Banner Photo credit: Kendrick Brinson for The New York Times.
By Naazley Boozari, Center Summer Intern
For Iranians, few things are more important than the Persian language—also known as “Farsi.” Many within our diaspora community consider speaking Persian as the unifying element that brings us all together and reminds us of our rich culture and history. However, our connection to Persian often becomes modified in the context of immigration and the formation of new immigrant cultures. Like most immigrants, we do our best to adapt and assimilate into these new cultures by blending what we know with what we are given. Iranian diaspora members have been mixing Persian (Farsi) and English together since their arrival to English-speaking countries both before and in the aftermath of large-scale immigration to the US in the 1980s; many of us in the second-generation have affectionately call this “sub-dialect” our “Finglish” “Farslish” or “Fingilisi.” This sub-dialect or immigrant idiom, has now been passed from first-generation Iranians to their American-born children, who rather naturally develop elements of “Finglish” by adding the Western slang they hear from school, television, and among friends. This fusion of Persian and English does not necessarily change Persian words, but rather re-deploys and recontextualizes it in a way that makes it unique to local diaspora contexts. I have been fascinated by the evolution of “Finglish” and did a little research of my own to learn more about the quirky but organic ways that Persian has entered our daily idioms here in the Los Angeles area.
When I recently spoke to a group of Iranian-American UCLA peers about Persian words/phrases they’ve heard or used, I was met with a variety of charming answers. One common word, of course, is “joon” meaning “dear” or “beloved,” which is normally used to address someone in a loving but respectful manner. However, among diaspora youth, the word becomes more casual when it is expressed as “you are my joon,” “I love you joonam,” or even “thanks joonam.” Another phrase I hear a lot is “bebin” meaning “look, see, or pay attention.” This phrase which can be heard often in diaspora vernacular, is used to express the same idea, but it has become more of a filler word. For example, when one says “bebin, this is what you need to do…” or “bebin, I told you so,” the speaker is still signaling that the other party needs to listen to what they have to say, but it does create a kind of emphasis. Other examples of mixed expressions and quirky evolution include the expression “I have no hos” rather than “hoseleh nadaaram,” meaning “I don’t have the motivation/energy,” when expressing a lack of motivation or desire to do something.
Iranians, like other immigrant groups often participate in a practice known as “code-switching” which can be defined as “an individual’s use of two or more language varieties in the same speech event or exchange” (Woolard, 2004). An example within the diaspora is when young people sometimes claim that something “is so zesht” when meaning it is ugly, unbecoming, or rude. Samira, a current anthropology graduate student clarifies that “in the study of linguistic anthropology, the practice of code-switching is recognized to be quite common across the globe.” She adds that “it is such a normal part of everyday language that most of the time we do not even recognize when we are doing it.”
What is especially interesting about Iranian code-switching is how it has found its way into the vernacular of messaging on phones and how organically diaspora youth have transferred Persian slang into their messaging. Most Millennial/Gen Z English speakers communicate online with some form of condensed text lingo—abbreviations that stand in for longer phrases. Whether it’s by changing “laugh out loud” to “LOL” or “oh my God” to “OMG”, these abbreviations have become inherent to the way we Iranian diaspora youth communicate online. One example of this is when rather than saying “Vavayla” (a reaction to something outrageous or cringeworthy), we type instead, “vvl.” Another example is when the word “fekr”–which means thought or idea— becomes an abbreviated “fkr.” Texters will often incorporate these shortened words into their online code-switching through instances like “vvl, that’s crazy” or “vvl, what’s wrong with them?” While these may seem like minor abbreviations, they signify how Persian is not only transnational, but also highly adaptable in different contexts. Even within the diaspora however, variations and certain phrases can become unique to a certain group or locale, sometimes even making them shocking to hear outside of one’s social circle. Neda, a former UCLA student, explains that, “the lingo you use depends on your friend group, but it’s not universal throughout the entire Iranian diaspora,” she says. And, she adds, “anytime I’ve ever sent ‘vvl’ to a new Irooni friend, they’re like ‘chi’? (What?). I’m sure they have their own Persian text lingo with their friends but it’s not consistent across the board.”
However, code-switching is not the only language quirk within the Iranian diaspora, and the way we speak as a younger generation is often informally passed down from older family members. As second-generation Iranian Americans, we learn to fuse our parents’ mannerisms with our own environments and experiences. An example illustrated by Neda Maghbouleh in her book The Limits of Whiteness explains this:
A small quirk of the Persian language as practiced in ordinary life [is when] heritage speakers sometimes [repeat] a word with an ‘m’ replacing its first letter. In diaspora, Persian speakers often do this to English words, like “cookie.” Thus, for second-generation Iranian-American youth, the singsong reduplication of “cookie mookie” [is] just one example of an everyday type of speech they lovingly [associate] with their immigrant parents (155).
Ultimately, with Persian spoken at home and English spoken at school and among friends, diaspora youth unintentionally become the binding force of this informal language exchange and invention.
While code-switching and other language quirks are natural, many within the diaspora do not think it is beneficial or helpful to the community. Among some Iranians, regardless of their location, Persian language is considered sacred, revered, and a benchmark of our culture’s durability. They point to classical poets like Hafez, Sa’adi, and Molavi (Rumi) who have solidified Persian poetry’s monumental impact worldwide. Thus, for some of these elders and connoisseurs of Persian, the act of casually interchanging Persian and English, can come across distasteful and sacrilegious, never mind that it likely promotes incorrect language use. However, it is important to note that Iran is a diverse country with many ethnicities and communities as well as a diversity of languages and dialects. With a complicated history of erasure and discrimination, it is crucial to remember that Persian is NOT the only language spoken in Iran. Indeed, language is more than just words and accents, it is an indicator of ancestry, family, and identity, and, in the case of the diaspora, it is suggestive of a kind of evolution, trace, and adaptation.
Ironically, each student I spoke to assured me that around older family members, they speak Persian as correctly as possible, minimizing these “language quirks” so as to not appear disrespectful. Negin, a former student, explains that “there is typically a respect factor when speaking with family, and you tend to speak more formally and ‘correct’ for lack of a better word.” Iranian diaspora youth like to spice up their “Finglish” with some swearing around their peers, however, Iranians (and other Middle Easterners) view it differently. Talla, another former UCLA student explains that, “in the diaspora, swearing is less impactful/hurtful in Farsi than it is in English, [because] whereas my parents curse in English all the time, they consider Farsi curse words very harsh and hurtful.” Essentially, in these contexts, diaspora youth are often hyper-sensitive to their audiences and the way they speak, which sometimes means “cleaning up their language,” and omitting what might otherwise be natural language quirks.
Yet amongst friends, “Finglish” allows diaspora youth to connect with both their culture and their peers without judgement or a fear of speaking incorrectly. In fact, this comfort and lack of rules can form new speech communities amongst diaspora youth. For Tina, a former student, “this new fusion of cultures and languages is a great thing because it has allowed [her] to create great bonds with [her] own little ‘family’ outside of home.” Laleh echoes the sentiment that this“ new fusion is good because it can bring a group together and it can also maybe give [the speaker] an extended identity separate from what they’ve been taught.” She adds that “growing up here, where the majority is not Iranian, [the environment is] already a fusion of English and Farsi; a different experience for [those] with parents who’ve immigrated.”
My favorite “Finglish” moment occurred one night during my senior year at UCLA while heading to a party when I nonchalantly expressed my love for a few Iranian friends by calling them my “joonopanirs.” The phrase is a pun I had made up that combined the Persian breakfast of “noon va panir” (bread and feta cheese), with the word “joon.” After that night, it became so integral to our vocabulary that we integrated it into every group chat, birthday shout-out, and online expression of love for one another. To this day, we joke that we should trademark the phrase “joonopanir” before it becomes a new Iranian brunch spot somewhere in Los Angeles! For me, “joonopanir” has become one of my most endearing verbal expressions of love. That night, when it spontaneously burst from my lips, I felt the same fondness I once exclusively reserved for family members. It is the perfect term of endearment to describe how I feel about a group of people with similar stories, anguishes, heartbreaks, laughs, and even tears as my own. These are among the many reasons that I not only treasure my “Finglish” inventions and those of my peers, but why I also think we should also welcome how they express and document our “Iranian-American” lives with such accuracy and heartfelt meaning.