New essay: ‘Zhe is for Bijan’ on the Arabic alphabet website

New essay: ‘Zhe is for Bijan’ on the Arabic alphabet website

by Michael Beard, illustrated by Houman Mortazavi

excerpt of ‘Zhe is for Bijan’

Zhe is the third of the four Persian letters that have been added to deal with sounds you won’t hear in Arabic. The sound of Zhe is the S of “measure,” the J of French (jupe, jour, bijou, jus), or the common mispronunciation of the hard J in “Beijing.” It is for indigenous Persian words still in use after the arrival of the Arabic alphabet, a glimpse of an earlier language. Today it also allows for proper transcriptions of words borrowed from European languages. Zhânvieh (through French) for January, Zhâpon for Japan. Dehkhoda’s massive Loghat-nâmeh, the OED of Persian, includes Zhen for Genoa, Zhâmâ’îk for Jamaica, Zhakobît for Jacobite. The last example may be a key to his political affinities.

The letter J is used for Zhe words in contemporary Turkish, though there aren’t many of them. There is less than a page of J words in Redhouse’s 1,292-page dictionary, most of them loans from French. Nine of them are on loan from Persian.

Household Words

Before Zhe was devised, you would just use Ze (Arabic Za’) and assume the reader would recognize the word from context, spoken but not visible on the page. And then sometimes pronunciation of Zh words would adjust to what the Arabic alphabet was able to express. Zhang, “rust,” became zang. Zhang still exists, with the same meaning, but you won’t see it often. If you look up zhang in a Persian/Persian dictionary the definition is likely to be zang.

Sometimes a Zhe word will evoke the substantial, resonant or sublime, as with the word zharf, “deep, profound.”  It’s a respected Zhe word, the only Zhe entry in A.K.S. Lambton’s shorter Persian Vocabulary. And sometimes a Zhe word will send us back to the heroic world of pre-Islamic chivalry, as in Ferdowsi, like zhubin, a spear.’ More frequently, though, the Zhe words which persisted over the evolution of New Persian, the ones that slipped through the 28-letter Arabic mesh, are the words closest to home, the intimate ones: household words, words for the ordinary, humble and non-heroic. Often you have to dig through those dictionaries which include the obscure and forgotten to find them. Zhakfar means patient, meek, mild. Zhakâreh is quarrelsome, squabbling. Zhan means deformed. (A cultured Iranian friend has never heard of the last three. It’s a good thing we have dictionaries.) Zhulideh, definitely still in use, is to be disheveled, tousled, scattered in the wind. Zhendeh, also a linguistic survivor, means old, worn out, frayed, or a patched garment. Imperfect things can be a source of praise too. Hair which is zhulideh is a source of fascination. Patches or patched clothes can be the clothes of someone who has taken a vow of poverty, a mystic. Zhendeh is a positive image, as you can see in a couplet of Hafez:

Chandân bemân ke kharqeh-ye azraq konad qabûl
bakht-e javân-at az falak-e pir-e zhendeh-push

[Stay as you are (or perhaps “be patient . . .”) until the sky’s patched blue (azraq) coat grants to you, though you are young, a spiritual elder’s patched robe (zhendeh).]