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Religious Extremism Now Affecting Iranian Dictionary


By James Donahue

July 29, 2006


At the risk of sounding as if we are joining a media demonizing of radical Moslem Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, we cannot resist taking issue with the latest order to emerge from that man’s strange little world.


The man has just ordered government and cultural groups in Iran, including newspapers and other print and broadcast media, to avoid using more than 2,000 “foreign” words that he claims have crept into the Persian language.


The order is primarily an attack on so-called “western” words that are used in Iran because the local language has no comparable words to replace them. So Ahmadinejad is offering a small dictionary of alternative phrases that he wants writers and speakers to use instead of these particular words.


As a person who has made his living writing and speaking words in the English language, this writer is keenly aware of the way foreign words can not only “creep” into language, but become such a vital part of the language we are usually unaware or their origins. There are many words like brunette, encore, and petite that have slipped into our language from the French. Others like noodle, poltergeist and kindergarten have their origins in German. The Spanish gave us words like alfalfa, alligator, armada, banana, bizarre, bonanza and burro.


And believe it or not, we have adopted many Arabic words as well. They include admiral, adobe, albacore, alcohol, caliber, check, chess, coffee, giraffe, harem, lilac, lemon, monsoon and scarlet. This list is very long and many of the words in it might be very surprising.


This is why we are astounded by Ahmadinejad’s attempt to select “western” words from the language of the Iranian people and forbid their use. The chances are that his list of 2,000 words is only scratching the surface of the number of words and phrases borrowed from other languages and cultures over the long history of mankind.


Three examples of words from his selection, and their substitutes, as given in one news account, make the order somewhat of a joke, at least for those of us on the outside looking in. They are “pizzas,” which now must be called “elastic loaves,” “chat” which will be called a “short talk,” and “cabin,” which will be identified in Persian as a “small room.”


While humorous to us, for Iranian journalists and public speakers, this issue will be very serious because it is going to mean that any public statement, or written story, must be carefully checked against the Ahmadinejad list of 2,000 words before being spoken or published.


This edict by Iranian’s leader is about as silly as an attempt by some U.S. legislators not long ago to make English the official language of the United States. While English is the most commonly used language, because of the wide diversity of people who live in America, it is not the only language used. Walk across any college or university campus, or through certain neighborhoods of any large city and you will hear many languages spoken freely among the people.


Both of these efforts are disturbing trends toward separatism at a time when the people of this world are in extreme mutual danger of going into self-destruct. The reason for this danger is the fact that we are refusing to unite and tear down the fences that separate us from one another. Instead of uniquely different, people must wake up to the fact that we are all alike. We are all one. We all share the same soul. And if we do not discover this and recognize it soon, and learn to love one another, we are going to go extinct.