All about ezāfe, part 1

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All about ezāfe, part 1

Looking at the ezāfe construction from a linguistic perspective, part 1: what is ezāfe and how is it described within a traditional Persian grammatical framework?



The اضافه ezāfe construction is one of the fundamental building blocks of learning Persian grammar, and it deserves some attention. Now you will often hear linguists say that this grammatical something-or-other is worthy of attention, but trust me, the ezāfe is actually super interesting. It’s a really unique grammatical feature that Persian speakers and learners shouldn’t take for granted. In this blog (split into two parts) we will explore the types and features of ezāfe, the classification of ezāfe by Persian grammarians, its origins and development, and how this construction can be explained within the field of linguistics. (We will try to avoid using linguistic jargon unless it is absolutely necessary!)


The name اضافه ‘ezāfe’

Firstly, let’s take a look at the word ezāfe itself. This is a word which has been borrowed from the Arabic إضافة ʾiḍāfa, meaning ‘supplementation’, and in Arabic grammar, the term إضافة ʾiḍāfa is used to describe the possessive or genitive construction. (A possessive or genitive construction just means ‘noun of noun’, or ‘noun’s noun’, such as ‘the people of Iran’ or ‘Babak’s garden’.) The rules for forming إضافة ʾiḍāfa constructions in Arabic are complicated and they depend on things like grammatical role, definiteness and gender. We will not get into the intricacies of Arabic grammar here, but the important thing to remember is that although the word ezāfe has been borrowed from Arabic, a Persian ezāfe construction is not the same as an Arabic one! Even though superficially, they may look grammatically similar in function, Arabic and Persian ezāfes have very different features and utilisations.


So what is ezāfe? (A quick refresher)

In Persian, ezāfe forms the ‘characteristic structure of the Persian noun phrase’ (Perry, 2017: 978). To put it simply: ezāfe is going to show up a whole lot when constructing Persian sentences, so how do we use it?


Ezāfe links two or more words together to show that they are related to each other somehow. The organisation of these relationships between words can be described by using two useful linguistic terms: مُضاف mozāf ‘head’ and مُضافٌ اِلَیه mozāfon elayh ‘dependant’. The ‘head’ is the first word of a Persian ezāfe chain, and the ‘dependants’ are all the words which come after. For example:


دانشگاهِ تهران 

Dāneshgāh-e Tehrān

‘The University of Tehran’


(In this example, دانشگاه dāneshgāh is the head, and تهران Tehrān is its dependant.)


Image by Nima Mot on Unsplash, 2022


How is ezāfe analysed by Persian grammarians?

In Persian grammar, ezāfe is broken down into numerous subcategories (most of which are distinguishable more on semantic grounds than grammatical ones, but I digress…):


1. The اضافۀ مِلکی ezāfe-ye melki ‘ezāfe of ownership’

This shows that the مُضافٌ اِلَیه mozāfon elayh ‘dependant’ is the possessor or owner of the مُضاف mozāf ‘head’. For example:


خانۀ حَسَن

Khāne-ye Hasan

‘Hasan’s house’


(The above example is melki because Hasan is the owner of the house.)


2. The اضافۀ تخصیصی ezāfe-ye takhsisi ‘allocative ezāfe’

The takhsisi ezāfe is similar to the melki ezāfe, except that there is no aspect of ownership involved. For example:


قلادۀ سگ

Qalāde-ye sag

‘The dog’s collar’


(Even though the collar belongs to the dog, the dog doesn’t really own the collar, so the above example can be categorised as takhsisi.)


3. The اضافۀ بَیانی ezāfe-ye bayāni ‘expressive ezāfe’

This form of ezāfe is used in phrases where the dependant is describing the head in some manner. For example:


انگشترِ طلا

Angoshtar-e talā

‘The gold ring’ 


(Here, the dependant noun طلا talā ‘gold’ is describing the head noun انگشتر angoshtar ‘ring’. It’s important to mention that the phrase انگشترِ طلایی angohstar-e talāyi ‘the golden ring’, with an adjectival ـــیـی -yi ending, would not be classed as an example of bayāni ezāfe by Persian grammarians. Instead, a phrase with an adjective like this is called a ترکیبِ وَصفی tarkib-e vasfi: we will discuss this more at the end.)


4. The اضافۀ توضیحی ezāfe-ye towzihi ‘descriptive ezafe’

This form of ezafe is used when the dependant is a proper noun (a.k.a it should have a capital letter in English) which describes a common noun. For example:


دریای خَزَر

Daryā-ye khazar

‘The Caspian Sea’


(Here, the dependant is خَزَر khazar ‘Caspian’, a proper noun which is describing the word دریا daryā ‘sea’.)


5. The اضافۀ بُنُوَّت ezāfe-ye bonovvat ‘familial ezāfe’

This type of ezāfe expresses the relationship ‘child of parent’. It can also be called اضافۀ فرزندی ezāfe-ye farzandi. For example:


رستمِ زال

Rostam-e Zāl

‘Rostam [son] of Zāl’


6. The list continues…

There are more types of ezāfe classification which we will not delve into here. They are used for expressing more metaphorical and figurative language, and include: اضافۀ اقترانی ezāfe-ye eqterāni ‘conjunctive ezāfe’, اضافۀ استعاری ezāfe-ye este’āri ‘metaphorical ezāfe’, and اضافۀ تشبیهی ezāfe-ye tashbihi ‘comparative ezāfe’.


How do we write the ezāfe in Persian?

Most of the time the ezāfe is not written at all (much to the distress of a Persian learner!). However, as your competency in Persian increases over time, you will realise that you are able to intuitively guess where the ezāfes should be placed in a Persian sentence – the majority of the time anyway.


The good news is that after the long vowels ا ā and و u, the ezāfe is not only always clearly written using the letter ی –ye, but it is compulsory to do so. For example: 


عَموی من

Amu-ye man

‘My [paternal] uncle’


There are a few occasions when the ezāfe can be optionally added, mainly after a word ending in ـــه -e, such as خانه khāne ‘house’. There are different schools of thought on how these ezāfes should be written:


1) Using the ‘hamza’ diacritic ــۀ. Many Persian writers place a little ‘hamza’ ء above the final ــه -e. This diacritic is used because it looks a bit like a miniature version of the letter ی ye. For example: دانشکدۀ علوم dāneshkade-ye olum ‘faculty of sciences’.

2) Placing the letter ی ye directly after the word – but make sure that it is not joined (you need to use something called a ‘zero-width non-joiner’ to format it correctly). For example: دانشکده‌ی علوم dāneshkade-ye olum.

3) Just don’t bother. If in doubt, the safest option is probably to leave the ezāfe unmarked, and just write دانشکده‌ علوم dāneshkade-ye olum. Most of the time it is obvious from context: it’s a challenge at first but you will get better at spotting the ezāfe patterns!


Image by Ali Mousavi on Unsplash, 2021


What about compound nouns and adjectives?

There are two more things that we need to explain. The first is regarding the development of compound nouns such as کتابخانه ketāb-khāne ‘library’. In Persian grammar, it is stated that this type of compound is an inverted ezāfe, called اضافۀ مقلوب ezāfe-ye maqlub. Basically, the two nouns switched places and the ezāfe was lost:


خانۀ کتاب ← کتابخانه

Khāne-ye ketab → ketab-khāne


Another example would be:




‘Headache’, originating from دردِ سر dard-e sar ‘ache of the head’. 


Lastly, we need to talk about the ترکیبِ وَصفی tarkib-e vasfi ‘adjectival phrase’. These are very very common, in fact even the phrase tarkib-e vasfi is itself an example of an adjectival phrase. They consist of a noun, plus an adjective, or a noun plus a series of adjectives. However, these are not classified as an ezāfe construction in Persian grammar. We’ll give you some more examples of tarkib-e vasfi so you can recognise them more easily and distinguish them from the different types of ezāfe we have listed above:


گُلِ خوشبو 

Gol-e khoshbu

‘Sweet-smelling flower’


برگِ سبز

Barg-e sabz

‘Green leaf’


(In these examples, we still have a مُضاف mozāf ‘head’ and a مُضافٌ اِلَیه mozāfon elayh ‘dependant’. However, it is more common in Persian grammar to refer to the head as being a موصوف musuf and the dependant as being a صفت sefat ‘adjective’ when describing adjectival phrases.)


That’s all for this blog post! We’ve looked at the main ways in which ezāfe is analysed within Persian grammar. Stay tuned for part 2, where I will argue that there are potentially other ways of classifying ezāfe, aside from what we have just learned.


– Sam

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