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Avestan
Spoken in liturgical language of Zoroastrianism
Total speakers
Language family Indo-European
Writing system Avestan alphabet (independent ad-hoc development)
Language codes
ISO 639-1 ae
ISO 639-2 ave
ISO 639-3 ave
Yasna 28.1, Ahunavaiti Gatha (Bodleian MS J2)

Avestan (pronounced /əˈvɛstən/ [1]) is an Eastern Iranian language known only from its use as the language of Zoroastrian scripture, i.e. the Avesta, from which it derives its name. The language must also at some time have been a natural language, but how long ago that was is unknown. Its status as a sacred language ensured its continuing use for new compositions long after the language had ceased to be a living language.

Contents

Genealogy

"Avestan, which is associated with northeastern Iran, and Old Persian, which belongs to the southwest, together constitute what is called Old Iranian."[2][f 1] Only these two (of what must have been a great variety) plus the Gathas (Hymns of Zarathushtra in Gathic or Old Avestan language) have left written traces. The Old Iranian language group is a branch of the Indo-Iranian language group, which is in turn a branch of the Indo-European language group.

Iranian languages are traditionally classified as "eastern" or "western", and within this framework Avestan is classified as Eastern Iranian. But this distinction is of limited meaning for Avestan, as the linguistic developments that later distinguish Eastern from Western Iranian had not yet occurred. Avestan is assuredly not Old Persian, and so in this sense, "eastern" only means "non-western".

Forms and stages of development

The Avestan language is attested in roughly two different forms, known as "Old Avestan" (or "Gathic Avestan") and "Younger Avestan". Younger Avestan did not evolve from Old Avestan; the two differ not only chronologically, but are also different dialects.

Every Avestan text, regardless whether originally composed in Old or Younger Avestan, underwent several transformations. Karl Hoffmann traced the following stages for Avestan as found in the extant texts. In roughly chronological order:

  • The natural language of the composers of the Gathas, the Yasna Haptanghaiti, the four sacred prayers (Y. 27 and 54).
  • Changes precipitated by slow chanting
  • Changes to Old Avestan due to transmission by native speakers of Younger Avestan
  • The natural language of the composers of grammatically correct Younger Avestan texts
  • Deliberate changes introduced through "standardization"
  • Changes introduced by transfer to regions where Avestan was not spoken
  • Adaptions/Translations of portions of texts from other regions
  • Composition of ungrammatical late Avestan texts
  • Phonetic notation of the Avestan texts in the Sasanian archetype
  • Post-Sasanian deterioration of the written transmission due to incorrect pronunciation
  • Errors and corruptions introduced during copying

"Many phonetic features can not be ascribed with certainty to a particular stage since there may be more than one possibility. Every phonetic form that can be ascribed to the Sasanian archetype on the basis of critical assessment of the manuscript evidence must have gone through the stages mentioned above so that “Old Avestan” and “Young Avestan” really mean no more than “Old Avestan and Young Avestan of the Sasanian period.”"[2]

Alphabet

The script used for writing Avestan developed during the 3rd or 4th century. By then the language had been extinct for many centuries, and remained in use only as a liturgical language of the Avesta canon. As is still the case today, the liturgies were memorized by the priesthood and recited by rote.

The script devised to render Avestan was natively known as Din dabireh "religion writing". It has 53 distinct characters and is written right-to-left. Among the 53 characters are about 30 letters that are – through the addition of various loops and flourishes – variations of the 13 graphemes of the cursive Pahlavi script (i.e. "Book" Pahlavi) that is known from the post-Sassanian texts of Zoroastrian tradition. These symbols, like those of all the Pahlavi scripts, are in turn based on Aramaic script symbols. Avestan also incorporates several letters from other writing systems, most notably the vowels, which are mostly derived from Greek minuscules. A few letters were free inventions, as were also the symbols used for punctuation. Also, the Avestan alphabet has one letter that has no corresponding sound in the Avestan language; the character for /l/ (a sound that Avestan does not have) was added to write Pazend texts.

Avestan script is alphabetic, and the large number of letters suggests that its design was due to the need to render the orally recited texts with high phonetic precision. The correct enunciation of the liturgies was (and still is) considered necessary for the prayers to be effective.

The Zoroastrians of India, who represent one of the largest surviving Zoroastrian communities worldwide, also transcribe Avestan in Brahmi-based scripts. This is a relatively recent development first seen in the ca. 12th century texts of Neryosang Dhaval and other Parsi Sanskritist theologians of that era, and which are roughly contemporary with the oldest surviving manuscripts in Avestan script. Today, Avestan is most commonly typeset in Gujarati script (Gujarati being the traditional language of the Indian Zoroastrians). Some Avestan letters with no corresponding symbol are synthesized with additional diacritical marks, for example, the /z/ in zaraθuštra is written with /j/ + dot below.

Phonology

Avestan has retained voiced sibilants, and has fricative rather than aspirate series. There are various conventions for transliteration of Dīn Dabireh, the one adopted for this article being:

Vowels:

a ā ə ə̄ e ē o ō å ą i ī u ū

Consonants:

k g γ x xʷ č ǰ t d δ ϑ t̰ p b β f
ŋ ŋʷ ṇ ń n m y w r s z š ṣ̌ ž h

The glides y and w are often transcribed as ii and uu, imitating Dīn Dabireh orthography.

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Consonants

Labial Dental Alveolar Post-alveolar
or palatal
Velar Labiovelar Glottal
Nasal m /m/ n /n/ ń [ɲ] ŋ /ŋ/ ŋʷ /ŋʷ/
Plosive p /p/ b /b/ t /t/ d /d/ č /tʃ/ ǰ /dʒ/ k /k/ g /ɡ/
Fricative f /ɸ, f/ β /β/ ϑ /θ/ δ /ð/ s /s/ z /z/ š /ʃ/ ž /ʒ/ x /x/ γ /ɣ/ /xʷ/ h /h/
Approximant y /j/ w /w/
Trill r /r/
Lateral l /l/

According to Beekes, [ð] and [ɣ] are allophones of /θ/ and /x/ respectively.

Vowels

  Front Central Back
short long short long short long
Close i /i/ ī /iː/   u /u/ ū /uː/
Mid e /e/ ē /eː/ ə /ə/ ə̄ /əː/ o /o/ ō /oː/
Open   a /a/
ā /aː/ å /ɒː/
Nasal   ą /ã/  

Grammar

Nouns

Case "normal" endings a-stems: (masc. neut.)
Singular Dual Plural Singular Dual Plural
Nominative -s -ō (-as), -ā -ō (yasn-ō) -a (vīr-a) -a (-yasna)
Vocative - -ō (-as), -ā -a (ahur-a) -a (vīr-a) -a (yasn-a), -ånghō
Accusative -em -ō (-as, -ns), -ā -em (ahur-em) -a (vīr-a) -ą (haom-ą)
Instrumental -byā -bīš -a (ahur-a) -aēibya (vīr-aēibya) -āiš (yasn-āiš)
Dative -byā -byō (-byas) -āi (ahur-āi) -aēibya (vīr-aēibya) -aēibyō (yasn-aēibyō)
Ablative -at -byā -byō -āt (yasn-āt) -aēibya (vīr-aēibya) -aēibyō (yasn-aēibyō)
Genitive -ō (-as) -ąm -ahe (ahur-ahe) -ayå (vīr-ayå) -anąm (yasn-anąm)
Locative -i -ō, -yō -su, -hu, -šva -e (yesn-e) -ayō (zast-ayō) -aēšu (vīr-aēšu), -aēšva

Verbs

Primary active endings
Person Sg. Du. Pl.
1. -mi -vahi -mahi
2. -hi -tha -tha
3. -ti -tō, -thō -ngti

Notes

  1. ^ "It is impossible to attribute a precise geographical location to the language of the Avesta...With the exception of an important study by P. Tedesco (1921 [...]), who advances the theory of an 'Avestan homeland' in northwestern Iran, Iranian scholars of the twentieth century have looked increasingly to eastern Iran for the origins of the Avestan language and today there is general agreement that the area in question was in eastern Iran—a fact that emerges clearly from every passage in the Avesta that sheds any light on its historical and geographical background."[3]

References

  1. ^ Wells, John C. (1990). Longman pronunciation dictionary. Harlow, England: Longman. p. 53. ISBN 0582053838.   entry "Avestan"
  2. ^ a b Hoffmann, Karl (1989), "Avestan language", Encyclopedia Iranica, 3, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, pp. 47–52, http://www.iranica.com/newsite/articles/unicode/v3f1/v3f1a044.html  .
  3. ^ Gnoli, Gherardo (1989), "Avestan geography", Encyclopedia Iranica, 3, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, pp. 44–47, http://www.iranica.com/newsite/articles/v3f1/v3f1a043.html  .

Further reading


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