Marathi and Persian

« previous post | next post »

One of India's major tongues, Marathi is an Indo-Aryan language spoken by 83.1 million people in the western Indian state of Maharashtra.  For those who know Persian, it will sound uncannily familiar.

According to Pushkar Sohoni,

The Marathi language is heavily infused with Persian, which was widespread in administrative and military usage all over the Indian sub-continent for several hundred years. There are two essays in the early 20th century that detail this connection. One is in Marathi by the historian V.K. Rajwade titled ‘marāṭhīvara phāraśī bhāṣecā prabhāva’ (The influence of Persian on the Marathi language) written in the nineteen-teens. The other one is by the literary figure Baba-i Urdu Maulana Abdul Haq, written a couple of decades later, and titled similarly in English [Abdul Haq ‘The Influence of Persian on Maharathi’ in Islamic Culture (Hyderabad, 1936), pp. 533-609].

For more, see this article in Iranica online.

The first attempt at an ethnic cleansing of the language was done in the 1670s by the Maratha king Chhatrapati Shivaji, where he introduced a lexicon called the Rājyavyavahārakoṣa to completely purge the language of Persian loan-words and replace them with Sanskrit-derived constructions. It was a failure and heavily Persianised Marathi persisted. There were no more attempts at ‘cleansing’ the language till the nationalists under V.D. Savarkar in the 20th century.

Now, of course, Marathi is highly inflected with English at a spoken level as are many other Indian languages. Bhalchandra Nemade wrote a book, the title resonant with the earlier ones [Bhalchandra Nemade, The Influence of English on Marathi: A Sociolinguistic and Stylistic Study (Panaji, Goa : Rajhauns Vitaran, 1990)].

A rough estimate would be that 40 percent of Marathi vocabulary comes from Persian.  You can hear some of it for yourself in this 14:10 video:

"Similarities Between Persian and Marathi"

A comparable situation obtains for Punjabi.  See this 11:24 video:

"Similarities Between Persian and Punjabi"

This phenomenon induces Brian Spooner, who has been studying the role of Persian in South Asia and elsewhere in Asia for decades, to refer to what he calls "the Persianate world".

Languagehat has an instructive post:  "Persian as a Lingua Franca" (7/6/13), with 37 mostly useful comments:

David Blow has a brief TLS review (subscription only) of what sounds like a very interesting book, Literacy in the Persianate World: Writing and the Social Order, edited by Brian Spooner and William L. Hanaway (Table of Contents; note that the last article in the book is “Persian Scribes (munshi) and Chinese Literati (ru): The Power and Prestige of Fine Writing (adab/wenzhang)” by Victor H. Mair, a frequent Language Log contributor), and I thought I’d quote the final paragraph for its summary of the spread of Persian:

Persian as a lingua franca spread not only through much of the Islamic world, but even as far as China during the thirteenth century, when Iran was loosely incorporated into the Mongol Empire. David Morgan shows how Persian became for a time the most important foreign language in China, where it was used in commercial exchanges with Muslim merchants profiting from the Pax Mongolica. But it was the Muslim realms in India that most fully adopted the Persian language and culture. The high point was reached in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when the generous patronage offered by the wealthy Indian courts, and especially the Mughal court, attracted many poets from Iran. Muhammad Aslam Syed traces the decline of Persian in Muslim India and the rise of Urdu, a related vernacular language, to the second half of the eighteenth century. He associates it with the “humiliating” sack of Delhi by the Iranian ruler, Nadir Shah, in 1739, and the rise of a “new nobility” of poets who were merchants and shopkeepers and were uncomfortable with Persian as the language of the “old nobility”. The final blow to the status of Persian in India came in 1835 when the East India Company replaced it with English as the official language and in 1837 with Urdu as the language of the law courts. But for many, the loss of Persian was a cause for lament. Syed quotes the Indian poet Ghalib (1797-1869), who is regarded as the greatest Urdu poet, but who also composed poems in Persian: “If you want to see all the colours of life, read my Persian poetry, my Urdu diwan does not have all those colours. Persian is the mirror (of life) and Urdu is just like rust on that mirror (with which you start but when it is clean, it is Persian)”.

The same is true of modern Turkic languages.  For example, Henry G. Schwarz's An Uyghur-English Dictionary, about a thousand pages long, is full of words borrowed from Arabic and Persian.  As much as 75% of the vocabulary of Uyghur is Perso-Arabic.  During the 20th century Russian words came flooding in, and now Chinese is having a heavy impact.

"Similarities Between Arabic and Persian" (20:21)

There are plenty of Arabic words in Persian and vice versa.




[h.t. Diana Shuheng Zhang and Sunny Jhutti]


  1. Brian Spooner said,

    October 27, 2019 @ 2:17 pm

    Arabic is to Persian what Latin and Greek are to English; similarly Persian is to all the Turkic languages from Ottoman in the West to Uyghur in the east what Arabic is to Persian. The only words of Arabic origin in Uyghur are words that were in the Persian vocabulary that was borrowed by Uyghur speakers.

  2. Bathrobe said,

    October 27, 2019 @ 5:15 pm

    I found the reference to “ethnic cleansing” rather interesting. Presumably “linguistic purism” doesn’t fit the bill because they were substituting Sanskrit, not Marathi, for the Persian loanwords. But “ethnic cleansing” would certainly put the many efforts through history to substitute native words for borrowed ones in a different light.

  3. Jenny Chu said,

    October 27, 2019 @ 11:19 pm

    Are the Persian words in Marathi also the "Latin/Greek to English" type?J

  4. Leo said,

    October 28, 2019 @ 2:37 am

    The original Marathi name of 'The influence of Persian on the Marathi language' – 'marāṭhīvara phāraśī bhāṣecā prabhāva' – is interesting, in that 'Marathi' and 'Persian' seem to be the first two words of the title, in stark contrast to the English word-order.

  5. Jason said,

    October 29, 2019 @ 7:02 pm

    @Bathrobe Yes, "ethnic cleansing" of a language is a rather loaded term! Then, "Purification" is only slightly less loaded, perhaps.

RSS feed for comments on this post