Persian has been a written language since the sixth century B.C.
Only Chinese, Greek, and Latin have comparable histories of
literacy. Although Persian script changed-first from cuneiform to a
modified Aramaic, then to Arabic-from the ninth to the nineteenth
centuries it served a broader geographical area than any language
in world history. It was the primary language of administration and
belles lettres from the Balkans under the earlier Ottoman Empire to
Central China under the Mongols, and from the northern branches of
the Silk Road in Central Asia to southern India under the Mughal
Empire. Its history is therefore crucial for understanding the
function of writing in world history.
Each of the chapters of Literacy in the Persianate World
opens a window onto a particular stage of this history, starting
from the reemergence of Persian in the Arabic script after the
Arab-Islamic conquest in the seventh century A.D., through the
establishment of its administrative vocabulary, its literary
tradition, its expansion as the language of trade in the thirteenth
century, and its adoption by the British imperial administration in
India, before being reduced to the modern role of national language
in three countries (Afghanistan, Iran, and Tajikistan) in the
twentieth century. Two concluding chapters compare the history of
written Persian with the parallel histories of Chinese and Latin,
with special attention to the way its use was restricted and
channeled by social practice.
This is the first comparative study of the historical role of
writing in three languages, including two in non-Roman scripts,
over a period of two and a half millennia, providing an opportunity
for reassessment of the work on literacy in English that has
accumulated over the past half century. The editors take full
advantage of this opportunity in their introductory essay.
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