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The Iranian Language Family

Middle Iranian Languages


 These include many languages which were spoken from the borders of China to the heart of the Fertile Crescent from the 3rd century BC to almost 10th century AD. The dominant language of this stage was initially Parthian (Pahlawanig) and later Middle Persian, a dialect of which was commonly known as "Pahlavi". It also included important languages of Central Asia, such as Sogdian, Khwarazmian, Bactrian, and Saka, which in time were replaced by either Persian or the languages of conquering Turkic tribes.

 Parthian rose in importance with the founding of the Parthian/Arsacid dynasty in the second century BC, who carved out a kingdom, and later an empire, for themselves from the former Achaemenid lands by Alexander. Parthian was the eastern most of the Western Iranian languages, a position that in many cases resulted in the preservation of archaisms, particularly in morphology. It was written in a script based on Aramaic and it incorporated heterograms[8]. Our main contemporary sources for studying the Parthian language are the few remaining inscriptions and ostraca from Nisa[9] and Hecatompilos[10]. However, a great portion of our available Parthian material comes from the early Sasanian period in form of Manichaean compositions and pieces such as the Parthian version of Shapur’s inscription, and as such represents a very late stage of this language. Manichaean texts used a special script reportedly created by Mani himself, and it did not use heterograms.

 Middle Persian was initially the language of the province of Pars (Persis), the heart of the Achaemenid (and later Sasanian) empires, and a semi-autonomous kingdom during the Parthian period. It represents a development of the Old Persian of the Achaemenid royal inscriptions or one of its close dialects. In 226 AD, Ardashir, the local ruler of Pars, deposed and replaced Artabanus IV (Parth. Artawan), the last Parthian Emperor, and founded the Sasanian Empire. The language of the new rulers, Middle Persian, thus became the dominant language of the empire. Much of our knowledge of Middle Persian comes from Zoroastrian exegesis written on the Avestan texts, as well as a few secular literary and sometimes historical-legendary pieces. These tended to preserve a highly stylised and conservative version of the language and as such, show little progress throughout the Sasanian times. However through grammatical and literary mistakes, we can get a glimpse into how the language was changing from Middle Persian to Classical New Persian. It seems that at least from the beginning of the sixth century AD, the spoken version of the language had already become what we know as the most archaic form of New Persian. At the same time, Middle Persian and all its archaisms survived as a literary language even after the fall of the Sasanians to the Muslims and well into the ninth century and possibly even later.

Middle Persian was written mainly in the Pahlavi alphabet, derived from Aramaic much like the Parthian script, and also integrated heterograms. Middle Persian documents written in the purpose-made Manichean script are of utmost importance for the study of the language.

 Due to avoidance of heterograms, Manichaean Middle Persian helps us understand much of the actual language, while its insistence on recording the common speech helps us learn much about how the language was used and pronounced.


8] Heterograms or hozwarish, are Middle Iranian ideograms, written in their original Aramaic form, but read and pronounced in their Parthian (also Middle Persian and Sogdian) forms. For example, the logogram BRA was read pus in Middle Persian, and written as BRY, was read as puhr in Parthian, both meaning son.

[9] The first Arsacid capital, near Ashkabad in present day Turkmenistan. It might have originally been called “Mithradatokrta”‌.

[10] Second capital of the Arsacids, which is located near the modern city of Damqan in Iran.



Other Links:

Eastern Iranian Languages: part 1

Eastern Iranian Languages: part 2

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