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The Western Branch

The Western Middle Iranian languages include Parthian (Parthian Pahlavi) and Middle Persian (Pahlavi or Sassanid Pahlavi).

i. Parthian: Parthian was the mother tongue of the Parthian tribe which originated from “Pahlah” or “Pahlao” (Parthia), that included the north of the present-day Khorāsān as well as parts of recent-day Turkmenistan. One of the leaders of this tribe called “Ashk” or “Arshak” overcame Antiochus II, the third Seleucid king (ruled 261-246 BC), around the year 247 BC and by gaining control over the Pahlao province founded the Parthian Dynasty.

The Parthians were initially so deeply under the influence of the Greek culture and language that they even inscribed the names and titles on their coins in the Greek language and script. However, following the reign of Balāsh I, the Parthian language came to be written in a script that was derived from Aramaic. The Parthian script ran from right to left and none of the letters were joined together (Fig. 3). Like some other Middle Iranian scripts, the most important feature of this script was the presence of writing elements known as the “hozvāresh”. The “hozvāresh” were words that were Aramaic in origin and were written in the Middle Iranian scripts (e.g. Parthian) but while reading, their equivalents in the desired language (e.g. Parthian) would be read out (for instance, the word “MLK” which meant “malikā” or “king” in Aramaic would be written as “MLK” but would be read out as “shāh”).

The Parthian language survived even after the downfall of the Parthian Dynasty (224 AD) until the 4th Century AD and, thereafter, withered away gradually. The last available effects of the Parthian language are the Manichean texts belonging to a period prior to the 3rd Century AH/9 Century AD that have been discovered in Vaheh Torfān (the Turfan Depression) in present-day Xinjiang, China. Moreover, these works were written at a time when the Parthian language had already died away. The script used for these works were the Manichaen scripts that according to some sources had been invented by Mani (216-276 AD) himself, on the basis of the Syriac script which was itself derived from the Aramaic script. The Manichean script ran from right to left and its most important characteristic was that it did not contain any “hozvāresh”, thereby making it very simple to read. Moreover, unlike the Parthian script in which each letter could indicate a number of different phonetic values, in the Manichean script each letter had only one phonetic value (Fig. 4). Some Manichean Parthian works have also been found in the Uygur Turkish, the Sogdhian, and even the Chinese scripts.

ii. Middle Persian: Middle Persian – the official language of the Sassanian Empire (224-651 AD) – was in fact a modified version of the Old Persian which was spoken in south-west Iran (the present-day Fārs province). The inscriptions of the Sassanian kings were generally written in three languages and scripts (Middle Persian, Parthian, and Greek) until the 3rd Century AD. However, after a period of time these inscriptions became bilingual (Middle Persian and Parthian) and finally ended up being written only in Middle Persian. The Middle Persian language was spoken by the Zoroastrians and the Manichaens even after the downfall of the Sassanids through to the 3rd Century AH/9th Century AD.

The scripts in which the Middle Persian was written included the Middle Persian script for inscriptions, the Middle Persian script for texts, the Christian Middle Persian script (all these three were derived from Aramaic and contained “hozvāresh”), and the Manichean script that was also used for writing the Manichean texts in the Parthian language. The Christian Middle Persian script is also referred to as the “Zaburi Pahlavi” script since the only surviving work in that script is the Middle Persian translation of a part of the Zabur of Prophet Dāvud or the Psalms of David (Fig. 3).

The alphabets of the Middle Persian script that were used for writing books and texts alter their forms to such an extent when used in combination that it becomes difficult to read the words, and in some cases, a single word can also be read out in different ways. Since it was very tedious to read the Middle Persian script, and especially the “Zand” texts (the translation and exegeses of the Avestā in the Middle Persian language), some of the Zoroastrian Middle Persian texts came to be re-written in the Avestan script – considering that it was easy to read – in the early centuries following the advent of Islam. This modified version is called the “Pāzand”. The trend of Pāzand-writing continued until 8th Century AH/14th Century AD.

According to some Islamic sources like the “Al-Fehrest” of Ibn al-Nadim and the “Al-Tanbih alā Hudus al-Tashif” of Hamzah Esfahāni, seven scripts were in use during the Sassanid period, of which only two have been mentioned in the Middle Persian texts. These scripts included: a) Din-Debirih (the religious or Avestan script); b) Vesp-Debirih (the common script); c) Gashtag-Debirih (the modified script); d) Nim-Gashtag Debirih (the semi-modified script); e) Rāz-Debirih (the script used for confidential documents); f) Nāmag-Debirih/Frawardag-Debirih (the script used for correspondence/scroll-writing); g) Hām-Debirih/Ram-Debirih (the general script used by the general masses).

* 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.546 - 547

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