Iskandar Ding: Tips for reading Classical Persian poetry 2 – What’s going on with rā?

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Iskandar Ding: Tips for reading Classical Persian poetry 2 – What’s going on with rā?

In my last blog post, I briefly mentioned that the Classical Persian را/ is different from the Modern Persian را/, in that its function as a dative marker has largely disappeared in the latter except in some instances. In Modern Persian, را/ is primarily an accusative marker, which signals the direct object when it is definite. As a revision, compare the two following sentences:

من سیب می‌خورم

Man sīb mīḫoram. ‘I eat apples.’ (i.e. I eat apples in general, hence no .)

من سیب را می‌خورم

Man sīb rā mīḫoram. ‘I (will) eat the apple.’ (i.e. I will eat this specific apple, hence .)

For those less familiar with linguistic terms, the apple here is the direct object, because the act of eating is done directly to it by the subject of eating, i.e ‘I’. In Classical Persian, however, را/, which came from the Middle Persian rāy ‘for, on account of’ (hence the Persian برای/barāy-e ‘for’), is very often used to mark the indirect object (i.e. a dative marker), like its Middle Persian counterpart. The indirect object is what an action is done to or for, e.g. in the sentence ‘He gave me a book’, ‘me’ is the indirect object, because the book was given ‘to’ me, or ‘for my sake’.

The indirect object in Modern Persian is usually preceded by the prepositions به/be ‘to’ (in classical pronunciation, ba) or برای/barāy-e ‘for’. In Classical Persian, however,  را/ frequently fulfils the function, which can sometimes confuse those who are accessing classical literature for the first time. Let us look at a few examples:

1. را/ as genitive-dative, or dative of possession.

As I mentioned in my last post on classical poetry, possession in Persian was traditionally expressed through the dative, i.e. ‘I have a brother’ would be ‘to me there is a brother’, and by extension, ‘my brother’ would be ‘the brother to me’. This construction uses  را/ to mark the possessor and is seen with high frequency in Classical Persian poetry and prose:

هر چند که رنگ و بوی زیباست مرا
چو لاله رخ و چو سرو بالاست مرا

معلوم نشد که در طربخانه خاک
نقاش ازل بهر چه آراست مرا

Harčand ki rang u bō-yi zēbā’st ma
Čō lāla ruḫ u čo sarv-i bālā’st ma

Maʾlūm našud ki dar ṭarabḫāna-i ḫāk
Naqqāš-i azal bahr-i či ārāst ma

Although my appearance is pretty (lit. ‘I have pretty colour and smell’)
My cheeks are like tulips, and my [stature] is a tall cypress

It has not been clear why, in the earthly pleasure-dome,
The Eternal Painter has adorned me such.’

– Khayyam

This beautiful rubāʿī perfectly exemplifies the use of  را/ both as the dative marker (in the first two lines, expressing possession) and the accusative marker (in the last line).

Let us look at a less ‘obvious’ example from Sa’di’s Gulistān:

…عابدی را حکایت کنند که

The story is told of an ascetic, who…’ (lit. ‘They tell an ascetic’s story, who…’)

Here, the story belongs to the ascetic, and the relation is expressed through  را/.

2. را/ as dative for emotion and physical condition.

I also mentioned in the last post that emotion and physical condition are often expressed in Persian by the dative, in the form of affixed pronouns. The affixed pronoun, in fact, is equivalent to the ‘full’ pronoun + را/, both in the accusative and the dative. This use of  را/ is more productive in Classical Persian than in Modern Persian, e.g.

هر که را طاوس باید جور هندستان کشد
هر که را محبوب باید کنده و زندان کشد

Har ki  ṭāvus bāyad jawr-i Hindustān kašad
Har ki  maḥbūb bāyad kunda u zindān kašad

‘Anyone who wants a peacock must endure the hardship of India (i.e. a journey to India)
Anyone who wants a lover must endure fetters and prison’

– Sa’di

Here, the dative  را/ expressed desire, which is an emotion. Of course, this couplet could be understood also as:

Har ki  ṭāvus bāyad, jawr-i Hindustān kašad
Har ki  maḥbūb bāyad, kunda u zindān kašad

The translation of which would then be:

‘Anyone in need of a peacock, may he endure the hardship of India/endures the hardship of India
Anyone in need of a lover, may he endure fetters and prison/endures fetters and prison’

(The present tense without می/– can either be the optative ‘may…’ or a statement of a universal truth, hence the two translations.)

… which is the use of  را/ as the marker of the ‘real’ dative, i.e. ‘to, for’, and this brings us to the third point.

3. را/ as the marker of the ‘real’ dative.

From the point of view of English, the ‘real’ dative is what can be translated using the prepositions ‘to’ or ‘for’. This is seen in Classical Persian with defective verbs such as بایستن/bāyistan ‘to be necessary for’ and شایستن/šāyistan ‘to be fitting to’, as shown by the example above and in my previous post, and also more commonly with verbs that require an indirect object, such as ‘to say, to tell’ or ‘to give’. In fact, this has been preserved in many instances in Modern Persian. The expression خدا را شکر/H̱udā  šukr ‘Thank God’, which literally translates to ‘to God [be] thank’, is a good example. Afghans still commonly say مرا گفت/ma guft ‘he/she said to me’, او را گفتم/ū guftam ‘I said to him’ etc. (in fact, in colloquial Afghan Persian, the را/ here is shortened to ره/ra), with را/ marking the indirect object of ‘saying’. In Iranian Persian (and all Persain varieties), compound verbs with the auxiliary دادن/dādan ‘to give’, which are now treated as verbs with direct objects, are semantically verbs with indirect objects (consider the original meaning of the auxiliary verb ‘to give’), and the indirect object is marked by را/. For example, را ادامه دادن/…  idāma dādan (in Iranian Persian pronunciation: edāme dādan) literally translates, according to classical grammar, ‘to give continuation to…’ rather than simply ‘to continue…’, and را تغییر دادن/…  taghyīr dādan is literally ‘to give change to…’ rather than simply ‘to change…’. Sa’di has:

چون در آواز آمد آن بربط‌‌سرای
کدخدا را گفتم از بهر خدای

Čōn dar āvāz āmad ān barbaṭ-sarāyī
Kad-ḫudā  guftam az bahr-i H̱udāyī

‘As the lute player started to sing
I said to the host, ‘For God’s sake!’

4. The construction مر…را/mar… rā.

What has not been preserved in Modern Persian is the construction with the particle مر/mar which, together with را/, forms a circumposition that has exactly the same functions as را/ used alone. This construction is not as frequent as را/ used alone, but is by no means rare:

  • As dative of possession:

مر او را خرد نی و تیمار نی
به شوخیش اندر جهان یار نی

Mar ū ḫirad nē u tīmar nē
Ba šōḫīš andar jahān yār nē

‘He has no intellect or sympathy
No one in the world likes his impudence’

– Abu Shukur-i Balkhi

  • As marker of accusative (direct object):

ز گیتی مر او را ستایش کنید
شب و روز او را نیایش کنید

Zi gētī mar ū sitāyiš kunēd
Šab u rōz ūrā niyāyiš kunēd

‘Praise him from the world
Worship him day and night’

– Firdawsi

  • As ‘real’ dative:

آستین بگرفتمش گفتم به مهمان من آی
مر مرا گفتا به تازی مورد و انجیر و کلوخ

Āstīn bigriftamaš guftam ba mihmān-i man āy
Mar ma guftā ba tāzī mōrd u anjīr u kulūḫ

‘I grabbed him by the sleeve and said, “Come and be my guest”
He replied to me, in Arabic, ‘Myrtle, fig, and dried clay.’

– Rudaki

To sum up, we have seen, briefly, how the particle را/ can be used as the dative, i.e. the indirect object, marker. Persian learners who are not familiar with classical grammar should bear this in mind and consider understanding را/ either as ‘to, for’ or as the marker of the possessor, equivalent to the English ” ’s “. را/ can be used together with the particle مر/mar, which forms with it a circumposition that has exactly the same meaning as when it is used on its own.

[image: opening of Sa’di’s Gulistan from 15th/16th century manuscript with notes and annotations, source:]

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