آَجَال (Aajal)
    • English: Deadlines or Terms
  4. آهَاد (Aahad)
    • Arabic: آحَاد (Aahad)
    • Persian: آهَاد (Aahaad)
    • English: Individuals
  5. آفَاغ (Aafagh)
    • Arabic: آفاق (Aafaq)
    • Persian: آفاغ (Aafaagh)
    • English: Horizons
  6. تَدَافِلْ (Tadafil)
    • Arabic: تَدَاوُلْ (Tadawul)
    • Persian: تَدَافِلْ (Tadaafil)
    • English: Exchange or Circulation
  7. خَاتِمَهْ  (Khatimah)
    • Arabic: خَاتِمَة (Khatimah)
    • Persian: خَاتِمَهْ (Khatimah)
    • English: Conclusion

These interchanges showcase the extent of linguistic interplay and the depth of cultural exchanges between Arabic and Persian over centuries, reflecting how certain Arabic phonetics are altered in Persian pronunciation. 

Phonetics and Grammar

The phonetic systems and grammatical structures of Arabic and Persian are quite different, highlighting the difference between Arabic and Persian. Arabic includes guttural sounds absent in Persian and has a complex root-based grammar. In contrast, Persian grammar is simpler and more similar to that of other Indo-European languages, making it generally easier for speakers of these languages to learn.

Let’s explore some examples that illustrate how derivation and inflection work in both Arabic and Persian, highlighting the differences and similarities between the two:

Arabic

Derivation:

  • Root كَتَبَ:
    •  كَتَبَ (katab) (Past tense verb): meaning “he wrote.”
    • كَاتِب (kateb) (Active participle): A person who writes.
    •  مَكْتُوْب (maktoub) (Passive participle): meaning “written.”
    • كِتَابَة (kitaba) (verbal noun): The process or act of writing.
  • Patterns and forms are used to change meanings of words and to create new words from the same three letter root.

Inflection:

  • Verb دَرَسَ:
    • يَدْرُسُ (yadros) (Present tense): Indicates engaging in studying currently.
    • درَسْتُ (darasto)(Past tense, first person singular): Indicates that I studied.
    • دُرِسَ (doresa)(Passive voice): Indicates that it was studied.
  • Inflection involves changes in tenses, persons, and voices.

Persian

Derivation:

  • The Persian word for “friend” is “dust” (دُوْسْتْ).
  • To express the concept of “friendship,” the suffix “-i” (ی) is added, resulting in “dusti” (دُوْسْتِی).

This is a common practice in Persian, where suffixes are frequently used to form new vocabulary or change the meanings of words.

Inflection:

  • The verb “to eat” in Persian is “khordan” (خُوْرْدَنْ). 
  • To indicate the present tense, the prefix “mi-” (مِی) is added, forming “mi-khoram” (مِی‌ خُوْرَمْ), which means “I eat.” 
  • The past tense is formed by adding a different suffix, resulting in “khordam” (خوردم), meaning “I ate.”

In Persian, changes in tense or the grammatical person are primarily achieved by adding suffixes or prefixes, making it a simpler system compared to Arabic.

Furthermore, in Arabic, the verb normally appears near the beginning of a sentence, and in Modern Standard Arabic, it often (but not always), appears before the subject. Whereas in Persian, the verb is normally found at the end of a grammatical construction

One way to display the basic structure in English would be:

Arabic: يعيش جون في نيو يورك

Lives John in New York.

Persian: جان در نیویورک زندگی می کند

John in New York lives. 

In summary, although Arabic and Farsi both use the Arabic script and have influenced each other culturally and linguistically, they are fundamentally different. Arabic belongs to the Semitic language family and has unique sounds and a complex grammar based on root words. Farsi, on the other hand, is part of the Indo-European language family, making its grammar simpler and more similar to some European languages. These differences highlight the rich and diverse linguistic landscape of the Middle East, showing how historical interactions have created both similarities and significant distinctions between these languages.

Keep an eye on Playaling’s blog. We are here to help you learn Arabic, but also to solve linguistic dilemmas!

Share the Post:
Related Posts
Arabic quotes with English translation
Arab culture and history

Famous Arabic Quotes

The passages that resonate most with us are often those we highlight in books or pause to reflect on when heard aloud. These memorable quotes

Read More »
Arabic quotes with English translation
Arab culture and history

Famous Arabic Quotes

The passages that resonate most with us are often those we highlight in books or pause to reflect on when heard aloud. These memorable quotes

Read More »