Book Review: Reflections on Persian Grammar Developments in Persian Linguistic Scholarship I

Reflections on Persian Grammar: Developments in Persian Linguistic Scholarship I by Dr. A. Soheili is an analysis of the way the Persian grammar description has developed. It is a concise presentation of the most conspicuous stages in its development. Reviewing the grammar description literature and analyzing it in light of modern grammar theories, the book distinguishes itself as the first historical survey of such scholarly work on Persian grammars. From among ca. 2500 treatises and grammar books on Persian, the author has selected around 40 works to illustrate the main progress in the description of the Persian language, which is a very small proportion of the references available. The criterion used in this selection is, principally, the representativity of the work for each developmental period.

The review analysis surveys works on Persian language description from the very beginning, i.e. the first decades after year 1000, to the present time. Although the range of the time covered is immense, it is an asset in giving a full picture of the historical development. Yet, the book is concise as the author confines the elaboration to some central issues in each treatise and grammar, which are as follows:

  1. what particular theories of grammar are adopted by the respective grammarians
  2. how successfully have they applied the relevant criteria of analysis
  3. have the theories been capable of accounting satisfactorily for a wide variety of data from Persian

In formulating the leading questions for the review analysis, the author does not make explicit the relevance of the modern grammar theories for the early Persian grammar descriptions as examining them by the modern standards renders them inaccurate and less full-fledged. Therefore, diachronic development of grammar descriptions and modern grammar theories seem, at first sight, irrelevant as modern grammar theories cannot be considered as having been adopted in grammar descriptions at a time when the theories where not yet put forward.

The reverse view is taken, apparently, to show what the modern theories owe the traditional ones. In fact, early grammar descriptions were neither systematic nor adequate in any part of the world, either in the East or the West. However, valuable work was being pursued by early grammarians wherever they were occupied with such work, both in the East and the West. Consequently, grounded in the early joint efforts made in different parts of the world to describe languages, the modern grammar theories have become markedly systematic and adequate.

Possibly, only a minor part of this Persian linguistic heritage has been referred to in the scope of this survey. Notably, the survey adopts two different views on the heritage, i.e. diachronic and synchronic ones. With respect to the former, the question posed in the context of each developmental stage is as to What particular modern grammar theories are discernable in the early Persian grammar descriptions. In perusing the book, one becomes aware of the enormous work by early grammarians on developing Persian grammar description attestable in the modern paradigms. With respect to the latter, the survey questions apply as they are formulated.

9781443850704The overall development in Persian grammar descriptions is mapped into five different periods elucidated in five chapters. Chapter One examines the Inceptive Period of Persian Grammar identifying Avicenna as the first Persian grammarian whose treatise from ca. 1000 provides a discussion of parts of speech among other things. Adopting logical thinking in systematic grammatical explanations, he distinguishes both universal and individual expressions for single entities, such as proper names, and compound expressions comprising sentences and phrases. Another treatise is an Arabic-Persian dictionary written by Natanzi ca. 1154. It is written in, and influenced by, Arabic but highlights variations in Persian spelling patterns. The work contributes to lexicography and grammar description, particularly in terms of the description of semantic distinction of words along with morphological and syntactic elements. The third important treatise is written by Razi in 1217. It is on Persian morphology, derivation and suffixes, particularly those forming rhyming patterns. Excelling in work on Persian prosody, the treatise introduces exquisite patternments of rhyming lines. The rhyming pattern may be brought about by the coda of the first line and certain added elements, such as derivational and inflectional suffixes, of the last word of the second line. In actual fact, Razi defines a rhyme formation constraint built on systematic morphological phenomena grounded in the integral part of the coda, bound suffixes and their reciprocal strict conditions of rhyming.

Chapter Two depicts Persian Lexicographers as early pioneers of notable work on Persian in two ways. They include a description of Persian grammar in the introduction to the dictionary and outline the history of lexicography. Over two hundred Persian dictionaries are said to exist. Four most significant contributions are examined one of which is from the middle of the 17th century and three from the second half of the 19th century. In these early dictionaries the basic recurring concepts are the alphabet, verb paradigms, interchangeable letters, pronouns, as well as types of suffixes, plural forms and irregular verbs. More generally, they represent some basics of phonetics and morphology, which includes even classification of parts of speech, and their patternments. These basic concepts were inherited from the early grammarians’ work, then maintained in the dictionaries and developed in various ways, such as completing the list of the alphabet, elaborating on additional phonetic patternments, and regularities in, particularly, sound changes, rhyming patterns and compound verbs. In addition, initial rudimentary accounts of syntax in terms of words combining to form sentences develops later to descriptions of the kinds of sentences drawing mainly on the structure of the predicate, either nominal or verbal like in Arabic, and sentential functions such as conveying result and condition.

Lexicographers’ noteworthy contribution to work on linguistic description is developed by grammarians. Chapter Three deals with The Formative Period of Persian Grammar in which six outstanding works are evaluated: the first attested Persian grammar from 1831, a subsequent and more developed work from 1846, and a third one from 1858. They share a twofold focus in their language descriptions, i.e. letters of the alphabet and letter-based analysis of words which roughly represent phonetics and phonology, on the one hand, and the tripartite system of parts of speech comprising the categories of nouns, verbs, and particles, which forms a word-based morpho-syntactic system, i.e. morphological component in which syntax is integrated, on the other hand. The tripartite system as the basis along with its technical metalanguage draw on Arabic model in which syntactic features are treated as properties of parts of speech but lack grammatical detail when applied to Persian. Persian grammar description was still at a pre-theoretical stage centering mainly on the components of phonology and morphology.

Later works from 1872, 1891, and 1950 in this Formative Period are written by grammarians with more profound knowledge of foreign languages. Their contributions to the development of language description consist, particularly, in a shift from the tripartite to multipartite system of parts of speech, and separating syntax from morphology into an autonomous component of grammar.

Next, Chapter Four sheds light on the second half of the 20th century depicted as the Progressive Period. The seven Persian grammars included in this period are published in 1948, 1961, 1989, 1994, 1995, 2006, and 2007. Particularly, the 1948 book is described as the first grammar to initiate a dramatic change from the conventional descriptions: Arabic is no longer considered the principal model for the Indo-European language. It also sets the trend to regard sentence as the primary unit of grammatical description. Further, it recognizes independent present and past verbal stems as sources for various tenses and their derived verbal forms. The grammars from 1948, 1994, and 2007 are recognized as remarkably influential for later works. The 1994 grammar takes renewed measures to Persianize the conventional Arabic metalanguage used. The grammar is distinguished as the “precursor of a modern grammar” (p. 96) owing to the determined pursuance of scientific analysis of the Persian language. The third grammar reprinted in 2007 serves as a way to illustrate how transformations leading derivationally to infinitivalization and nominalization were investigated early on in Persian, as discussed on pages 82-88. The author reports that the grammarian’s ideas about the transformations were presented at a time before the theoretical apparatus was first characterized by Lees (1964).

In general, the contribution in this period to the development of grammar description at the level of phonology is formed by the replacement of the conventional treatment of the letters of the alphabet with ”far more systematic and intrusively appealing segmental and supra-segmental features of the language – vowels, consonants, word stress and intonation” (p.109). At the level of morphology, the system of parts of speech expands, and processes such as derivation and compounding specify word formation in Persian. At the level of syntax, the types of sentences, clauses, and phrases along with their functions and semantic roles are distinguished.

Chapter Five elaborates on the Modern Period. It launches a new period in linguistic scholarship with two outstanding effects on scholarship on Persian. Firstly, end of the literary influence emerging from the conventional grammarians’ concern to describe the rules of Persian grammar on the basis of the language used by distinguished poets and prose writers. Secondly, Persian scholars employ linguistics as a science of language and tool of grammar description. The author reviews ten or so Persian grammars published between 1995 and 2011, the majority of which belong to the first decade of the 21st century. The survey overviews the state of the art of the modern Persian grammar description, in general, and points to the sub-sections in which the grammatical thinking can be developed more adequately within other relevant paradigms, in particular.

Chapter Six is devoted to discourse analysis putting focus on work by traditional grammarians and modern grammarians and linguists, in general. Further, some individual works on Persian discourse structure are discussed. A final summarizing epilogue concludes the book.

The book is an invaluable source for both novice and advanced students and researchers of Persian linguistics and literature. The former will find it an introduction to the problematicity in various sections and periods of Persian grammar description and an illustration of an elaborate practical application of modern grammar theories, while the latter may also benefit from the professionally thorough grammatical review in selecting points in Persian grammar for further investigation. The book also provides a useful bibliography of around ninety works on Persian grammar and grammatical descriptions for research and teaching.

In summary, the survey is a noteworthy appraisal of the Persian linguistic heritage. The key strength of the book is that it demonstrates the extraordinary work on the different components of Persian grammar, i.e. phonology, morphology and syntax, in the language descriptions that Persian grammarians were occupied with before the modern theories emerged. It also shows that a grammar description based on Arabic model could not amount to an original account of Persian in its own right.

Somaje Abdollahian Barough holds a B.A. in Russian and Arabic from Gothenburg University, Sweden, an M.A. in Iranian Languages from Uppsala University, Sweden. She is a doctoral student in English Linguistics at the Department of English, Stockholm University, Sweden. Her main research interests include aspect systems in languages, L1 influence, and language production and conceptualization in L2.



Lees, R. B. (1964). Grammar of English Nominalization. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Research Center in Anthropology, Folklore, and Linguistics.

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