We’re frequently asked what the difference between Persian and Arabic are — how similar they are, and whether knowing Persian helps learn Arabic, or whether knowing Arabic helps to learn Persian.
You might be curious what each sounds like to the other, and what their relationships are with religion. Well, we’re here to put those questions to rest!
So here’s a guide to all the similarities and differences between Persian and Arabic: alphabet, pronunciation, sentence structure, and more.
Persian or Farsi? In other articles in this blog I’ve chosen “Farsi” as the word to describe the Persian language as spoken in Iran. Here, I’m using Persian as the standard English word to describe the language as spoken in Iran, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan.
Overview of Persian Vs Arabic
Arabic and Persian are totally different languages, but both with a mostly common alphabet, overlapping vocabulary (nearly all going from Arabic to Persian), and with ties to Islam. The similarity is a bit like that between English and French.
A speaker of either Persian or Arabic with no knowledge of the other could pick up a newspaper and see major words and roughly know what topic it was about, but not know what it was about in detail, nor be able to understand the details. And orally, it’d be a lost cause to understand what was happening at all.
For this analysis, we’ll consider Arabic to be “Modern Standard Arabic” (MSA) as opposed to a regional dialect. The dialects are closely related to MSA but have distinct variations in grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary.
You might also like these articles about Farsi & Arabic…
- Arabic Dialects Compared: Maghrebi, Egyptian, Levantine, Hejazi, Gulf, and MSA
- Why and How to Learn Modern Standard Arabic (MSA)
- Formal vs Spoken Farsi
Persian vs. Arabic: The Alphabet/Script
When you look at Persian and Arabic script, someone who doesn’t know either language will think that they look the same.
This is largely true: modern Persian (in both Iran and Afghanistan) is written in the Perso-Arabic script, which is the Arabic script but with slight pronunciation modifications, plus a few extra letters.
In Tajikistan, where the language Tajik is the same as Persian (as spoken in Iran) but spoken with a different accent and Russian-influenced day-to-day vocabulary, the language is written in Cyrillic script, as Russian is.
For language learners, Cyrillic script can be both an advantage (because Cyrillic script is written with all its vowels!) and disadvantage (you won’t learn to read street signs or other printed text in Iran or Afghanistan).
See our guide on learning Farsi outside Iran for a longer discussion on Cyrillic script and the differences between Tajik and Farsi as it’s spoken in Iran.
Here’s every letter in the Persian and Arabic alphabets. Every letter in Arabic exists in Persian, but Persian has four extra letters, marked below. The pronunciation guide is for the most commonly-taught Tehrani/Shirazi accents of Farsi.
|Name (Persian)||Letter (isolated)||Arabic/Persian|
|ʾalef||ا||In both, but pronounced in Farsi like o in American Bob, and in Arabic like ar in the British car|
|pe||پ||Farsi only, pronounced p|
|se||ث||In both, pronounced s in Farsi, but th in MSA (although s in several dialects)|
|che||چ||Farsi only, pronounced ch|
|haa-ye jimi||ح||In both, pronounced as a hard H in Arabic, but a soft h in Farsi (same as ه)|
|zaal||ذ||In both, pronounced dh in Arabic, but as z in Farsi (same as ز). In colloquial Arabic this is often pronounced z|
|zhe||ژ||Farsi only, pronounced like g in French rouge|
|saad||ص||In both, pronounced s in Farsi, but as hard S in Arabic|
|zaad||ض||In both, pronounced as hard D in Arabic, but as z in Farsi (same as ز)|
|taa||ط||In both, pronounced as hard T in Arabic, but as regular t in Farsi (same as ت)|
|zaa||ظ||In both, pronounced as hard DH in Arabic, but as z in Farsi (same as ز)|
|ʿayn||ع||In both, in Arabic pronounced as guttural back-of-throat sound, and in Farsi as a glottal stop (same as ء)|
|qaff||ق||In both, pronounced q in Arabic, but gh in Farsi (same as غ)|
|gaaf||گ||Farsi only, pronounced g|
|vaav||و||In both, pronounced v in Farsi vs w in Arabic|
|haa-ye do-cheshme||ه||In both|
A few letters are pronounced differently in Persian across the regions, particularly between Afghanistan and the Tehrani/Shirazi accents. For example, Afghans tend to retain the qaff (ق) as pronounced in Arabic.
One interesting thing I noted in Arabic-speaking countries is that they letter they choose to express the “p” sound (e.g. in brand names or street signs) is a different invention, and not the one used in Persian.
Persian vs. Arabic Pronunciation
As you can see from the table above, Persian and Arabic pronounce the same letters differently.
Most notably, the “harder” and more “guttural” Arabic sounds are pronounced more gently in Tehrani/Shirazi Farsi, or not pronounced at all.
The most notable pronunciation differences are (with letter names below in Arabic)
- Qaff (ق): This is often pronounced in Farsi the same as a ghayn (غ)
- 3ayn (ع): This is pronounced as a hamze/glottal stop ()
- He (ح): This is softened to a he (ه)
- dhaal (ذ) and the (ث): In Farsi pronounced z and s, with the names of the letters changed respectively
- Daad (ض), Zaad (ظ), Taa (ط), Saad (ص): These are respectively softened in Farsi to be pronounced as z, z, t, and s.
You’ll notice, from this section and the previous, that there’s a lot of overlap in the way letters are pronounced in Persian. There are four different letters that are pronounced as a z!
So why even keep all those extra letters in Persian? Well, to confuse you when you’re spelling, of course. Also, they’re used for imported words from Arabic — of which there are many.
Spoken Arabic accents vary distinctly by region when speaking colloquially. The “softest” of all accents are Egyptian and Lebanese accents, and many Arab speakers from around the Arabic-speaking world volunteer that they like the way Egyptians and Lebanese people speak.
(See our guide to the diverse range of Arabic dialects here.)
But Persian is less distinctly pronounced than even Egyptian and Lebanese dialects. Persian at times sounds like French. In fact, many Persian migrants to France have excellent French accents and have much less trouble pronouncing French than they Persian migrants to English-speaking countries do with English.
A more subtle distinction in pronunciation is in emphasis and intonation.
Many Arabic multi-syllabic words have their emphasis on the second-to-last syllable in a word, sometimes earlier. By contrast, Persian prefers emphasis on the last syllable. Persian speakers even change the emphasis of borrowed words from Arabic. For example
- “School” (مدرسة): in Arabic is madrasah, and in Persian is madreseh
- “Pen” (قلم): in Arabic is qalam and in Persian is qalam
Finally, intonation. It’s quite a large subject on its own, but suffice it to say that Persian has a different kind of tone to any form of spoken Arabic I’ve heard.
Persian and Arabic — Vocabulary Overlap
Persian has a lot of Arabic words in it. It varies a lot by style and format, but it’s anywhere up to 40%, in that in a full Persian dictionary, some 40% of all words are of Arabic origin.
In everyday conversation, there’s very little — maybe 10-20%. I.e. in a sentence like the following:
“I want a kilo of red apples please. I love apples so much! How much is it? Four dollars? Wait, that’s too much!”
لطفاً یک کیلو سیب قرمز می خواهم. من سیب را خیلی دوست دارم! چند است؟ چهار دلار؟ صبر کنید ، این خیلی زیاد است
In that sentence in Persian there are 23 words, of which three are of Arabic origin (لطفاً for “please”, for صبر “wait”, and for زیاد “too much”). So that’s 13% and matches my guess.
In printed text, some analyses place it at 25%. And if you look through a dictionary (not frequency-weighted), you’ll find that 40% of all words useable in Farsi are of Arabic origin.
Interestingly, there’s very little that goes the other way — very few Persian words that end up in Arabic (and if they do, it’s only in colloquial Arabic, not the official language).
This proportion might sound like a lot, but it doesn’t mean that an Arabic speaker can listen to someone speaking Persian and remotely catch the drift of what’s going on, even with experience.
It’s a bit like French and English. English has a lot of words of Latin origin, mostly imported via French.
Assuming you know nothing of French (or other Latin languages) you might look at a random paragraph like this one that I picked out from Le Monde and you may recognise the words I’ve put in bold:
L’appareil a disparu des radars. Il s’est abîmé dans l’eau à proximité de la côte. Moins d’une heure plus tard, les premiers secours arrivent sur zone. Ils repêchent des débris de carlingue, des cadavres déchiquetés, des affaires personnelles...Le Monde, 10/11/2019
And think “OK something about an apparel on a radar… proximity… premiers something a zone, cadavers OMG? Personal affairs? What happened to their apparels??”
That’s in print. When spoken, because of accent and pronunciation differences, you probably won’t catch it at all.
However, knowing one set of vocabulary — either Arabic or Farsi — definitely helps with learning the other.
Persian vs Arabic Grammar
Grammar is where Persian and Arabic are completely different. Most explanations of this give academic descriptions of the origins of Persian and Arabic, but I’ll try to describe it in everyday terms (which is my cup of tea anyway).
Suffice it to say that everything is different between Persian and Arabic grammar, from the concept of verbs, to grammatical gender, to plurals, to cases, to tone, and more… everything.
- Verbs in Arabic and Persian are totally different — Arabic has a trilerate root structure where many words are inter-related; Farsi verbs are more like French, free-standing verbs that are conjugated alone
- Sentence order/structure is different between Arabic and Persian (Arabic is SVO; Farsi is SOV).
- Grammatical gender: Arabic has gendered nouns and uses gender for agreement with plurals, whereas Persian doesn’t have grammatical gender at all
- Plurals: Arabic words change to make plural form, and plural agreement is a little weird; plurals are extremely straightforward in Persian
- Cases: Standard Arabic has grammatical “cases” and Persian doesn’t (neither does colloquial Arabic)
- Formality: Persian has a formal tone (similar to the French vous); Arabic doesn’t
- Written/spoken: Formal Modern Standard Arabic is very different to colloquial spoken Arabic; Persian is spoken much as it’s written (or at least it’s far closer)
Persian and Arabic grammar are as different as can be. The difference is, again, similar in degree to the difference between French and English.
There are some differences between spoken and written Farsi — see our guide for more details here.
Does knowing Arabic (or Persian) help with learning Persian (or Arabic)?
Yes, knowing either Persian or Arabic definitely helps with learning the other! It’s not a huge advantage — it’s mostly a vague sense of familiarity with some words.
In this case, I’d liken the similarity more to knowing English if learning German (not the other way around, because Germans I meet seem to all already know English, bless their highly educated souls).
Take a phrase like “Can you give me a glass of water please?” or “I live in the big white house”. Those become “Kannst du mir ein Glas Wasser geben bitte?” and “Ich wohne in dem großen weißen Haus”. Even though the languages are totally different, there are similar things that make one reminiscent of the other, if vaguely.
Between Persian and Arabic the differences are similar — a lot is reminiscent, even though it’s different and used differently.
The main ways it helps to know either Persian or Arabic to learn Arabic or Farsi are
- Knowing Persian or Arabic and learning the other gives you a jump start on reading/writing, as Farsi and Arabic alphabets are mostly the same. The first obstacle to learning either Arabic or Farsi is the alphabet. It’s a new character set, with different rules (no short vowels!) and written right-to-left. If you know one, once you learn the pronunciation differences (and the extra letters, if going from Arabic to Farsi), you’re done.
- Knowledge of Persian or Arabic gives you a head-start in vocabulary because of the shared words. These can be everyday words, like greetings, through to professional words. The words are different, but a word in Farsi or Arabic will remind you of the word in the other language —basically, you get a set of excellent mnemonics. It’s like the word souvenir in French, which most commonly is the word for “to recall”. It reminds you of the same borrowed word in English, which is means “a keepsake” (it also means this in French). Both words are used totally differently (e.g. to say “I don’t remember” you say “Je ne m’en souviens pas”, with an associated change in the pronunciation of souvenir) but it helps you remember.
- You have some advantage in pronunciation if you know Arabic or Persian and learn the other.. Finally, even though the pronunciation is different, there are similar sounds in both languages. This is much more of an advantage if going from Arabic to Persian. If coming from Persian, you’ll still have to learn how to make your mouth make some unusual shapes to pronounce Arabic correctly.
Nonetheless, to communicate at any level, a speaker of Arabic or Farsi would definitely have to spend time learning the other language. But they’d advance faster than someone without the same advantage, maybe 25-50% faster.
At the advanced levels, a lot of sophisticated professional vocabulary in Farsi actually comes from Arabic. But in poetry, the Arabic learner would be lost deciphering Rumi without a lot of dedicated effort.
Which should you learn — Persian or Arabic?
This is a tough question because it forces you to answer questions like:
- Do you want to speak to people, as you would in Persian or an Arabic dialect, or learn to read texts, as you would if you learned MSA?
- Do you get pleasure out of learning a language that nearly no non-native speaker speaks, like Persian, or one that most non-native speakers don’t speak, like Arabic? (“native” excluding those who learn literary Arabic for religious purposes)
- What parts of the world do you want to travel to — the Middle East (Arabic), or Central Asia (Persian)?
For nearly all people I’d recommend learning Arabic, first in dialect form, and later MSA.
But if you learn Farsi I guarantee you’ll touch the hearts of many an unsuspecting Persian — even if you only learn a few hundred words.