The dominant Iranian language, Persian in its oldest documented form was the language of the Achaemenids (559–330 BCE). In its middle form, Persian was the official language of the Sasanian empire (227–651 CE). It emerged in its new form after islamization in the middle of the seventh century CE. The Medes, who preceded the Achaemenids, spoke a language closely related to Old Persian. The Parthians (247 BCE–227 CE), who reasserted Iranian rule after the interregnum of Alexander and the Seleucids, spoke a language closely related to Middle Persian.

These Iranian-speaking empires, centered in Iran, at one time or another extended over two vast areas: (1) much of the Near East and (2) southern Eurasia and the northern Indian subcontinent. As such, they played a major role in the political, cultural, and religious history of two major regions of the world.

Geographically, Parsa and the western Iranian plateau as the bridgehead of the ancient Iranian empires represent the area of the southernmost extension of Iranian speakers, whose historical areas were the vast expanses of southern Eurasia from the western shores of the Black Sea to China.

The English term Persian derives from the Greek Persis and Old Persian Parsa, and originally referred to the southwest region of the Iranian plateau, where the Achaemenids first established their empire. They referred to themselves as “Parsa” or as rulers “in Parsa.” The arabicized form of the term is Fars, from which derives the Arabo-Persian designation Farsi for the language. Although the term Persian in its origin referred to a specific region and its local dialect, the term Iranian refers to the totality of the members of the large family of related languages called Iranian.

The Iranian tongues are a branch of the Indo-Iranian or Aryan family of Indo-European languages together with the Indo-Aryan and Nuristani languages. The latter are found in minute remnants in the mountainous Pakistan-Afghanistan border areas, and recognized as distinct only in this century (Morgenstierne, 1973).

The term arya, whose suggested meanings includes “noble,” was a self-designation in the Old Persian inscriptions, in the Avesta and Zoroastrian books, as well as in the Old Indic Vedas (Schmitt, 1986; 1989, pp. 1–3). It came to refer specifically to the western Aryans, that is, the “Iranians.”

Persia and Iran

. The name of the country Iran derives from Old Iranian aryanam khshathram “realm of the Aryas” (Schmitt, 1989, pp. 1–3), later eran shahr, Modern Persian Iranshahr, ultimately reduced to Iran. The confusion between the terms Persia and Iran stems from the political decision of the founder of the Pahlavi dynasty early in the twentieth century to identify his country ethnically and all inclusively as Aryan.

It appears that the areas where Indo-Iranian originally began to develop were the middle Volga River and Kazakhstan. From there the ancestors of the later Indo-Aryan branch first moved south into Central Asia, and further south into eastern Iran, Afghanistan, and northwest India in the early second millennium BCE. These were followed by moves of the ancestors of the later Iranian speakers across southern Eurasia to the west, east, and south, probably beginning around the middle of the second millennium. In the eastern regions, there appears to have occurred a long process of symbiosis and interchange with Indo-Aryan, by which the latter became increasingly absorbed and ultimately confined to the southeastern areas of this expanse and the northwestern areas of the Indian subcontinent. In the western regions, between the Caspian and the western shores of the Black Sea, there appear to have occurred similar processes with other Indo-European branches.

This tentative reconstruction is essentially based on the later linguistic evidence. The correlation of linguistic and ethnic dynamics and archaeological evidence is complex by necessity. The most prominent Indo-Iranian archaeological cultures during the second millennium are Andronovo, Namazga, and Tazabagyab in the delta of the Amu Darya River on the southeastern Aral Sea.

Forays to the south as well appear to have happened frequently but without lasting results. Best known are the linguistic Indo-Aryan-type traces in texts of the Mitanni period of the fifteenth century. Similarly, there may have been Indo-European or pre-Indo-Iranian influences on the Kassites in the central Zagros in western Iran. [See Kassites.]

The Iranians in Eurasia included such better-known peoples as the Scythians, known in the classical periods as the most numerous barbarians beside the Celts. The Scythians' forays found them in Poland and Siberia; their cousins, the Saka, reigned in eastern Eurasia, Afghanistan, and northern India. Other prominent Eurasian Iranians were the Sarmatians and Alans (from arya-) in the areas between the Black and Caspian Seas, who at one time entered the Hungarian plains; and the widely urbanized Sogdians who resided between the Aral Sea and Chinese Turkistan, a vital link in east-west commerce. It is possible that the Cimmerians, who were driven by the Scythians from the eastern Pontic areas across the Caucasus in the eighth century BCE had a strong Iranian component.

As to the plateau of Iran proper, the Medes, probably from across the Caucasus were the first Iranians to extend their rule in northwestern Iran. Simultaneously, groups of Persians appear to have made forays from the northeast of the plateau and moved further to the west and finally south. Both were first mentioned as Mada and Parsua in inscriptions of Salmaneser III (858–854). [See Medes.]

Overall, it appears that the East, including Sistan, Central Asia, and Afghanistan, remained a major linguistic and cultural Iranian center during the first millennium. In fact, it retained its status throughout the first millennium CE and beyond, until its devastation by the Mongols during the first half of the thirteenth century (Geiger and Kuhn, 1895–1904, vol. 2; Grantovskij, 1970; Burrow, 1973; Ghirshman, 1977; Parpola, 1988; Renfrew, 1987, pp. 178–210; Mallory, 1989, pp. 227–31; Anthony, 1991; Boyce, 1992, with implications for Zoroastrianism).

Dialectology and Periodization.

The documented Iranian languages are divided into three diachronic (chronological) stages—Old Iranian, Middle Iranian, and Modern Iranian—roughly following major political changes. The Iranian languages are divided into two major dialects: (1) South Iranian, which comprises the languages of the Iranian plateau and (2) North Iranian, which covers the remainder of the Iranian languages. (The traditional terminological distinction, still often followed, is West vs. East Iranian.) In turn, South Iranian is divided into two subdialects: (1) Southwest Iranian, which comprises Persian and related dialects, and (2) Northwest Iranian, sometimes called Median, which includes the remainder of South Iranian. (For general overviews, see Geiger and Kuhn, 1895–1904; Schmitt, 1989, pp. 1–3; and for early history, see Mayrhofer, 1989; Schmitt, 1989, pp. 25–31; Schmitt, 1994).

Old Iranian languages.

Only two languages, Old Persian and Avestan, are well documented. Old Persian was the court language of the Achaemenids. It is attested by a rather limited corpus of inscriptions and is probably based on the local dialect of the province Parsa (Kent, 1953; Brandenstein and Mayrhofer, 1964; Schmitt 1989, pp. 56–85).

Avestan (probably a calque on Greek episteme “received knowledge”), the sacred language of the Zoroastrian texts, was originally spoken in northeastern Iran and Central Asia. It is documented by a much more extensive corpus, ranging from the Gathas of Zarathushtra (possibly dating from before 1000 BCE) to the so-called Younger Avestan texts, some of which in origin may have predated Zarathushtra, and later compositions. The oldest preserved manuscripts date from the thirteenth century BCE (Jackson, 1892; Reichelt, 1909; Beekes, 1988; Kellens, 1989).

These two languages are also known from references in other languages (Hinz, 1975; Schmitt, 1989, pp. 86–94). A number of other Old Iranian languages are attested only by a small number of words, names, and phrases scattered throughout the writings of additional languages such as Old Scythian in southern Russia, Old Parthian in eastern Iran, and Old Sogdian in Central Asia.

Old Persian and Avestan are southwestern and northern dialects respectively. Within Avestan both diachronic and dialectical differences are apparent. Old Persian has several dialectical features, including “Medisms” and incipient Middle Persian features in later inscriptions.

Middle Iranian languages.

The beginning of the Middle Iranian stage can be dated to the third century BCE, based on the evidence found in later Achaemenid inscriptions (Schmitt, 1989, pp. 95–105; Sundermann, 1989, pp. 106–113). Although Middle Persian was replaced by New Persian beginning about the seventh century CE, some other Middle Iranian languages are documented in the thirteenth century. The Middle Iranian languages described in the following paragraphs are documented by texts.

Middle Persian was the official language of the Sasanians. It is best attested in the writings of their state religion, Zoroastrianism, most of which date from the ninth century CE but represent an earlier stage of the language. Middle Persian was also used by Christians, and it was one of the church languages of the Manichaeans in eastern Iran and Central Asia. Mani (d. 277) himself, though an Aramaic speaker, composed a book in Middle Persian for Shapur I. It was used until the eleventh century, as evidenced, e.g., by the signature of witnesses on a copper-plate grant to a Syrian Church in southern India (probably ninth century) and by coins and inscriptions of several local Iranian dynasties (Nyberg, 1964; 1974; Heston, 1976; Brunner, 1977; MacKenzie 1971; Sundermann, 1989, pp. 138–164).

A dialect of the Northwestern subgroup, Parthian was the official language of the Parthians or Arsacids and was spoken in northeastern and partially also northwestern Iran. There are also extensive Manichaean texts in Parthian, which provide evidence for the continuation of this language in Central Asia until the tenth century (Ghilain, 1939; Heston, 1976; Brunner, 1977; Sundermann, 1989, pp. 114–137).

Several languages comprise the northern dialects (Sims-Williams, 1989, pp. 165–172). Sogdian, spoken from Central Asia to the borders of China, is likewise found in many Manichaean texts (Gershevitch, 1954; Sims-Williams, 1989, pp. 173–192). Khwarezmian was spoken in the area south of the Aral Sea and is attested mainly by glosses to Arabic texts (Humbach, 1989). Saka appears in many Buddhist texts found in Chinese Turkestan (Emmerick, 1968, 1989). Bactrian in northern Afghanistan is evidenced by several inscriptions and texts mainly from the first to the third century CE (Humbach and Grahmann, 1966; Humbach, 1989). Scytho-Sarmatian and Alanian were used in the northern Pontic (Bielmeier, 1989; Sims-Williams, 1989, pp. 230–235).

Middle Persian is a successor, albeit with more typical “southwestern” features, of Old Persian. Parthian does not have a known direct ancestor but shows certain northern features attributable to the origin of the dynasty from among the Parni between the Caspian and Aral Seas. No direct successor of Avestan is attested. (On the multiethnic and linguistic variety of Middle Persian with a focus on the Achaemenid Empire, see Rossi, 1981; Delauney, 1985; Schmitt, 1978, 1989, pp. 56–85.)

Modern Iranian languages.

Modern Iranian emerged during the eighth century CE. First attested is Modern Persian (three Judeo-Persian inscriptions in Hebraic script, dated 752/3, found in central Afghanistan; and a letter fragment found near Khotan in Xinjiang, China, also dating to the eighth century).

The modern Iranian dialects are spoken in an area that roughly reflects the extent of earlier Iranian rule, stretching from Central Asia and Pakistan through Afghanistan and Iran to Iraq and Turkey, and into the Caucasus. The modern southern Iranian languages include southwestern Persian (in Iran, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan); northwestern Baluchi (in eastern Iran, western Afghanistan, and south-western Pakistan) and Kurdish (in northwestern Iran, northern Iraq, and eastern Turkey); and numerous remnants of Median and Parthian dialects in central and northwestern Iran, and also in northern Iraq, and eastern Turkey.

The modern northeastern languages include Pashto, which is widely spoken in Afghanistan and Pakistan; Yaghnobi in southern Tajikistan, which is the sole remnant of Sogdian; and a great variety of dialects in northeastern and central Afghanistan and Pakistan. Finally, Ossetic is isolated in the central Caucasus, and the last remnant of the Scytho-Sarmatian dialects that in antiquity were spoken over vast areas of South Russia (see respective chapters in Schmitt, 1989).

Writing Systems.

Most Iranian scripts are varieties of and developments from Aramaic, which was the administrative language of the Achaemenid Empire. Subsequently Iranian languages—first Parthian, then Middle Persian—were written in variants of Aramaic. Middle Persian is most familiar from the Zoroastrian books in the script Book-Pahlavi in which the original twenty-two letters had coalesced to some fourteen distinct shapes in cursive and partially connected ligatures. The Avestan script, which was highly differentiated to allow the smallest record of the standard pronunciation of the sacred texts, was developed out of Book-Pahlavi (Morgenstierne, 1942; Windfuhr, 1972).

Scripts not derived from Aramaic are the thirty-six signs of Old Persian cuneiform, which were invented for the inscriptions of Darius I (Diakonoff, 1979; Windfuhr, 1970; LeCoq, 1974); the Greek alphabet of Bactrian; and the central Asian Brahmi variant used for the Saka documents.

[See also Parthians; Persia; Persians; and Sasanians.]


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Gernot L. Windfuhr