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The Iranian Language Family

Old Iranian Languages

part 2


Avestan is often divided into two (or sometimes three) stages, based on the philological study of the various texts. The earliest stage, often called Old Avestan or Gathic, consists of the 17 poems of the Gathas and the devotional piece known as Yasna Haptanghaiti, both currently forming the central part of the Avestan hymn corpus known as the Yasna (“devotional hymns”‌). It is commonly believed that Zarathushtra (Zoroaster)[7] himself composed the Gathas, while the latter parts were composed during a span of time that might have lasted until the 4th century AD, reflecting the changes in the language. The Old Avestan is closely related to Vedic Sanskrit, to the point that the grammar and even stylistic features of the two languages often match and resemble each other. It has been dated, mainly through comparative philology, to the period between 1,300 and 1,000 BCE.

 The second stage of Avestan is known as Younger Avestan (YAv.) which represents a later development of the language and might have been a living language down to the seventh century BC.  The largest bulk of the Avesta is written in this language, including the rest of the Yasnas, the Yashts, and parts of the lesser known book of Visperad. Despite their late date, parts of the Young Avestan texts, including the Hom Yasht (“the hymn to Haoma”‌) are thought to be based on pre-Zoroastrian compositions in honour of various deities, and thus reflecting a stage of Iranian religion prior to Zarathushtra.

Scholars sometimes suggest the existence of another stage of the Avestan language, often labelled the “pseudo-Young Avestan”‌.

This is assumed to be the language used for the composition of the Vidaevdat (“Anti-Demonic Law”‌), an important part of the Avestan corpus and often the basis of much of Zoroastrian ritual practice. The corrupted grammar and morphology of the text, as well as its obvious attempts at archaism seems to betray it as a very late text, maybe even post fourth century BC, when the Avestan language itself was effectively dead and out of use as a spoken language. 

It is widely accepted that due to the Indo-Iranian oral tradition, the contents of the Avesta were carried orally through the ages. This was done by the priests who spent long periods of time memorising every verse of their holy book using special mnemonic techniques. From the testimony of the Avesta itself, we know that at least parts of it were written down in various scripts during the later Parthian period (probably first century AD), and possibly even earlier. However, a final compiling of the sacred texts took place under the Sasanians (226-632 AD), using an alphabet based on the Pahlavi script, but carefully constructed for a very accurate representation of the sounds of the Avestan language.


[7] Zarathushtra is often considered to be living in the second half of the second millennium BC among nomadic Iranian tribes of Central Asia.



Other Links:

Eastern Iranian Languages: part 1

Eastern Iranian Languages: part 2

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