If you grew up in a very different part of the world, you might be laboring under a couple misconceptions when it comes to what language is spoken in Iran. One, that all Middle Eastern countries primarily speak a variant of Arabic. Two, that it’s either Farsi or Persian. You know it’s one of those because they both sound kind of familiar, but you’re not sure which.
To start with, Persian is the official language of Iran, but it’s not even in the same language family as Arabic. Persian is an Indo-European tongue, and Arabic belongs to the Afro-Asiatic family. Second of all, Persian and Farsi are two names for the same language. Farsi is just the endonym for what the rest of the world calls Persian — a.k.a. what native speakers call it. It’s kind of like the difference between Spanish and Español.
Roughly 62 percent of Iran’s population speaks Iranian Persian, which leaves lots of room for even more complexity. There are 79 living languages spoken in Iran, which includes 65 indigenous tongues. Here’s a closer look at this country’s linguistic landscape.
What Language Is Spoken In Iran?
Persian is the official language of Iran, and it’s known locally as Farsi. Technically though, Persian is a macrolanguage that includes Dari, also known as Afghan Persian, and Tajik, the spoken language of Tajikistan. And there are Dari speakers in Iran as well.
In fact, “Persian” can be better thought of as the written, literary standard with very slight lexical differences in different regions, with Farsi, Dari and Tajik representing the spoken versions.
Iranian Persian can also be broken down into regional dialects such as Abadani, Ketabi, Tehrani, Shirazi, Old Shirazi, Qazvini, Mahalhamadani, Kashani, Esfahani, Sedehi, Kermani, Araki, Shirazjahromi, Shahrudi Kazeruni, Mashadi (Meshed), Basseri, Yazdi and Bandari.
If you group them all together, Turkic languages and dialects (including Turkish) are spoken by as much as 18 percent of Iran’s population. Among these, one of the most common is Azerbaijani, which is related to Turkish and Crimean Tatar. It has 23 million speakers in Iran, most of whom live in the northwestern region known as Iranian Azerbaijan. There are also a number of Turkish speakers living in Tehran.
Additionally, there is a significant population of Kurds in the west who speak Kurdish, with more than 5.5 million total speakers in the country.
Arabic also has a foothold in Iran, particularly in the south along the Persian Gulf. However, only a small percentage speaks Arabic natively. Its status is largely a holdover from the Islamic conquest of Persia, when Arabic became the main literary tongue of the region. Persian has actually adopted a large number of Arabic loanwords since that time, in addition to other grammatical features.
Many Iranians are also schooled in second languages like English and French. Younger Iranians are particularly likely to speak English, and older generations are likely to have some French abilities, as it was the second official language of Iran until the 1950s.
There are numerous minority languages with smaller speaker populations in the country, including Hebrew, Armenian, Assyrian, Georgian, Circassian and Lurī.