A look at South Azerbaijan or Iranian Azerbaijan

1. Introduction
1.1. Iranian [South] Azerbaijani
Ethnic Azerbaijanis are spread across several countries, including Iran, Azerbaijan, Turkey and Georgia. In Azerbaijan they represent the majority group, while in Iran they constitute around a quarter of the population, with approximately 23,500,000 speakers.1 Between them, these two latter groups represent the two sides of a geopolitical division which has existed since the beginning of the nineteenth century between Russian/Northern and Iranian/Southern Azerbaijan.

Linguistically, Azerbaijani is classified as Altaic-Turkic-Southeastern/Oghuz, and is thus closely related in genetic terms to Turkish and Qashqai, which fall into the same category. Azerbaijani people in Iran are hence commonly referred to by names such as tork (Turk), tork-e azari (Azeri Turk) and tork-e azabaijani (Azerbaijani Turk).

The Azerbaijani spoken in Iran is generally classified as belonging to a single dialect group, “South Azerbaijani”, and is mutually intelligible throughout the country. Some measure of dialect variation does appear, even between the Iranian provinces of “West Azerbaijan”, “East Azerbaijan”, Ardabil and Zanjan, but this variation is composed almost entirely of small phonetic differences and has not presented any obstacles to the development of a standardised orthography for the dialect group as a whole.

1.2. ‘Irano-Centricity’
Several factors have played a role in the deep sense of Iranian identity felt by Iranian Azerbaijanis. Some are primarily historical, while others are related to the current socioeconomic situation of Iran:

i. The Pahlavi language policy. The large number of minority languages spoken in Iran, and their proximity to and overlap with the country’s borders, drove the Pahlavi regime to adopt a ‘One nation, one language’ policy from the 1930s onwards. Various measures were taken to encourage integration of the non-Persian speaking population, while no provision was made for the development or expression of the minority languages (except for Armenian and Assyrian). As Mojab and Hassanpour write:

The Pahlavi monarchy (1925-1979) combined extreme violence with extensive propaganda in order to build the nationstate of Iran – one nation, one language, and one centralized, secular state […]. Turkish and Arab domination over Iran in the remote past was declared the main historical obstacle to the continuity of the glorious Persian empire. (1996: 231-232)

ii. The current regime’s language policy. Although article 15 of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran permits “the use of regional and tribal languages in the press and mass media, as well as for teaching of their literature in schools”, the current regime continues to be acutely aware of the potential for so called separatist movements in various parts of the country: for example, the Baloch in the south east, and the Kurds in the north west. This has led to an environment in the use of Persian is aggressively and persistently promoted in all walks of life, and in which not to know Persian, or to use it in any public domain, risks being labelled unpatriotic.

iii. Media. One impact of this policy is the almost exclusive domination of Persian in the mass media. Minority languages are only generally given expression in artistic domains such as music and poetry, and as a result virtually all children now come into contact with Persian even in their pre-school years through watching television. Although many now have access to satellite broadcasting and the internet, again very little is available in minority languages, although Gunaz TV (aka “South Azerbaijan Television”), based in Chicago, has recently begun broadcasting in Iranian Azerbaijani via Turkish satellite TurkSat 2A.

iv. Education. Another impact of government policy is that Persian is the only language of education, save for some rights ceded to the Christian minorities. Hence all learn to read and write in Persian, not their own mother-tongue, although some may later teach themselves literacy in their own language. Literature in Iranian Azerbaijani, Balochi and other minority languages is hence produced on a very small scale compared to the vast Persian language publishing industry.

v. The socioeconomic situation. These factors, combined with the need to speak fluent (and, ideally, accent-less) Persian in order to get ahead in the labour market, have created a situation in which minority language-speaking parents often choose not to transmit their language to their children, and teach them Persian instead. With such discouragements, it is not surprising that even the oral use of many of these languages is declining, nor that most of their speakers choose to express themselves in literature using Persian.

1.3. Orthographic History

1.3.1. Background

Northern Azerbaijani was written with the Arabic script until 1929; then the Latin alphabet was used for ten years, following the First Turkology Congress in Baku in 1926, the Cyrillic alphabet from 1939 under Stalin and his successors, and then Latin again since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Iranian Azerbaijani, on the other hand, has always been written using the Arabic script, although it now finds itself competing with Latin to some extent, a situation recognized by Ebrahim Rafraf, who served as secretary of the Orthography Conference held in Tehran in 2001 (henceforth referred to as the “Tehran seminar”):

Most Azerbaijanis from Iran admit that they are living in a dual alphabetic period in which both alphabets – Latin and Arabic – are more or less used and understood. Some want to move toward the Latin-based alphabet that the Republic has adopted, as they find it much easier to learn, and more progressive, given the inevitable impact of English and other Latin-based languages on access to information and knowledge on the Internet.

Others believe that the religious and historical literary heritage of the Arabic and Persian scripts might be lost in such a move. Given that the official alphabet in Iran is Persian, they prefer to make slight modifications to the existing script to enable it to embody the sound system of Azerbaijani Turkic language (sic).

[…] Since the Persian script is still used extensively, we should promote its capabilities and establish the necessary standards of writing as long as it is legally in force, even though the consonant-oriented Persian alphabet is hardly adequate for effectively representing the highly developed vowel structure of the Azeri language. (‘Azerbaijan International’ Magazine, 10.1, Spring 2002.)

Reading between the lines of the above-quoted text reveals some interesting assumptions: that the Latin-based alphabet is easier to learn; that the Persian script may one day no longer be legally in force; and that the Persian script is simply not up to the job.

Source: korpu.net

1 Source: www.ethnologue.com
2 For more details of the influence of Persian on Iranian Azerbaijani, see Lee 1996: §1.6
3 E.g. http://www.ocaq.net/yeni/kitablar/ergingezel.htm
4 E.g. http://xetayi.blogspot.com/
5 The Tehran seminar’s orthography may be downloaded, in Iranian Azerbaijani only, from
6 Two outlines of Iranian Azerbaijani phonology with their own orthographic proposals are at http://Gajil.20m.com and
7 This and the following principle are also in line with the SIL (2002) proposals for the orthography of Southern Luri in Iran.