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Review of  The Oxford Handbook of Persian Linguistics

Reviewer: Jens Fleischhauer
Book Title: The Oxford Handbook of Persian Linguistics
Book Author: Anousha Sedighi Pouneh Shabani-Jadidi
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Subject Language(s): Persian, Iranian
Issue Number: 30.2861

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Editors: Anousha Sedighi and Pouneh Shabani-Jadidi
TITLE: The Oxford Handbook of Persian Linguistics
SERIES TITLE: Oxford Handbooks in Linguistics
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
YEAR: 2018


Persian is a cover term for three varieties, Farsi (spoken in Iran), Dari (spoken in Afghanistan) and Tajiki (spoken in Tajikistan). Compared to other Iranian languages, Persian has received a lot of attention within different fields of linguistics. The current volume of the 'Oxford Handbook' series covers various aspects of Persian linguistics ranging from different fields of theoretical linguistics to various subfields of applied linguistics. The book consists of six parts, each dedicated to one specific broad topic (e.g. sound system, syntax, words and word structure).

The first part of the book is entitled 'Classification and History' and consists of two chapters. The first one is Mauro Maggi and Paola Orsatti's chapter on the historical development of Persian. The chapter's title is 'From Old to New Persian' and it gives a brief overview of the different historical stages of the language as well as of the major linguistic innovations. Furthermore, the chapter presents an outline of the historical records and presents a fairly good brief introduction to the language’s history. The second chapter is from Mohammad Dabir-Moghaddam and is called 'Typological approaches and dialects'. Dabir-Moghaddam discusses Persian with respect to a number of word order parameters, word formation characteristics and its agreement system. The chapter’s title is justified by the author’s aim of discussing Persian with respect to a number of typological parameters (e.g. order of noun and genitive, order of noun and adjective and so on) and by identifying the general typology of ordering strategies. In the second part of that chapter, the author discusses dialectal variance and presents differences between Farsi, Dari and Tajiki. This is one of the rare occasions in which differences between the three varieties are discussed explicitly.

The second part of the book – consisting of three chapters – is concerned with the Persian sound system. Golnaz Modaressi Ghavami's chapter simply titled 'Phonetics' deals with different phonetic aspects of Persian. The chapter presents an overview on the sound system of Standard Modern Persian and deals briefly with stress and intonation. The two later issues are taken up in more detail in Arsalan Kahnemuyipour's chapter titled 'Prosody'. The phonology of Persian is the topic of Mahmood Bijankhan's chapter ('Phonology'). The first six sections introduce different aspects of Persian phonology (e.g. phoneme inventory, syllable structure, phonological rules). The last section presents an optimality theoretic analysis of some of those aspects introduced earlier in the chapter (e.g. syllable structure, deaspiration, devoicing).

Part 3 of the volume is entitled 'Syntax' and – again – consists of three chapters. The first two chapters take a theoretical perspective; the last one (by Pollet Samvelian) focuses on 'Specific features of Persian syntax' (which is also its title). Samvelian's chapter outlines three central topics of Persian syntax, which receive a lot of attention from researchers working in different theories. These topics – which are also taken up in the other two chapters – are the ezāfe-construction, complex predicates and differential object marking. The chapter compares different analyses of these phenomena and provides a solid background on three major aspects of Persian syntax. In his chapter, Simin Karimi gives an overview on generative approaches to Persian syntax, whereas Jila Ghomeshi presents 'other approaches' to Persian syntax. The notion of 'other approaches' covers descriptive, theory-neutral ones, Construction Grammar, Cognitivist and Functionalist approaches, corpus-based approaches and – finally – a brief discussion of formal approaches. The titles of the two chapters are 'Generative approaches to syntax' and 'Other approaches to syntax' respectively. Ghomeshi aims at presenting variety of work done within different approaches to syntax but does not aim at comparing the different theories. Karimi's chapter addresses various aspects of Persian syntax from the perspective of (mostly) Minimalist syntax. Among the issues addressed by the author are Wh-constructions, complex predicates, the ezāfe-construction, DP-structure and differential object marking.

'Language and words' is the title of the fourth section. The three chapters deal with morphology (Behrooz Mahmoodi-Bakhtiari), lexicography (Seyed Mostafa Assi) and the Academy of Persian Language and Literature (Mohammad Dabir-Moghaddam). Mahmoodi-Bakhtiari's chapter starts with an overview of free and bound functional morphemes and turns to a more detailed discussion of nominal and verbal morphology after that. A third part of the chapter is concerned with compounding and other word formation processes. The chapter gives a brief and accessible descriptive introduction to Persian morphology. Seyed Mostafa Assi starts his chapter with the title 'Lexicography' with an overview of the traditional Persian perspective on lexicography and then goes over to contemporary approaches. The author starts with dictionaries for Middle Persian and then goes over to the discussion of dictionary writing for the contemporary language. This covers the discussion of mono- and bilingual dictionaries, encyclopedias, specialized dictionaries as well as recent developments in connection with computational linguistics as well as corpus linguistics. Connected to this is Dabir-Moghaddam's chapter titled 'Academy of Persian Language and Literature', which deals with the highest authority on the Persian language in Iran. As such, the academy is engaged in supporting and contributing to the linguistic description and analysis of Persian (e.g. the publication of dictionaries). Thus, the chapter on this institution is thematically related to the preceding chapter on lexicography.

The four chapters of Part 5 are sociolinguistically-oriented. Yahya Modarresi's chapter 'Sociolinguistics' covers topics such as multilingualism, dialectal variation as well as social variation. The chapter’s focus is one social variation in Persian, whereas the issue of multilingualism – only briefly discussed - is taken up in more details in Shahrzad Mahootian's chapter on 'Language contact and multilingualism in Iran'. The chapter discusses contemporary Iran as a multilingual nation as well as language contact in the history of the Persian language. Although the chapter addresses the issue of multilingualism and language contact, it is mainly concerned with the official status of the languages but not so much with grammatical aspect. 'Persian as a heritage language', by Anousha Sedighi, focusses on the Persian language as spoken outside of Iran. The chapter starts with an overview of the literature on that issue and – in the second part – presents a detailed study on the characteristics of heritage Persian speakers. It presents differences as well as similarities between heritage and non-heritage speakers with respect to grammatical features as well as language style. The final chapter of that part of the book deals with the issue of 'teaching Persian to speakers of other languages' (which at the same time is the chapter's title). Pouneh Shabani-Jadidi and Anousha Sedighi discusses various aspects of that topic, e.g., the current status of teaching Persian to non-native speakers in different parts of the world and second-language acquisition studies, but also modern trends in pedagogy as well as instructional materials.

The final part of the book is concerned with 'language, mind, and technology'. It consists of three chapters dealing with psycholinguistics (Pouneh Shabani-Jadidi), neurolinguistics (Reza Nilipour) and computational linguistics (Karine Megerdoomian). In her chapter 'Psycholinguistics', Shabani-Jadidi reports on various psycholinguistic studies dealing with Persian. This covers various topics related to language production, language comprehension and language processing, as well as aphasic studies. A returning topic in that chapter is complex predicates, which are – also outside of Persian linguistics – addressed by psycholinguistic studies. The chapter on neurolinguistics – simply titled 'Neurolinguistics' – focusses on clinical studies and language impairment both in monolingual as well as bilingual speakers. Thus, the two experimental chapters address somewhat complementary issues. The final chapter 'Computational linguistics' reports both on the state of the art as well as on issues in Persian natural language processing. Complex predicates – discussed under the label of multiword expressions – are a hot topic again. In the final part, the chapter reports on existing tools and resources (corpora as well as language processing systems).

The book starts with an introduction by the editors, mainly a brief summary of the different chapter's topics. The single parts of the book address different aspects of theoretical and applied Persian linguistics. Some chapters present a state-of-the-art summary (e.g. the one of Samvelian); others focus more on novel research by the chapter's author than on presenting a state-of-the-art overview (e.g. Dabir-Moghaddam's chapter on typological approaches and dialects). Since the unifying topic – Persian – is addressed by all chapters, it is necessarily a coherent volume.


The number of articles, books and dissertations addressing different aspects of Persian linguistics is increasing constantly. So far, there has been no volume – at least one written in English – covering the different subfields of Persian linguistics. The Oxford Handbook of Persian linguistics is intended to provide a comprehensive overview of the different subfields of Persian linguistics. The work reported within the current book comes both from traditional grammar as well as from different strands of modern western linguistics. It is a major achievement of this book that it provides the first comprehensive overview on various topics related to theoretical as well as applied Persian linguistics. The chapters' common aim is introducing different aspects of Persian linguistics, which is easily achieved given that all chapters deal with Persian language. Nevertheless, the chapters vary a lot. Some provide a brief overview on a special topic (e.g. Mohammad Dabir-Moghaddam's chapter on the Academy of Persian Language and Literature), whereas others deal with much broader issues like the syntax or the phonology of the language. Even these chapters vary a lot since some present more a state-of-the-art overview (e.g., Mahmood Bijankhan's chapter on phonology), whereas others come from a theory-specific perspective (e.g. Simin Karimi's chapter on generative approaches to syntax). Thus, some chapters are interesting for a broader audience; other chapters are – probably – directed to a smaller audience. Nonetheless, Karimi's chapter fits very well into the volume as it reflects the attention Persian achieved within generative syntax.

At a general level, the overall topic – Persian linguistics – makes the volume coherent. Every chapter is dedicated to issues directly related to Persian linguistics. It is not presupposed that the reader has some background knowledge on Persian linguistics or even speaks the language. Thus, the book is accessible to a larger linguistic audience.

I will evaluate the current book with respect to two criteria: (i) are the different chapters well connected? and (ii) are the chapters integrated into the larger discourse? With respect to the second question, I restrict myself to those issues I am familiar with.

With respect to the first question, the different chapters seem to be well connected as they provide cross-references to other chapters of the volume. The reader comes across sentences such as 'topic xy is also discussed in chapters …'. A closer look reveals that the chapters are only superficially connected. For illustrational purposes, I pick out one example. In their chapters, Karimi as well as Samvellian discuss the question whether the light verb of a light verb construction determines whether or not the complex predicates selects for an agentive subject argument or not. Karimi argues in favor of that position, whereas Samvellian argues against it. Karimi and Samvellian quote each other's papers but do not refer to the respective chapters within the current volume. It seems as if there has been no attempt to connect the different chapters in terms of content, although they (partially) address the same linguistic phenomena. From the perspective of the reader, the papers could have been much better connected.

Related to this are two further issues, albeit more marginal ones. First, some of the abbreviations used in the volume are inconsistent. The list of abbreviations contains the abbreviation IND twice, one time abbreviating 'indefinite', the other time being an abbreviation for 'indicative'. Similarly, N stands both for 'noun' and 'neuter'. TP is used as an abbreviation for 'tense phrase' as well as 'temporo-pariental'. There are also cases in which two different abbreviations are used for the same: NEG and NG are listed as abbreviations for 'negative/negation'. Although this does not turn out to be problematic within a single chapter, the editors should have been a bit more careful with respect to that issue.

Second, the transliteration of Persian examples is – in some cases – not standardized. Karimi, for example, writes 'dâshtan' (p. 169), whereas the same word is written 'dāshtan' by Samvellian (p. 263). A further example concerns the writing of the first person singular personal pronoun: 'mæn' (Dabir-Moghaddam, p. 62) vs. 'man' (e.g. Karimi, p. 162). I have not checked systematically for spelling differences but – at least for me – the question is whether there is an agreed upon standardization of Persian transliteration or not. Do such spelling differences reflect dialectal variation (e.g. phonological variation) or not? Unfortunately, the transliteration of Persian is not an issue addressed in the current volume, although it is highly relevant for a non-native speaker audience that language data are represented in a standardized way. This is even more important since Persian is not written in a modified version of the Arabic script.

Turning to the second question, I will concentrate on two issues. The volume’s topic is Persian linguistics and the authors keep very strictly to the topic. Mostly, the authors address Farsi and mention other varieties in passing (if they mention them at all). In the chapters on sociolinguistics, the focus is on Iran but not on other Persian speaking countries (Afghanistan and Tajikistan). There is also no comparison of Persian with other members of the Iranian language family. A comparison of Persian to other Iranian languages – both from a diachronic as well as synchronic perspective – would have been quite interesting. Unfortunately, even Mohammad Dabir-Moghaddam’s chapter on ‘Typological approaches and dialects’ does not provide a comparison of Persian with other Iranian or non-Iranian languages. Although the author discusses Persian with respect to various typological features, he does not relate his results to the broader typological findings on that topic. The book misses a cross-linguistic and/or typological perspective, which would allow identifying the unique characters of the Persian language both from the perspective of the Iranian languages as well as from the perspective of linguistic typology.

The second issue is concerned with the treatment of one salient linguistic phenomenon of Persian. It is a well-known feature of Persian that it shows animacy-- as well as definiteness-based differential object marking. Direct object arguments, which are unmarked for case, usually are interpreted as being number neutral, having narrow scope with respect to scope bearing elements (e.g. negation or modals), do not easily introduce discourse referents and are highly restricted with respect to modification (see, for example, Modaressi 2014, 2015). The example in (1) illustrates that the bare noun 'film' has narrow scope with respect to the negation operator. The only interpretation of that sentence is 'Ali does not buy any movie' (narrow scope reading of 'film') and not that there is one particular movie, which Ali did not buy (wide scope reading of 'film').

(1) Ali film ne-mixârâd (Ali film NEG-buy.3SG)
'Ali does not buy any movie.' (Modaressi 2014: 30)

Persian bare direct object arguments show the characteristics of pseudo-incorporated nouns (the term goes back to Massam 2001). Given these characteristics, it is surprising that the notion of 'pseudo-incorporation' is only discussed in passing. Karimi mentions it in two footnotes on page 184 and Mahmoodi-Bakhtiari speaks quite generally of 'incorporating verbs' on page 295. This is even more surprising as complex predicate formation as well as the pre- vs. absence of the object marker –rā is recurrently addressed in different chapters of the volume. It seems that the volume fails to connect the discussion of Persian bare noun object arguments to the highly relevant and influential discussion of pseudo-incorporation.

As a final evaluation, one can sincerely say that the current volume is of interest to anyone interested in Persian as a whole as well as to those only interested in particular aspects. The book is worthwhile reading as its different chapters introduce the various facets of Persian linguistics and provide a good overview of the literature published on the different topics.

A future edition of the book should aim at improving consistency by better connecting the different chapters as well as improving the standardization of transliteration and glossing.


Massam, Diane. 2001. Pseudo Noun Incorporation in Niuean. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 19: 153-197.

Modaressi. Fereshteh. 2014. Bare nouns in Persian: Interpretation, Grammar and Prosody. Dissertation: University of Ottawa & Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin.

Modaressi, Fereshteh. 2015. Discourse Properties of Bare Noun Objects. In O. Borik & B. Gehrke (eds.). The Syntax and Semantics of Pseudo-Incorporation, 189–221. Leiden/ Boston: Brill.
I am a linguist working at the Department of General Linguitics at Heinrich-Heine University Düsseldorf. My research focusses currently on complex predicates as well as modification in German as well as Persian.

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