Arya Aminipour, a literature student and linguaphile from northwest Tabriz city, speaks his mother tongue of Azeri-Turkish as fluently as he does Persian, Iran’s official language.
He also knows English and has recently started taking online classes in French.
But when you ask him about his favorite language, with an air of diffidence, he says Azeri-Turkish – “a thousand times over,” invoking a famous line from the novel, The Kite Runner.
Azeri, or Azeri-Turkish, is the second most widely-spoken language in Iran after Persian, although there is no official data or census on native languages in Iran.
A sizeable Azeri-Turk population lives in Iran’s northwestern provinces, along the border with Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan, estimated to be more than 15 million.
But the language is not taught in schools and spoken Azeri is heavily influenced by Persian in terms of syntax, morphology, phonology and basic lexicon. Written Azeri is also in Persian script.
The unofficial status and lack of patronage of the Azeri-Turk language, Aminipour said, is one of the reasons for its gradual erosion and deviance from the version spoken in neighboring Azerbaijan.
“Azeri language has been greatly predisposed to Persian, the only official language in Iran, due to which we see some Turkic words used in Azerbaijan (northern Azerbaijani) being replaced by Persian words in Iran (southern Azerbaijani),” he told Anadolu Agency.
However, he hastened to add that there is “no ban on speaking any language” in the country, saying the “only problem” is “lack of formal education in other languages except Persian.”
Lack of formal education
Iran’s Constitution in no ambiguous terms gives minorities the right to education in their respective native languages, removing any legal barriers.
It says the “official and educational language is Persian, but the languages of other ethnic groups may also be used.” But no measures have been taken to promote languages other than Persian.
Notwithstanding the lack of official patronage, Azeri-Turks scattered across the country – in Eastern and Western Azerbaijan, Ardabil, Zanjan, Gilan, Khorasan and Tehran – speak the language at home and in their communities.
While the basic etymology is Turkish (Torki in Iran), the Persian influence becomes clearer as the conversation steers forward.
Written conversation happens only in the Persian script, although footprints of Azeri spoken in Azerbaijan and Turkish spoken in Turkey can be seen.
The main reason, as experts stress, is the lack of formal education and schooling in the Azeri-Turkish language, the second-most spoken language in the country, for close to a century.
“There was technically no official language in Iran before 1920s and the education system was not Persian-centric as it is today,” Mohammad Oboyee, university lecturer and historian, told Anadolu Agency. “Although Arabic and Persian were the medium of learning in religious schools during the period of the Qajar Dynasty (1789-1925), and before that Safavid dynasty (1501-1736), Azeri-Turkish language was spoken in the royal court as well as in Azeri communities.”
The decline of the Azeri-Turkish language started after the reign of two Iranian-Azeri dynasties ended and Reza Shah Pahlavi launched his nationwide drive in the mid-1920s to promote “national culture” at the heart of which was the Persian language.
The practice continued even after the 1979 Iranian revolution when the Shah was ousted, but by then Iranian Azeris had assimilated into popular Persian culture, said Oboyee.
To preserve their language and prevent further erosion, there has been a long-pending demand from Azeri-Turks in Iran for an academy of the Azeri-Turk language.
At present, the only source of learning the language for Azeri-Turk children in Iran is Turkish and Azerbaijani programs on satellite television, which provides a window to another world that resonates with their own linguistic identity.
There are certainly mutual influences between Iran’s first and second most spoken languages. Azeri-Turkish as spoken in Iran, has a great number of Persian vocabulary merged into it while Persian has a sizeable number of Turkic loanwords.
According to historians, between the 17th and 20th centuries, a rich Azeri literature flourished in Iran but its literary expression was greatly influenced by classical Persian.
At the same time, many Azeri words entered Persian as the country was run mostly by Azeri-speaking rulers since the 16th century.
In recent years, the Persian-Azeri symbiosis has also been made possible due to the influx of Azeri-Turk speakers from northwestern provinces to the capital, Tehran.
Today, Tehran has more of a Azeri-Turk-speaking population than the Azeri-majority city of Tabriz in East Azerbaijan province.
It has to some extent bridged the divide between Azeri-Turks and other ethnic groups in the country, even as the former continue to make conscious efforts to preserve and protect their distinct identity.
“The language and ethnicity definitely give us a distinct identity but we share the same national and cultural identity as other Iranians,” Mohsen Qaharmani, an ethnic Azeri from Tehran, told Anadolu Agency. “We essentially see ourselves as ethnically Iranians and linguistically Turkic.”
Azeri-Turkish in politics
The Azeri-Turkish language, spoken by the largest ethnic minority in Iran, has traditionally played a key role in Iranian politics, as was evident in the recent presidential election.
Presidential debates saw some candidates appealing to Azeri-Turk voters in their own language, while heated exchanges were also seen between candidates on the use of the Azeri-Turkish language.
In one debate, Mohsen Rezaei said a Turkish word he mispronounced was the subject of online banter. He, however, made light of it, saying it showed that people consider him “one of themselves.”
Moshen Mehr-Alizadeh, another presidential candidate and an Azeri-Turk, in a debate referred to words by eventual winner, Ebrahim Raeisi, that he had received telephone calls from Turk-Azeri speaking people, pledging support to him.
To this, Mehr-Alizadeh said there were no Azeri speakers in Iran, but Turkish speakers, urging Raeisi to “be more careful” on such things.
Pertinently, Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei and several senior political leaders are Azeri-Turk speakers. Khamenei has written books in his mother language.
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