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The Ancient Iranian Language

The split between the Indians and the Iranians resulted in the emergence of two ancient languages, viz. the ancient Indian language and the ancient Iranian language. Even though no trace of the actual ancient Iranian language – which was the common language of all the Iranian tribes – remains today, what did survive from it came to be known as the ancient Iranian languages that were widely spoken over an extensive region until the downfall of the Achaemenian Empire in 330 BC. From among the ancient Iranian languages, only two have survived in their written forms – the Old Persian and the Avestan– while not much remains from the other languages.

a. Old Persian: Old Persian was the language of the Persian tribe that had settled in the south-west of Iran (the present-day Fārs province) after entering the Iranian plateau and had established the great Achaemenian Empire following the downfall of the Medians in 550 BC. The scribes of the Achaemenian period used the Aramaic language and script for writing on hides and papyrus and used the Elamite and at times the Babylonian cuneiform language and script to inscribe on stone and clay. However, in all probability, they began inventing a special cuneiform script for Old Persian during the reign of Kurosh II (Cyrus II), popular as “Cyrus the Great”, which became widespread during the reign of Dāryush I (522-486 BC).

The cuneiform writing of Old Persian, which was exclusively used in the inscriptions of the Achaemenian kings, ran from the left to the right. This system which contained thirty-six alphabetical-inflectional characters, eight determinants, and two word dividers as well as some symbols to depict numbers is one of the simplest forms of cuneiform writing.

The surviving inscriptions of the times of the Achaemenian kings are sometimes in a single language (Old Persian), sometimes bilingual (Old Persian and Elamite), at times trilingual (Old Persian, Elamite, and Babylonian) and rarely in four languages (Old Persian, Elamite, Babylonian, and Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics).

b. Avestan: The Avestan or Avestaic is the language of the Avestā, the holy book of the Zoroastrians. The oldest part of the Avestā, the Gāhān, are hymns attributed to Zardusht (Zoroaster), the prophet of Ancient Iran who according to some historians lived in Khwārazm in the first part of the 1st Millennium BC. The dialect used in the Gāhān, the Yasna Hafta as well four other sacred hymns of the Zoroastrians are referred to as the Gāhāni dialect. The other parts of the Avesta have been written in a newer dialect known as the “modern dialect”.

Traditionally, the Zoroastrians believe that the Avesta was written in gold on twelve thousand pieces of cow-hide during the reign of the Achaemenians and came to be destroyed after Alexander of Macedonia’s invasion of Iran and the eventual downfall of the Achaemenian Empire. They also believe that Avesta was first put into a written form during the reign of the Parthian king, Balāsh (probably Balāsh I, 51 t0 76-80 AD) and for a second time during the reign of Ardashir Bābakān(ruled 224-240 AD), the founder of the Sassanian dynasty. The recent researches, however, indicate that that until the Sassanian period, the Avesta had been transferred by word of mouth or oral communication from one generation to the next and in all probability a script was invented for writing it only during the reign of Shāpur II (309-379 AD) on the basis of the Middle Persian text script as well as the Zaburi Pahlavi script. The Avestan script that is also referred to as the “religious script” was written from left to right with the help of fifty-three alphabetical characters. In this script, each word was separated from the next one with the employment of a dot (Fig. 2).

c. Other Ancient Iranian Languages: From among the two other ancient languages, i.e. Median (native to the west and north-west) and the Ancient Sakan (native to both sides of the Caspian Sea, the plains of Southern Russia, and Transoxiania) only a few words that are mainly proper nouns have survived in the inscriptions of the Achaemenian kings and the texts of the Greek historians.

The other ancient Iranian languages of which no signs remain and regarding the existence of which verification can be found only through a study of linguistics were Ancient Parthian, Ancient Soghdian, Ancient Khwārazmian, and Ancient Bactrian.

* source: Rezaie Baghbidi , Hasan " Iran Entry " The Great Islamic Encyclopedia . Ed. Kazem Musavi Bojnourdi.Tehran: The Center of Great Islamic Encyclopaedia , 1989-, V.10 , pp.545 - 546


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