Secretaries, Poets and the Literary Language
The formal, written, courtly language of the Persian-using courts, at least up to the 13th or early 14th century, was created and developed as result of the dynamic interaction of the work of the secretaries and the poets, with an increasingly important contribution from the lexicographers.
Poets and secretaries interacted with each other in their work and in their social life, and with other adibs (cultivated men of letters) in the intellectual and artistic circles of the courts. Many secretaries wrote divans of poetry in Persian and Arabic in addition to their official prose. Poets, on the other hand, knew the epistolary terminology and style and wrote letters in verse, even saying that they were letters. In their ease with, and mastery of, the written language, poets and secretaries borrowed devices of language and meaning freely from each other or from the common pool. They also shared a literary form, the tripartite structure of many qasidas.
The early Persian courts provided the setting or the matrix from which emerged a written language that became standard throughout the Persianate world, which later included the Ottoman court, many Central Asian courts, and the Mughal courts of the Indian subcontinent.
Many aspects of formal written Persian and its history need to be isolated and examined before we can begin to see more clearly the reasons and implications of its stability and seeming resistance to change over a millennium.
The main source of written Persian from the 7th to the early 10th century CE, the period from which the earliest written texts survive, was the courts of sovereigns and provincial officials where the work of governing was carried out, and particularly the chancelleries of these courts, where there was the
greatest concentration of educated, literate men and the greatest need for a standard written language.
Broadly speaking, the courts remained the main source of written Persian at least until the end of the Seljuk Period (1038-1194 CE), when Sufi establishments and the schools called Nezamiyeh began to play a more significant role in the production and standardization of written Persian.
The courts of the Persianate world, from the Sassanid Period onward, were the milieux of the ahl-e qalam (men of the pen), or the literati. The literati comprised all those who used written, formal Persian in the course of their professional work and, in many cases, in their leisure-time activities as well.
They would have been the viziers, other administrators and bureaucrats, secretaries and scribes, poets, accountants, historians and chroniclers, jurisprudents, lexicographers, other scholars and adibs. The core of the literati were the secretaries — the munshis, dabirs, or katibs — for it was they who were most instrumental in the transition in the use of Pahlavi in the pre-Islamic courts to the use of Arabic and then New Persian in the Islamic courts.
They were also the transmitters of the bureaucratic and administrative skills and traditions from the Zoroastrian regime of the Sassanid’s to the regimes of the Muslim rulers.
Munshi retained its basic meaning of “secretary” throughout the Persianate world until at least the 18th century, occasionally being used to mean “author,” as it was by the Ilkhanid-period ruler Muhammad Zangi Bukhari.
In Persian-using South Asia, the meaning of munshi began to evolve during the18th century and gradually assumed the sense of “translator” or “language teacher” in addition to its more traditional sense of “secretary.” In Ottoman lands, the function of translator came to be filled not by the munshi but by the dragoman. From among the literati, the two groups at court most involved with the written language were the secretaries and the poets.
The above is a lightly edited version of a part of a chapter entitled, “Secretaries, Poets, and the Literary Language”, from a book entitled, ‘Literacy in the Persianate
World’, edited by Brian Spooner and William L. Hanaway, published by University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia.