A Grammar of the Persian Language/Preface

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The Persian language is rich, melodious, and elegant ; it has been spoken for many ages by the greatest princes in the politest courts of Asia ; and a number of admirable works have been written in it by historians, philosophers, and poets, who found it capable of expressing with equal advantage, the most beautiful and the most elevated sentiments. It must seem strange, therefore, that the study of this language should be so little cultivated at a time when a taste for general and diffusive learning seems universally to prevail ; and that the fine productions of a celebrated nation should remain in manuscript upon the shelves of our public libraries, without a single admirer who might open their treasures to his countrymen, and display their beauties to the light ; but if we consider the subject with a proper attention, we shall discover a variety of causes which have concurred to obstruct the progress of Eastern literature.

Some men never heard of the Asiatic writings, and others will not be convinced that there is any thing valuable in them ; some pretend to be busy, and others are really idle ; some detest the Persians, because they believe in Mahomed, and others despise their language because they do not understand it : we all love to excuse, or to conceal, our ignorance and are seldom willing to allow any excellence beyond the limits of our own attainments ; like the savages who thought that the sun rose and set for them alone, and could not imagine that the waves, which surrounded their island, left coral and pearls upon any other shore.

Another obvious reason for the neglect of the Persian language, is the great scarcity of books, which are necessary to be read before it can be perfectly learned, the greater part of them are preserved in the different museums and libraries of Europe, where they are shewn more as objects of curiosity than as sources of information ; and are admired, like the characters on a Chinese screen, more for their gay colours than for their meaning.

Thus, while the excellent writings of Greece and Rome are studied by every man of a liberal education, and diffuse a general refinement through our part of the world, the works of the Persians, a nation equally distinguished in ancient history, are either wholly unknown to us, or considered as entirely destitute of taste and invention.

But if this branch of literature has met with so many obstructions from the ignorant, it has, certainly, been checked in its progress by the learned themselves ; most of whom have confined their study to the minute researches of verbal criticism ; like men who discover a precious mine, but instead of searching for the rich ore, or for gems, amuse themselves with collecting smooth pebbles and pieces of crystal. Others mistook reading for learning, which ought to be carefully distinguished by every man of sense ; and were satisfied with running over a great number of manuscripts in a superficial manner, without condescending to be stopped by their difficulty, or to dwell upon their beauty and elegance. The rest have left nothing more behind them than grammars and dictionaries and though they deserve the praises due to unwearied pains and industry, yet they would, perhaps, have gained a more shining reputation, if they had contributed to beautify and enlighten the vast temple of learning, instead of spending their lives in adorning only its porticos and avenues.

There is nothing which has tended more to bring polite letters into discredit, than the total insensibility of commentators and critics to the beauties of the authors whom they profess to illustrate ; few of them seem to have received the smallest pleasure from the most elegant compositions, unless they found some mistake of a transcriber to be corrected, or some established reading to be changed ; some obscure expression to be explained, or some clear passage to be made obscure by their notes. It is a circumstance equally unfortunate that men of the most refined taste and the brightest parts, are apt to look upon a close application to the study of languages as inconsistent with their spirit and genius : so that the state of letters seems to be divided into two classes, men of learning who have no taste, and men of taste who have no learning.

M. de Voltaire, who excels all writers of his age and country in the elegance of his style, and the wonderful variety of his talents, acknowledges the beauty of the Persian images and sentiments, and has versified a fine passage from Sadi, whom he compares to Petrarch : if that ex-traordinary man had added a knowledge of the Asiatic languages to his other acquisitions, we should by this time have seen the poems and histories of Persia in an European dress, and any other recommendation of them would have been unnecessary.

But there is yet another cause which has operated more strongly than any before mentioned towards preventing the rise of Oriental literature ; I mean the small encouragement which the princes and nobles of Europe have given to men of letters. It is an indisputable truth, that learning will always flourish most where the amplest rewards are proposed to the industry of the learned ; and that the most shining periods in the annals of literature are the reigns of wise and liberal princes, who know that fine writers are the oracles of the world, from whose testimony every king, statesman, and hero, must expect the censure or approbation of posterity. In the old states of Greece the highest honours were given to poets, philosophers and orators ; and a single city (as an eminent writer[1] observes) in the memory of one man, produced more numerous and splendid monuments of human genius than most other nations have afforded in a course of ages.

The liberality of the Ptolemies in Egypt drew a number of learned men and poets to their court, whose works remain to the present age the models of taste and elegance ; and the writers, whom Augustus protected, brought their compositions to a degree of perfection, which the language of mortals cannot surpass. Whilst all the nations of Europe were covered with the deepest shade of ignorance, the Califs in Asia encouraged the Mahomedans to improve their talents, and cultivate the fine arts ; and even the Turkish Sultan, who drove the Greeks from Constantinople, was a patron of literary merit, and was himself an elegant poet. The illustrious family of Medici invited to Florence the learned men whom the Turks had driven from their country ; and a general light succeeded to the gloom which ignorance and superstition had spread through the western world. But that light has not continued to shine with equal splendour ; and though some slight efforts have been made to restore it. yet it seems to have been gradually decaying for the last century ; it grows very faint in Italy ; it seems wholly extinguished in France : and whatever sparks of it remain in other countries, are confined to the closets of humble and modest men, and are not general enough to have their proper influence.

The nobles of our days consider learning as a subordinate acquisition, which would not be consistent with the dignity of their fortunes and should be left to those who toil in a lower sphere of life ; but they do not reflect on the many advantages which the study of polite letters would give peculiarly to persons of eminent rank and high employments : who, instead of relieving their fatigues by a series of unmanly pleasures, or useless diversions, might spend their leisure in improving their knowledge, and in conversing with the great statesmen, orators, and philosophers of antiquity.

If learning in general has met with so little encouragement, still less can be expected for that branch of it, which lies so far removed from the common path, and which the greater part of mankind have hitherto considered as incapable of yielding either entertainment or instruction : if pains and want be the lot of a scholar, the life of an Orientalist must certainly be attended with peculiar hardships. Gentius, who published a beautiful Persian work called the Bed of Roses, with an useful but inelegant translation, lived obscurely in Holland, and died in misery. Hyde, who might have contributed greatly towards the progress of Eastern learning, formed a number of expensive projects with that view, but had not the support and assistance which they deserved and required. The labours of Meninski immortalized and ruined him : his Dictionary pf the Asiatic languages is, perhaps the most laborious compilation that was ever undertaken by any single man : but he complains in his preface, that his patrimony was exhausted by the great expense of employing and supporting a number of writers and printers, and of raising a new press for the Oriental characters. M. d'Herbelot, indeed, received the most splendid reward of his industry : he was invited to Italy by Ferdinand II. Duke of Tuscany, who entertained him with that striking munificence which always distinguished the race of the Medici : after the death of Ferdinand, the illustrious Colbert recalled him to Paris, where he enjoyed the fruits of his labour, and spent the remainder of his days in an honourable and easy retirement. But this is a rare example : the other princes of Europe have not imitated the Duke of Tuscany ; and Christian VII. was reserved to be the protector of the Eastern Muses in the present age.

Since the literature of Asia was so much neglected, and the causes of that neglect were so various, we could not have expected that any slight power would rouse the nations of Europe from their inattention to it : and they would, perhaps, have persisted in despising it, if they had not been animated by the most powerful incentive that can influence the mind of man : interest was the magic wand which brought them all within one circle : interest was the charm which gave the languages of the East a real and solid importance. By one of those revolutions, which no human prudence could have foreseen, the Persian language found its way into India ; that rich and celebrated empire, which, by the flourishing state of our commerce, has been the source of incredible wealth to the merchants of Europe. A variety of causes, which need not be mentioned here, gave the English nation a most extensive power in that kingdom : our India Company began to take under their protection the princes of the country, by whose co-operation they gained their first settlement ; a number of important affairs were to be transacted in peace and war between nations equally jealous of one another, who had not the common instrument of conveying their sentiments ; the servants of the Company received letters which they could not read, and were ambitious of gaining titles of which they could not comprehend the meaning ; it was found highly dangerous to employ the natives as interpreters, upon whose fidelity they could not depend ; and it was at last discovered, that they must apply themselves to the study of the Persian language, in which all the letters from the Indian princes were written. A few men of parts and taste, who resided in Bengal, have since amused themselves with the literature of the East, and have spent their leisure in reading the poems and histories of Persia ; but they found a reason in every page to regret their ignorance of the Arabick language, without which their knowledge must be very circumscribed and imperfect. The languages of Asia will now, perhaps, be studied with uncommon ardour ; they are known to be useful, and will soon be found instructive and entertaining : the valuable manuscripts that enrich our public libraries will be in a few years elegantly printed; the manners and sentiments of the Eastern nations will be perfectly known ; and the limits of our knowledge will be no less extended than the bounds of our empire.

It was with a view to facilitate the progress of this branch of literature, that I reduced to order the following instructions for the Persian language, which I had collected several years ago; but I would not present my grammar to the public till I had considerably enlarged and improved it : I have, therefore, endeavoured to lay down the clearest and most accurate rules, which I have illustrated by select examples from the most elegant writers ; I have carefully compared my work with every composition of the same nature, that has fallen into my hands ; and though on so general a subject I must have made several observations which are common to all, yet I flatter myself that my own remarks, the disposition of the whole book, and the passages quoted in it, will sufficiently distinguish it as an original production. Though I am not conscious that there are any essential mistakes or omissions in it, yet I am sensible that it falls very short of perfection, which seems to withdraw itself from the pursuit of mortals, in proportion to their endeavours of attaining it ; like the talisman in the Arabian tales, which a bird carried from tree to tree as often as its pursuer approached it. But it has been my chief care to avoid all the harsh and affected terms of art which render most didactic works so tedious and unpleasant, and which only perplex the learner, without giving him any real knowledge. I have even refrained from making any enquiries into gene- ral grammar, or from entering into those subjects which have already been so elegantly discussed by the most judicious philosopher[2], the most learned divine[3], and the most laborious scholar of the present age.[4]

It was my first design to prefix to the grammar a history of the Persian language from the time of Xenophon to our days, and to have added a copious praxis of tales and poems extracted from the classical writers of Persia ; but as those additions would have delayed the publication of the grammar, which was principally wanted, I thought it advisable to reserve them for a separate volume, which the public may expect in the course of the ensuing winter. I have made a large collection of materials for a general history of Asia, and for an account of the geography, philosophy, and literature of the Eastern nations, all which I propose to arrange in order, if my more solid and more important studies will allow me any intervals of leisure.[5]

I cannot forbear acknowledging in this place the signal marks of kindness and attention, which I have received from many learned and noble persons ; but General Carnac has obliged me the most sensibly of them, by supplying me with a valuable collection of Persian manuscripts on every branch of Eastern learning, from which many of the best examples in the following grammar are extracted. A very learned Professor[6] at Oxford, has promoted my studies with that candour and benevolence which so eminently distinguish him ; and many excellent men that are the principal ornaments of that University have conferred the highest favours on me, of which I shall ever retain a grateful sense ; but I take a singular pleasure in confessing that I am indebted to a foreign nobleman[7] for the little knowledge which I have happened to acquire of the Persian language ; and that my zeal for the poetry and philology of the Asiatics was owing to his conversation, and to the agreeable correspondence with which he still honours me.

Before I conclude this preface, it will be proper to add a few remarks upon the method of learning the Persian language, and upon the advantages which the learner may expect from it. When the student can read the characters with fluency, and has learned the true pronunciation of every letter from the mouth of a native, let him peruse the grammar with attention, and commit to memory the regular inflexions of the nouns and verbs ; he need not burden his mind with those that deviate from the common forms, as they will be insensibly learned in a short course of reading. By this time he will find a dictionary necessary, and I hope he will believe me, when I assert from a long experience, that, whoever possesses the admirable work of Meninski,[8] will have no occasion for any other dictionary of the Persian tongue. He may proceed by the help of this work to analyse the passages quoted in the grammar, and to examine in what manner they illustrate the rules : in the mean time he must not neglect to converse with his living instructor, and to learn from him the phrases of common discourse, and the names of visible objects, which he will soon imprint on his memory, if he will take the trouble to look for them in the dictionary ; and here I must caution him against condemning a work as defective, because he cannot find in it every word which he hears ; for sounds in general are caught imperfectly by the ear, and many words are spelt and pronounced very differently.

The first book that I would recommend to him is the Gulistán, or Bed of Roses, a work which is highly esteemed in the East, and of which there are several translations in the languages of Europe : the manuscripts of this book are very common ; and by comparing them with the printed edition of Gentius, he will soon learn the beautiful flowing hand used in Persia, which consists of bold strokes and flourishes, and cannot be imitated by our types. It will then be a proper time for him to read some short and easy chapter in this work, and to translate it into his native language with the utmost exactness ; let him then lay aside the original, and after a proper interval let him turn the same chapter back into Persian by the assistance of the grammar and dictionary : let him afterwards compare his second translation with the original, and correct its faults according to that model. This is the exercise so often recommended by the old rhetoricians, by which a student will gradually acquire the style and manner of any author, whom he desires to imitate, and by which almost any language may be learned in six months with ease and pleasure, When he can express his sentiments in Persian with tolerable facility, I would advise him to read some elegant history or poem with an intelligent native, who will explain to him in common words the refined expressions that occur in reading, and will point out the beauties of learned allusions and local images. The most excellent book in the language, is, in my opinion, the collection of tales and fables called Anwārī Suhaili, by Hussein Vaés, surnamed Cashefi, who took the celebrated work of Bidpai or Pilpay for his text, and has comprised all the wisdom of the Eastern nations, in fourteen beautiful chapters. At some leisure hour he may desire his Munshi or writer to transcribe a section from the Gulistán, or a fable of Cashefi, in the common broken hand used in India, which he will learn perfectly in a few days by comparing all its turns and contractions with the more regular hands of the Arabs and Persians : he must not be discouraged by the difficulty of reading the Indian letters, for the characters are in reality the same with those in which our books are printed, and are only rendered difficult by the frequent omission of the diacritical points, and the want of regularity in the position of the words : but we all know that we are often at a loss to read letters which we receive in our native tongue ; and it has been proved that a man who has a perfect knowledge of any language, may with a proper attention decypher a letter in that idiom, though it be written in characters which he has never seen before, and of which he has no alphabet.

In short, I am persuaded that whoever will study the Persian language according to my plan, will in less than a year be able to translate and to answer any letter from an Indian prince, and to converse with the natives of India, not only with fluency, but with elegance. But if he desires to distinguish himself as an eminent translator, and to understand not only the general purport of a composition, but even the graces and ornaments of it, he must necessarily learn the Arabick tongue, which is blended with the Persian in so singular a manner, that one period often contains both languages wholly distinct from each other in expression and idiom, but perfectly united in sense and construction. This must appear strange to an European reader ; but he may form some idea of this uncommon mixture, when he is told that the two Asiatic languages are not always mixed like the words of Roman and Saxon origin in this period, " The true law is right reason, conformable to the nature of things, which calls us to duty by commanding, deters us from sin by forbidding ;"[9]but as we may suppose the Latin and English to be connected in the following sentence ; "The true lex is recta ratio, conformable naturae, which by commanding vocet ad officium, by forbidding à fraude de terreat."

A knowledge of these two languages will be attended by a variety of advantages to those who acquire it : the Hebrew, Chaldaic, Syriac, and Ethiopian tongues, are dialects of the Arabick, and bear as near a resemblance to it as the Ionic to the Attic Greek ; the jargon of Indostan, very improperly called the language of the Moors, contains so great a number of Persian words, that I was able, with very little difficulty, to read the fables of Pilpai which are translated into that idiom ; the Turkish contains ten Arabick or Persian words for one originally Scythian, by which it has been so refined that the modern kings of Persia were fond of speaking it in their courts : in short, there is scarce a country in Asia or Africa, from the source of the Nile to the wall of China, in which a man who understands Arabick, Persian, and Turkish, may not travel with satisfaction, or transact the most important affairs with advantage and security.

As to the literature of Asia, it will not, perhaps, be essentially useful to the greater part of mankind, who have neither leisure nor inclination to cultivate so extensive a branch of learning ; but the civil and natural history of such mighty empires as India, Persia, Arabia, and Tartary, cannot fail of delighting those who love to view the great picture of the universe, or to learn by what degrees the most obscure states have risen to glory, and the most flourishing kingdoms have sunk to decay ; the philosopher will consider those works as highly valuable, by which he may trace the human mind in all its various appearances, from the rudest to the most cultivated state ; and the man of taste will undoubtedly be pleased to unlock the stores of native genius, and to gather the flowers of unrestrained and luxuriant fancy. [10]

  1. Ascham.
  2. See Hermes.
  3. A short Introduction to English Grammar.
  4. See Grammar prefixed to the Dictionary of the English Language.
  5. See the History of the Persian Language, a Description of Asia, and a Short History of Persia, published with my Life of Nader Shah, in the year 1773.
  6. Dr. Hunt
  7. Baron Reviski
  8. This was written before Richardson's Dictionary was published.
  9. See Middleton's Life of Cicero, vol. iii. p. 351.
  10. Want of encouragement, as the Author has already remarked, has made it impossible that works of this kind could hitherto be produced to any considerable extent. Of late, however, a project has been set on foot, and carried into execution, principally by the zeal and intelligence of Colonel Fitz Clarence, by which every Oriental work of value and interest not yet published, is likely to be brought before the British Public. See a Report of the Proceedings of the first General Meeting of the Subscribers to the Oriental Translation Fund, London, 1828. Editor.