Monday, April 23, 2012

On Learning Persian, Sabk-i Lambton

I'm in the midst of paper writing, for which I am terribly behind, but I wanted to share this from David Morgan's obituary for Ann K. S. Lambton. For readers of this blog, introductions are surely not necessary. I post this, I suppose, as part of a recurring theme of linguistic concerns. Also, I find it both hilarious and telling. Anyways, without further ado:

Her Persian language course was deservedly famous. By modern standards it was not pedagogically advanced – I have commented elsewhere that it is unlikely that the phrase “language laboratory” ever passed her lips. But for any student who could survive the course – not everyone did – it worked. It would, I suspect, be impossible to remove a basic knowledge of Persian from the brain of any graduate of the Lambton Persian course. In my 90th birthday lecture, I mentioned Michael Burrell's suggestion that there ought to be a Lambton Persian Course Survivors’ Club: it would have a club tie, the motif being Lambton's Persian Grammar, with blood dripping from it. She was visibly delighted with this idea. Many of the students who took the course were from the Foreign Office: usually young diplomats who were about to be posted to Tehran. The Independent's obituarist quoted a passage in James Bill's The Eagle and the Lion – a study of US-Iranian relations – in which the author contrasted the low level of Persian language competence among American diplomats in Iran in the 1970s with the much higher standard to be found among their British counterparts, and ascribed this to their rigorous training under Ann Lambton's tutelage, and to the exacting nature of the examinations they were required by her to pass. When I took the course, in 1970/1, I was one of five students. There was one undergraduate, a British Council official who was to go as its representative to Afghanistan, and two diplomats. The British Council man is notable as the only known Lambton Persian course survivor to have treated it as a rest cure (this was possible because of his superb command of Arabic, on which he was able to fall back whenever necessary). Of the diplomats, one eventually became British Ambassador to Iran, while the other ended his career as High Commissioner to Jamaica, where presumably he did not much use his Persian – though as it happens, he was not the only Lambton alumnus to serve in that capacity. At the end of the course, the four other students went off to their respective exams. “What about you?” she asked me. “Shall we set one for you?” I replied that I thought I had taken enough exams for one lifetime. “Quite right,” she said; and the subject was not referred to again. I have always supposed that the subtext to this was that Professor Lambton thought that she might make a reasonable historian of me, but was under no illusions about my abilities as a Persian linguist. The results of an examination would probably have been inconveniently embarrassing for all concerned. The language student she rated the best she had ever taught was a diplomat at the beginning of his career who took the course three years after I did. So far as I know, he is unaware that he holds this distinction (he is currently the British Ambassador in Paris).

The basic text, of course, was Lambton's Persian Grammar, first published in 1953: a standard teaching tool for several decades. It is still in print, though not as widely used as it once was; there are now some practical alternatives available. It was joined, in 1954, by her Persian Vocabulary, an immensely useful selective dictionary. The art teacher, biographer and art historian Wilfrid Blunt, who had a strong interest in Persia, took a term's sabbatical from Eton in 1956 to travel in the country, and in parts of Afghanistan. He was more or less, though not avowedly, retracing the steps of the journeys that Robert Byron had made two decades earlier, which resulted in that justly celebrated book The Road to Oxiana. Blunt's own extremely enjoyable travelogue, A Persian Spring, was published in 1957. He recounts how, on arrival in Isfahan, he was crippled by an attack of lumbago, and struggled to explain what was the matter. He sought the help of Lambton's Persian Vocabulary. “Miss Lambton,” he wrote, “must suffer from rude health: she gives no word for ‘lumbago,’ ‘rheumatism,’ ‘sciatica,’ or any of the complaints from which ordinary mortals suffer. Even ‘plague’ she refers to ‘pestilence,’ and many a victim may well have died before he could bring himself to make that extra effort. . . How gladly would one exchange ‘pigeon-fancier,’ ‘parasitologist’ or even ‘milch-cow’ for information of a more practical kind!” After reading Blunt's book, I asked her why she had not included the Persian word for lumbago. “Because there isn't one,” she replied. I might have known.

David Morgan, "Ann K. S. Lambton (1912-2008) and Persian Studies," Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 3rd series 21 (2011): pp. 103-4. 


  1. I had the good fortune to study under David Morgan at SOAS. He was (and probably still is) a delightful gossip, with innumerable fruity stories of orientalists high and low at his command. Oh, and he was a terrific teacher on the Mongols in Iran.

  2. Wow, that's quite incredible! Taking a course on the Ilkhans from David Morgan is like visiting the mothership! I can only imagine what a hoot he must have been at the end of year festivities. I sort of feel that Mongolists can't be dull.

    I was recently listening on itunes to Richard Bulliet's class on the history of Iran. It had a great deal more on animal domestication and agricultural development than I excepted!. Because it is based on recordings of his class at Columbia, he is very casual about it and recorded in it are juicy anecdotes about George Makdisi, Patricia Crone etc.,