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The official language of Iran is Persian, or Farsi, an Indo-European language which was spoken in the province of Fars, hence its name. Old Persian of the Achaemenid period was written in the cuneiform script. After the conquest of Alexander, Greek script became paramount. However, Aramaic as an international trade language of the middle East had already penetrated Iran in the Achaemenid period, and by the Sassanian period, gave the script for middle Persian, or Pahlavi.

The Arab invasions of the VIII century imposed the Arabic script, which has remained to this day. Words borrowed from Arabic are written in their original form, though may be pronounced slightly differently. However, Persian is not a Semitic language, and therefore has at least four consonants which require separate signs (zh, ch, g, p), which are regularly used in modern script, though were often ignored in medieval manuscripts. In the 1930s Reza Shah Pahlavi tried to 'purify' Farsi of Turkish and Arabic words on the lines of the Academie Francaise, but the Islamic Revolution has of course led to an increased emphasis on Arabic, the language of the Koran.

Only about 50% of Iranians speak Farsi as their mother tongue, though most can understand it and read it. While Farsi is the national language, other Iranian languages, such as Kurdish and Baluch, are also spoken in some regions. Arabic is spoken in Khuzestan, on the Iraqi border, Turkish Azeri in Azerbaijan and another Turkish language, Turkoman, in the northeast. Armenian is present in the Caucasian foothills and in the Esfahani enclave. The recent influx of Afghan refugees has seen an increase in Pushto. The tribal communities generally speak their own dialects, such as Lori or Bakhtiari, as well as Farsi. However, English is spoken in most hotels and in many shops in the main towns.

Other than Arabic (for Koranic studies), the other foreign language taught in schools is English, but older city dwellers may know some French or German. That said, travelling independently around Iran without a modicum of Farsi is extremely difficult and presumes on the good nature of Iranians. It is all too easy to miss an important notice or a spoken warning, and reap the consequences. Apart from road signs and the occasional tourist menu, very little information is given in any language other than Farsi.