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definition - Old_Persian_language

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Old Persian language

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Old Persian
Spoken inAncient Iran
Language extinctionAncestor of Middle Persian
Language familyIndo-European
Writing systemOld Persian Cuneiform
Language codes
ISO 639-1None
ISO 639-2peo
ISO 639-3peo
History of the
Persian language
Proto-Iranian (ca. 1500 BCE)

Southwestern Iranian languages

Old Persian (c. 525 BCE - 300 BCE)

Old Persian cuneiform script

Middle Persian (c.300 BCE-800 CE)

Pahlavi scriptManichaean scriptAvestan script

Modern Persian (from 800)

Perso-Arabic script

The Old Persian language is one of the two attested Old Iranian languages (besides Avestan). Old Persian appears primarily in the inscriptions, clay tablets, seals of the Achaemenid era (c. 600 BCE to 300 BCE). Examples of Old Persian have been found in what is now present-day Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Egypt[1] the most important attestation by far being the contents of the Behistun inscription (dated to 525 BCE).


Origin and overview

As a written language Old Persian is attested in royal Achaemenid inscription. It is an Iranian language and as such a member of the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European language family. The oldest attested text written in Old Persian is from Behistun inscriptions.[2] Old Persian is one of the oldest Indo-European languages which was ever attested in original texts.[3]

The oldest date of use of Old Persian as a spoken language is not precisely known. According to certain historical assumptions about arrival of ancient Persian to where Achaemenids hailed, 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.[3] Assyrian records, which in fact provide the earliest evidence for 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 in the records of Shalmaneser III.[4] The exact identity of the Parsuwash is yet to be discussed but from a linguistic viewpoint the word matches Old Persian pārsa itself coming directly from the older word *pārćwa.[4] Also as Old Persian contains many words from another extinct Iranian language of Median, according to P. O. Skjærvø it is probable that Old Persian had already been spoken before Achaemenid Empire and during most of the first half of the first millennium BCE.[3]


Old Persian belongs to Iranian language family which is a branch of languages belonging to Indo-Iranian language family. This family has another branch called Indic languages. Indo-Iranian languages is itself within the large family of Indo-European languages. The common ancestors of Indo-Iranian came from Central Asia sometime in the first half of 2nd millennium BCE. The extinct Median language is another language related to Old Persian (e.g. both are classified as Western Iranian languages and many Median names appeared in Old Persian texts.)[5]

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."[6] Old Persian subsequently evolved into Middle Persian, which is in turn the nominal ancestor of New Persian.Professor Gilbert Lazard, a famous Iranologist and the author of the book Persian Grammar states:[7]

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, Parthian, Soghdian, Kurdish, Pashto, etc., Old Middle and New Persian 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[8][9]. Consequently, Modern Persian is one of the few Indo-European languages which has extant writing in its old, middle and modern form. Comparison of the evolution at each stage of the language shows great simplification in grammar and syntax. In fact according to available documents, Persian language is an Iranian language all whose three Old, Middle, and New stages are known to represent one and the same language; in other words New Persian is a direct descendent of Middle and Old Persian.[10]


Old Persian "presumably"[6] has a Median language substrate. 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.)."[6]


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.[11] The script was surprisingly[12] not a result of evolution of the script used in the nearby civilisation of Mesopotamia.[13] and 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".[13]

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 (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”, 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".[2]

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) took only half the height of a the line.[14]


The following phonemes are expressed in the Old Persian script:


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


Plosivep /p/b /b/t /t/d /d/c /c/j /ɟ/k /k/g /ɡ/  
Nasal m /m/ n /n/      
Fricativef /f/ θ /θ/ ç /ç/x /x/ h /h/ 
Sibilant  s /s/z /z/š /ʃ/     
Rhotic   r /r/      
Approximant v /ʋ/ l /l/ y /j/    



Old Persian stems:

  • a-stems (-a, -am, -ā)
  • i-stems (-iš, iy)
  • u- (and au-) stems (-uš, -uv)
  • consonantal stems (n, r, h)
Nominative-a-ā, -āha-am
Dative-ahyā, -ahya-aibiyā-aibiš-ahyā, -ahya-aibiyā-aibiš-āyā-ābiyā-ābiš
Genitive-ahyā, -ahya-āyā-ānām-ahyā, -ahya-āyā-ānām-āyā-āyā-ānām

Adjectives are declinable in similar way.


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
Imperfect, Active
'do, make''be, become'
Present participle
Past participle


Proto-Indo-IranianOld PersianMiddle PersianModern Persianmeaning
*AhuramazdaOhrmazdOrmazd ارمزدAhura Mazda
*açvaaspaaspasp اسبhorse
*kāmakāmakāmkām کامbenefit
*daivadaivadivdiv دیوdemon
drayahdrayādaryā دریاsea
dastadastdast دستhand
*bhāgībājibājbāj باج/باژtoll
*bhrātr-brātarbrādarbarādar برادرbrother
*bhūmībūmibūmbūm بومregion, land
*martyamartyamardmard مردman
*māsamāhamāhmāh ماهmoon, month
*vāsaravāharaBahārbahār بهارspring
stūpāstūnāstūnsotūn ستونstand (column)
šiyātašādšād شادhappy
*ashaartaardord اُردorder
*druj-drogadrōghdorōgh دروغlie

See also

File:Babylonlion.JPGAncient Near East portal


  1. ^ Roland G. Kent, Old Persian, 1953
  2. ^ a b (Schmitt 2008, pp. 80-1)
  3. ^ a b c (Skjærvø 2006, vi(2). Documentation. Old Persian.)
  4. ^ a b (Skjærvø 2006, vi(1). Earliest Evidence)
  5. ^ (Schmitt 2008, p. 76)
  6. ^ a b c Skjærvø, Prods Oktor (2005), An Introduction to Old Persian (2nd ed.), Cambridge: Harvard, http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~iranian/OldPersian/opcomplete.pdf 
  7. ^ (Lazard, Gilbert 1975, “The Rise of the New Persian Language” in Frye, R. N., The Cambridge History of Iran, Vol. 4, pp. 595-632, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  8. ^ Ulrich Ammon, Norbert Dittmar, Klaus J. Mattheier, Peter Trudgill, "Sociolinguistics Hsk 3/3 Series Volume 3 of Sociolinguistics: An International Handbook of the Science of Language and Society", Walter de Gruyter, 2006. 2nd edition. pg 1912: "Middle Persian, also called Pahlavi is a direct continuation of old Persian, and was used as the written official language of the country." "However, after the Moslem conquest and the collapse of the Sassanids, Arabic became the dominant language of the country and Pahlavi lost its importance, and was gradually replaced by Dari, a variety of Middle Persian, with considerable loan elements from Arabic and Parthian."
  9. ^ Bo Utas, "Semitic on Iranian", in "Linguistic convergence and areal diffusion: case studies from Iranian, Semitic and Turkic" editors (Éva Ágnes Csató, Bo Isaksson, Carina Jahani),Routledge, 2005. pg 71: "As already mentioned, it is not likely that the scribes of Sassanian chanceries had any idea about the Old Persian cuneiform writing and the language couched in it. Still, Middle Persian language that appeared in the third century AD may be seen as a continuation of Old Persian
  10. ^ Skjærvø, Prods Oktor (2006). "Iran, vi. Iranian languages and scripts". Encyclopaedia Iranica. 13. 
  11. ^ (Schmitt 2008, p. 78)
  12. ^ (Schmitt 2008, p. 78) Excerpt: "It remains unclear why the Persians did not take over the Mesopotamian system in earlier times, as the Elamites and other peoplesof the Near East had, and, for that matter, why the Persians did not adopt the Aramaic consonantal script.."
  13. ^ a b (Schmitt 2008, p. 77)
  14. ^ (Schmitt 2008, p. 79)


  • Brandenstein, Wilhelm (1964), [Expression error: Missing operand for > Handbuch des Altpersischen], Wiesbaden: O. Harrassowitz 
  • Hinz, Walther (1966), [Expression error: Missing operand for > Altpersischer Wortschatz], Nendeln, Liechtenstein: Kraus 
  • Kent, Roland G. (1953), [Expression error: Missing operand for > Old Persian: Grammar, Texts, Lexicon], New Haven: American Oriental Society 
  • Sims-Williams, Nicholas (1996), [Expression error: Missing operand for > "Iranian languages"], Encyclopedia Iranica, 7, Costa Mesa: Mazda : 238-245
  • Schmitt, Rüdiger (1989), [Expression error: Missing operand for > "Altpersisch"], in R. Schmitt, Compendium linguarum Iranicarum, Wiesbaden: Reichert : 56–85
  • Schmitt, R. (2008), [Expression error: Missing operand for > "Old Persian"], in Roger D. Woodard, The Ancient Languages of Asia and the Americas (illustrated ed.), Cambridge University Press, pp. 76-100, ISBN 0521684943 
  • Skjærvø, Prods Oktor (2006), "Iran, vi. Iranian languages and scripts", [Expression error: Missing operand for > Encyclopaedia Iranica], 13, http://www.iranica.com/newsite/articles/unicode/v13f4/v13f4001a.html 
  • Tolman, Herbert Cushing (1908), [Expression error: Missing operand for > Ancient Persian Lexicon and the Texts of the Achaemenidan Inscriptions Transliterated and Translated with Special Reference to Their Recent Re-examination], New York/Cincinnati: American Book Company 

Further reading


All translations of Old_Persian_language

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