John Perry was born in Britain and educated at Cambridge University (Pembroke College), where in 1970 he was awarded a Ph.D in Oriental Studies (Arabic and Persian). During summer vacations he hitchhiked to Egypt and to Iran, and in 1964-65 spent a year studying Persian at Tehran University. He has conducted research in Iran, Iraq (including Kurdistan), Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Tajikistan, and traveled the Karakoram Highway to Kashgar. He taught in the Arabic Studies Department at St. Andrews University, Scotland (1968 - 1972) before coming to Chicago. His teaching at Chicago has included courses on Middle Eastern literature in translation and Islamic Civilization as well as Persian (and Tajik) language and literature.
His earlier research focused on the history of eighteenth-century Iran and adjacent regions. He concentrates currently on the history of the Persian language, and in particular the mechanisms of the incorporation of Arabic vocabulary into Persian and its dissemination into other languages of the region. Other interests include Iranian folklore and vernacular culture, and the language and cultural history of Tajikistan.