Finglish: How Iranians Lost Their Language, and Everything Else Along With It

Finglish: How Iranians Lost Their Language, and Everything Else Along With It

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The hours just after I landed on the California coast as a foreign student from Iran in the late summer of 1966 are etched into my memory in Proustian detail. I was simply stunned to see the lit skyline and coursing freeways of the San Francisco Bay Area. I could feel the pulse and momentum that were defining the wild ride of the '60s.

As film critic Hollis Alpert would later write of Peter Yates's directorial style in the thriller masterpiece of the era, "Bullitt," I was, "looking at the artifacts of [the] last third of the twentieth century with a clear but astonished vision."

I was driven south to Monterey, where I would attend community college, by relatives who had made the trip up to the city to greet me at the airport.

Grateful for the company, I nevertheless was unsettled by the strange language in which they conversed among themselves. It was neither my native Farsi nor English, with which I had only a rudimentary familiarity. It was a chaotic mixture of both, confusing to comprehend and -- to my ears -- ugly to hear.

Ever since then, I have always made an effort to speak to Iranians in America in Farsi, only to hear them resort unfailingly to the same mode of expression, which is now identified as Finglish (Farsi-English).

During my first years in the country, while I immersed myself in English, I intuitively avoided the Iranian community with its aggressively inclusive ways as best as I could, mostly because I was terrified of Finglish.

And my fear of an adulterated Farsi ran even deeper. I was raised in Iran by putatively enlightened, bilingual parents. My father spoke accent-less French, sat on the Board of Directors of the Bank-e Melli (the national bank of Iran), published limited edition books of Iranian poetry and calligraphy, and taught at the prestigious University of Tehran.

My mother, a translator at the United States Information Agency, went on to translate several books on Iranian arts and architecture from English into Farsi.

Yet both of them, as well as their friends, peppered their Farsi with English and French words as a sign of refinement and intellectual superiority, leaving me uncomprehending and confused. I was equally confounded by my parents' dual-nationality methods of child-rearing: both pampering and punishing me, mentally as well as physically, in a quest typical of prominent Middle Eastern families to achieve the “right balance.”

Moreover, "modernized" Iranians such as my parents returned from their Western travels with glowing accounts of all that was right in that part of the world while portraying Iran as an apparent mud of underdevelopment and despotism through which Iranians must crawl.

I grew up thinking that I was born in the wrong country at the wrong time, speaking the wrong language.

As a member of the Iranian elite, I was not only completely cut off from Iran's poverty-stricken majority, but had a deep sense of alienation from and distaste for my own privileged milieu. This double-alienation, shared by many of my peers, sewed the seeds of discontent on a far wider scale that later came to fruition with the revolution that ultimately overthrew the Shah in 1979. The millions of Iranians who marched to overthrow the monarchy knew that their leaders cared little about them. (In fact, the current regime stays in power partially due to its populism which keeps it in close touch with the people.)

In the revolution's wake, when Iranians—or "Persians" as they began to call themselves—flooded Los Angeles to turn it into Tehrangeles almost overnight, it was hard to avoid overhearing Finglish conversation on the street, and it has grown only more frequent since.

Finglish is also rampant in Iran, polluting the very state-controlled media that rail against England and America day and night. Internet protocols have burdened Farsi with an endless stream of new English words, and a manifest lack of will to find their Farsi equivalents. The few who try to salvage Farsi's living legacy are accused by others of being language "chauvinists," with the very word ironically transliterated incorrectly into Farsi.

For years I treated Finglish as a secret shame, something that most others would neither understand nor care about. Yet now I begin to see that all that we have lost as Iranians—our honor among nations, a coherent national identity and our claim to seven millennia of brilliant civilization—started with losing our language.

This linguistic confusion was the most pronounced --and least appreciated-- expression of a nation's bewilderment as its centuries-old values and way of life were challenged by the ascending powers of the English-speaking world.

The Shah's government accused the BBC, which uses a clear, crisp English as a weapon to advance Britain's interests, of biased reporting on Iran. The present regime does exactly the same. Yet now its own state-controlled, English-language Press TV slavishly imitates the BBC style as it tries to get the Islamic Republic's message across.

Iranians have finally understood the power of English, yet the realization does not extend to Farsi. As a people who detest a history of subjugation to British and American influences, they have willingly agreed to the colonization of their most precious possession, the magisterial Farsi of the literary giants Hafiz, Ferdowsi, Rumi and Obeyd Zakani: their own sweet mother tongue.