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Southwest Asia, Central Asia, and western South Asia
ISO 639-2 and 639-5: ira

The Iranian languages are a branch of the Indo-European language family and its subfamily, Indo-Iranian. They are spoken by the Iranian peoples. Old Persian is the oldest recorded Iranian language.

Geographic distribution of the Iranian languages:
     Persian      Pashto      Baloch      Kurdish      Lurish
Iranian language family tree

Today, there are an estimated 150-200 million native speakers of Iranian languages.[citation needed] The Ethnologue lists 87 Iranian languages.[1] Persian has about 53 million native speakers, Pashto about 40 million, Kurdish about 40 million, Lurish about 3.3 million, and Baluchi about 7 million.


The term

According to professor P. O. Skjærvø[2] "the term Iranian language is applied to any language which is descended from a proto-Iranian parent language". These proto-languages were unattested and spoken first and presumably by people/tribes in Central Asia sometime in the late 3rd to early 2nd millennium BCE. The area in which Iranian languages, i.e. descendants of proto-Iranian language, have been spoken stretches from western China to western Europe. The proto-Iranian language was related to, also unattested, proto-Indo-Aryan language. The proto-Indo-Aryan gave birth to various Indic languages over the time.[3]

The collection of all Iranian languages and all Indo-Aryan languages and "perhaps separate"[4] Nuristani languages is called the Indo-Iranian (IIr.) branch of the Indo-European language family.[5]

The term Iranian has been introduced 1836 by Christian Lassen[6], followed by Wilhelm Geiger and his Grundriss der Iranischen Philologie (1895) whereas Friedrich von Spiegel in 1859 prefers the term Eranian[7]. Robert Needham Cust, however, used the term Irano-Aryan as early as 1878.[8] Orientalists such as George Abraham Grierson and Max Müller also differentiated between Irano-Aryan and Indo-Aryan. Grierson also uses the term Eranian.[9] Recent scholarship has seen a revival of the term Irano-Aryan in analogy to Indo-Aryan.[10][11] The linguist Ahmad Hasan Dani uses the term and asserts Iranian is short for Irano-Aryan.[12] The linguist Gilbert Lazard, specialist for Persian, has been using the term consequently in his publications.[13]</ref>

Proto-Iranian and Old Iranian languages

Historical distribution in 100 BC: shown is Sarmatia, Scythia, Bactria and the Parthian Empire

Together with the other Indo-Iranian languages, the Iranian languages are descended from a common ancestor, Proto-Indo-Iranian. The Indo-Iranian languages are thought to have originated in Central Asia. The Andronovo culture is the suggested candidate for the common Indo-Iranian culture ca. 2000 BC.

It was situated precisely in the western part of Central Asia that borders present-day Russia (and present-day Kazakhstan). It was in relative proximity to the other satem ethno-linguistic groups of the Indo-European family, like Thracian, Balto-Slavic and others, and to common Indo-European's original homeland (more precisely, the steppes of southern Russia to the north of the Caucasus), according to the reconstructed linguistic relationships of common Indo-European.

Proto-Iranian thus dates to some time after Proto-Indo-Iranian break-up, or the early second millennium BCE, as the Old Iranian languages began to break off and evolve separately as the various Iranian tribes migrated and settled in vast areas of southeastern Europe, the Iranian plateau, and Central Asia.

Avestan, mainly attested through the Avesta, a collection of sacred texts connected to the Zoroastrian religion, is considered to belong to a central Iranian group [14], where only peripheral groups such as southwestern (represented by Old Persian) and northeastern Sogdian and Sakan language (Scythian) had developed. Among the less known Old Iranian languages is Median, spoken in western and central Iran, which may have had an “official” status during the Median era (ca. 700-559 BC). Apart from place and personal names, some words reported in Herodotus' Histories and some preserved forms in Achaemenid inscriptions, there are numerous non-Persian words in the Old Persian texts that are commonly considered Median. Some of the modern Western and Central Iranian dialects are also likely to be descended from Median.[15]

Other such languages are Carduchi (the predecessor to Kurdish) and Parthian (which evolved into the language of the later empire).[16]

Middle Iranian languages

What is known in Iranian linguistic history as the "Middle Iranian" era is thought to begin around the 4th century BCE lasting through the 9th century. Linguistically and historically one can classify these into two main families, Western and Eastern.

The Western family includes Parthian (Arsacid Pahlavi) and Middle Persian, while Bactrian, Sogdian, Khwarezmian, Saka, and Old Ossetic (Scytho-Sarmatian) fall under the Eastern category. The two languages of the western group were linguistically very close to each other, but quite distinct from their eastern counterparts. On the other hand, the Eastern group retained some similarity to Avestan. They were inscribed in various Aramaic-derived alphabets, which had evolved from the Achaemenid Imperial Aramaic.

Middle Persian (Pahlavi) was the official language of the Sassanids. It was in use from the 3rd century CE until the beginning of the 10th century. Pahlavi and Parthian were also the languages of the Manichaeans, whose texts also survive in various non-Iranian languages, from Latin to Chinese. The Imperial Aramaic script used in this era underwent significant maturing.

New Iranian languages

dark green: Countries where Iranian languages are official
Teal: regional co-official/de facto status

Following the Islamic Conquest of Persia (Iran), there were important changes in the role of the different dialects within the Persian Empire. The old prestige form of Middle Iranian, also known as Pahlavi, was replaced by a new standard dialect called Dari as the official language of the court. The name Dari comes from the word darbar (دربار), which refers to the royal court, where many of the poets, protagonists, and patrons of the literature flourished. The Saffarid dynasty in particular was the first in a line of many dynasties to officially adopt the new language in 875 CE. Dari may have been heavily influenced by regional dialects of eastern Iran, whereas the earlier Pahlavi standard was based more on western dialects. This new prestige dialect became the basis of Standard New Persian. Medieval Iranian scholars such as Abdullah Ibn al-Muqaffa (8th century) and Ibn al-Nadim (10th century) associated the term "Dari" with the eastern province of Khorasan, while they used the term "Pahlavi" to describe the dialects of the northwestern areas between Isfahan and Azerbaijan, and "Parsi" ("Persian" proper) to describe the Dialects of Fars. They also noted that the unofficial language of the royalty itself was yet another dialect, "Khuzi", associated with the western province of Khuzestan.

The Islamic conquest also brought with it the adoption of Arabic script for writing Persian, Pashto and Balochi. All three were adapted to the writing by the addition of a few letters. This development probably occurred some time during the second half of the 8th century, when the old middle Persian script began dwindling in usage. The Arabic script remains in use in contemporary modern Persian. Tajik script was first Latinised in the 1920s under the then Soviet nationality policy. The script was however subsequently Cyrillicized in the 1930s by the Soviet government.

The geographical area in which Iranian languages were spoken was pushed back in several areas by newly neighbouring languages. Arabic spread into some parts of Western Iran (Khuzestan), and Turkic languages spread through much of Central Asia, displacing various Iranian languages such as Sogdian and Bactrian in parts of what is today Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Sogdian barely survives in a small area of the Zarafshan valley east of Samarkand, and Saka (as Sariqoli) in parts of southern Xinjiang as well as Ossetic in the Caucasus. Various small Iranian languages in the Pamirs survive that are derived from Eastern Iranian.


IndoEuropean language family tree

Iranian languages are divided into Eastern and Western subfamilies, totalling about 84 languages (SIL estimate). Of the most widely-spoken Iranian languages, Kurdish, Persian, and Balochi are all Western Iranian languages, while Pashto is an Eastern Iranian language.

Comparison table

English Zazaki Kurmanji/Sorani Pashto Balochi Mazandarani Persian Middle Persian Parthian Old Persian Avestan
beautiful rind rind, delal/cwan ʂkulai/xkulai, ʂɑjista/xɑjista sharr, soherâ ṣəmxâl/ Xəş-nəmâ zibâ/ xuš-chehreh hučihr, hužihr hužihr naiba vahu-, srîra
blood goyni xwîn/xwên wina hon xun xūn xōn xōn vohuni
bread nan nan ɖoɖəi, nəɣɑn nân, nagan nûn nân nân nân
bring ardene anîn/hênan, hawirdin rɑ wɺ̡əl âurten, yārag, ārag biyârden âvardan/biyar âwurdan, āwāy-, āwar-, bar- āwāy-, āwar-, bar- bara- bara, bar-
brother bıra bira wror brāt, brās birâr barādar brād, brâdar brād, brādar brâtar brâtar-
come amayene hatin rɑ tləl āhag, āyag Biyamona, enen âmadan âmadan, awar awar, čām ây-, âgam âgam-
cry berbayene girîn ʒaɺ̡əl greewag, greeten bərmə/ qâ geristan/geryeh griy-, bram-
dark tari tarî/tarîk tjɑrə thár siyo târîk târīg/k târīg, târēn sâmahe, sâma
daughter/girl çena keç, kîj, dot/kiç, kîj, kenîşk lur dohtir, duttag kijâ/ dether doxtar duxtar duxt, duxtar duxδar
day roce/roje/roze roj wrad͡z roç rezh rûz rōz raucah-
do kerdene kirin/kirdin kawəl kanag, kurtin hâkerden kardan kardan kartan kạrta- kәrәta-
door çeber derge/derke, derga war, daɺ̡a gelo, darwāzag bəli dar dar dar, bar duvara- dvara-
die merdene mirin/mirdin mrəl mireg mərnen murdan murdan mạriya- mar-
donkey her ker xar her xar xar xar
egg hak hêk/hêlke hagəi heyg, heyk merqâna toxm toxmag, xâyag taoxmag, xâyag taoxma-
earth êrd (uncertain origin) zevî/zewî zməka zemin zemi zamin zamīg zamīg zam- zãm, zam, zem
evening shan êvar/êware mɑʂɑm/mɑxɑm begáh nəmâşun begáh sarshab êbêrag
eye çım çav/çaw stərga ch.hem, chem bəj, Çəş chashm chašm chašm čaša- čašman-
father pi bav/bab, bawk plɑr pit, piss piyer pedar pidar pid pitar pitar
fear ters tirs vera, tars turs, terseg təşəpaş tars tars tars tạrsa- tares-
fiancé washte dezgîran t͡ʃanɣol (m), t͡ʃanɣala (f) nām zād xasgar nâm-zad - -
fine weş xweş ʂa/xa wash, hosh xaar xosh dârmag srîra
finger gisht til/qamik, engust gwəta lenkutk, mordâneg angoos angošt angust dišti-
fire adır agir/awir, agir or âch, âs tesh âtaš, âzar âdur, âtaxsh ādur âç- âtre-/aêsma-
fish mase masî kab mâhi, mâhig mahi mâhi mâhig mâsyâg masyô, masya
food / eat werdene xwarin/xwardin xoɺ̡ə / xwaɺ̡əl warag, warâk Xərak/ xəynen Gaza / xordan parwarz / xwâr, xwardīg parwarz / xwâr hareθra / ad-, at-
go şiyayene çûn tləl jwzzegh, shutin shunen / burden raftan raftan, shudan ay- ai- ay-, fra-vaz
god heq xwedê/xwa xwdai hwdâ homa, xəda khodâ bay, abragar baga- baya-
good rınd baş, rind/baş, çak ʂə/xə jawáin, šarr xâr xub / nîuū xūb, nêkog vahu- vohu, vaŋhu-
grass vash giya, riwek, şênkatî wɑʂə/wɑxə rem, sabzag sabzeh, giyâh giyâ dâlūg urvarâ
great gırs / pil mezin/gewre, mezin loj, ɣwara mastar, mazan gat, belang, pila bozorg wuzurg, pīl vazraka- uta-, avañt
hand dest dest lɑs dast dess dast dast dast dasta- zasta-
head ser ser sar, kakaɺ̡ai saghar kalə sar, kalleh sar
heart zerre dil zɺ̡ə dil, hatyr dil/dill del dil dil aηhuš
horse estor hesp/esp ɑs asp istar asp, astar asp, stōr asp, stōr aspa aspa-
house keye mal/mall, xanu kor, xuna log, dawâr səre xâneh xânag demâna-, nmâna-
hunger vêşan birçîtî/birsêtî lwəʐa/lwəga shudhagh veyshna gorosnegi gursag, shuy
language (also tongue) zıwan / zon ziman/ziman, ziwan ʒəba zevân, zobân ziwân zabân zuwân izβân hazâna- hizvâ-
laugh huyayene kenîn/pêkenîn, kenîn xandəl khendegh, hendeg xandidan xandīdan karta Syaoθnâvareza-
life jewiyaene jiyan ʒwandun zendegih, zind zendegi zīndagīh, zīwišnīh žīwahr, žīw- gaêm, gaya-
man merd mêr/ pyaw saɺ̡ai, meɺ̡ə merd merd mard mard mard martiya- mašîm, mašya
moon ashmê heyv/mang spoʐmai/spogmai, mjɑʃt máh mithra mâh māh māh mâh- måŋha-
mother maye dayik, mak mor mât, mâs mâr mâdar mādar mādar mâtar mâtar-
mouth fek dev/dem xwlə dap dahân dahân, rumb åŋhânô, âh, åñh
name name nav/naw num nâm num nâm nâm nâman nãman
night şewe şev/şew ʃpa šap, shaw sheow shab shab xšap- xšap-
open akerdene vekirin/kirdinewe prɑnistəl, xlɑsawəl pabožagh, paç vâ-hekârden bâz-kardan abâz-kardan būxtaka- būxta-
peace kotpy aştî roɣa ârâm âshti, ârâmeš, ârâmî âštih, râmīšn râm, râmīšn šiyâti- râma-
pig xoz beraz xug, seɖar khug xi xūk xūk varâza (wild pig)
place ja cih/jê d͡zɑj hend, jâgah jâh/gâh gâh gâh gâθu- gâtu-, gâtav-
read wendene xwendin/xwêndin lwastəl wánagh baxinden xândan xwândan
say vatene gotin/witin, gutin wajəl gushagh baotena goftan, gap(-zadan) guftan, gōw-, wâxtan gōw- gaub- mrû-
sister wae xweşk xor gwhâr xâxer xâhar/xwâhar xwahar
small qıc biçûk kut͡ʃnai, waɺ̡ukai, kam gwand, hurd pətik, bechuk, perushk kuchak, kam, xurd, rîz kam, rangas kam kamna- kamna-
son qıj kur/kurr zoj baç, phusagh pisser pesar, pûr, baça pur, pusar puhr puça pūθra-
soul gan gyan, rewan arwɑ rawân ravân rūwân, gyân rūwân, gyân urvan-
spring usar bihar/behar psarlai bhârgâh wehâr bahâr wahâr vâhara- θūravâhara-
tall berz bilind/berz lwaɺ̡, d͡ʒəg bwrz, buland boland / bârez buland, borz bârež barez-
three hire dre sey se se hrē çi- θri-
village dewe gund/dê kəlai helk, kallag, dê deh deh, wis wiž dahyu- vîs-, dahyu-
want waştene xwestin/wîstin ɣuʂtəl/ɣuxtəl lotagh bexanen xâstan xwâstan
water owe av/aw obə âp ab âb/aw âb âb âpi avô-
when key kengê/key, kengê kəla ked kay kay ka čim-
wind va ba bɑd gwáth bâd wâd vâta-
wolf verg gur/gurg lewə, ʃarmuʂ/ʃarmux gurkh varg gorg gurg varka- vehrka
woman ceniye jin ʂəd͡za/xəd͡za jan zhənya zan zan žan hâīrīšī-, nâirikâ-
year serre sal/sall kɑl sâl sâl sâl θard ýâre, sarәd
yes / no ya / né erê, a / na ho (wo) / na, ja ere / na baleh (âre) / na hâ / ney hâ / ney yâ / nay, mâ yâ / noit, mâ
yesterday vizêri duh/dwênê parun direz diruz dêrûž
English Zazaki Kurmanji/Sorani Pashto Balochi Mazandarani Persian Middle Persian Parthian Old Persian Avestan

See also


  1. ^ Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. (ed.) (2005). "Report for Iranian languages". Ethnologue: Languages of the World (Dallas: SIL International). 
  2. ^ (Skjærvø 2006)
  3. ^ (Skjærvø 2006)
  4. ^ "the Nuristani languages, appears to constitute a separate branch of Indo-Iranian, but the exact relationship is disputed". cf. (Skjærvø 2006)
  5. ^ (Skjærvø 2006)
  6. ^ Lassen, Christian. 1936. Die Altpersischen Keilschrift von Persepolis. Entzifferung des Alphabets und Erklärung des Inhalts. Bonn: Weber. S. 182.
  7. ^ Spiegel, Friedrich von. 1859. Avesta. Engelmann. P. vii.
  8. ^ Cust, Robert Needham. 1878. A sketch of the modern languages of the East Indies. London: Trübner.
  9. ^ Grierson, George. A. 1920. Ishkashmi, Zebaki and Yazghulami. An Account of Three Eranian Dialects. London: Royal Asiatic Society.
  10. ^ Lazard, Gilbert. 1977. Preface in: Oranskij, Iosif M. Les langues iraniennes. Traduit par Joyce Blau.
  11. ^ Schmitt, Rüdiger. 1994. Sprachzeugnisse alt- und mitteliranischer Sprachen in Afghanistan in: Indogermanica et Caucasica. Festschrift für Karl Horst Schmidt zum 65. Geburtstag. Bielmeier, Robert und Reinhard Stempel (Hrg.). De Gruyter. S. 168 - 196.
  12. ^ Dani, Ahmad Hasan. 1989. History of northern areas of Pakistan. Historical studies (Pakistan) series. National Institute of Historical and Cultural Research.
    That is why we distinguish between the Aryan languages of Iran, or Irano-Aryan, and the Aryan languages of India, or Indo-Aryan. For the sake of brevity, Iranian is commonly used instead of Irano-Aryan ...
  13. ^ Lazard, Gilbert. 1998. Actancy. Empirical approaches to language typology. Mouton de Gruyter. ISBN 3110156709, 9783110156706
  14. ^ Nicholas Sims-Williams, Iranica, under entry: Eastern Iranian languages
  15. ^ (Skjaervo 2006) vi(2). Documentation.
  16. ^ Roland G. Kent: "Old Persion - Grammar Texts Lexicon". Part I, Chapter I: The Linguistic Setting of Old Persian. American Oriental Society, 1953.

Further reading

External links



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