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The Iranian Language Family

Old Iranian Languages

part 1


The Iranian Language Family is part of the Indo-Iranian (or Aryan[1] ) language group, itself the major eastern branch of the Indo-European languages. Comparative linguistic suggests a common ancestor for the Indo-Aryan languages of Northern India[2] and the Iranian Languages. This common ancestor, known scientifically as Indo-Iranian is not attested in any form, oral or inscribed. However, with the comparative study of the earliest forms of Indo-Aryan and Iranian languages, Vedic Sanskrit and Gathic Avestan respectively, a conclusion on its possible form can be reached.  

Following a grand migration from their Central Asian homeland, large groups of Iranian tribes settled in various regions of the Iranian Plateau[3] while others continued to follow a nomadic life-style in the Eurasian Steppe. Our reconstruction of their shared characteristics (largely in form of their languages) shows that each of these tribes shaped their own respective dialects of the original Iranian language and in time, created the distinct languages grouped together as the Iranian Language Family (ILF). In this process, the languages of the earliest tribes to settle in the Iranian Plateau (Medes, Parthians, and Persians) came to form the “Western Iranian”‌ branch of this family, while the languages of most of the nomadic tribes and a few who settled in Central Asia are categorised as “Eastern Iranian”‌. The latter is often most characterised by more conservative features in terms of both grammar and phonology. Linguists have further divided the Iranian languages into three stages, Old Iranian, Middle Iranian, and New Iranian[4].


 Old Iranian Languages


This stage includes all of the Iranian languages from their earliest stages until roughly 300 BCE. The only language of this stage from which contemporary written examples are available is Old Persian.

 Compositions in Avestan, another language of this stage, were transmitted orally for many years and written down only during the Sasanian period (224-632 AD) or possibly earlier, although most likely in a fragmentary manner. A major language of the period, Old Median, has so far rendered no written evidence and this is unlikely to change. Of the existence of Old Sogdian or Old Parthian we only know through a process of deduction from their known Middle Iranian forms.

 Old Persian was the native language of the Achaemenid Emperors and at least one of the official languages of their empire. It can be studied from the inscriptions of the Achaemenid kings such as the grand inscription of Darius the Great in Behistun, where the name of the language is given as Aria-, an obvious choice based on the common use of the designation both among the Indic and Iranian branches. Like other Iranian languages, Old Persian did not initially possess a writing system. After the organisation of the Empire under the leadership of Darius the Great in the late 6th century BCE, the need for a native writing system became apparent. At this time, Old Persian cuneiform, based graphically on Elamite cuneiform but incorporating the alphabetic system of Aramaic[5], was created. The Old Persian cuneiform was used exclusively for writing royal inscriptions and no example of its everyday use has been found, other than a few cases for seal inscriptions. For administrative purposes, Achaemenid emperors first used Neo-Elamite, soon replacing it with the Aramaic script and language, making it in effect the lingua franca of their vast empire, at least for the first half of its existence[6]. The few words we know from Old Median and Old Saka (mostly names and titles) are available through Old Persian inscriptions.

 Avestan is the other Old Iranian language from which sufficient evidence is available. Avestan is the name given to the language since the Avesta, the sacred book of Zoroastrianism, was composed in it, while the native name of the language is unknown. Avestan belongs to the Eastern branch of Iranian languages and the only language of this stage of Eastern Iranian known to us, apart from a few Saka words.


[1] Aryan from Ariia-, the name with which the author(s) of Rig Veda and Avesta called themselves. Early Indo-Europeanists mistakenly used the term for the entire Indo-European languages. Today Aryan is used only as an alternative to the scientific term Indo-Iranian.

[2] Non-Dravidian languages of the Indian subcontinen

[3] The date of this movement is not universally agreed upon. Archaeological evidence suggest a period between 1600 to 1000 BCE. Some of the Iranian tribes, such as the Sakas, continued to live a nomadic life and eventually controlled all of the steppes of southern Siberia and northern Black Sea. Others settled in close proximity to the original Iranian homeland in Transoxiana.

[4] With a subdivision of early or Classical New Persian.

[5] Semitic language of the Aramaic people whose writing system itself was developed from the Phoenician alphabet.

[6] The efficiency and ease of writing Aramaic and its use of ink and parchment, as opposed to mud-brick for cuneiform, encouraged the Achaemenid administration to use it as the administrative language of the empire. This also had a root in the already established position of the Aramaic (in form of Imperial Aramaic) in the Near East as the administrative language of previous empires such as that of the Assyrians.  Usually, an Achaemenid administrator dictated a correspondence in his language to a scribe. The scribe would then translate and write the letter in Aramaic. In turn, the addressee would also employ the services of a scribe, who translated and read the letter from Aramaic to the native language of the administrator.



Other Links:

Eastern Iranian Languages: part 1

Eastern Iranian Languages: part 2

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