Tips for reading classical poetry 3 – the little things to watch out for

Posted  18 Jun 2020

I have named this week’s post such, for what I am going to talk about is a collection of miscellaneous differences between Classical and Modern Persian usages which are hard to categorise. The words and grammatical points addressed in this post can sometimes be confusing to learners of Persian, who do not necessarily learn them in modern textbooks. The following list is not exhaustive, but it includes what I find most crucial in gaining a more understanding classical Persian poetry as well as prose.

 

1. To be or not to be

You may have been taught that the way to negate ‘to be’ is by adding personal endings to نیست/nīst, such as نیستم/nīstam ‘I am not’, نیستی/nīstī ‘you are not’, etc. While this construction is by no means rare in Classical Persian, another construction is equally used, which has become obsolete in Modern Persian, namely the negative particle na + personal endings. If you know certain dialects of Persian, or other western Iranian languages, such as Kurdish, these forms should be familiar to you:

نیم\نئم\نه‌ام | nayam/na am ‘I am not’ نییم\نئیم\نه‌ایم | nayēm/na ēm ‘we are not’
نیی\نئی\نه‌ای | nayī/na ī ‘you are not’ نیید\نئید\نه‌اید | nayēd/na ēd ‘you (pl.) are not’
نیست | nēst ‘he/she/it is not’ نیند\نئند\نه‌اند | nayand/na and ‘they are not’

As we can see, the spelling of na + personal endings can vary from manuscript to manuscript, and edition to edition, and the thirst person singular negative is always نیست/nēst. Watch out specifically when you encounter ‘I am not’ spelt as نیم, because it can be easily confused with نیم/nīm ‘half’.

 

2. شدن/Shudan

In Classical Persian, شدن/shudan does not always mean ‘to become’. In fact, it means ‘to go’ as often as ‘to become’:

خرامان شدم پیش آن ارجمند
یکی تخت پیروزه دیدم بلند

Khirāmān shudam pēš-i ān arjmand
Yakē takht-i pērōza dīdam baland

‘I went gracefully to that esteemed one
And saw a high, turquoise throne’

– Firdawsi

The meaning of ‘to become’, then, is more often conveyed by the verb گردیدن/gardīdan or گشتن/gashtan, both also meaning ‘to turn’. None of this is strange at all, if we think of the semantic merging of the verbs ‘to go’, ‘to turn’, and ‘to become’ in English, where, instead of using ‘to become’, one can say ‘my face went red’ or ‘my face turned red’.

 

3. The inchoative use of گرفتن/giriftan

In classical Persian, گرفتن/giriftan, in addition to having the meaning of ‘to grab, to catch’, is also an auxiliary verb for the so-called ‘inchoative’ i.e. denoting the start of an action. The formula is verb infinitive + گرفتن/giriftan:

به زبانی که داشت ملک را دشنام دادن گرفت

Ba zabānē ki dāsht malik rā dushnām dādan girift…

‘With that tongue he had, he started to insult the king…’

– Sa’di

The inchoative use of گرفتن/giriftan is very common in Classical Persian, even in registers that are not specifically meant to be literary or poetic.

 

4. A few particles associated with verbs

a. The ب /bi-

All learners of Persian have undoubtedly learnt that the particle ب/bi- (be- in Modern Iranian) is used in the subjunctive and the imperative, e.g. باید بروم/bāyad beravam ‘It is necessary that I go/I must go’ and بگو/begū ‘say!’. In Classical Persian, this particle is very often added to the verb in the simple past tense for emphatic purposes:

شربتی از لب لعلش نچشیدیم و برفت
روی مه‌پیکر او سیر ندیدیم و برفت

Sharbatē az lab-i laʿlash nachashīdēm u biraft
Rōy-i mah-paykar-i ū sēr nadīdēm u biraft

‘I have not tasted any sherbet from her ruby lips and she left
I have not seen enough of her moon-like countenance, and she left’

– Hafiz

Here the ب/bi- emphasises the fact that the beloved left before the poet even had a chance to do the two things – what a shame, how dare she, and how unfair is Fate’s design!

 

b. The conditional ی / -ē

In Modern Persian, the conditional habitually requires the different aspects of the present or past tenses, depending on the degree of probability. This also applies to Classical Persian. However, in conditional sentences contrary to reality, Classical Persian often attaches the suffix ی/-ē to the conjugated verbs in both clauses of the conditional sentence – a feature that has completely disappeared in Modern Persian. This can be confusing to learners, as the letter ی may be misinterpreted as the second person singular ending, especially if the subject is the third person singular. The difference is that the ending ی is pronounced as ē, as I have shown, if it signals the conditional, and as ī if it is the second person singular ending. The merger of these two sounds in modern Iranian Persian does not help with distinguishing the meaning when reading classical texts, because in modern Iranian pronunciation, both رفتی/raftē ‘if he/she/it had gone’ and رفتی/raftī ‘you went’ are pronounced as raftī. To illustrate the use of ی/-ē, let us look at two lines from Sa’di:

اگر لیلی و مجنون زنده گشتی
حدیث عشق از این دفتر نوشتی

Agar Laylī u Majnūn zinda gashtē
Ḥadīs-i ʿishq az īn daftar nivishtē

If Layla and Majnun were to come back to life
They would write [their] love story from this book’

And also a delightful popular poem from Khurasan/Afghanistan:

از آمدنت اگر خبر داشتمی
در رهگذرت گل و سمن کاشتمی
نگذاتمی که پا نهی بر سر خاک
خاک قدمت به دیده برداشتمی

Az āmadanat agar khabar dāshtamē
Dar rahguzarat gul u saman kāshtamē
Naguzāshtamē ki pā nihī bar sar-i khāk
Khāk-i qadamat ba dīda bardāshtamē

If I had had news of your coming
I would have planted roses and jasmine on your path
I would not have let your place your feet on the soil
I would have dusted the soil on your feet with my eyes’

 

c. The negative imperative with م/ma-

Instead of ن/na-, familiar to all Persian speakers. In Classical Persian. Still in some dialects of Afghan and Tajik Persian, the negative imperative starts with م/ma- rather than ن/na-, e.g. مگو/magō ‘do not say’, مکن/makun ‘do not do’, etc.

 

d. The imperative with می /mē-

Learners of Modern Persian, already at an elementary level, know that the prefix می/mē- (in Iranian: mī-) is used for the present tense. In Classical Persian, occasionally, it can be used to emphasise an imperative:

از من مپرس چونم می‌بین که غرق خونم

Az man mapurs chōnam mēbīn ki gharq-i khūnam

‘Ask me not how I am, see that I am drowned in blood’

 

e. The همی /hamē-

همی/hamē- is the emphatic form of the present prefix می/mē- mentioned above. It is very often encountered in classical poetry and prose, either in front of the verb or after the verb. Perhaps the most quoted example of post-verbal همی/hamē is:

ای بخارا شاد باش و دیر زی
میر زی تو شادمان آید همی

Ey Bukhārā shād bāsh u dēr zī
Mīr zī tū shādmān āyad hamē

‘O Bukhara, be joyous and live long
The prince always comes joyful to you’

I highlighted ‘always’ to show that in translation, the emphasis may be translated as such. It does not mean that همی/hamē- means ‘always’.

 

f. The optative -ā-

The optative (as in the English ‘May it be!’ ‘Let it be!’ ‘Long live…!’) in Classical Persian usually does not differ in form from the subjunctive, as is the case with Modern Persian. However, in Classical Persian, the optative can have a long ā inserted before the personal ending to distinguish it from the subjunctive. This has all but disappeared in Modern Persian, except in one case – the verb بودن/būdan ‘to be’, which often assumes the form باد/bād in frequently used optative expressions, such as زنده/zende bād ‘long live…’, مبارک باد/mobārak bād ‘congratulations/happy…’. In Classical Persian, this is not restricted to بودن/būdan:

آن دلت را خدای گرم کناد
این دعای خوش است آمین کن

Ān dilat rā Khudāy garm kunād
Īn duʿā-i khōsh ast āmīn kun

May God make that heart of yours warm
This is a good prayer, say “Amen”’

– Mawlana

ایزد تعالی مجلس عالی را باقی داراد

Īzad-i Taʿālā majlis-i ʿālī rā bāqī dārād

May the Almighty God keep this exalted assembly eternal’

– Rashīd al-Dīn Vaṭvāṭ

 

5. تا/Tā

In classical usage, تا/tā is a conjunction whose multiple meanings often confuse not only learners of Persian, but also native speakers. In Modern Persian, تا/tā as a preposition means ‘until’ and as a conjunction, also means ‘until’ as well as ‘as long as’. But in Classical Persian, it has more functions:

 

a. تا/tā meaning ‘by the time’

تا یکی را خلاص کرد دیگری هلاک شد

Tā yakē rā khalāṣ kard dīgarē halāk shud

‘By the time he had saved one, the other was dead’

– Sa’di

 

b. تا/tā as a substitute for که /ki meaning ‘that’

عمر گران‌مایه درین صرف شد
تا چه خورم صیف و چه پوشم شتا

ʿUmr-i girān-māya dar īn ṣarf shud
Tā chi khōram ṣayf u chi pōsham shitā

‘[My] precious life was spent in this –
What (lit. ‘that’) to eat in summer and what to wear in winter’

– Sa’di

 

c. تا/tā meaning ‘I wonder’, ‘God knows’, ‘who knows’, ‘perhaps’

این سبزه که امروز تماشاگه ماست
تا سبزه خاک ما تماشاگه کیست

Īn sabza ki imrōz tamāshā-gah-i mā’st
Tā sabza-i khāk-i mā tamāshā-gah-i kīst

‘[As now] this verdure that is today spectacle to me
I wonder to whom my dust spectacle shall be’

– Khayyam

 

d. تا/tā meaning ‘beware’, ‘lest’, ‘may… not’

ای که شخص منت حقیر نمود
تا درشتی هنر نپنداری

Ey ki shakhṣ-i man-at ḥaqīr namūd
Tā durushtī hunar napindārī

‘O you to whom my person appears abject
Lest you think of my coarseness as virtue’

– Sa’di

*Note: to understand the first line, remember that the -at is an affixed pronoun meaning ‘to you’, which I talked about in my first post about Classical Persian.

 

e. تا/tā meaning ‘since’ (which is the opposite of ‘until’!)

کین زمان پنج پنج می‌گیرد
تا شده مؤمن و مسلمانا

K-īn zamān panj panj mēgīrad
Tā shuda muʾmin u musalmānā

‘Now he kills (lit. ‘captures’) five at a time
Since he has become a believer, a Muslim’

– Zākānī

There are, of course, other features of Classical Persian grammar which may appear to be difficult to learners of Modern Persian, but these are what I find the most interesting and most worthy of attention. Knowing these, I hope, will help you understand classical poetry and prose better. There are other things to watch out for, of course, and I will talk more about these in future.

 

Featured image: Leyli and Majnun Azeri rug, XIX c. Tabriz school, State Museum of Azerbaijan Carpet and Applied Art

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Leyli_and_Majnun_rug.jpg