Persian versus Iranian
October 26, 2006 1:33 AM   Subscribe

Why do Iranian people consider themselves as "Persians?"

All my friends who's parents are from Iran consider themselves Persians as opposed to Iranians. Why is this? Didn't the Persian empire die several centuries ago?
posted by apple to Society & Culture (35 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
You might want to read this.
posted by Jimbob at 1:41 AM on October 26, 2006

You don’t say where you are, but one reason Iranians use the equivalent and older term ‘Persian’ in the US is that there are fewer knee-jerk negative reactions to the second term, since it’s not as obvious to lots of people that they’re from the modern country Iran, with which the US has tense relations when it has relations at all.
posted by Aidan Kehoe at 2:28 AM on October 26, 2006

An Iranian family friend calls himself Persian.

His explanation, as I understood it, was that the people living in what used to be called Persia were a distinct people and, by religion, Zoroasterians. They considered (and often still do consider) themselves distinct from the various Islamic interlopers that invaded and imposed their religion upon the native Persians.

Whether this is actually true, I've no idea, but this is the gist of a four hour conversation I sat in on.
posted by ninazer0 at 2:43 AM on October 26, 2006

I think I was once told that "Persians" were considered racially and culturally distinct from "Arabs." If this is correct, then those advocating the use of "Persia" and "Persian" may be attempting to distance/distinguish themselves from Saudis, Afghanis, etc.
posted by Clay201 at 2:45 AM on October 26, 2006

use the equivalent and older term ‘Persian’

(I should have made it clearer that ‘Persian’ is the older term in English; it’s not in Persian. As so often, see language hat for more detail.)
posted by Aidan Kehoe at 2:56 AM on October 26, 2006

I would guess so people don't confuse them with Arab?
posted by PenDevil at 3:31 AM on October 26, 2006

Persian and Iranian mean different things. Persians are only one of the many ethnic groups in Iran (others are Kurds, Lors, Azeris, Arabs). Now, Persians are the dominant ethnic group (somthing like 55% IIRC), and the old empire and country were called Persia because of this dominance. The modern name Iran (from I think last century) is from the word Aryan, the Indoeurpean tribe which begat all the non-Arab, non-Turkic ethnic groups in Iran today, so Iran (and Iranian) is (and was intended to be) a more inclusive label.

To put it another way, Iranian is to Persian as British is to English - the English are definitely the dominant ethnic group in Britain, but equally definitely not the only one. Just as a Scot will be up in arms being called an Englishman, an Baluch will protest the label Persian.
posted by claudius at 3:45 AM on October 26, 2006 [2 favorites]

I have three points:

You might read the Wikipedia article here:

I remember in 'Crash' there is a Persian family who feel fairly strongly about not being labelled Arabs. I don't think they were being snobbish, it seemed like that was what they thought they were.

I'm not sure its fair to say being English is an ethnic group. There are the celts, and the anglo saxons blah blah its goes on. Its not the same as Persians/Arabs/Iranians.

posted by tomw at 4:02 AM on October 26, 2006

I think there are also a lot of people who call themselves Persians because they're refugees from the Iranian regime.
posted by Lucie at 4:40 AM on October 26, 2006


The Celts are an ethnic group? Do you know anyone who idetifies as a Celt? Who speaks "Celtic" at home?


If you know anyone who fled the revolution and calls themselves a Persian, ask them what language they speak at home. Dollars to donuts that langauge will be Farsi ("Persian" in Persian), and not, say, Arabic, Turkoman, Baluchi or whatever. If they do speak Arabic or Turkoman I'll also bet they don't call themselves Persian.
posted by claudius at 4:49 AM on October 26, 2006

claudius: Where are you from? Welsh and gaelic are both derived from Celtic. Glasgow Celtic are a huge name in British football.

Note the following from Wikipedia:
Welsh (Cymraeg or y Gymraeg, is a member of the Brythonic branch of Celtic spoken natively in Wales (Cymru), in England by some along the Welsh border, and in the Chubut Valley, a Welsh immigrant colony in the Patagonia region of Argentina.

Gaulish Welsh Breton Irish Scottish Gaelic Manx are others.
posted by tomw at 5:09 AM on October 26, 2006

tomw: I'm Australian FWIW. I'm not arguing that there are no Celtic derived ethnic groups, but that nobody identifies as being Celtic rather than, say, Irish, Cornish or Welsh. Similarly, Spaniards, Romanians and Frenchmen see themselves firstly as Spanish, Romanian and French long before they see themselves as Roman-derived.

And if the English aren't an ethnic group, what are they?
posted by claudius at 5:20 AM on October 26, 2006

I'm not sure its fair to say being English is an ethnic group.

That depends on how you decide to define an ethnic group. If you've ever been an Irishman trapped on a plane load of English fans flying over to a soccer match in Germany then you will definitely come to a new understanding of matter.

If you are a member of an ethnic group then it is often more difficult for you to appreciate that others tend to see you as a member of a homogenous group. The differences you see within the group (say, between those from Yorkshire and Sussex) are basically invisible to outsiders. The tendency to maximise differences within your group and minimise differences outside your group is a cognitive bias known as outgroup homogeneity bias.
posted by meehawl at 5:26 AM on October 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

This is a discussion to be had over a few pints I think. I will say - English is a nationality. Is Australian an ethnic group? Does that include Aboriginal people? Confusing issues.

meehawl - can you confirm that the celtic spirit is alive and well. I definitley got that impression from Ireland and Wales during my time there. Could be wrong.

As for your experience on the plane, sorry. No doubt they were quieter on the way back. I've shared similar experiences of being the only English/Brit surrounded by others and I don't think of it as ethnic thing, just that everyone is not British, whether they are white or otherwise. I think when filling in forms I am usually prompted to put WHITE BRITISH. I usually just think I'm British. However its a given that Welsh and Scots don't.

posted by tomw at 6:02 AM on October 26, 2006

tomw: The Australian question is an interesting one! We had a census with an (optional) question on ethnicity. There was a story in the paper subsequently full of back patting about our multiculturalism, with x% of Lebanese background, y% of Aboriginal background and so on and so forth. Then the guy interviewed (from the Bureau of Statistics I think) goes on to say that "z% listed their ethnicity as Australian, but we should remember that 'Australian' is not an ethnicity".

I tend to think the opposite, but I guess it's an open question until our accent becomes unintelligible to outsiders. Until then I can agree that 'Australian' is at least a nationality (like 'English' I suppose).
posted by claudius at 6:33 AM on October 26, 2006

Further to what Lucie said: a fellow I knew in the late ’80s, whose family had felt obliged to leave Iran after the ’79 revolution, considered himself Persian rather than Iranian.
posted by misteraitch at 6:34 AM on October 26, 2006

I think the Wikipedia article offers the best information on the subject.

I would argue that the use of the term Persian as either an attempt to avoid a knee-jerk reaction among Westerners or an attempt to distance/distinguish Persians from Arabs is erroneous.

One thing to point out is that Iranian is the Persian word for the country. For example, Japan in Japanese is Nippon and Egypt in Arabis is Misr. English-speakers don't refer to these countries by their native language names so I think it makes sense that Persia would be adopted.

In addition though, I think part of the desire to reclaim and reinstate the terms Persia and Persian was a desire to maintain a connection to an incredibly rich cultural past. Among the scholars writing on the subject, I think there was a sentiment that the adoption of the terms Iran and Iranian to refer to the country, language and people, severed important cultural and historical ties.
posted by anonymous78 at 6:54 AM on October 26, 2006

can you confirm that the celtic spirit is alive and well

The Celtic spirit died around 387 BCE when Celts sacked Rome and then turned around and left. It's all been downhill since then.
posted by meehawl at 7:02 AM on October 26, 2006

Lots of off-topic stuff here. People who call themselves Persian do so because that is the ethnic group they belong to. There are people from Iran that aren't Persian: Kurds for example. I think there is some confusion as well because for a while, the country as a whole was referred to as Persia.
posted by chunking express at 8:15 AM on October 26, 2006

Persians are people who speak Parsi.
posted by jimfl at 8:42 AM on October 26, 2006

"Persians" were considered racially and culturally distinct from "Arabs"

Are, I think, not were.
A Syrian friend of mine says Persians/Iranians speak Farsi, not Arabic, therefore they're not Arabs.
posted by Rash at 8:47 AM on October 26, 2006


About 2500 years ago, the emperor Cyrus was ruling over a people called (in their language) Parsa. The Greeks called the area in which they live (an area not equivalent to modern-day Iran, but roughly the same as the modern-day province of Pars [or Fars, hence "Farsi"]) Persis, which became, in Latin, Persia.

But around 1500 years ago, under the Sassanids, citizens of the empire began to call their land "Eran," as in, "Land of the Aryans."

Europeans, being distracted by other things, chose not to notice until the 1930s, when Reza Pahlavi asked (well, told) Western countries to discontinue the use of "Persia" and replace it with "Iran," simply because "Iran" was the name that Iranians were using. Note that the name change was not particularly controversial in Iran except among what you might call pro-Western academics and politicians. Reza Pahlavi, who was not a nice guy, has been accused of changing the name to make good with the Nazis, who as we all know had big boners for Aryans, but it seems clear that that was not his only motivation for the change.

Now, as to why American-Iranians would refer to themselves as Persians? I'd guess it's mostly just because they don't want to be beaten up by ignorant, misinformed Americans. Remember that "Iranian" would be (more or less) the name they would call themselves.
posted by maxreax at 8:49 AM on October 26, 2006 [2 favorites]

I think when someone presses a distinction like this it is often just a function of wanting to have an identity. My paternal line has been in the US since the early 1700's and immigrated from England. I have an Uncle who, when asked about his origin, says he is Norman. I expect that the derivation of our surname is probably Norman (one of those ending in "son") but has there really been anyone who is truly of predominately Norman blood in the past 500 or so years? I feel no need to invade and assimilate.
posted by Carbolic at 8:50 AM on October 26, 2006

… but has there really been anyone who is truly of predominately Norman blood in the past 500 or so years?

My understanding is that the Channel Islands and Normandy haven’t been major destinations for immigration for the last millennium or so, and so some of the locals there would fit that description. Now, that is not to say that there are many of predominantly Norse blood, which may be what you mean by Norman, but doesn’t really correspond to the historical use of the word.
posted by Aidan Kehoe at 9:17 AM on October 26, 2006

Iran is the country; Persia is the nation.
One of my pals is a Persian from Afghanistan. He speaks Farsi.
posted by klangklangston at 9:22 AM on October 26, 2006

I think when someone presses a distinction like this it is often just a function of wanting to have an identity.

For your uncle (and most of us Americans,) probably. For the rest of the world it's usually that they already have that identity. It reflects the culture they were brought up in, the language they speak, even the opportunities available to them in their society.

This can be hard to understand for multi-generational Americans, but in most countries distinctions between (political) nationality and ethnic identity are very real. People often consider themselves members of their ethnic group first and citizens of their country second. The melting pot concept is in practice restricted to countries with broad ethnic diversity heavily dependent on immigration. Elsewhere, people start civil wars over differences in identity.
posted by Opposite George at 10:47 AM on October 26, 2006

Um, if you think there's something questionable about ethnic Persians calling themselves Persian rather than Arab, try telling an Irishman that just because England ruled his country for hundreds of years, that means he's English now.

You will get stabbed.
posted by nasreddin at 10:48 AM on October 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

You don’t say where you are, but one reason Iranians use the equivalent and older term ‘Persian’ in the US is that there are fewer knee-jerk negative reactions to the second term...

One of my favorite college professors (who was Ira... er, Persian) told us this explanation.
posted by norm at 11:33 AM on October 26, 2006

A lot of people who live in Iran are Azerbaijanis as well, hense not Persian.
posted by k8t at 3:36 PM on October 26, 2006

Persians are people who speak Parsi.

That's Farsi, and it's not that simple—lots of people (for instance, in Afghanistan) speak Farsi but are not Persian.

The analogy with English/British is more misleading than helpful, if you ask me.

Read maxreax's comment for a good short take on it.
posted by languagehat at 5:15 PM on October 26, 2006

thank you, maxreax, for bringing history into this.

I gather that today, some people currently identify themselves as Persian in English as a protest against the current Iranian regime. Others chose to identify themselves as Iranian.

As for the "Celts" and the "English" - wow. Crazy argument. There are no celts, there have never been any celts (except some guys the Romans called "Celts"), they were invented by a Welsh nationalist in the 18th century. If you don't believe me, well, maybe you picture pre-modern Europe crawling with Germanics who all get on and clap each other on the back, saying "don't you love being Germanic?"

Celtic is a language group, like Germanic or Slavic or Indo-Iranian. There is no evidence of any pan-Celtic identity before said Welsh nationalist tried to invent it, and to this day it seems to have succeeded more with non-Celtic people (especially the English and the Americans) than with any Celtic. There are Welsh and Irish and Scottish and Manx and Bretons and Cornish - and they are all as different as French or Italian or Spanish - as was pointed out above.

Whereas "English" is a distinct ethnic identity which has existed since the Anglo-Saxon period - thus Bede's History of the English Church. (Anglo-Saxon, notably, is not used in England except by a) Victorian racial theorists or b) students of Old English and Anglo-Saxon culture. English people are not Anglo-Saxon, and have not been since the middle ages).

The current English identity is one that is being debated, as with most European identities, but I think that most people (a few racists aside) would agree that it is an ethnicty which exists in the heriditary sense (in the sense of people who have always lived here and have their roots in this place called England), but also in an inclusive sense - people come here and become English. When I meet someone, and they have an English accent, I assume they are English until they tell me otherwise (because I have met an occasional Welsh person who has lost their accent, or someone from overseas who has been educated here). And people born here are considered to be English - they may have another identity as well, like being from the Carribean, but that doesn't make them any less English. (and many non-white people really don't have another country - this is their country).

And they are most definitely English, which is a subset of being British. It's like being Texan and American - one can be both.

I'm not English myself, but I now live in England, and I'm married to an English man (one side of his family immigrants, the other side in the same village for 500+ years).

I also study British history.

posted by jb at 6:48 PM on October 26, 2006

All my friends whose parents are from Iran...

So, you're talking about your second-generation friends, right? If so, here's how I see it, coming from the same position as them. The distinction is in the english language only. The word "Iranian" applies to citizenship status/nationality. They don't call themselves Iranian because they're not--they're American. Jus soli!

Calling oneself "Persian" refers to a cultural/ethnic background. In english, the term "persian" is usually used instead of "iranian" to describe our cultural things: persian rugs, persian cat, persian food, &c.

So that's how I parse the difference; I'm guessing your friends do the same. And in my case it's not because of the revolution or to protest the '79 regime change (let's just say I'm definitely not one of those pro-shah tehrangeles ex-pats), and it's not because of what I'm worried about what other Americans think (I've got an "axis of evil" neighborhoodie). To me "persian" refers to ethnicity, and "iranian" to nationality. I've got lots of love for Iran, but I prefer not to call myself "Iranian" because it kind of denies the American part of my identity (not to get all Lee Greenwood, but I *am* proud to be an American). For the same reason, I don't have a problem with the phrase "Iranian-American" (except for the clunkiness of the phrase).

So that's where I'm coming from. If you want to know why your friends use "persian" instead of "iranian," why not just ask them.

note: In farsi, there's no such distinction. The word is just "irani."
posted by neda at 7:29 PM on October 26, 2006

Parsi, Farsi, Pharsi, dari, meh? EE-ron, I-ran, Eh-ren, meh? Don't sweat it.
posted by Pollomacho at 12:15 AM on October 27, 2006 [1 favorite]

note: In farsi, there's no such distinction. The word is just "irani."

Um, you even used the word in that sentence. The farsi word for persian is farsi as opposed to irani.
posted by Pollomacho at 12:19 AM on October 27, 2006

Sorry - I based my answer (that the choice was political) one what one person who called themselve Persian told me. He may have been unusual.

I should have said that above. I have another friend whose describes himself as Canadian, but his parents as Iranian, and generally uses Iranian (about people) unless referring to the language, etc.
posted by jb at 12:49 AM on October 27, 2006

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