Tips for Reading Classical Persian Poetry 1 – What is happening to whom? – Affixed pronouns in Classical Persian

Posted  20 May 2020

As last week Persian speakers around the world celebrated the works of Ferdowsi, and marked 1000 years since his death, our blogger Iskandar is back to guide us through some of the quirks of reading Classical Persian literature. One of the great joys of learning Persian is that very old literature, going back much further than that which we are used to easily reading in English for example, is totally accessible. But of course when you’re approaching old poems and texts for the first time, there has to be a bit of adjustment, and here it can help to be prepared. So as we jump from the bustling streets of modern day Tehran to the Shiraz of Sa’di and Hafez’s time, we’re going to put up a few signposts to save you getting more lost than you need to.

The first of these signposts concerns a feature of Classical Persian that contemporary speakers will at first feel quite familiar with. If  you’ve got this far, you should be comfortable with what is often called a possessive ending, کتابت/your book, for example.  You should also be comfortable with the idea that this same ending creeps up in other places, می بینمت/I see you, for example. A characteristic of Classical Persian is that it plays with this bit of grammar and uses it much more widely than you would normally see in Modern Persian, and having an understanding of this will make your time reading Classical Persian Literature much easier. In fact, although it might all seem very grammatical, once you get used to it, you might even start to see it as a key piece of the puzzle that is the unique flow of Classical Persian Poetry.


Even though the Persian language, especially the written language, has not changed much as a whole over the last millennium, some vocabulary and grammatical rules have fallen out of current use, because a millennium, after all, is a long time. Rūdakī is far easier to understand for learners of Persian than Beowulf is for learners of English, indeed, but some grammatical features typical to Classical Persian tend to puzzle Persian poetry enthusiasts and sometimes create misunderstanding of the beautiful verses. This week I will talk about a grammatical feature which, despite its vital importance in understanding Classical Persian poetry and prose, is often ignored or insufficiently explained in the teaching of Persian as a second language. For the transliteration of Classical Persian, I will use the classical pronunciation, and of Modern Persian, I will use the standard Iranian Persian pronunciation.

This feature is the affixed pronoun, or in linguistic jargon, the enclitic pronoun, used as the direct or indirect object, or to indicate possession. In other words, the little ت –at in میبینمت mībīname(a)t ‘I see you’ or the ش – in مادرش mādar ‘his/her mother’, etc. The affixed pronoun in Modern Persian came from those in Middle Persian (Pahlavi), where it was used to indicate the oblique case, i.e. anything that was not a subject. Its function as the marker of the possessor also had its origin in the oblique case, which I will explain further below.

This phenomenon, of course, is not alien to even beginners in Persian and is systematically covered by textbooks. However, in Modern Persian, it can only appear in a few fixed places: after a transitive verb as its direct object (e.g. in میبینمت mībīname(a)t ‘I see you’, دیدیش dīdīš ‘you saw him/her/it’ etc.), as the indirect object of a preposition (e.g. بهت behet ‘to you’), and the possessive suffix (e.g. مادرش mādar ‘his/her mother’, دانشگاهم dānešgāham ‘my university’ etc.), but in Classical Persian, its position is more flexible.

Perhaps you have wondered why, in Iranian Persian, one cannot straightforwardly say ‘I am hungry’ but has to say گرسنه ام است gorosnam ast (which, in fact, is not said in Afghan and Tajik Persian varieties, where a word-to-word translation of ‘I am hungry’ or ‘I have become hungry’ is the norm). What is the –am doing after an adjective? Surely ‘my hungry’ is not logically possible?

In fact, this is a relic of the usage of the affixed pronoun as the indirect object (to/for someone) in Classical Persian, and, by extension, Middle Persian. The logic behind it is that in Middle Persian and other middle/old Iranian languages, the expression of a feeling, a mental or physical condition, was expressed ‘passively’, i.e. one would not say ‘I am hungry’ as we do in English, but ‘it is hungry to me’ (which, by the way, is how Hindi and Urdu, whose ancestor language, Sanskrit, was a sister of Old Persian, still says it). Similarly, one would not say ‘I like it’, but ‘from it to me comes happy’, and this is exactly why, in Persian, you say از آن خوشم میاید az ān ḫošam miyāyad: ḫoš = happy; –am = to me. This is easier for German speakers to understand, whose language says ‘mir ist kalt’ (lit. ‘to me it is cold’) rather than ‘I am cold’, except, of course, mir ‘to me’ in German is not affixed to another word. Many learners of Persian mistakenly understand the –am here as a possessive suffix, or simply memorise these phrases as set expressions, which is why similar constructions in Classical Persian, where the affixed pronoun has a more flexible use, can be difficult for them to understand.

The restricted position of affixed pronouns in Modern Persian tricks people’s mind into thinking that they are ‘endings’. This is not quite correct, as they are originally pronouns, but not used as the subject of a sentence. In Classical Persian – the direct descendant of Middle Persian, affixed pronouns behave very similarly to their ancestors in Middle Persian, and this may cause trouble when you try to understand classical poetry.

So, what exactly is the position of the affixed pronoun flexible in Classical Persian? Let’s have a look at a few examples.

In Classical Persian, the affixed pronoun, flexible in position, can be used:

1. As the indirect object:

 

a. After conjunctions:

In Modern Persian, pronouns as indirect object is largely introduced by prepositions, such as به be ‘to’ and برای barā-ye ‘for’, and is rarely attached to other types of words except in set expressions. But in Classical Persian, they can be attached to other types of words. This is very often seen if the sentence has the conjunction اگر agar ‘if’. In such cases, the affixed pronoun goes immediately after:

تا که خاک قدمش تاج من است

اگرم تاج دهی نستانم

Tā ki ḫāk-i qadamaš tāj-i man ast
Agaram tāj dahī nasitānam

‘As long as the dust on his foot is my crown
[Even] if you give me a crown, I will not take it’

– Mawlānā

Or:

گرت زین بد آید گناه من است
چنینست و این دین و راه من است

Garat z-īn bad āyad gunāh-i man ast
Čunīnast va īn dīn u rāh-i man ast

‘If you do not like it, it is not my fault
It is the way [it is], and such is my path’

– Firdawsī

In both examples, the affix pronoun is the indirect object. Modern Persian would express the first example as ‘اگر تاج به من بدهی/دهی agar tāj be man (be)dahī …’, using the preposition به be to introduce the indirect object من man ‘me’. Similarly, the second example in Modern Persian would be ‘اگر از این بدت آید agar az īn badat āyad…’. Note that here, even Modern Persian uses a fossilised archaism: the –at, as the indirect object meaning ‘to you’, is attached to an adjective, a usage found only in fixed expressions, usually expressions of feelings, as I have discussed earlier.

The affixed pronoun can also be attached to the conjunction ki:

زهی سعادت من که م تو آمدی به سلام
خوش آمدی و علیک السلام و الاکرام

Zihē saʿādat-i man kim tō āmadī ba salām
H̱ōš āmadī va ʿalayka-s-salām va-l-ikrām

‘How great is my joy that to me you have come with greetings
Welcome, and upon you may there be peace and honour’

– Saʿdī

… which Modern Persian would express as ‘که تو به من آمدی ke tō be man āmadī’, again using the preposition به be.

 

b. After bāyistan and šāyistan:

The affixed pronoun as the indirect object is very often seen after the verb بایستن bāyistan ‘it is necessary to’, to designate for whom something is necessary:

یکی پند گویم ترا من درست

دل از مهر گیتی ببایدت شست

Yakē pand gōyam turā man durust
Dil az mihr-i gētī bibāyadat šust

‘I shall tell you a piece of right advice:
You shall wash your heart off love of this world (worldly affairs)’

– Firdawsī

… which, in Modern Persian, would be expressed as ‘تو باید دل از مهر گیتی بشویی tō bāyad dil az mihr-i gētī bešūyī’.

Also, after the now largely obsolete verb شایستن šāyistan ‘it is fitting (for someone) to’, ‘(someone) is worthy of’:

دل به جوش و تن به فریاد است باز
شایدم کالماس بارد چشم از آنک

Dil ba jōš u tan ba faryād ast bāz
Šāyadam k-almās bārad čašm az ānk

‘My heart is ready to boil and my body ready to cry
It befits me that diamonds should rain from my eyes’

– Manučihrī

(Note that the verb شایستن šāyistan has fossilised into شاید šāyad in all varieties of Modern Persian, meaning ‘perhaps’)

 

c. After other elements in the sentence:

More often, the affixed pronoun as the indirect object can be attached to any words:

گر از عهد خردیت یاد آمدی
که بیچاره بودی در آغوش من

Gar az ʿahd-i ḫurdiyat yād āmadē
Ki bēčāra būdī dar āġōš-i man

‘If you have memory of when you were little
When you were helpless in my arms’

Modern Persian would put it as ‘اگر از عهد خردی یادت آمد agar az ʿahd-e ḫordī yādat āmad’.

– Saʿdī

راهیست راه عشق که هیچش کناره نیست
آنجا جز آن که جان بسپارند چاره نیست

Rāhē-st rāh-i ʿišq ki hēč kanāra nest
Ānjā juz ān ki jān bisupārand čāra nēst

‘The path of love is one that has no end
Where, except for surrendering life, there is no cure (i.e. the destination will not be reached)’

– Ḥāfiẓ

Modern Persian would say ‘راه عشق راهیست که هیچ کنارش نیست rāh-e ʿešq rāhī-st ke hīč kenāraš nīst’ or ‘… هیچ کناره ندارد hīč kenāre nadārad’.

In Middle Persian and Old Persian, داشتن dāštan ‘to have’ meant ‘to hold’ and did not quite have the meaning of ‘to have’. Cross-linguistically, this occurs in many languages; one need not go far to find the Latin word tenere ‘to hold’ transforming into tener ‘to have’ in Spanish, for example, while keeping its meaning ‘to hold’ in the French tenir. ‘Someone has something’, therefore, was expressed in Old and Middle Persian as ‘to someone there is something/something exists’. This is retained in Classical Persian, where the possessor is marked by the dative (indirect object) marker (see the پند گویم ترا pand gōyam turā in the quote from Firdawsī above), which has come to perform the function of the accusative (direct object) marker in Modern Persian. When the possessor is a pronoun, the pronoun is affixed to the possessed. ‘I have a brother’, therefore, would not be ‘من یک برادر دارم man yak barādar dāram’ in Classical Persian, but ‘مرا یک برادر هست/است marā yak barādar (h)ast’, where مرا marā does not mean ‘me’, but ‘to me’; and the classical ‘یک برادرم هست/است yak barādaram (h)ast’ does not mean ‘my brother exists’, as the –am is not a possessive suffix, but an affixed pronoun as the indirect object ‘to me’. This construction has been retained in Modern Persian expressions such as یادم yādam hast ‘I remember’ (lit. ‘to me there is memory’ not ‘my memory exists’) and یادم رفت yādam raft ‘I have forgotten/I do not recall’ (lit. ‘memory has left me’ not ‘my memory has left’). Ḥāfiẓ, for example, has:

گرم ترانه چنگ صبوح نیست چه باک

نوای من به سحر آه عذرخواه من است

Garam tarāna-i čang-i ṣabūḥ nēst či bāk
Navā-i man ba saḥar āh-i ʿuzr-ḫwāh-i man ast

‘If I do not have lyre song of dawn, why to worry
My melody at daybreak is my repentant sigh’

… which would be ‘اگر ترانه چنگ صبوح ندارم agar tarāne-ye čang-e ṣabūḥ nadāram …’ in Modern Persian.

 

2. As the direct object

This should surprise no student of Modern Persian, as the function of the affixed pronoun as the direct object is ubiquitous in Modern Persian (cf. میبینمت mībīname(a)t ‘I see you’ = من تو را میبینم man torā mībīnam). The main difference lies in the fact that, as I have mentioned, the flexible position of the affixed pronoun. The affixed pronoun as the direct object can occur in all positions where it can occur as the indirect pronoun, except in expressions that grammatically require the indirect pronoun, such as after the verbs بایستن bāyistan and شایستن šāyistan, and expressions of possession. Let’s look at a few examples of the affixed pronoun as the direct object in different positions:

چنین که صومعه آلوده شد ز خون دلم

گرم به باده بشویید حق به دست شماست

Čunīn ki ṣawmaʿa ālūda šud zi ḫūn-i dilam
Garam ba bāda bišōyēd ḥaqq ba dast-i šumā-st

‘Thus, the monastery has been stained with my heart’s blood
If you wash me with wine, the justice is yours’

Here, the affixed pronoun as the direct object comes after the conjunction اگر agar ‘if’. Modern Persian would put it as ‘اگر مرا به باده بشویید agar marā be bāde bešūyīd …’

هر زمان می‌گفت او نفرین نو

اوش می‌زد کاندرین صحرا بدو

Har zamān mēguft ū nafrīn-i naw
Ū-š mēzad k-andarīn ṣaḥrā bidaw

‘Every instance he was uttering a new curse
He was beating it [and saying] “Run [away] in this desert!”’

– Mawlānā

In this instance, the affixed pronoun as the direct object is attached to the subject pronoun. Modern Persian would say ‘او اورا میزد ū ūrā mīzad…’ or have the affixed pronoun attached conventionally to the verb, i.e. ‘او میزدش ū mīzadaš’.

In summary, we have seen that in Classical Persian, the position of the affixed pronoun, either as the direct object or the indirect object, is far more flexible than it is in Modern Persian. To learners not so familiar with Classical Persian syntax, this can at first appear to be confusing. But as long as you are aware of this peculiarity, you are ready to recognise a ‘misplaced’ (of course, from the point of view of Modern Persian grammar!) affixed pronoun when it occurs, and deduce the Modern Persian equivalent for better comprehension.