The lands inhabited by Lezgis have been either a part of or a neighbour of Iranian empires since the times of Caucasian Albania. The oldest town in this part of the Caucasus, Derbent / Darband / دربند was founded as an Iranian border fortress and, in the course of history, many Iranians were settled in its environs where their descendants the Tats and the Mountain Jews live even today.
Even though the picture of Lezgi – Iranian relations is not all rosy, given that the rise of the militantly Shi’a Safavid dynasty started a 300-year period of periodic warfare between the Sunni mountaineers and the Shi’a Iranian state, a lot of the cultural heritage remains shared. Iranian poets are cherished (and translated into Lezgi!) by the Lezgis even today, the folktales show many paralells, the same games are played, the same stories are told and lastly, there’s a good number of Iranian words which made their way into Lezgi and, by large, are not even perceived as foreign by native speakers.
As my master’s thesis touched upon this subject (ie. Iranian loanwords in Lezgi) and as the matter is not well-known may be of some interest to Lezgi readership, I will dedicate a couple of post to those words. For now, some general points:
- There’s at least a thousand identifiably Iranian words in current usage.
- Most of the loans can be traced back to Persian, but some display characteristics suggestive of a different source language – in many cases dialects of Tati spoken in the area.
- While some words came directly from Persian, the majority was borrowed through Azerbaijani (ie. Azerbaijanis borrowed from Persians and Lezgis borrowed from Azerbaijani).
- Sometimes there are interesting changes of meaning, in many cases a given word has one meaning in Persian and a slightly different one in Azerbaijani and Lezgi. This supports the argument of a said word being borrowed via Azerbaijani and not directly.
- While some loanwords must have been borrowed many centuries ago, the bulk of them, in my opinion, was introduced into Lezgi relatively recently, when interactions with Azerbaijanis increased.
Let’s end with a couple of examples: азад ‘free’ (from Persian آزاد azad); гардан ‘neck’ (Persian گردن gardan); жанавур ‘wolf’ (in Persian جاناور ‘janavar’ means ‘monster’); асант ‘easy’ (Persian: آسان asan; Tati: (h)asant); гзаф ‘many, much, a lot’ (Persian گزاف gazaf ‘too many); чка ‘place’ (earlier form чика; Persian: جایگاه jaigah, Tati: jiga).