Old Persian

پارسی قدیم

ID:19477 Section: Adjective

Updated:Monday 13th October 2014

Old Persian Definition

(Wikipedia) - Old Persian Old Persian Region Era Language familyWriting system Language codes ISO 639-2 ISO 639-3 Linguist list Glottolog
Ancient Iran
Ancestor of Middle Persian
  • Indo-Iranian
    • Iranian
      • Western
        • Southwestern
          • Old Persian
Old Persian cuneiform
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters.
History of the Persian language
Proto-Iranian (ca. 1500 BC)

Southwestern Iranian languages

Old Persian (c. 525 BC - 300 BC)

Old Persian cuneiform script

Middle Persian (c.300 BC-800 AD)

Pahlavi script • Manichaean script • Avestan script

Modern Persian (from 800 AD)

Perso-Arabic script

The Old Persian language is one of the two directly attested Old Iranian languages (the other being Avestan). Old Persian is the Pre-Islamic language of Persia. Old Persian appears primarily in the inscriptions, clay tablets, and 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, Bahrain, Iraq, Turkey and Egypt the most important attestation by far being the contents of the Behistun Inscription (dated to 525 BCE). Recent research into the vast Persepolis Fortification Archive at the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago have unearthed Old Persian tablets (2007). This new text shows that the Old Persian language was a written language in use for practical recording and not only for royal display.

  • 1 Origin and overview
  • 2 Classification
  • 3 Language evolution
  • 4 Substrates
  • 5 Script
  • 6 Phonology
  • 7 Grammar
    • 7.1 Nouns
    • 7.2 Verbs
  • 8 Lexicon
  • 9 See also
  • 10 Notes
  • 11 Bibliography
  • 12 Further reading

Origin and overview

As a written language, Old Persian is attested in royal Achaemenid inscriptions. It is an Iranian language and as such a member of the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European language family. The oldest known text written in Old Persian is from the Behistun Inscriptions. Old Persian is one of the oldest Indo-European languages which is attested in original texts.

The oldest date of use of Old Persian as a spoken language is not precisely known. According to certain historical assumptions about the early history and origin of ancient Persians in south-western Iran (where Achaemenids hailed from), Old Persian was originally spoken by a tribe called Parsuwash, who arrived in the Iranian Plateau early in the 1st millennium BCE and finally migrated down into the area of present day Fārs province and their language, i.e. Old Persian, became the official language of the Achaemenid kings. Assyrian records, which in fact appear to provide the earliest evidence for ancient Iranian (Persian and Median) presence on the Iranian Plateau, give a good chronology but only an approximate geographical indication of what seem to be ancient Persians. In these records of the 9th century BCE, Parsuwash (along with Matai, presumably Medians) are first mentioned in the area of Lake Urmia in the records of Shalmaneser III. The exact identity of the Parsuwash is not known for certain, but from a linguistic viewpoint the word matches Old Persian pārsa itself coming directly from the older word *pārćwa. Also, as Old Persian contains many words from another extinct Iranian language, Median, according to P. O. Skjærvø it is probable that Old Persian had already been spoken before formation of the Achaemenid Empire and was spoken during most of the first half of the first millennium BCE.

Classification Main article: Old Iranian languages

Old Persian belongs to the Iranian language family which is a branch of the Indo-Iranian language family, and is sibling to another branch called Indo-Aryan languages. Indo-Iranian languages is itself within the large family of Indo-European languages. The common ancestors of Indo-Iranians came from Central Asia sometime in the first half of the 2nd millennium BCE. The extinct and unattested Median language is another Old Iranian language related to Old Persian (e.g. both are classified as Western Iranian languages and many Median names appeared in Old Persian texts) The group of Old Iranian languages was presumably a large group; however our knowledge of it is restricted mainly to Old Persian, Avestan and Median. The former are the only languages in that group which have left written original texts while Median is known mostly from loanwords in Old Persian.

Language evolution

By the 4th century BCE, 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." Old Persian subsequently evolved into Middle Persian, which is in turn the genetic ancestor of New Persian. Professor Gilbert Lazard, a famous Iranologist and the author of the book Persian Grammar states:

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. Comparison of the evolution at each stage of the language shows great simplification in grammar and syntax. However, New Persian is a direct descendent of Middle and Old Persian.


Old Persian "presumably" 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 both asa (OPers.) and aspa (Med.)."

Script Main article: Old Persian cuneiformAn Old Persian inscription in Persepolis.

Old Persian texts were written from left to right in the syllabic Old Persian cuneiform script and had 36 phonetic characters and 8 logograms. The usage of such characters are not obligatory. The script was surprisingly not a result of evolution of the script used in the nearby civilisation of Mesopotamia. Despite the fact that Old Persian was written in cuneiform script, the script was not a direct continuation of Mesopotamian tradition and in fact, according to Schmitt, was a "deliberate creation of the sixth century BCE".

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".

The script shows a few changes in the shape of characters during the period it was used. This can be seen as a standardization of the heights of wedges which in the beginning (i.e. in DB) took only half the height of a line.


The following phonemes are expressed in the Old Persian script:


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


  Labial Dental/ Alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal Plosive Nasal Fricative Sibilant Rhotic Lateral Approximant
p b t d c ɟ k ɡ    
  m   n            
f   θ   ç x   h  
    s z ʃ          
  ʋ       j        

Notes: Lycian Kizzaprñna ~ Zisaprñna for (genuine) Old Persian *Ciçafarnā (besides the Median form *Ciθrafarnah) = Tissaphernes rather suggests /ts/ as the pronunciation of ç (compare and Kloekhorst 2008, p. 125 in for this example, who, however, mistakenly writes Çiçafarnā, which contradicts the etymology and the Middle Persian form Čehrfar ).

The phoneme /l/ does not occur in native Iranian vocabulary, only in borrowings from Akkadian (a new /l/ develops in Middle Persian from Old Persian /rd/ and the change of /rθ/ to /hl/). The phoneme /r/ can also form a syllable peak; both the way Persian names with syllabic /r/ (such as Brdiya) are rendered in Elamite and its further development in Middle Persian suggest that before the syllabic /r/, an epenthetic vowel had developed already in the Old Persian period, which later became after labials. For example, OP Vᵃ-rᵃ-kᵃ-a-nᵃ /vrkaːna/ is rendered in Elamite as Mirkānu-, rendering transcriptions such as V(a)rakāna, Varkāna or even Vurkāna questionable, and making Vrkāna or Virkāna much more realistic (and equally for vrka- "wolf", Brdiya and other Old Persian words and names with syllabic /r/).

While /v/ usually became /v/ in Middle Persian, it became /b/ word-initially, except before (including the epenthetic vowel mentioned above), where it became /g/. This suggests that it was really pronounced as .

Xavier Tremblay has argued that final /ah/ (from Proto-Indo-Iranian *as), which is spelt as if it had been a long /aː/, was really pronounced as (a pronunciation also found in part of the Middle Indic dialects, reconstructed on this basis for some of the non-Vedic Old Indo-Aryan dialects, and reconstructed for some non-Persian Old Iranian dialects, as well), based on Middle Persian orthography, which suggests a pronunciation /i/ in Late Old Persian.

Grammar Nouns

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 -ā Singular Dual Plural Singular Dual Plural Singular Dual Plural
Nominative -a -ā, -āha -am
Accusative -am -ām
Instrumental/ Ablative -aibiyā -aibiš -aibiyā -aibiš -āyā -ābiyā -ābiš
Dative -ahyā, -ahya -ahyā, -ahya
Genitive -āyā -ānām -āyā -ānām -āyā -ānām
Locative -aiy -aišuvā -aiy -aišuvā -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 -u
Accusative -im -iš -um -ūn
Instrumental/ Ablative -auš -ībiyā -ībiš -auš -ībiyā -ībiš -auv -ūbiyā -ūbiš -auv -ūbiyā -ūbiš
Dative -aiš -aiš -auš -auš
Genitive -īyā -īnām -īyā -īnām -ūvā -ūnām -ūvā -ūnām
Locative -auv -išuvā -auv -išuvā -āvā -ušuvā -āvā -ušuvā

Adjectives are declinable in similar way.


Voices 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. aʰmiy barāmiy
3.pers. astiy baratiy
Pl. 1.pers. aʰmahiy 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. akumā abavāmā
3.pers. akunava abava
Present participle Active Middle
-nt- -amna-
Past participle
Lexicon Proto-Indo-Iranian Old Persian Middle Persian Modern Persian meaning
*asuras mazdhās Ahura mazda Ohrmazd Ormazd اورمزد Ahura Mazda
*aśwas aspa asp asb اسب horse
*kāma kāma kām kām کام benefit
*daiwas daiva dēw div دیو devil
drayah drayā daryā دریا sea
*źhasta- dasta dastag dast دست hand
*bhāgī bāji bāj bāj باج/باژ toll
*bhrātr- brātar brâdar barādar برادر brother
*bhūmiš būmi būm būm بوم region, land
*martya martya mard mard مرد man
*māsa māha māh māh ماه moon, month
*vāsara vāhara vahār bahār بهار spring
stūnā stūn sotūn ستون stand (column)
šiyāta šād šād شاد happy
*ṛtam arta ard ord اُرد order
*drauźh- druj drugh dorōgh دروغ lie

Tags:Achaemenid, Achaemenid Empire, Ahura, Ahura Mazda, Akkadian, Arabic, Artaxerxes, Artaxerxes II, Artaxerxes III, Asia, Assyrian, Bahrain, Behistun Inscription, Central Asia, Chicago, Cyrus, Cyrus the Great, Darius the Great, Dental, Egypt, Elamite, Fars, ISO, Iran, Iranian, Iraq, Islamic, Kurdish, Lake Urmia, Manichaean, Mesopotamia, Old Persian, Pahlavi, Parsi, Parthian, Persepolis, Persia, Persian, Plateau, Proto-Indo-Iranian, Proto-Iranian, Sassanian, Tissaphernes, Turkey, Urmia, Vedic, Wikipedia

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