Discrepancies in Mapping Persian/Farsi in Iran

GeoCurrents is deeply concerned with language mapping, as we find maps of language distribution to be highly useful and, if done properly, aesthetically appealing. But we also tend to be critical of linguistic cartography, as the spatial patterning of language is often too complex to be easily captured in maps. Dialect continua, zones of pervasive bilingualism, overlapping lingua francas, areas of linguistic interspersion, urban/rural language discrepancies, and mobile language communities all present major challenges for the mapmaker. Differences in population density is another tricky issue. Should one map a virtually unpopulated area in the same manner that one depicts a densely populated zone? And if one decides to leave uninhabited (or mostly uninhabited) areas unmarked, how large and how unpopulated do they have to be before they appear on the map?

As a result of these and other issues, linguistic maps, whether of a particular place, an individual language, or a language family, often vary greatly from one cartographer to another. Such differences were recently brought home as I examined various language maps of Iran, many of which are readily available on the internet. In particular, the area covered Farsi/Persian, the national language, differs significantly. I therefore decided to overlay these different depictions of Persian/Farsi on a uniform base-map of Iranian provinces so that they can be easily compared. Eleven such maps are posted here, both in their original form and with the Persian/Farsi zone extracted and placed on the common base map. The overlays are not particularly precise, owing largely to differences in map projection; a large amount of tedious handwork was necessary to make them accord as closely as they do with the originals. It is also important to note that the original maps themselves vary in regard to the area depicted. Some show merely Iran, but others include neighboring countries as well. The overlay maps, however, show only Iran.

The maps are arranged in rough descending order, with the first map showing the largest expanse of Persian/Farsi, and the last map showing the smallest one.

Farsi Language Map1

Depiction 1.  The first map is by far the simplest, as it shows Iran as uniformly Persian-speaking. Such a depiction is accurate in one sense, as Persian/Farsi is the national language, and hence is used for official purposes throughout Iran. It also serves as the lingua franca of those parts of the country in which it is not the dominant mother tongue. The source map for Depiction 1, however, is problematic, as it purports to show the overall distribution of Persian, yet it does so entirely on the basis of national boundaries. Depicting Afghanistan and especially Uzbekistan as uniformly PMap of Persian Speakersersian-speaking is far from accurate.










Depiction 2. The source map for DeFarsi Language Map 2piction 2, found in the Wikipedia Commons, is oddly titled “iranethnics,” implying that it is concerned with ethnic identity rather than language per se. All of the categories mapped, however, are rooted in language, although the term “Fars” (the name of a province and, more generally, a region) is used rather than “Farsi.” In purely linguistic terms, “Fars” refers to a series of Persian dialects that are quite distinctive from standard Farsi. As one Wikipedia article puts it: “Northwestern Fars is one of the Central Iranian varieties of Iran. Its name is purely geographical: It is not particularly close to Farsi (Persian), but rather to Sivandi.” The Wikipedia’s family IranEthnics Maptree of Iranian languages treats Fars a distinct minor language, with some 100,000 speakers. On the source map for Depiction 2, however, all languages in the Iranian family are subsumed under the “Fars” category except Kurdish and Baluchi. Linguistically, this maneuver makes little sense, as the Iranian languages or northern Iran, such as Gilaki and Talysh, are more closely related to Kurdish than they are to Persian/Farsi. But it is also true that that Gilaki- and Talysh-speakers tend to be much less ethnically distinct from Persians than the Kurds. Finally, this map restricts the extent of several minority languages, particularly Arabic, more than many other language maps of Iran.


Farsi Language Map 3Depiction 3. The base map used for Depiction 3, also found in the Wikipedia, depicts the various languages of the Iranian family, both in Iran and neighboring countries. As non-Iranian languages such as Arabic and Azeri are not depicted, areas in which they are spoken are generally mapped as Persian speaking (“Persan,” on the French map) or at least as partly Persian speaking* (as in the case of the Azeri-speaking area). The Caspian languages (Gilaki, Mazandarani, etc.) are depicted, but only in the Alborz (Elburz) Iranian Tongues MapMountains; the Caspian coast is instead shown as Persian speaking, a somewhat unusual depiction. The base map is also distinctive in elevating the Mukri dialect to the status of a separate language (even the Ethnologue, which tends to split languages, treats it as a mere dialect), and in depicting a sizable “Sangesar” area in the mountains of northern Iran. Yet according to the Wikipedia, the Sangsari language has only 36,000 speakers and is largely limited to the town of Sang-e Sar** (Mehdishahr), located south of the Alborz Mountains in Semnan Province. Related tongues in the Semnani branch of Iranian languages have similarly restricted distributions.

Farsi Language Map 4 Depiction 4. The base map used for Depiction 4, found on the website of a Farsi translation service, is crude and politically compromised, as it incorrectly depicts the distribution of several languages as coincident with provincial boundaries. It incorrectly labels Azeri as “Turkish” and Balochi as “Pashto.” (In contrast to Turkish and Azeri, which are closely related, Balochi and Pashto are only distantly related, as they are members of distinct branches within the Iranian family.)  It also unconventionally classifies the dialects of Farsi spoken in Khorasan as Dari, a term genIranLanguage:Ethnic Maperally limited to Persian as found in neighboring Afghanistan. But the boundary between Farsi proper and Dari—both forms of Persian—is difficult to draw. As the Wikipedia explains:

 The dialects of Dari spoken in Northern, Central and Eastern Afghanistan, for example in Kabul, Mazar, and Badakhshan, have distinct features compared to Iranian Persian. However, the dialect of Dari spoken in Western Afghanistan stands in between the Afghan and Iranian Persian. For instance, the Herati dialect shares vocabulary and phonology with both Dari and Iranian Persian. Likewise, the dialect of Persian in Eastern Iran, for instance in Mashhad, is quite similar to the Herati dialect of Afghanistan.

Farsi Language Map 5Depiction 5. The base map used for Depiction 5, found on a website devoted to Iranian languages, is similar to that of Depiction 3, although it shows a more limited distribution of Persian.

Iranian Languages Map2







Farsi Language Map6






Depiction 6. The base map used for Depiction 6, found in the Wikipedia, is labeled “Languages of Iran.” This map shows a relatively limited distribution of Persian, barely depicting it as reaching the sea. It also shows much larger than usual Arabic- and “Lorish”-speaking areas. It subsumes Mazanderani and the Semnani languages into the “Tabari” category, although according to most analyses Mazanderani is closer to Gilaki (mapped here as a separate language) than it is to the Semnani tongues. (Significantly, the people Iran Main Languages Mapof Mazandaran call their own tongue “Gileki.”) Oddly, the Qashqai Turkic area in Fars Province is missing.







Farsi Language Map 7


Depiction 7. The base map used for Depiction 7 is found on the “Maps of Net” website and is based on Ethnologue cartography. This map also restricts the distribution of Farsi; again it barely reaches the sea, but it does so in a different place than that indicated on Depiction 6. This map shows much larger than usual areas covered by Azeri (“Azerbaijani” Main Ethnic Languages in Iran Maphere), Arabic, and “Balouchi.” It also incorrectly portrays the northeastern Kurdish area as Turkic, labeling it “Khorasani Turks” and coloring it as if it were “Azerbaijani.” The extent of the Qashqai Turkic area in Fars province seems surprisingly large. Perhaps the oddest feature of this map is its exaggeration of the area covered by the southernmost Luri dialect, a very minor tongue by most accounts, and its elevation of this dialect to the status of a separate language (designated here as “Lari” to distinguish it from the “Lori” language of the north). This map also shows one uninhabited area, the Dasht-e Kavir (salt desert), in north-central Iran.

Farsi Language Map 8Depiction 8. The base map used for Depiction 8 is found in a Wikipedia article on Iranian languages. It shows large areas in central Iran as non-Persian speaking; presumably most of these areas are excluded by virtue of being largely uninhabited rather than by speaking a different language, but the mapping conventions make it impossible to be Iranian Language Map 3certain. This map also shows a much larger than usual distribution of the Balochi language, in several discontinuous patches, in northeastern Iran. As in Depiction 3, the Caspian lowland is depicted as Persian speaking.






Farsi Language Map 9Depiction 9. The base map used for Depiction 9 is found on yet another Wikipedia page. It leaves large “sparsely populated” areas in eastern and central Iran blank, thus restricting the distribution of Farsi/Persian. It depicts Lur as a separate language, but divides it into two separate areas, mapping the central Luri zone as Persian speaking. It Iran Ethnoreligious Mapdepicts a sizable area along the Afghan border as “other,” which would presumably refer to Pashto.







Farsi Language Map 10



Depiction 10. The base map used for Depiction 10 comes from a Wikipedia map of ethnicity in Iran, although its categories are again are based on largely linguistic criteria. This map shows sizable uninhabited areas in east-central Iran, a not uncommon maneuver, but also does the same in southeastern Iran, an uncommon move (also found in the base map for Depiction 9). Again like Depiction 9, this map portrays the central Luri areas, but not the northern and southern ones, as Persian-speaking. It depicts a highly restricted Iran Ethnicity MapArabic zone in both Khuzestan Province and farther south along the coast.







Farsi Language Map 11


Depiction 11. The base map used for Depiction 11 comes from an older version of the language map of Iran posted on the Gulf 2000 site, which features the extraordinarily detailed cartography of Mike Izady. This map leaves large areas of sparse population unmarked, and hence restricts the distribution of Persian more than the other maps considered here. It makes several other unusual maneuvers. Luri is mapped as a dialect of Persian, yet the Raji dialect of central Iran is elevated to the status of a separate language. The Minabi dialect of the southeast, described by the Wikipedia as “a dialect which is something between Bandari and Balochi and Persian,” is also mapped as a separate language, and a small Cushitic-speaking zone (labeled “Somali, etc.”) is depicted in the same general area. The extent of Tati, closely related to Talysh, is much greater than in any other language map of Iran that I have investigated.

Iran Languages Izady Map









I am not qualified to assess which of these maps is the most accurate, and I hesitate to say whether such an assessment can even be made. I welcome feedback from readers on these and other issues pertaining to these maps.

*Note: for all depictions, areas shown as mixed between Farsi/Persian and some other language are left unmarked.


**This small city has an interesting recent history. According to the Wikipedia, “The primary religious belief in the area now is Shi‘ite Islam, but before the Islamic Revolution, there were many Bahá’ís in Sangsar, who had to migrate from the city after the revolution, due to a wide range of persecutions. As for other towns of Iran, the name has thus been changed by the Islamic authorities into Mahdishahr as if to signal its imposed pure Muslim identity. Mahdi is the Shia Muslim hidden Imam and Shahr means town in Persian, so Mahdishahr literally means town of Mahdi.”



From Sogdian to Persian to Sart to Tajik & Uzbek: The Reformulation of Linguistic and Political Identity in Central Asia

(Many thanks to Asya Pereltsvaig for her assistance with this post)

Wikipedia map of Ancient SogdianaThe Turkic-Persian historical synthesis found in Iranian Azerbaijan (discussed in the previous post) extends well beyond Iran’s borders. Through much of Central Asia, the dominant cultural framework is perhaps best described as a hybrid formation. In a fascinating book, Robert Canfield and his colleagues go so far as to designate a vast zone in central, southern, and southwestern Asia as “Turko-Persia.” As the Wikipedia describes the concept: “The composite Turko-Persian tradition … was Persianate in that it was centered on a lettered tradition of Iranian origin; it was Turkic insofar as it was for many generations patronized by rulers of Turkic background.” In the modern era, however, national governments have made great efforts to divide “Persians” from “Turks” across the region, creating the modern Tajik and Uzbek nationalities in the process.
Wikipedia Map of Bactria, with Sogdiana addedTurkic and Persian traditions have long been deeply intertwined in a region once known as Sogdiana, centered on the Zeravshan Valley of what is now eastern Uzbekistan. Sogdiana has played an important role in world history for millennia. Fertile and well-watered alluvial fans along the foot of the Pamir Mountains provided the agricultural foundation for an urban civilization stretching back almost 3,000 years. The Sogdians were renowned merchants, plying the routes of the so-called Silk Road that linked China to western Asia. In the process, they transmitted a number of religious practices and cultural ideals across much of Eurasia, including those associated with Zoroastrianism, Nestorian Christianity, Mahayana Buddhism, and Manichaeism. After the Muslim conquest in the late 600s, the Sogdians gradually deserted their pluralistic religious heritage in favor of Islam. They also abandoned their own language, which belonged to the Eastern branch of the Middle Iranian grouping, in favor of a language from the Western branch that eventually became what is known today as Persian/Farsi (although a dialect of “neo-Sogdian” is still spoken by the Yaghnobi people, some 12,500 strong, of Tajikistan). Despite the loss of their distinctive ethnic identity, the Sogdians’ descendents continued to be an important mercantile people, noted for the wealth and beauty of their cities, particularly Samarkand and Bukhara. With the decline of the Abbasid Caliphate in the early 800s, a powerful and explicitly Persian state, the Samanid Empire (or Samani Dynasty), arose in the eastern Persian lands, with its capital in Bukhara. The Samanids made a concerted and largely successful effort to convert the Turkic-speaking nomads living to their north to Islam.
Map of Samanid Empire With the downfall of the Samanid Empire in 999 CE, Sogdiana came under the political domination of these same Turkic-speaking peoples. Over time, significant numbers of Turkic speakers settled in the region, intermarrying broadly within the local population. As a result, their language spread. But as it did, it was molded by the pre-existing Persian substratum, gaining a large number of Persian words and expressions; several of the resulting dialects even lost the distinctive “vowel harmony” that characterizes Turkic and, more broadly, Altaic languages. But the spread of Turkic speech did not result in the disappearance of Persian (or Tajik, in Turkic parlance). Instead, linguistic duality came to characterize much of the region. At the beginning of the 20th century, Persian/Tajik served as the main language of Bukhara and Samarkand, as the region’s lingua franca, and as the chief vehicle for administration and literature. In many of the smaller towns and farming communities, however, “Persianified” (or “Iranized”) Turkic dialects prevailed.
Thomas Lessman's Map of 1500, Showing Uzbek KhanateIn a social environment in which bilingualism was common, the distinction between those who spoke Persian and those who spoke a Turkic language was generally of little significance. What mattered more was mode of life. The main distinction here was that between settled people, whether city-dwellers or farmers, and pastoral nomads. Those with a sedentary lifestyle were generally called “Sarts,” both by outsiders and themselves, regardless of their mother tongue. In contrast were the Turkic peoples who largely retained a pastoral way of life, most notably the Kazakhs, Kirghiz, and Turkmen. Included in this group were the original Uzbeks, a group of historically nomadic people, ultimately of Mongol origin, who had forged a powerful state the 1500s, the Shaybanid—or Uzbek—Khanate. The relatively non-Persianified Uzbek language of this group (known as Kipchak Uzbek) was, and is, much more closely related to Kazakh and Kyrgyz than it is to the Turkic dialects of the settled Sarts (which are most closely related to Uyghur in northwestern China).
Wikipedia Maps of Three Turkic Language Sunfamilies In the 1920s, ethnic affiliations were transformed by official decree across was then became Soviet Central Asia. Following Lenin’s nationality policy, certain groups were elevated to national status, affording them a measure of cultural autonomy within their own Soviet republics. After lengthy deliberation, Soviet cultural engineers decided that “Sart” was a derogative term that had no linguistic content and thus did not denote a real ethnic group . As a result, they split the Sarts into two nationalities, each of which received its own republic. Those who primarily spoke Persian were deemed Tajiks, while those who spoke Persian-influenced Turkic dialects were placed in the Uzbek category, despite the fact they bore little relationship to the people who already carried that name. The new standardized Uzbek language that resulted does not even fall in the same linguistic sub-family as the original (Kipchak) Uzbek language, as the former is placed in the Southeastern (or Eastern, or Uyghur) group, the latter in Northwestern, or Kipchak, branch.  (And if that were not enough complexity, a third dialect of “Uzbek”, Oghuz Uzbek, falls into yet a different division, the Southwestern branch of the Turkic language family.) The linguistic terminology used today does not clarify the issue, as the old “Kipchak Uzbek” tongue is now classified merely as a minor dialect of “Uzbek.”  Even the linguistically rigorous Ethnologue uses this classification scheme. Yet it makes little sense from a strictly logical point of view: how can two dialects of the same language simultaneously belong to different branches of their larger linguistic family? Political expedience, it seems, can trump linguistic realities.
The artificially constructed distinction between Uzbek and Tajik continues to generate political problems in the former Soviet Central Asia, as we shall see in the next GeoCurrents post.

Further Problems with the “Ethnolinguanymic State” Concept: The Case of Afghanistan

Map of Underfit StatesLast Saturday’s post on “ethnolinguanymic states” generated pointed criticisms, especially from Maju, whose frequent comments on GeoCurrents are much appreciated. I realized afterward that the main problem was a lack of clarity in the initial post. The ultimate point was not to argue that “ethnolinguanymic” countries (those whose names incorporate the names of their main language) should be regarded as solid nation-states, with a close match between state boundaries and national identity. If anything, it was to argue the opposite: although ethnolinguanymic states might seem to form solid nation-states, reality is often quite different. Hence the framing of the concept in the English language: I am interested here primarily in misconceptions that I commonly see circulating in the English-language media and among my English-speaking students.

The case of Spain, discussed intensively in the GeoCurrents forum, illustrates the central issue well. American students generally expect to find a high degree of linguistic commonality and national solidarity in Spain, assuming that virtually all citizens of Spain are Spanish-speakers Spaniards who identity themselves as such. But that is not the case, given the strong sense of separate national identity found among the Catalans and Basques, and to some extent the Galicians as well. In my experience, students who have spent time in Barcelona or the Basque country participate enthusiastically in classroom discussions on this topic, often stressing how surprised they were to find such strong anti-Spanish-national sentiments in these areas.

The identification of the Spanish (or Castilian) language with Spain is further challenged by the fact that most native Spanish (or Castilian) speakers reside not in Spain but in Latin America. Ibero-Americans, of course, do not identify themselves with the Spanish nation. In general terms, national identity in the Western Hemisphere did not develop on ethnolinguistic grounds, although in the officially “plurinational” state of Bolivia, current-day “nations” are defined on such a basis.

In the Eastern Hemisphere, several “ethnolinguanymic” countries are potentially challenged by the fact that a higher percentage of the people in the ethnolinguistic group on which the state is supposedly founded live in a neighboring country, a phenomenon introduced in a previous GeoCurrents post under the label of the “underfit nation-state.” Each case has its own complexities and deserves a post of its own. For the sake of simplicity, I will note here only that more Mongols live in China (mostly in “Inner Mongolia”) than in Mongolia itself, more Lao live in Thailand than in Laos (to the extent that Isan is synonymous with Lao), more people who speak Malay as their mother tongue live in Indonesia than in Malaysia, more Azeris (or Azerbaijanis) live in Iran than Azerbaijan, and more Southern Sotho speakers, Swazi speakers, and Tswana speakers live in South Africa than in Lesotho, Swaziland, and Botswana respectively.

Map of Ethnic Groups in AfghanistanAfghanistan is doubly compromised on this score. “Afghan” is generally taken to be synonymous with Pashtun (or Pakhtun, in the “hard” dialect of the Pashto language), yet more Pashtun people live in Pakistan than in Afghanistan. By the same token, more members of the Tajik ethnic group live in Afghanistan than in Tajikistan. The latter imbalance is even more striking if defined on strictly linguistic grounds. The Tajiks of Tajikistan supposedly speak Tajik whereas those of Afghanistan supposedly speak Dari, but Tajik and Dari are merely different names of the same language. Two other major ethnic groups of Afghanistan, the Aimaks and Hazaras, also speak Dari, and Dari has long been the prestige language as well as the main language of inter-ethnic communication across the country. Taken together, Afghans who speak Dari probably outnumber those who speak Pashto, perhaps by a substantial margin. And to add to the confusion, Dari itself is a dialect of Persian, inter-intelligible with Farsi as spoken in Iran. In fact, as stated in the Wikipedia, “native-speakers of Dari usually call their language Farsi. However, the term Dari has been officially promoted by the government of Afghanistan for political reasons…”

Map of Major Languages by District in AfghanistanAfghanistan is thus merely a seeming ethnolinguanymic state; in actuality, the name of the country does not follow the name of the majority ethnolinguistic group, as the country has no majority population. And as we shall see in the next GeoCurrents post, the identification between the term “Afghan” and the modern country called Afghanistan is further challenged by geo-historical considerations.