The Tehrani vernacular

Do you speak exactly the same way that you write? A rhetoric question, don’t answer. The fact is – no one does. Vernaculars always differ from the literary standards – a dull, basic fact. The interesting point is that depending on the language in question the degree of their dissimilarity varies. That is to say in some cases the differences between spoken and written are minuscule and in some other – humungous. My native Polish could serve as a template of the first type – apart from obvious-to-happen differences in vocabulary registers used, the standard Polish of sound is very close to the standard Polish of ink. Syntax is not as elaborate, some secondary usage rules are not always followed, the nasal vowels tend to be denasalized – but that’s just about all. No big deal. On the other hand, in case of Persian the written and the spoken are virtually different idioms. One cannot expect that even profound knowledge of the written standard will grant them understanding of what is actually spoken on the streets. There’re far too serious differences in phonology, morphology and syntax (not to mention vocabulary) to enable this. What one may count on is to be understood (and to sound funny to Iranians, too). After all, the Iranians have all learned the ketaabi (ie. written language) in school and thus can easily understand it.

The goal of this piece is to provide a systematic listing of differences between the ‘book Persian’ and the spoken language of Tehran (which is by far the most popular of the spoken dialects and has now become a de facto standard of colloquial Persian) in order to help someone with knowledge of the former to switch into the latter more easily. I am planning to add similar pages describing another vernaculars (Dari-Kabuli, Tajiki-Bukharai perhaps and some more) in, inshallah, close future. Keep your fingers crossed.

Note on convention used – whenever a literary standard form appears I give it in [square brackets]. The /slants/ are reserved for the Tehrani colloquial forms. ‘single quotation marks’ mark the English glosses. Apologies for not providing Persian script so far. It’ll appear as soon as I find time for it.

Another important note – Bear in mind that the spoken language I am describing has no “standard form”. People, quite simply, speak the way which fits them best – “rules” listed below are not universally-valid-rules-without-exceptions but rather a guide based on observation. You are guaranteed to notice some “inconsequences” (eg. particular words always pronounced ketaabi-wise as if immune to sound-changes) Also, different people talk differently and comply (or not) to standards to a different degree. Do expect mixing the “book-lang” and the “street-lang” forms even in the same sentence. Having said all this I can only wish you to enjoy the page and perhaps have some benefit from its content.

Sound changes:

The following sound changes occur frequently in Tehrani vernacular.

  • ‘-ān’ and ‘-ām’ change into ‘-un’ and ‘-um’, respectively. Thus e.g. /nun/ from [nān] ‘bread’; /umadam/ from [āmadam] ‘I came’
  • the postposition ‘raa’ becomes ‘-o’ (‘-ro’ when after a vowel). /ino/ from [inrā] ‘this (acc)’; /cheshmāro/ from [cheshmhā rā] ‘the eyes (acc)
  • weakening or loss of the non-initial ‘h’ sound  /chār/ from [chahār] ‘four’; /sahi/ or /sa’i/ from [sahih] ‘correct’
  • initial ‘h’ is lost in [ham] ‘too’, and the word is affixed to the preceding one, e.g. /manam/ in place of [man ham] ‘me too’
  • simplification of consonant clusters. /niss/ from [nist] ‘is not’; /raff/ from [raft] ‘he/she went’
  • loss of final consonant. e.g. /dige/ from [digar] ‘other’; /age/ from [agar] ‘if’; /ye/ from [yek] ‘one’
  • ‘a’ may change into ‘e’ in some words. /ma’azerat/ from [ma’azarat] ‘apology; excuse’ 
  • word-initial ‘b’ may be realized as ‘v’ e.g. /var dāshtan/ from [bar dāshtan] ‘to pick up’
  • various changes in verb stems – discussed later

Differences in morphology:

  • plural marker ‘-hā’ is pronounced ‘-ā’; animate plural marker ‘-ān’ is pronounced ‘-un’ in the Tehrani vernacular
  • a postpositioned definite article starts to appear. It’s pronounced /-e/ after consonants, e.g. /pesare/ ‘the boy’ and /-he/ after vowels e.g. /divunehe/ ‘the madman’.
  • personal pronouns – /un/ is used in place of both [u] ‘he/she/it’ and [ān] ‘that’ of the literary standard. Third person plural is /ishun/ from [ishān] ‘they’ or /unā/ from [ānhā] ‘those; they’. Lastly /shomā/ now starts to serve as a singular pronoun and takes the verb in singular, e.g. /shomā biyā/ ‘you come here!’ ; /shomā miduni/ ‘you know (2nd. sg.)’. To express 2nd person plural /shomāhā/ is used.
  • suffixed (possesive) pronouns are: /-am/ /-et/ /-esh/ /-emun/ /-etun/ /-eshun/ after a consonant and /-m/ /-t/ /-sh/ /-mun/ /-tun/ /-shun/ after a vowel. If the preceding vowel is ‘e’ it changes into ‘a’ (which is historically well-motivated). Thus /xunam/ as opposed to standard [xāneyam] ‘my house’; /xunamun/ as opposed to standard [xāneyemān] ‘our house’
  • the verb ‘to be’: [hast] ‘is’ changes into /hass/ in isolation, /-ss/ when following a vowel (if that vowel is an ‘e’ it changes back into ‘a’) and /-e/ when following a consonant. Thus we have e.g. /in chi e ?/ from [in chi-st ?] ‘what is this?’ and /in xuna-ss/ from [in xāne hast] ‘this is a house’
  • the verb: personal endings:
    present tense – 3 pers. sg. is /-e/ instead of [-ad]; 2 pers. pl. is /-in/ istead of [-id] and 3 pers. pl. is /-an/ instead of [-and]; the other forms don’t change
    past tense – 2 pers. pl. is /-in/ from [-id]; 3 pers. pl. is /-an/ instead of [-and]; the other forms do not change.
    example of full paradigm: [didan] ‘to see’:
    present (standard) -[mibinam] [mibini] [mibinad] [mibinim] [mibinid] [mibinand]
    present (Tehrani) -/mibinam/ /mibini/ /mibine/ /mibinim/ /mibinin/ /mibinan/
    past (standard) -[didam] [didi] [did] [didim] [didid] [didand]
    past (Tehrani) -/didam/ /didi/ /did/ /didim/ /didin/ /didan/
  • the verb: stem changes – apart from standard sound changes as discussed above there are also some irregular stem changes (esp. in the present stem) of some verbs which have to be learned separately. A handful of the most common ones listed in their 1 pers. sg. forms:
    /miāram/ from [miāvaram] – ‘I bring’
    /mitunam/ from [mitavānam] – ‘I can’
    /misham/ from [mishavam] – ‘I become’
    /midam/ from [midaham] – ‘I give’
    /miram/ from [miravam] – ‘I go’
    /migam/ from [miguyam] – ‘I say’
    /mixām/ from [mixāham] – ‘I want’
    /miām/ from [miāyam] – ‘I come’
    /mizāram/ from [migozāram] – ‘I put; I lay; I place’ also ‘I let’
    /mishinam/ from [mineshinam] – ‘I sit’
  • the prepositions: when used with personal pronouns (esp. 2 and 3 pers. sg.) these combine with suffixed (not independent as in standard) pronoun forms. In case of the preposition [be] ‘to’, an ‘h’ may (re)appear between the preposition and possesive suffix. Thus /azesh/ in place of [az u] ‘from him/her’; /bet/ or /behet/ instead of [be to] ‘to you (sg.) 

Syntax and usage:

  • first and foremost – the word order of Tehrani colloquial is less rigid than that of the literary standard. The latter is strictly SOV (ie. V-verb always comes at the and of the sentence), whereas in the former the SVO order is also acceptable. eg. /pedaram mire terun/ SVO order lit ‘father-my goes Tehran’ instead of [pedaram be tehrān miravad] SOV order lit. ‘father-my to Tehran goes’
  • prepositions are often omitted when context makes it clear what is meant. e.g. the example sentence above (without [be]) or /vaghti ke umadam xune nabudi/ instead of [vaqti ke āmadam dar xāne nabudi] ‘when I  came you were not at home’ [dar] = ‘at; in’ 
  • indirect object: if pronoun, there’s a preference for construction “preposition+suffixed pronoun” instead of “preposition and full pronoun” /goftam bet/ instead of [be to goftam] ‘I told you’. if noun, there’s a tendency for omitting the preposition (see above)
  • direct object: if pronoun (esp. 2 or 3 pers.) there’s a preference for expressing it by glueing the suffixed pronoun form to the verb (in case of complex verbs the nominal part gets the suffix). Thus /didamesh/ instead of [u raa didam] ‘I saw him’ or /dusset dāram, āyā dussam dāri ?/ from [to rā dust dāram, āyā ma(n)rā dust dāri ?] ‘I love you, do you love me ?’ (BTW, a great example ain’t it ?)