Old Persian



Persian is an Iranian language within the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European languages. It is primarily spoken in Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and countries which historically came under Persian influence. The Persian language is classified as a continuation of Middle Persian, the official religious and literary language of Sassanid Persia, itself a continuation of Old Persian, the language of the Persian Empire in the Achaemenid era. Persian is a pluricentric language and its grammar is similar to that of many contemporary European languages.

Persian has ca. 110 million native speakers, holding official status respectively in Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. For centuries Persian has also been a prestigious cultural language in Central Asia, South Asia, and Western Asia.

Persian has had a considerable influence (mainly in the lexicon) on neighboring languages, particularly the Turkic languages in Central Asia, Caucasus, and Anatolia, neighboring Iranian languages, as well as Armenian, and Indo-Aryan languages, especially Urdu. It has exerted less influence on Arabic, while borrowing much vocabulary from it.

With a long history of literature in the form of Middle Persian before Islam, Persian was the first language in Muslim civilization to break through Arabic's monopoly on writing, and the writing of poetry in Persian was established as a court tradition in many eastern courts.

Some of the famous works of Persian literature are the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi, works of Rumi (Molana), Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Divan of Hafiz and poems of Saadi.




Old Persian

Old Persian evolved from Proto-Iranian as it evolved in the Iranian plateau's southwest. The earliest dateable example of the language is the Behistun Inscription of the Achaemenid Darius I (r. 522 BC - ca. 486 BC). Although purportedly older texts also exist (such as the inscription on the tomb of Cyrus II at Pasargadae), these are actually younger examples of the language. Old Persian was written in Old Persian cuneiform, a script unique to that language and is generally assumed to be an invention of Darius I's reign.

After Aramaic, or rather the Achaemenid form of it known as Imperial Aramaic, Old Persian is the most commonly attested language of the Achaemenid age. While examples of Old Persian have been found wherever the Achaemenids held territories, the language is attested primarily in the inscriptions of Western Iran, in particular in Parsa "Persia" in the southwest, the homeland of the tribes that the Achaemenids (and later the Sassanids) came from.

In contrast to later Persian, written Old Persian had an extensively inflected grammar, with eight cases, each declension subject to both gender (masculine, feminine, neuter) and number (singular, dual, plural). Old Persian is the name given to the Persian tongue used in the Achamaenian dynasty's cuneiform inscriptions. It was the vernacular speech of the Achamaenian kings, localized in Persia in southwestern Iran. Old Persian is associated with the Inscriptional texts found in Persia, at Persepolis, the nearby Naqs'e Rostam and Pasargadae; in Elam, at Susa; in Media, at Hamadan and not too far away Behistan and Alvand; in Armenia at Van; and along the Suez Canal. They are mostly inscriptions of Darius the Great (521-486 BC) and Xerxes (486-465 BC); and others in a corrupted form of the language, all the way down the line to Artaxerxes III (359-338 BC).

The Script used in the Old Persian inscriptions is of the Cuneiform type: that is, the characters are made of strokes which can be impressed upon soft materials by a stylus with an angled end. The Old Persian inscriptions, were imitations made on hard materials by engraving tools of the strokes impressed on soft materials.

The very first published inscription was given by Chardin in 1711 of the Darius the Great inscription at Persepolis.

The Old Persian characters are inscribed in Syllabary. This means that each character has the value of a vowel or of a consonant plus a vowel. There is a total of 36 such characters plus 5 ideograms, one ligature of ideogram and case ending, the word-divider, and numerical symbols.

The Script used in the Old Persian inscriptions is of the Cuneiform type: that is, the characters are made of strokes which can be impressed upon soft materials by a stylus with an angled end. The Old Persian inscriptions, were imitations made on hard materials by engraving tools of the strokes impressed on soft materials.

The very first published inscription was given by Chardin in 1711 of the Darius the Great inscription at Persepolis.

The Old Persian characters are inscribed in Syllabary. This means that each character has the value of a vowel or of a consonant plus a vowel. There is a total of 36 such characters plus 5 ideograms, one ligature of ideogram and case ending, the word-divider, and numerical symbols.




Middle Persian

In contrast to Old Persian, whose spoken and written forms must have been dramatically different from one another, written Middle Persian reflected oral use. The complex conjugation and declension of Old Persian yielded to the structure of Middle Persian in which the dual number disappeared, leaving only singular and plural, as did gender. Middle Persian used postpositions to indicate the different roles of words, for example an -i suffix to denote a possessive "from/of" rather than the multiple (subject to gender and number) genitive caseforms of a word.

Although the "middle period" of the Iranian languages formally begins with the fall of the Achaemenid Empire, the transition from Old- to Middle Persian had probably already begun before the 4th century. However, Middle Persian is not actually attested until 600 years later when it appears in Sassanid era (224-651) inscriptions, so any form of the language before this date cannot be described with any degree of certainty. Moreover, as a literary language, Middle Persian is not attested until much later, to the 6th or 7th century. And from the 8th century onwards, Middle Persian gradually began yielding to New Persian, with the middle-period form only continuing in the texts of Zoroastrian tradition.

The native name of Middle Persian was Parsik or Parsig, after the name of the ethnic group of the southwest, that is, "of Pars", Old Persian Parsa, New Persian Fars. This is the origin of the name Farsi as it is today used to signify New Persian. Following the collapse of the Sassanid state, Parsik came to be applied exclusively to (either Middle or New) Persian that was written in Arabic script.

From about the 9th century onwards, as Middle Persian was on the threshold of becoming New Persian, the older form of the language came to be erroneously called Pahlavi, which was actually but one of the writing systems used to render both Middle Persian as well as various other Middle Iranian languages. That writing system had previously been adopted by the Sassanids (who were Persians, i.e. from the southwest) from the preceding Arsacids (who were Parthians, i.e. from the northeast). While Rouzbeh (Abdullah Ibn al-Muqaffa, 8th century) still distinguished between Pahlavi (i.e. Parthian) and Farsi (i.e. Middle Persian), this distinction is not evident in Arab commentaries written after that date.

Gernot Windfuhr considers new Persian as an evolution of the Old Persian language and the Middle Persian language but also states that none of the known Middle Persian dialects is the direct predecessor of the New Persian Professor.




New Persian

The history of New Persian itself spans more than 1,0001,200 years. The development of the language in its last period is often divided into three stages dubbed early, classical, and contemporary. Native speakers of the language can in fact understand early texts in Persian with minimal adjustment, because the morphology and, to a lesser extent, the lexicon of the language have remained relatively stable for the most part of a millennium.


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