Old Persian: Wikis

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Old Persian
Spoken in Ancient Iran
Language extinction Evolved into Middle Persian
Language family Indo-European
Writing system Old Persian Cuneiform
Language codes
ISO 639-1 None
ISO 639-2 peo
ISO 639-3 peo
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).



Old Persian is an Old Iranian language and a member of the Southwestern Iranian language group. As an Iranian language, Old Persian is also a member of the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European language family. Avestan, the only other attested Old Iranian language, does not belong to the same geographic division as Old Persian and is typologically distinct.

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."[2] 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:[3]

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[4][5]. 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.[6]


Old Persian "presumably"[2] 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.)."[2]


Old Persian was written from left to right in the syllabic Old Persian cuneiform script. The Old Persian cuneiform contains 36 signs representing vowels and consonants, 8 logograms, and 3 signs which can be combined to represent any numeral, although only a few numbers are actually attested in the inscriptions.

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".[7]


The following phonemes are expressed in the Old Persian script:


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


  Labial Dental/
Palatal Velar Glottal
Plosive p /p/ b /b/ t /t/ d /d/ c /c/ j /ɟ/ k /k/ g /ɡ/    
Nasal   m /m/   n /n/            
Fricative f /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)
-a -am
Singular Dual Plural Singular Dual Plural Singular Dual Plural
Nominative -a -ā, -āha -am
Vocative -am
Accusative -am -am -ām
Instrumental -aibiyā -aibiš -aibiyā -aibiš -āyā -ābiyā -ābiš
Dative -ahyā, -ahya -aibiyā -aibiš -ahyā, -ahya -aibiyā -aibiš -āyā -ābiyā -ābiš
Ablative -aibiyā -aibiš -aibiyā -aibiš -āyā -ābiyā -ābiš
Genitive -ahyā, -ahya -āyā -ānām -ahyā, -ahya -āyā -ānām -āyā -āyā -ānām
Locative -aiy -āyā -aišuvā -aiy -āyā -aišuvā -āyā -āyā -āšuvā
-iš -iy -uš -uv
Singular Dual Plural Singular Dual Plural Singular Dual Plural Singular Dual Plural
Nominative -iš -īy -iya -iy -in -īn -uš -ūv -uva -uv -un -ūn
Vocative -i -īy -iya -iy -in -īn -u -ūv -uva -uv -un -ūn
Accusative -im -īy -iš -iy -in -īn -um -ūv -ūn -uv -un -ūn
Instrumental -auš -ībiyā -ībiš -auš -ībiyā -ībiš -auv -ūbiyā -ūbiš -auv -ūbiyā -ūbiš
Dative -aiš -ībiyā -ībiš -aiš -ībiyā -ībiš -auš -ūbiyā -ūbiš -auš -ūbiyā -ūbiš
Ablative -auš -ībiyā -ībiš -auš -ībiyā -ībiš -auv -ūbiyā -ūbiš -auv -ūbiyā -ūbiš
Genitive -aiš -īyā -īnām -aiš -īyā -īnām -auš -ūvā -ūnām -auš -ūvā -ūnām
Locative -auv -īyā -išuvā -auv -īyā -išuvā -āvā -ūvā -ušuvā -āvā -ūvā -ušuvā

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
Athematic Thematic
'be' 'bring'
Sg. 1.pers. miy barāmiy
3.pers. astiy baratiy
Pl. 1.pers. mahiy barāmahiy
3.pers. hatiy baratiy
Imperfect, Active
Athematic Thematic
'do, make' 'be, become'
Sg. 1.pers. akunavam abavam
3.pers. akunauš abava
Pl. 1.pers. aku abavāmā
3.pers. akunava abava
Present participle
Active Middle
-nt- -amna-
Past participle


Proto-Indo-Iranian Old Persian Middle Persian Modern Persian meaning
* Ahuramazda Ohrmazd Ormazd ارمزد Ahura Mazda
*açva aspa asp asp اسب horse
*kāma kāma kām kām کام desire
*daiva daiva div div دیو God
drayah drayā daryā دریا sea
dasta dast dast دست hand
*bhāgī bāji bāj bāj باج/باژ tribute
*bhrātr- brātar brādar barādar برادر brother
*bhūmī būmi būm būm بوم region, land
*martya martya mard mard مرد man
*māsa māha māh māh ماه moon, month
*vāsara vāhara Bahār bahār بهار spring
stūpā stūnā stūn sotūn ستون column (related to stand)
šiyāta šād šād شاد happy
*arta arta ard ord اُرد order
*draugh- drauga drōgh dorōgh دروغ lie

See also

References and Bibliography

  1. ^ Roland G. Kent, Old Persian, 1953
  2. ^ 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  
  3. ^ (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.
  4. ^ 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."
  5. ^ 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
  6. ^ Skjærvø, Prods Oktor (2006). "Iran, vi. Iranian languages and scripts". Encyclopaedia Iranica. 13.  
  7. ^ (Schmitt 2008, pp. 80-1)
  • Brandenstein, Wilhelm (1964), Handbuch des Altpersischen, Wiesbaden: O. Harrassowitz  
  • Hinz, Walther (1966), Altpersischer Wortschatz, Nendeln, Liechtenstein: Kraus  
  • Kent, Roland G. (1953), Old Persian: Grammar, Texts, Lexicon, New Haven: American Oriental Society  
  • Sims-Williams, Nicholas (1996), "Iranian languages", Encyclopedia Iranica, 7, Costa Mesa: Mazda  : 238-245
  • Schmitt, Rüdiger (1989), "Altpersisch", in R. Schmitt, Compendium linguarum Iranicarum, Wiesbaden: Reichert  : 56–85
  • Tolman, Herbert Cushing (1908), 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

Length 264 pages

External links


Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary



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Proper noun

Old Persian


Old Persian

  1. The ancestor language of Middle Persian, and via it of modern Persian language. Attested in Old Persian cuneiform, in the period 525 BCE - 300 BCE.

Related terms

See also


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