Old Persian language

Old Persian language

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The Old Persian language is one of the two directly attested Old Iranian languages
Iranian languages
The Iranian languages form a subfamily of the Indo-Iranian languages which in turn is a subgroup of Indo-European language family. They have been and are spoken by Iranian peoples....

 (the other being Avestan
Avestan language
Avestan is an East Iranian language known only from its use as the language of Zoroastrian scripture, i.e. the Avesta, from which it derives its name...

). Old Persian appears primarily in the inscriptions, clay tablet
Clay tablet
In the Ancient Near East, clay tablets were used as a writing medium, especially for writing in cuneiform, throughout the Bronze Age and well into the Iron Age....

s, and seal
Seal (device)
A seal can be a figure impressed in wax, clay, or some other medium, or embossed on paper, with the purpose of authenticating a document ; but the term can also mean the device for making such impressions, being essentially a mould with the mirror image of the design carved in sunken- relief or...

s of the Achaemenid era (c. 600 BCE to 300 BCE). Examples of Old Persian have been found in what is now present-day Iran
Iran
Iran , officially the Islamic Republic of Iran , is a country in Southern and Western Asia. The name "Iran" has been in use natively since the Sassanian era and came into use internationally in 1935, before which the country was known to the Western world as Persia...

, Iraq
Iraq
Iraq ; officially the Republic of Iraq is a country in Western Asia spanning most of the northwestern end of the Zagros mountain range, the eastern part of the Syrian Desert and the northern part of the Arabian Desert....

, Turkey
Turkey
Turkey , known officially as the Republic of Turkey , is a Eurasian country located in Western Asia and in East Thrace in Southeastern Europe...

 and Egypt
Egypt
Egypt , officially the Arab Republic of Egypt, Arabic: , is a country mainly in North Africa, with the Sinai Peninsula forming a land bridge in Southwest Asia. Egypt is thus a transcontinental country, and a major power in Africa, the Mediterranean Basin, the Middle East and the Muslim world...

 the most important attestation by far being the contents of the Behistun Inscription
Behistun Inscription
The Behistun Inscription The Behistun Inscription The Behistun Inscription (also Bistun or Bisutun, Modern Persian: بیستون The Behistun Inscription (also Bistun or Bisutun, Modern Persian: بیستون...

 (dated to 525 BCE). Recent research into the vast Persepolis
Persepolis
Perspolis was the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire . Persepolis is situated northeast of the modern city of Shiraz in the Fars Province of modern Iran. In contemporary Persian, the site is known as Takht-e Jamshid...

 Fortification Archive at the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago
University of Chicago
The University of Chicago is a private research university in Chicago, Illinois, USA. It was founded by the American Baptist Education Society with a donation from oil magnate and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller and incorporated in 1890...

 have unearthed Old Persian tablets (2007). This new text shows that the Old Persian language was a written language in use for practical recording and not only for royal display.

Origin and overview


As a written language, Old Persian is attested in royal Achaemenid
Achaemenid Empire
The Achaemenid Empire , sometimes known as First Persian Empire and/or Persian Empire, was founded in the 6th century BCE by Cyrus the Great who overthrew the Median confederation...

 inscriptions. It is an Iranian language and as such a member of the Indo-Iranian
Indo-Iranian languages
The Indo-Iranian language group constitutes the easternmost extant branch of the Indo-European family of languages. It consists of three language groups: the Indo-Aryan, Iranian and Nuristani...

 branch of the Indo-European
Indo-European languages
The Indo-European languages are a family of several hundred related languages and dialects, including most major current languages of Europe, the Iranian plateau, and South Asia and also historically predominant in Anatolia...

 language family. The oldest known text written in Old Persian is from the Behistun Inscription
Behistun Inscription
The Behistun Inscription The Behistun Inscription The Behistun Inscription (also Bistun or Bisutun, Modern Persian: بیستون The Behistun Inscription (also Bistun or Bisutun, Modern Persian: بیستون...

s. Old Persian is one of the oldest Indo-European languages which is attested in original texts.

The oldest date of use of Old Persian as a spoken language is not precisely known. According to certain historical assumptions about the early history and origin of ancient Persians in south-western Iran (where Achaemenids hailed from), Old Persian was originally spoken by a tribe called Parsuwash who arrived in the Iranian Plateau early in the 1st millennium BCE and finally migrated down into the area of present day Fārs province and their language, i.e. Old Persian, became the official language of the Achaemenid kings. Assyrian records, which in fact provide the earliest evidence for ancient Iranians (Persian and Median) presence on the Iranian Plateau, give a good chronology but only an approximate geographical indication of ancient Persians. In these records of the 9th century BCE, Parsuwash (along with Matai of Median) are first mentioned in the area of Lake Urmia
Lake Urmia
Lake Urmia , ancient name: Lake Matiene) is a salt lake in northwestern Iran, near Iran's border with Turkey. The lake is between the Iranian provinces of East Azerbaijan and West Azerbaijan, west of the southern portion of the similarly shaped Caspian Sea...

  in the records of Shalmaneser III. The exact identity of the Parsuwash is yet to be determined but from a linguistic viewpoint the word matches Old Persian pārsa itself coming directly from the older word *pārćwa. Also as Old Persian contains many words from another extinct Iranian language, Median
Median language
The Median language was the language of the Medes. It is an Old Iranian language and classified as belonging to the northwestern Iranian subfamily which includes many other languages such as Azari, Zazaki, Gilaki, Mazandarani, Kurdish and Baluchi.-Attestation:Median is only attested by numerous...

, according to P. O. Skjærvø it is probable that Old Persian had already been spoken before formation of the Achaemenid Empire and during most of the first half of the first millennium BCE.

Classification



Old Persian belongs to the Iranian language family
Iranian languages
The Iranian languages form a subfamily of the Indo-Iranian languages which in turn is a subgroup of Indo-European language family. They have been and are spoken by Iranian peoples....

 which is a branch of the Indo-Iranian language family, and is sibling to another branch called Indic languages. Indo-Iranian languages is itself within the large family of Indo-European languages
Indo-European languages
The Indo-European languages are a family of several hundred related languages and dialects, including most major current languages of Europe, the Iranian plateau, and South Asia and also historically predominant in Anatolia...

. The common ancestors of Indo-Iranians came from Central Asia sometime in the first half of the 2nd millennium BCE. The extinct and unattested Median language
Median language
The Median language was the language of the Medes. It is an Old Iranian language and classified as belonging to the northwestern Iranian subfamily which includes many other languages such as Azari, Zazaki, Gilaki, Mazandarani, Kurdish and Baluchi.-Attestation:Median is only attested by numerous...

 is another Old Iranian language related to Old Persian (e.g. both are classified as Western Iranian languages
Western Iranian languages
The Western Iranian languages are a subgroup of the Iranian languages, attested from the time of Old Persian .The two sub-branches are:*Northwestern Iranian languages*Southwestern Iranian languages...

 and many Median names appeared in Old Persian texts) The group of Old Iranian languages was presumably a large group; however our knowledge of it is restricted mainly to Old Persian, Avestan and Median. The former are the only languages in that group which have left written original texts while Median is known mostly from loanword
Loanword
A loanword is a word borrowed from a donor language and incorporated into a recipient language. By contrast, a calque or loan translation is a related concept where the meaning or idiom is borrowed rather than the lexical item itself. The word loanword is itself a calque of the German Lehnwort,...

s in Old Persian.

Language evolution


By the 4th century, the late Achaemenid period, the inscriptions of Artaxerxes II and Artaxerxes III differ enough from the language of Darius' inscriptions to be called a "pre-Middle Persian," or "post-Old Persian." Old Persian subsequently evolved into Middle Persian
Middle Persian
Middle Persian , indigenously known as "Pârsig" sometimes referred to as Pahlavi or Pehlevi, is the Middle Iranian language/ethnolect of Southwestern Iran that during Sassanid times became a prestige dialect and so came to be spoken in other regions as well. Middle Persian is classified as a...

, which is in turn the genetic ancestor of New Persian.
Professor Gilbert Lazard, a famous Iranologist and the author of the book Persian Grammar states:
The language known as New Persian, which usually is called at this period (early Islamic times) by the name of Parsi-Dari, can be classified linguistically as a continuation of Middle Persian, the official religious and literary language of Sassanian Iran, itself a continuation of Old Persian, the language of the Achaemenids. Unlike the other languages and dialects, ancient and modern, of the Iranian group such as Avestan, Parthia
Parthia
Parthia is a region of north-eastern Iran, best known for having been the political and cultural base of the Arsacid dynasty, rulers of the Parthian Empire....

n, Soghdian, Kurdish
Kurdish people
The Kurdish people, or Kurds , are an Iranian people native to the Middle East, mostly inhabiting a region known as Kurdistan, which includes adjacent parts of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey...

, Pashto, etc., Old, Middle
Middle Persian
Middle Persian , indigenously known as "Pârsig" sometimes referred to as Pahlavi or Pehlevi, is the Middle Iranian language/ethnolect of Southwestern Iran that during Sassanid times became a prestige dialect and so came to be spoken in other regions as well. Middle Persian is classified as a...

 and New Persian
Persian language
Persian is an Iranian language within the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European languages. It is primarily spoken in Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and countries which historically came under Persian influence...

 represent one and the same language at three states of its history. It had its origin in Fars  and is differentiated by dialectical features, still easily recognizable from the dialect prevailing in north-western and eastern Iran.


Middle Persian, also sometimes called Pahlavi is a direct continuation of old Persian, and was used as the written official language of the country.
Comparison of the evolution at each stage of the language shows great simplification in grammar and syntax. However, New Persian is a direct descendent of Middle and Old Persian.

Substrates


Old Persian "presumably" has a Median language
Median language
The Median language was the language of the Medes. It is an Old Iranian language and classified as belonging to the northwestern Iranian subfamily which includes many other languages such as Azari, Zazaki, Gilaki, Mazandarani, Kurdish and Baluchi.-Attestation:Median is only attested by numerous...

 substrate
Substratum
In linguistics, a stratum or strate is a language that influences, or is influenced by another through contact. A substratum is a language which has lower power or prestige than another, while a superstratum is the language that has higher power or prestige. Both substratum and superstratum...

. The Median element is readily identifiable because it did not share in the developments that were peculiar to Old Persian. Median forms "are found only in personal or geographical names [...] and some are typically from religious vocabulary and so could in principle also be influenced by Avestan." "Sometimes, both Median and Old Persian forms are found, which gave Old Persian a somewhat confusing and inconsistent look: 'horse,' for instance, is [attested in Old Persian as] both asa (OPers.) and aspa (Med.)."

Script



Old Persian texts were written from left to right in the syllabic Old Persian cuneiform script and had 36 phonetic characters and 8 logograms. The usage of such characters are not obligatory. The script was surprisingly not a result of evolution of the script used in the nearby civilisation of Mesopotamia. Despite the fact that Old Persian was written in cuneiform script, the script was not a direct continuation of Mesopotamian tradition and in fact, according to Schmitt, was a "deliberate creation of the sixth century BCE".

The origin of the Old Persian cuneiform script and the identification of the date and process of introduction is a matter of discussion among Iranian scholars without general agreement being reached. The factors making the decision difficult are, among others, the difficult passage DB
Behistun Inscription
The Behistun Inscription The Behistun Inscription The Behistun Inscription (also Bistun or Bisutun, Modern Persian: بیستون The Behistun Inscription (also Bistun or Bisutun, Modern Persian: بیستون...

 (IV lines 88–92) from Darius the Great who speaks of a new “form of writing” being made by himself which is said to be “in Aryan
Iranian languages
The Iranian languages form a subfamily of the Indo-Iranian languages which in turn is a subgroup of Indo-European language family. They have been and are spoken by Iranian peoples....

”, and analysis of certain Old Persian inscriptions that are "supposed or claimed" to predate Darius the Great. Although it is true that the oldest attested OP inscriptions are from Behistun monument from Darius, the creation of this "new type of writing" is seemingly, according to Schmitt, "to have begun already under Cyrus the Great
Cyrus the Great
Cyrus II of Persia , commonly known as Cyrus the Great, also known as Cyrus the Elder, was the founder of the Achaemenid Empire. Under his rule, the empire embraced all the previous civilized states of the ancient Near East, expanded vastly and eventually conquered most of Southwest Asia and much...

".

The script shows a few changes in the shape of characters during the period it was used. This can be seen as a standardization of the heights of wedges which in the beginning (i.e. in DB
Behistun Inscription
The Behistun Inscription The Behistun Inscription The Behistun Inscription (also Bistun or Bisutun, Modern Persian: بیستون The Behistun Inscription (also Bistun or Bisutun, Modern Persian: بیستون...

) took only half the height of a line.

Phonology


The following phonemes are expressed in the Old Persian script:

Vowels
  • Long: /aː/ /iː/ /uː/
  • Short: /a/ /i/ /u/


Consonants
  Labial
Labial consonant
Labial consonants are consonants in which one or both lips are the active articulator. This precludes linguolabials, in which the tip of the tongue reaches for the posterior side of the upper lip and which are considered coronals...

Dental/
Alveolar
Alveolar consonant
Alveolar consonants are articulated with the tongue against or close to the superior alveolar ridge, which is called that because it contains the alveoli of the superior teeth...

Palatal
Palatal consonant
Palatal consonants are consonants articulated with the body of the tongue raised against the hard palate...

Velar
Velar consonant
Velars are consonants articulated with the back part of the tongue against the soft palate, the back part of the roof of the mouth, known also as the velum)....

Glottal
Glottal consonant
Glottal consonants, also called laryngeal consonants, are consonants articulated with the glottis. Many phoneticians consider them, or at least the so-called fricative, to be transitional states of the glottis without a point of articulation as other consonants have; in fact, some do not consider...

Plosive p /p/ b /b/ t /t/ d /d/ c /c/ j /ɟ/ k /k/ g /ɡ/    
Nasal
Nasal consonant
A nasal consonant is a type of consonant produced with a lowered velum in the mouth, allowing air to escape freely through the nose. Examples of nasal consonants in English are and , in words such as nose and mouth.- Definition :...

  m /m/   n /n/            
Fricative
Fricative consonant
Fricatives are consonants produced by forcing air through a narrow channel made by placing two articulators close together. These may be the lower lip against the upper teeth, in the case of ; the back of the tongue against the soft palate, in the case of German , the final consonant of Bach; or...

f /f/   θ /θ/   ç /ç/ x /x/   h /h/  
Sibilant
Sibilant consonant
A sibilant is a manner of articulation of fricative and affricate consonants, made by directing a stream of air with the tongue towards the sharp edge of the teeth, which are held close together. Examples of sibilants are the consonants at the beginning of the English words sip, zip, ship, chip,...

    s /s/ z /z/ š /ʃ/          
Rhotic
Rhotic consonant
In phonetics, rhotic consonants, also called tremulants or "R-like" sounds, are liquid consonants that are traditionally represented orthographically by symbols derived from the Greek letter rho, including "R, r" from the Roman alphabet and "Р, p" from the Cyrillic alphabet...

      r /r/            
Lateral
Lateral consonant
A lateral is an el-like consonant, in which airstream proceeds along the sides of the tongue, but is blocked by the tongue from going through the middle of the mouth....

      l /l/            
Approximant
Approximant consonant
Approximants are speech sounds that involve the articulators approaching each other but not narrowly enough or with enough articulatory precision to create turbulent airflow. Therefore, approximants fall between fricatives, which do produce a turbulent airstream, and vowels, which produce no...

  v /ʋ/       y /j/        

Nouns


Old Persian stems:
  • a-stems (-a, -am, -ā)
  • i-stems (-iš, iy)
  • u- (and au-) stems (-uš, -uv)
  • consonantal stems (n, r, h)

-a -am
Singular Dual Plural Singular Dual Plural Singular Dual Plural
Nominative -a -ā, -āha -am
Vocative
Accusative -am -ām
Instrumental/
Ablative
-aibiyā -aibiš
-aibiyā -aibiš -āyā -ābiyā -ābiš
Dative -ahyā, -ahya -ahyā, -ahya
Genitive -āyā -ānām -āyā -ānām -āyā -ānām
Locative -aiy -aišuvā -aiy -aišuvā -āšuvā

-iš -iy -uš -uv
Singular Dual Plural Singular Dual Plural Singular Dual Plural Singular Dual Plural
Nominative -iš -īy -iya -iy -in -īn -uš -ūv -uva -uv -un -ūn
Vocative -i -u
Accusative -im -iš -um -ūn
Instrumental/
Ablative
-auš -ībiyā -ībiš -auš -ībiyā -ībiš -auv -ūbiyā -ūbiš -auv -ūbiyā -ūbiš
Dative -aiš -aiš -auš -auš
Genitive -īyā -īnām -īyā -īnām -ūvā -ūnām -ūvā -ūnām
Locative -auv -išuvā -auv -išuvā -āvā -ušuvā -āvā -ušuvā


Adjectives are declinable in similar way.

Verbs


Voices

Active, Middle (them. pres. -aiy-, -ataiy-), Passive (-ya-).

Mostly the forms of first and third persons are attested. The only preserved Dual form is ajīvatam 'both lived'.
Present, Active
Athematic Thematic
'be' 'bring'
Sg. 1.pers. aʰmiy barāmiy
3.pers. astiy baratiy
Pl. 1.pers. aʰmahiy barāmahiy
3.pers. hatiy baratiy

Imperfect, Active
Athematic Thematic
'do, make' 'be, become'
Sg. 1.pers. akunavam abavam
3.pers. akunauš abava
Pl. 1.pers. akumā abavāmā
3.pers. akunava abava

Present participle
Active Middle
-nt- -amna-

Past participle
-ta-

Infinitive
-tanaiy

Lexicon

Proto-Indo-Iranian  Old Persian Middle Persian Modern Persian meaning
*asuras mazdhās Ahuramazda Ohrmazd Ormazd اورمزد Ahura Mazda
Ahura Mazda
Ahura Mazdā is the Avestan name for a divinity of the Old Iranian religion who was proclaimed the uncreated God by Zoroaster, the founder of Zoroastrianism...

*aśwas
Ashva
Aśvaḥ is the Sanskrit word for a "horse", one of the significant animals finding references in the Vedas as well as later Hindu scriptures. The corresponding Avestan term is aspa...

 
aspa asp asb اسب horse
*kāma kāma kām kām کام benefit
*daiwas daiva  dēw div دیو devil
drayah drayā daryā دریا sea
*źhasta- dasta dast dast دست hand
*bhāgī
Bhaga
Sanskrit is a term for "lord, patron", but also for "wealth, prosperity". The cognate term in Avestan and Old Persian is , of uncertain meaning but used in a sense in which "lord, patron" might also apply. A Slavic cognate is "god"...

 
bāji bāj bāj باج/باژ toll
*bhrātr- brātar brādar barādar برادر brother
*bhūmiš
Bhumi
Bhumi can mean:* Bhūmi, Hindu goddess of the earth**also, earth as a classical element in Hindu tradition* Bhumi , the ten stages a Bodhisattva advances through in the path to become a Buddha...

 
būmi būm būm بوم region, land
*martya martya mard mard مرد man
*māsa māha māh māh ماه moon, month
*vāsara vāhara Bahār bahār بهار spring
stūpā stūnā stūn sotūn ستون stand (column)
šiyāta šād šād شاد happy
*ṛtam arta
Asha
Asha is the Avestan language term for a concept of cardinal importance to Zoroastrian theology and doctrine. In the moral sphere, aša/arta represents what has been called "the decisive confessional concept of Zoroastrianism." ...

 
ard ord اُرد order
*drauźh- droga drōgh dorōgh دروغ lie

Further reading