Iskandar Ding: Introduction to Tajik Persian 3 – Differences in Vocabulary

Posted  12 Jun 2020

Although formal Tajik and formal Iranian are largely identical in terms of vocabulary, many differences exist in everyday words. To go through every difference would be out of the scope of this blog post, so this week we will learn about some of the most basic and interesting differences which will help you communicate more smoothly.

The differences can be divided into the following categories:

  1. Words that exist in both varieties but are used differently:
Big and small Iranian Persian is simpler in this respect: ‘big’ is بزرگ/bozorg, and ‘small’ is کوچیک/kūčīk, but Tajik Persian is more complex, In Tajik Persian, бузург/buzurg has mainly a conceptual meaning, i.e. ‘great’, and when it comes to size and age, the word is калон/kalān. کلان/kalān exists in Iranian Persian, too, but mainly in compounds, e.g. کلانشهر/kalānšahr ‘metropolis’, اقتصاد کلان/eqteṣād-e kalān ‘macroeconomics’, etc. Tajik ‘small’ also distinguishes two categories: for size, it is mainly майда/mayda, which is also the word for ‘change (as in money)’, for age, it is хурд/khurd. When it comes to small as in ‘degree’ (English ‘a little’, ‘a bit’), the word is also майда/mayda, or реза/reza. The word кӯчак/kōčak (Ir: کوچیک/kūčīk) also exists in Tajik, but enjoys less frequency in common speech than it does in Iranian Persian. When it comes to age, Tajiks prefer to use the word хурд/ḫurd. As a result, the word хурдӣ/ḫurdi has the meaning of ‘childhood days’ in Tajik, as you will hear Tajiks say ман аз хурдӣ/man az ḫurdī… ‘since I was a child…’, дар хурдӣ/dar ḫurdī… ‘as a child, in childhood’, etc. Хурд/ḫurd may remind you of the word خرده (Taj. ḫurda vs. Ir. ḫorde) in Iranian Persian, which means ‘a small piece’.
Good In Tajik, the word for ‘good’ is often нағз/naghz, although хуб/ḫūb also exists and is frequently used. نغز/naghz in Iranian Persian only appears in classical poetry.
Speech Tajik Persian, like Afghan Persian, prefers гап/gap to ҳарф/harf for ‘speech, (uttered) words’. Thus, ‘to speak’ is most commonly гап задан/gap zadan in Tajik (and Afghan) Persian instead of the more Iranian حرف زدن/ḥarf zadan. گپ/gap also exists in Iranian Persian, where it is an informal word, ‘chitchat’.
Now Although الآن/alān is also found in Tajik, the far more common word is ҳозир/hāzir. The Arabic original of the word, حاضر, means ‘present’, which gave the meaning of ‘ready’ in Iranian Persian. In Tajik, however, it means ‘now, right now’, perhaps from expressions such as در حال حاضر/dar ḥāl-i ḥāżir ‘currently’, used in Iranian and Tajik Persian.
Very The two words for ‘very’ in Persian, خیلی and بسیار, are used with different frequencies in the three modern varieties: Iranians prefer خیلی by a large margin, Afghans favour بسیار, and Tajiks tend to use both indifferently, although with a slight preference of бисёр/bisyār over хеле/ḫele. In terms of intensity, the Tajik хеле/ḫele may be more intense than бисёр/bisyār, where as the Iranian خیلی/ḫey is less intense than بسیار/besyār. The classical pronunciation of خیلی is ḫaylē, which has not been retained by the common pronunciation of either varieties. خیلی/aylē, as we will see right below, comes from the classical word خیل/ayl ‘group’, with the indefinite ending ی/-ē (-ī in Iranian), and literally means ‘a (whole) group (of)’, i.e. ‘a lot’. بسیار/bisyār comes from the Middle Persian was ‘a lot, many/much, abundant’, which gave the classical Persian bas you may have encountered in reading classical poetry.
Kind The word for ‘kind’, apart from the Arabic loan نوع/nawʿ which exists in higher registers in both varieties, is commonly طور/ṭowr in Iranian, but хел/ḫēl in Tajik. خیل is a rare word in Iranian Persian, where, pronounced as kheyl, it means ‘group’ and used to designate ‘a group of horses’. Thus, Ir. čeṭowr ‘how (lit. what kind)’ is Taj. чи хел/či ḫēl, Ir. اینطور/īnṭowr is Taj. ин хел/īn ḫēl, Ir. آنطور/ānṭowr is Taj. он хел/ān ḫēl. The colloquial Iranian چه جوری/če jūrī, این جوری/īn jūrī, اون (آن) جوری/ūn(ān) jūrī, do not exist in Tajik, although the word جور/jūr, pronounced as ҷӯр/jōr, is found in Tajik, and means ‘the like’, ‘the congruent’, and therefore ‘companion’ – which is a meaning found in Iranian Persian, too – in fact, the Tajik slang word for ‘mate, buddy’ is ҷӯра/jōra.
Tomorrow The most common word for ‘tomorrow’ in Tajik is not фардо/fardā, but пагоҳ/pagāh, leaving фардо/fardā with a formal – almost poetic – meaning. پگاه/pagāh exists in the classical, literary register in Iranian Persian, where it means ‘dawn, early morning’.

Since we are on گاه/gāh, which in Middle Persian means ‘time (period)’ among other meanings, the word بیگاه/bēgāh, a bit archaic in Iranian Persian (pronounced bīgāh), is used in Tajik Persian to mean ‘late(r)’: when a shop-owner tells you they will close late, they say they will close бегоҳ/bēgāh, which is a very vague time period extending from late afternoon/early evening till whenever the speaker thinks is late…

Open and close Of course, we have باز/bāz and بسته/basta in both varieties, but the most common words in Tajik Persian are кушода/kušāda for ‘open’, and пӯшида/pōšīda for ‘closed’, which of course came from the verbs кушодан/kušādan (in Iranian گشودن/gošūdan) and پوشیدن/pūšīdan. This pair is my all-time favourite, as they sound very poetic from the point of view of Iranian and even Afghan Persian, which is closer to Tajik than to Iranian. A Tajik person may say ‘Дара кушо/кун/Dara kušā/pōš’ to ask you to open/close the door, whereas an Afghan would say ‘دره واز/بند کو (کن)/Dara wāz/band ko(n)’, and an Iranian ‘درو باز کن/ببند/Daro bāz kon/beband’. You may know پوشیدن/pōšīdan as to ‘put on (clothes)’, but it also means ‘to cover’, and therefore the meaning ‘to close’ in Tajik Persian. The word маҳкам/mahkam (< محکم/muḥkam ‘tight, firm’) is also frequently heard in Tajik to mean ‘closed’, especially when describing a place closed down upon official order.
Up and down Tajik Persian speakers use the compound verbs баромадан/barāmadan ‘come/go out, come/go up’ and фуромадан/furāmadan ‘come/go down’ more than Iranian Persian speakers, who prefer the composite verbs بیرون رفتن/bīrūn raftan for ‘to go out’, بالا رفتن/bālā raftan ‘to go up’, and پایین آمدن/رفتن/pāyīn āmadan/raftan ‘to come/go down’. Note that in Tajik, the conceptualisation of upward and outward movements is the same – баромадан/barāmadan. Although Iranian Persian has برآمدن/barāmadan and فرو آمدن/forū āmadan, they are used in higher registers. The present prefix ме/– comes, in Tajik, before the prefixes бар/bar– and фур(ӯ)/fur(ō)-, unlike in Iranian, where it comes after them, e.g. Taj. мебароям/mēbarāyam vs. Ir. برمیایم/barmīyāyam.
Beautiful The ubiquitous Iranian قشنگ/qašang does not exist in Tajik daily parlance, nor is the Afghan مقبول/maqbūl often used. The most frequently used word for ‘beautiful’ in Tajik is the good old زیبا/zēbā. For humans, specifically, the nice word хушрӯ/ḫušrō (lit. ‘merry-faced’), which would also make sense in Iranian Persian, may be used, too.
Cool The Iranian slang expressionباحال/bāḥāl does not exist in Tajik. When Tajiks say ‘cool’, they normally say зӯр/zōr, which normally means ‘strength’ in both varieties.
Difficult The common Persian word سخت/saḫt is not generally used in Tajikistan to mean ‘difficult’, but ‘firm’. ‘Difficult’ in Tajikistan is usually мушкил/muškil, and душвор/dušvār if you wish to be more formal. These two words tend to belong to the formal register in Iranian Persian. سختی/saḫtī, however, does mean ‘difficulty’ in Tajikistan.
Colours The most common Tajik word for ‘red’ is сурх/surḫ, which sounds quite literary in Iranian Persian. The other colours are largely the same in Iran and Tajikistan. Worth noting is that green tea – which is the most common tea in Central Asia – is чойи кабуд/čāy-i kabūd (lit. ‘(dark) blue tea’.
Fruits and vegetables Among fruits, the most interesting difference is in the term for watermelon, which is called тарбуз/tarbuz in Tajikistan and never هندوانه/hendvāne. ‘Pear’ is not گلابی/golābī, but нок/nāk if it has a tapered shape or муруд/murud (or амруд/amrud) if it is of the rounded kind. Both words exist in Iranian Persian, too. Among vegetables, my all-time favourite is the word for carrot, which is сабзӣ/sabzī in Tajik. I have long wondered what it has to do with the colour green…
Places Names for public establishments can be different in Tajik. To name a few: an exit is баромадгоҳ/barāmadgāh (lit. ‘come-out place, cf. баромадан/barāmadan above), an entrance is даромадгоҳ/darāmadgāh (lit. ‘come-in place’), a barber’s shop is сартарошхона/sartarāšḫāna (lit. ‘head-shaving house’), a museum is осоргоҳ/āsārgāh (lit. ‘relics house’), and a toilet (bathroom) is ҳоҷатхона/hājatḫāna (lit. ‘necessity house’). The official word for hospital is бемористон/bēmāristān, like in Iran, but colloquially, people may also say духтурхона/duḫturḫāna (lit. ‘doctor house’), шифохона/šifāḫāna (lit. ‘recovery/treatment house’, which is the standard word in Afghanistan), or even дармонгоҳ/darmāngāh (lit. ‘remedy place’). A hotel is most commonly меҳмонхона/mehmānḫāna (lit. ‘guest house’) in Tajikistan, even when it is grand and big, whereas in Iran, a grand and big hotel is the English word هتل/hotel, whereas a simpler and smaller place is مهمانپذیر/mehmānpazīr.
Song The most common word for ‘song’, is суруд/surud, which means ‘hymn’ in Iran.
ser-, to- In Tajik, the Persian adjective سیر/sēr ‘satiate, full’ and the conjunction/preposition تا/ ‘until’ can be used as prefixes. سیر/sēr (pronounced as sīr in Iranian) is also attested in Iranian Persian as a prefix in compound words, but it is far more productive in Tajik and tends to supplant پر/pur ‘full’, which is preferred in Iranian. Thus, what Iranians describe as پرشمار/por-šomār ‘numerous’ would more likely to be described as сершумор/sēršumār by Tajiks, who also have words such as серамал/sēr-amal ‘dynamic’, серфарзанд/sēr-farzand ‘having many children’, сералаф/sēr-alaf ‘full of grass’, сериддаъо/sēr-iddaʾā ‘pretentious’ etc. – instances which, in Iranian Persian, would have پر/por– as the prefix, or form an adjectival phrase with پر از/por az ‘full of’ instead of being compounds. As ser- is written together with the next element in Tajik, visually the сер/sēr– compounds may not be immediately transparent, although the meanings are evident.


Perhaps under the influence of Russian, where the word for ‘until’, до/do, is very productive in creating compounds, the Persian preposition ta in Tajik, in the form of то/, is also used to form compounds – a phenomenon unattested in Iranian Persian. As the Russian word also means ‘before’, the Tajik to, similar in form and sound to the Russian word, has acquired that meaning, too, and is used in compounds as the equivalent to the English pre-. Therefore, ‘pre-Islamic’ is тоисломӣ/tāislāmī. This use of то/ is mainly confined to academic parlance where there is a need to create equivalents of Russian compounds starting with до/do– ‘pre-‘.


  1. Words that only exist in Tajik Persian

There are words which only exist in Tajik Persian and unheard of in Iranian Persian. The most interesting example is аллакай/allakay ‘already’. Classically, Persian does not have a separate word for ‘already’ and the word دیگر/dīgar largely assumes this semantic function, which tends to confuse Iranian and Afghan Persian learners who are still used to translating from European languages but cannot find a word for ‘already’. The Tajik аллакай/allakay solves the problem.

Two other interesting words are ёрдам/yārdam ‘help’ and бой/bāy ‘rich’, which are words of Persian/Iranian origin but now almost exclusively used in Turkic. Ёрдам/yārdam has the root یار/yār ‘friend, companion’ in it and recalls the word یاری/yārī ‘help, assitance’, and бой/bāy has an interesting history which ultimately goes back to the Old Persian root bag– ‘lord, god’.

  1. Arabic loanwords ending in -iy(y)a(t)

Contrary to common belief in Iran, Tajik Persian vocabulary is not ‘purer’ than the Iranian, and with the effort to ‘purify’ Persian words in early 20th century Iran, contemporary Iranian Persian may even use more ‘pure’ Persian words than Tajik, as the purist neologisms have not been completely taken up by Tajik. After all, the two varieties of Persian have inherited the same set of Arabic loanwords. Sometimes, however, Arabic loanwords can be slightly different in Tajik, notably abstract nouns which end in ية/-iyya in Arabic. In Iranian Persian, the majority of them have the tāʾ marbūṭa expanded into a ت/t, resulting in یت/-iy(y)at. In Tajik, however, some of these words have kept the original Arabic ending. The most common example is the word тарбия/tarbiya (<Ar. تربية/tarbiyya) ‘upbringing, education’, which is تربیت/tarbiy(y)at in Iranian Persian.

  1. Russian loanwords

Given the region’s history, it is unsurprising that Tajik, like all Central Asian languages, contains a large quantity of Russian loanwords. Russian loanwords exist in both lower and higher registers. In the lower register, words for western objects, which tend to be from French in Iranian Persian, come from Russian in Tajik, therefore, for example, ‘lift’ (US English ‘elevator’) is лифт/lift in Tajik – from English via Russian, and not آسانسور/āsānsor. In the higher register, academic/scientific words tend to come from Russian, especially in publications from the Soviet period; although after independence, purist neologisms have been coined to replace these Russian academic words, many still persist, especially in speech.

Many Tajiks, especially those of the urban middle-class, have been educated partially or entirely in Russian and speak Tajik only at a basic level. Therefore, when referring to formal concepts, they will use Russian words without hesitation, or simply switch to Russian altogether. The vast majority of Tajiks who have received primary and secondary education at least have a passive understanding of Russian as a foreign language from school, and may use Russian words unexpectedly in an otherwise purely Tajik utterance, especially Russian ‘sentence filler’ words such as вот/vot ‘well, look’ and вообще/vobshche ‘in general, at all, anyway’.

  1. Polite/tarofi words

Polite expressions are largely the same across the Persian-speaking world, with only regional variations. Compared to Iranians, Tajiks use the Arabic greeting السلام علیکم/as-salāmu ʿalaykum far more frequently than Iranians, and saying this does not necessarily mean that the speaker is religious. The shortened form سلام/salām exists in both countries, but Tajiks tend more to say ассалом/as-salām rather than just салом/salām, with the original Arabic definite article attached. In terms of ‘thank you’, the word ممنون/mamnūn ‘obliged, grateful’, ubiquitous in Iran, is not used by Tajiks to say ‘thank you’. The Tajiks most commonly say раҳмат/rahmat ‘mercy’ to thank someone, and if they wish to make it sound stronger, раҳмати калон/rahmat-i kalān (lit. ‘big mercy’, cf. point 1). Slightly more formally, ташаккур/tašakkur is used, just like among Afghans, and to make it stronger, ташаккури зиёд/tašakkur-i ziyād, which is not said by Iranians. The Iranian مرسی/mersi, imported from French, does not exist in Tajik. The reply to раҳмат/rahmat is намеарзад/namēarzad ‘it is not worthy (of it)’, synonymous with the Iranian قابل نداره/qābel nadāre and the Afghan قابلش نیست/qābileš nēst but using a Persian verb ارزیدن/arzīdan ‘to worth’. The Iranian خواهش میکنم/ḫāheš mīkonam is seldom heard among Tajiks, unless the speaker has enough exposure to Iranian Persian. لطفا/luṭfan sounds more formal to Tajiks than it does to Iranians, so ‘please’ is most commonly илтимос/iltimās (lit. ‘beseeching, entreaty’) in Tajik, which can sound a little pretentious to Iranians. ‘Excuse me’ in Tajik comes from the same root, بخشیدن/baḫšīdan ‘to forgive’, but is most commonly in the noun form of бахшиш/baḫšiš rather than the verb form ببخشید/bebaḫšīd – although бубахшед(н)/bubaḫšēd(n) (note the difference in the verb prefix) is also used by Tajiks to emphasise the act of forgiving rather than simply saying ‘excuse me’.

Tarof exists in all Persian-speaking regions, but Tajiks tend to use fewer flowery and hyperbolic tarofi expressions than Iranians. Tajiks will not easily say عزیزم/azizam, unless they have reached a certain level of intimacy with you, and they generally do not say, for example, that they would be sacrificed for you, or they are the dust on your feet, as readily as Iranians. Iranians and learners of Iranian Persian must bear this in mind, as many Iranian tarofi expressions, if said to the wrong person, can make you sound insincere among Tajiks.

When referring to a third person respectfully, Tajiks do not use the pronoun ایشان/ēšān as the Iranians do, as эшон/ēšān actually means a Sufi spiritual leader in Tajik Persian (as it does in many other Central Asian languages), and the Iranian ایشان/īšān is simply anyone you want to refer to formally in the presence of another person. The word вай/vay or simply ӯ/ū will suffice in Tajik, although the verb ending may be in the third person plural, like in Iranian Persian, to show respect. The word آقا/āqā is not quite used by Tajiks as a respectful title for a male person; instead, the word ака/aka ‘elder brother’, of the same Turco-Mongol origin, is used with the izafa before the given name of the person, e.g. акаи Аҳмад/aka-i Ahmad. When referring to a third person neutrally, Tajiks very often say ин кас/īn kas (lit. ‘this person’) and он кас/ān kas (lit. ‘that person’), which can sound abrupt and impolite to Iranian Persian speakers.

Another cultural note I should make is that Tajiks use the second person pronoun of respect شما/šumā more frequently than Iranians. Among unrelated adults, шумо/šumā is always used between the two genders, unless they are very close friends or are in a relationship. If you are a man and address a female classmate, the pronoun is always шумо/šumā, even though you are not complete strangers and have had off-class conversations. Friends of the same gender and of roughly the same generation can use تو/tu more liberally with each other, although a four-year difference in age is enough to validate the mutual use of шумо/šumā. Children generally never call their parents or grandparents تو/tu in Tajikistan, unlike in Iran.

To end this post, I would like to mention my all-time favourite tarofi expression in Tajik: нури дида, тоҷи сар/nūr-i dīda, tāj-i sar ‘light of (my) eyes, crown above (lit. of) (my) head’, used to express welcome and respect to someone. Once again, welcome to the world of Central Asian Persian, dear friends, нури дида, тоҷи сар!