American who speaks 23 languages says Persian is his favorite

June 14, 2013

As Iranians head to the polls for today's presidential election and the world wonders whether the country will see a repeat of its contested 2009 election and subsequent mass protests, it's worth taking a break from Iran's complicated political and social issues to appreciate its language. Persian, also known as Farsi, is the country's official tongue and a member of the Indo-European language family.

Persian is also the favorite language of one the few people who has real authority when it comes to comparing languages: 17-year-old Tim Doner. A famous "hyperpolyglot," which means someone who can speak many languages, Doner says he knows 23. He recently appeared on an Australian morning news program, where the hosts asked him to pick his favorite, and he selected Persian without hesitation. Doner even recited a few lines from the celebrated 14th century Iranian poet Hafez, leaving the Australian anchors slightly stunned. (That's at about 1:30 into the above video.)

I can't verify the level of Doner's fluency, though some Farsi-speakers who I asked about the video said his pronunciation was good if slightly over-articulated, in the manner of someone who has learned a language but not used it much in conversation. A New York Times story on Doner from last year discussed some of the science behind hyperpolyglots and listed some of his languages: Arabic, Hebrew, French, Latin, Mandarin, Russian, Italian, Swahili, Indonesian, Hindi, Ojibwe (a Native American language), Pashto, Turkish, Hausa (spoken in West Africa), Kurdish, Yiddish, Dutch, Croatian and German.

So what makes Persian Doner's favorite? He doesn't say, but as someone who does not speak a word of it, I've long felt the same way. There's something wonderfully musical about the language. It's not hard to see how Persian culture would have developed such a reputation for poetry.

I'll leave you with this video of a native speaker, singer Faegheh Atashin (also known as "Googoosh"), who, with respect to Doner, does Farsi more justice.

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Max Fisher · June 14, 2013