Persian Names

The Greeks believed all Persian names ended in -s (yes, I was prompted to write this by the recent talk of apostrophes). Herodotus wrote:
There is another peculiarity, which the Persians themselves have never noticed, but which has not escaped my observation. Persian names, which are expressive of some bodily or mental excellence, all end with the same letter: the letter which is called San by the Dorians, and Sigma by the Ionians. Anyone who examines will find that the Persian names, one and all without exception, end with this letter.
The reason the Persians never noticed this peculiarity is because in their own language it's not true. Greek and Old Persian is wildly different, and whenever the Greeks tried to say a Persian name they mangled it with an s sound at the end. Because all our histories were written by Greeks, we know all these great Persian men by their mangled but not their real names.


Greek Mangled Name







Persian Right Name
Cyrus







Kurush
Cambyses







Kambujiya
Hystaspes







Vishtaspa
Darius







Darayavaush
Xerxes







Khshayarsha
Artaxerxes







Artakhsha├ža


My Persian spelling is sort of phonetic in a catch-as-catch-can sort of way, since my Persian is non-existent, and the names were originally written in Old Persian Cuneiform, a script which, funnily enough, doesn't render in html. However there is, believe it or not, a unicode rendition.

Many Greeks could speak Persian, especially those in Asia Minor (what is now the west coast of Turkey). The name mangling suggests most of them spoke it with an atrocious accent, though certainly much of the problem lies in the Greek alphabet not matching Persian sounds.

20 comments:

Matthew Delman said...

I love the differences in spelling between the alphabets. And that Xerxes's correct name was Khshayarsha.

I can see why the Greeks mispronounced it -- I don't think many Westerners could say it properly without extensive coaching.

Oh, and speaking of possessive forms ... I say whichever style guide you write according to should determine how you render the possessive. :)

Merry Monteleone said...

Wow. You know, it didn't even occur to me - the language differences, now that you point it out, it makes complete sense, but it's not something I'd have thought out myself.

Okay, here's a question - what is the root of the Turkey / Greece hatred. Where exactly did it start?

Loretta Ross said...

Fascinating stuff! :) I have a friend whose older son (about four) is named Darius. I'll have to tell him he misspelled it. *G*

Stephanie Thornton said...

I don't know how I managed to miss that other post about the apostrophes!

The Greeks also mangled Egyptian names. Nitokerty became Nitocris, Khufu morphes to Cheops... It makes it a mess trying to figure out who is who.

moonrat said...

makes a girl wanna go learn some Farsi.

David J. West said...

"The name mangling suggests most of them spoke it with an atrocious accent"

That's kind of what I guessed as well and therefore make it a point to mention in my novel when someone speaks with a barbarous accent. I'll bet the Greeks didn't think they sounded barbarous but I'm sure the Persian's did.

Amalia T. said...

You know, it doesn't surprise me in the least. Ethnocentrism at its finest, you know?

Lynn said...

I love the information you put in your blog. They're things that I know nothing about, but find fascinating.

Meghan said...

I've known about the real Persian names for awhile, but I would love for someone to pronounce it for me in Farsi just to hear what it might have sounded like.

Yamile said...

I'm fascinated by names, and the different variations of the same name in different languages and cultures.

I understand what it feels like to have one's name butchered every time a person pronounces it (even MY husband of 10 years). At least these famous Persians are long gone and don't have to endure the constant mangling of their names.

Gary Corby said...

Merry, that's a great question. The origin of the hatred between Greeks and Persians/Turks would take a book to answer. But instead I might settle for writing a blog post some time, so thanks for the suggestion. The short answer is: it's complicated.

Hi Moonrat. Yep, Farsi is descended from Old Persian and I don't know a word of it. Presumably a Farsi speaker could pronounce the names and make it sound right.

I did put a Zoroastrian character into my second book and included an English version of the Fravarane prayer, plus a genuine ceremony. Most of which I then had to remove. Something about, "this is not a comparitive religion essay." Yeah, yeah, I know.

I'm intrigued, Yamile, I would have guessed your name was pronounced Ya-Mill, a bit like French, but I have a feeling I just buthcered it. How do I say it right?

RWMG said...

Include the comparative religion essay, Gary. Think about Gore Vidal's "Creation".

Yamile said...

My Palestinian grandfather christened me with an Arabic family name. It is very uncommon in Argentina too, though I've met a few Yamiles in my life. In Argentina we pronounce the Y like an "sh", so it's something like
sha-MEE-lay.

A funny story, when I called my son's preschool teacher to register him for the semester, her husband (who is from Iran) took the message. I was going through the usual motions of spelling my name, and he asked me how I pronounced it. I told him and then he started laughing. It so happens that their daughter is Yamile too, and he hadn't heard anybody pronounce it correctly in the States.
My Puerto Rican husband pronounces the Y like a J. So you can imagine, I'm used to being called all kinds of things :-)

Gary Corby said...

"Creation" is fundamentally one long (very long) comparitive religion essay. Vidal might have the ability, but I'm not sure I could slip it past Her Editorship, and it is after all a pacing problem when you stop a murder mystery for 3,000 words of blow-by-blow religious ceremony. Maybe it better stay out.

Gary Corby said...

Got it, sha-MEE-lay!

You know, now that you've explained it, I'm never going to forget that.

Devaki said...

The original Persian sounds very similar to Sanskrit--can't help but remember that the two civilizations were closely related.

Gary Corby said...

You're right, Devaki. There's a very good reason why Old Persian and Sanskrit sound similar. They're both Indo-European languages with a close common ancestor.

Thanks! You've just reminded me to write about Indo-European.

dipylon said...

The letter san that Herodotus refers to would be pronounced "sh", whereas the sigma is a plain "s".

Unknown said...

I am a Persian, (an Iranian) and I can definitly say that the names that dear Gary has kindly written in its Old Persian forms are compeletly correct, but there was and is another feature of Iranian languages that is missed: the vowel length. I re-write them with their actual pronunciation of the ancient time (note that double letters pronounce simply longer):
Kuraush
Kaambaujiya
Wishtaaspa
Daarayawaush
Khshiyaarshaa
Artakhshassa
There is a very important point to be cleared. These names are "Old Persian forms" and do not reflect their Middle Persian or Modern Persian (farsi) pronunciations. I write their actual pronounciation in Modern Persian:
Kurosh
Kaambiz
Vishtaasp/Goshtaasp
Dariush
Khashaayaarshaa
Ardashir
So dear Loretta, the name of your friend's son is almost correct. Daariush is a popular name in Iran
Best wishes
Taher Ahmadi

Taher Ahmadi said...

I am a Persian, (an Iranian) and I can definitly say that the names that dear Gary has kindly written in its Old Persian forms are compeletly correct, but there was and is another feature of Iranian languages that is missed: the vowel length. I re-write them with their actual pronunciation of the ancient time (note that double letters pronounce simply longer):
Kuraush
Kaambaujiya
Wishtaaspa
Daarayawaush
Khshiyaarshaa
Artakhshassa
There is a very important point to be cleared. These names are "Old Persian forms" and do not reflect their Middle Persian or Modern Persian (farsi) pronunciations. I write their actual pronounciation in Modern Persian:
Kurosh
Kaambiz
Vishtaasp/Goshtaasp
Dariush
Khashaayaarshaa
Ardashir
So dear Loretta, the name of your friend's son is almost correct. Daariush is a popular name in Iran
Best wishes
Taher Ahmadi