The languages of the Zoroastrian scriptures, the Avesta, and the Hindu scriptures, the Rig Veda, are classified by linguists as part of the Indo-Iranian family of languages. The people who spoke the Indo-Iranian languages are in turn called the Indo-Iranian peoples. The people who wrote the Avesta and the Rig Veda, called themselves Aryans, and the Avestan-Rig Vedic languages can alternatively be called the Aryan languages.
Avestan Old Iranian & Rig Vedic Sanskrit Similarities
The oldest language or dialect in the Avesta, the language of the Gathas and the Yasna Haptanghaiti, is close to the language used in the Rig Veda, the older Hindu scriptures, which for convenience we call Vedic Sanskrit. Together, they form some of the oldest surviving literature in the world.
The following is an example of the closeness of the Avestan and Vedic (Sanskrit) languages:
Old Iranian/Avestan: aevo pantao yo ashahe, vispe anyaesham apantam (Yasna 72.11)
Old Indian/Sanskrit: abade pantha he ashae, visha anyaesham apantham
Translation: the one path is that of Asha, all others are not-paths.
[The Vedic-Sanskrit translation of the Avestan was provided to this writer by Dr. Satyan Banerjee.]
We are also grateful to Vaibhav Niku, for bringing to our attention a book by Prof. Hermann Brunnhofer titled Urgeschichte der Arier in Vorder- und Centralasien (Prehistory of the Aryans in West- and Central-Asia), 1893. On pages 1 and 2 of his Introduction Prof. Brunnhofer quotes Prof. H. Kern's book [from his book Over het woord Zarathustra (About the Word Zarathustra), p. 16, (1867)] as stating, "the Bactrian (i.e. Avestan) is so (greatly) related to the Old-Indian language (Vedic), and in particular, that of the Vedas, that without exaggeration it can be called a dialect thereof." By way of an example, Brunnhofer then quotes Yasna 10.8 in Avestan and follows the verse with what it would read like in Vedic Sanskrit (in much the same way as we have done above with Yasna 72.11) Click here for the Vedic-Sanskrit equivalent for Yasna 10.8 according to Brunnhofer and Bartholomae.
Vaibhav Niku states that calling the Vedic language 'Vedic Sanskrit' "is technically wrong, as 'Sanskrit' is bound by Panini's (see below) grammar, which came long after the (Rig) Vedic language. But, 'Vedic Sanskrit' is a common term, and it has no ambiguity, and yours is only an introduction and not scholarly work, so you could use it too. Also, even authorities use it as a shorthand."
The comparative example of the Avestan and Rig-Vedic (Sanskrit) languages above demonstrate that the languages are so close that they are for all practical purposes dialects of the same language. They are nevertheless not identical. At the time of their writing, the people of the old Avesta and Rig Veda were likely close neighbours. A conclusion by extrapolation is that at an earlier time the two people shared a common language named by linguists as Proto Indo-Iranian. This is a deduction. There are no known examples of the presumed Proto Indo-Iranian language. Proto Indo-Iranian would have been the language of the ancient Aryans before their separation into the Avestan and Rig Vedic groups.
There are compelling arguments indicating Central Asia was the location of the Proto Indo-Iranians people, the Aryans, and the region where their language originated (also see our page on the Location of the Aryan Homeland, Airyana Vaeja). Given that the Rig Veda is commonly thought to have been written in the Upper Indus region, we have yet one more reason to look at the area immediately to the north and north-west of the upper Indus Valley i.e. the Badakshan-Pamir region as being a strong candidate for the homeland of the ancient Aryans, the so-called Proto Indo-Iranians.
At some point in history, the Aryans coalesced into neighbouring Avestan and Rig-Vedic groups. Eventually, they migrated out of their original Central Asian homeland with one group, the Avestan people or Iranian Zoroastrians, migrating west into present day Iran. In this scenario, the other group, the Rig Vedic people or Indian Hindus, migrated south into the Indian sub-continent's upper Indus valley, a land which the Avestan people would call Hapta Hindu, the land of the seven Indus rivers. We use the word 'migration' with some caution. The lands to which the Aryans migrated were already familiar to them through trade and they very well could have had pre-existing trading colonies in these areas. The 'migration' did not displace the native people nor was it violent. For the main part the Aryans successfully integrated with the existing populations in a mutually beneficial manner - as the Persians did with the Elamites. Population densities were likely quite low at that time and there is a good possibility that some valleys in the upper Indus region (cold and inhospitable in the winter compared to the warmer plains) were uninhabited. In any event, regionally, the upper Indus was contiguous with the mountain regions of the Pamirs and Central Asia - it was not a foreign land as today's borders may lead us to believe. The Zoroastrian scriptures talk about a southward expansion and not a migration during the time of King Jamshid, Yima in the Avesta and Yama in the Rig Veda (also see Migration of the Aryans and Expansion of Aryan Lands). There is no mention of 'invading' a neighbouring territory.
Vedic, Classical Sanskrit & Prakrit
The Vedic language itself is said to have gone through five stages: 1. The Rigvedic phase said to have existed prior to 1200-1800 BCE (the oldest hymns of the Rigveda are thought to have been composed several centuries after the separation of the Iranian and Indian Aryans and the area of their composition is likely the Upper Indus region). The Rig Veda's incantations or samhitas are said to be amongst its earliest verses. 2. The Mantric phase which include the mantras in the Atharvaveda, Yajurveda, the Rigveda Khilani and the Samaveda Samhita. 3. The Samhita prose phase. 4. The Brahmana prose phase which includes the oldest Upanishads, the Brihadaranyaka, Chandogya and the Jaiminiya Upanishad Brahmana. 5. The Sutra phase which includes the Shrauta and Grhya Sutras, as well as the Younger Upanishads such as the Katha and Maitrayaniya Upanishads.
Panini was a Sanskrit grammarian from Pushkalavati, Gandhara, a region which is now part of modern-day Charsadda District in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (formerly known as the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan). One guess is that Panini lived around the 6th century BCE. Ancient Gandhara was part of Hapta Hindu (meaning Seven-Indus, the upper Indus basin of the Indus River and its tributaries), the 15th Avestan-Vendidad nation. Panini's work, the Ashtadhyayi, is the earliest surviving text on Classical Sanskrit grammar. Panini himself refers to previous works such as the Unadisutra, Dhatupatha and Ganapatha. Together with the work of his immediate predecessors Nirukta, Nighantu, and Pratishakyas, Panini's Ashtadhyayi is acknowledged to stand at the beginning of the history of linguistics. His theory of morphological analysis was more advanced than any equivalent Western theory before the mid 20th century. Vaibhav Niku informs us that 'संस्कृत' (commonly transliterated as Sanskrit) means "highly elaborated/well constructed speech".
While the emergence of Panini's grammar is now taken to mark the end of the period of the Vedic language period (otherwise known as Vedic-Sanskrit) and the beginning of the Classical Sanskrit period defined by Panini's grammar, we should be careful not to state that his grammar caused or marked the transition since according to some references in Panini's text, the language of the Vedic scriptures had already fallen out of common use as a spoken language in his time. In other words, the Vedic language had already become archaic by Panini's time and Classical Sanskrit was an established language to whose grammar Panini gave definition and structure.
The Hindu Epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata, were written in Classical Sanskrit with an admixture of Prakrit a descendant of the Vedic. Prakrit is contrasted from Sanskrit with the former being designated the language of common folk, a vernacular, while the latter was used for religious texts, the scholarly language of Brahmins. Inevitable lower and upper class distinctions attached themselves to the two language forms as well. A variant of Prakrit spoken by the Jains is curiously called Ardha Magadhi meaning half Magadhi. Magadha was an eastern Aryan kingdom on the south bank of the Ganges and which includes most of modern-day Bihar.
Iranian Aryan Languages
Old Iranian Languages of the Avesta
An Avestan Language is any one of the Indo-Iranian languages used to compose the Zoroastrian scripture, the Avesta. The Avestan languages range from the ancient language of the hymns of Zarathushtra, the Gathas, to Sogdian and the relatively modern language of the commentaries, the Zand. The language of the Zand is a language that is relatively close to modern Persian. [There are non-scriptural, classical Middle Persian religious texts written in the Pahlavi script (see below).]
Language of the Gathas and Yasna Haptanghaiti
The Avesta's Gathas and Yasna Haptanghaiti were composed in the oldest of the Avestan languages called Gathic Avestan or Old Avestan. The Haptanghaiti are seven chapters inserted between two Gatha sections and are believed to have been composed by Zarathushtra's followers either during his lifetime, or shortly after. However, unlike the Gathas which were composed in verse, the Haptanghaiti were composed in prose.
Language of the Yasna, Yashts & Visperad
The balance of the Avesta's Yasna together with the Avesta's Yashts and Visperad were composed in a language called Young Avestan, so named because it is believed to have come into use after Old Avestan had stopped being used as an everyday language of the people.
However, while the language of say, the Yashts, is thought to be younger than the language of the Gathas, the content of some of the Yashts such as the Meher Yasht may contain pre-Zoroastrian Mithraic material. Other material in the Yashts such as the Farvardin Yasht lists in some detail the names of Zarathushtra's first followers and would have initially been composed contemporaneously with the Gathas.
There is no reason to assume that all the material for the Farvardin Yasht originated at the same time as when it was finally composed or that the different sections of the so-called Younger Avesta were written at the same time or location. In the Farvardin Yasht, other than the name of the Aryan homeland (called Airyanam Dakhyunam in the Yasht) the names of several nations are unrecognizable and bear no resemblance to the nations listed in another part of the Younger Avesta, the Vendidad (see below). The Farvardin Yasht's nation names appear to be far more archaic. For this reason, the time of final composition of any part of the Avesta may not be the same as the date of its initial composition. The same holds true for the Vendidad contents.
Language of the Vendidad / Videvdat
The name Vendidad is a later form of Videvdat, which is in turn a contraction of Vî-Daêvô-Dāta - the law against the devas or evil. The language of the Vendidad is reputed to be the youngest of the Avestan languages and some parts appear to have been composed after the language had ceased to be a commonly spoken language. However, the term 'youngest' is a comparative term since the writing of the Vendidad preceded - perhaps substantially - the formation of Media and Persia, viz. before the 8th century BCE.
In addition, as with the Yashts, the date of composition of the final version does not exclude the possibility that some parts of the Vendidad may consist of very old material. Even in this modern age, we are continually rewriting old material.
Language of the Zand
The commentaries attached to the Avesta are called the Zand. A large part of the Zand were composed / written in Middle Persian (see below).
Post Avestan Languages
Eastern & Western Dialects
For the main part, the Avesta was composed in so-called eastern (Central Asian) dialects or forms of Old Iranian. Old Persian, specific to the Persian Aryans, was a western form of the Old Iranian languages. Each of the Aryan groups spoke their own dialect of Old Iranian. For instance, the Medes spoke a dialect called Old Median and the Persians of the Achaemenian era spoke Old Persian.
Old Persian is the language found in the inscriptions of the Achaemenian kings (c.700 - 330 BCE), founders of the Persian kingdom and empire. As we noted above, Old Persian is considered to be a western form of Old Iranian. Old Persian still, nevertheless, maintained close similarities with the eastern forms such as Old Sogdian, an eastern Central Asian dialect of Old Iranian.
No part of the existing Avesta is written in Old Median or Old Persian, the old languages of the Aryan migrants to the far west of the Iranian plateau. Persian priests continued to use the eastern Old Iranian languages in which the Avesta had originally been composed.
Old Persian went through a transformation during the Achaemenian era. The inscriptions of Artaxerxes II (404-359 BCE) and Artaxerxes III (359-338 BCE) show an evolution of the language and a noticeable difference from the language used in the inscriptions of Darius I (522-486 BCE). The difference is significant enough for philologists and linguists to name the language of the later Achaemenid period as 'pre-Middle Persian' or 'post-Old Persian'.
The Achaemenian dynasty ended with their defeat and the conquest of Persia by Alexander of Macedonia in 330 BCE. After Alexander's death, the conquered lands were ruled by his generals, one of whom establish the short-lived Seleucid dynasty.
For a more detailed exposition on Old Persian, its discovery and decipherment, please see our page on Old Persian.
Macedonian Seleucid rule of the Persian Empire began to crumble in 246 BCE after a revolt by the Parthian Arsacids and their Bactrian allies, Aryan groups from the north-central Aryan lands of Parthia and Bactria. The language of the Arsacid dynasty (247 BCE - 224 CE) is known to us as Parthian (it also called Parthian Pahlavi, Arsacid Pahlavi or Pahlavanik). Parthian Pahlavi became the successor official language to Old Persian in the traditional Aryan lands.
Middle Persian Pahlavi & Parsik
The Arsacids rulers of the reconstituted Persian empire were themselves displaced by the Sassanians (224 - 652 CE), and the Persian language they spoke was a derivative of Parthian Pahlavi which we now call Middle Persian, but known locally as Parsik. Middle Persian Pahlavi was the official language of the Sassanian empire.
The language we know as Middle Persian Pahlavi is Middle Persian written with the Pahlavi script. Because of Pahlavi's limited alphabet, it employed Aramaic logograms (symbols that represent words in the way '&' represents 'and'). While the words represented Aramaic words, they were read as Middle Persian words. The Pahlavi script had yet another short coming. Its alphabet could not adequately represent all the sounds in the Avestan languages.
After the Sassanian Zoroastrians were overthrown by the Arabs in the mid-600s, Pahlavi gradually evolved into Farsi Persian (Persian written using the Arabic script), a gradual transformation that took until the 9th century CE before Farsi became the prevalent language. However, even the 9th century there were a number of Zoroastrian writers who were still fluent in Middle Persian Pahlavi.
Middle Persian Pazend
The Pahlavi alphabet did not contain the range of sounds required to commit the Avestan texts to writing. The Avestan alphabet and script were used for this purpose. The Sassanian era Avesta also contained commentaries and translations called the Zend (or Zand) written in Middle Persian. Middle Persian Pazend was the name given to Middle Persian written with the Avestan script. Because Avestan employed a larger number of alphabets, it did not require the use of Pahlavi pictograms.
In addition to Farsi (Persian, the national language of Iran), the traditional language spoken amongst the Zoroastrians of Yazd and Kerman is called Dari, a name shared with the dialect of Persian spoken in Afghanistan. However, despite sharing the same name, the Dari dialects of Yazd or Kerman are quite different from the Dari of Afghanistan.
One explanation about the etymology of the name Dari is that it may have evolved from the word darbar meaning court, the implication being that Dari was the court language of the eastern Iranian lands (including Afghanistan) during the Persian Sassanid dynasty (226 - 651 CE). Another explanation is that before the Arab invasion of Iran, the languages of greater Iran were known to Iranians as Dari and not Farsi.
The following is a quote from our page on Haroyu (Aria, presently Herat and adjoining provinces in north-western Afghanistan): "The residents of Herat City are mainly the Parsiban (or Farsiwan), a group otherwise simply called Parsi (or Farsi), two versions of an ethnic term sometimes meaning 'Persian speaker'. However, all Afghani Persian speakers are not called Parsiban. For the main part, Parsiban refers to a sub-group of ethic Tajiks who speak Khorasani Dari, a Persian language dialect. [Khorasan is the northeast province of Iran that borders Herat and Afghanistan.] This is especially true of the rural Parsiban who have maintained the tradition of speaking Khorasani Dari. Members of the same ethno-linguistic group are also found in the Eastern Iranian provinces of Khorasan and Siestan / Sistan. Khorasani Dari is native to Khorasan, Herat and Farah provinces - provinces that were once part of Greater Khorasan. The eastern-most district in Herat Province is called Farsi / Parsi. There are about 600,000 Parsiban in Afghanistan out of a present population of just under thirty three million." Given that Khorasani Dari is spoken all along eastern Iran, from Khorasan to Siestan, and that many Zoroastrians from these areas migrated to Kerman and Yazd, carrying with them their language, the eastern Iranian connections with the Zoroastrians of Yazd and Kerman bear further exploration.
The eastern Iranian / Persian dialect of Dari that eventually evolved in Yazd and Kerman, cannot be understood by the speakers of Iran's national language, Farsi, a western Iranian / Persian dialect. The Zoroastrians of Yazd have not been very willing to teach non-Zoroastrians how to speak the language, using it to communication amongst themselves or when they did not want the Muslims of Yazd to understanding what they were saying. [The Dari speakers of Yazd know mainstream Farsi, the language spoken by Muslim Yazdis, as well.] E. G. Browne wrote in his book, A Year Amongst the Persians (1893), "This Dari dialect is only used by the guebres (see gabr above, a derogatory word that Muslims used for Zoroastrians) amongst themselves, and all of them, so far as I know, speak Persian as well. When they speak their own dialect, even a Yezdi Musulman cannot understand what they are saying, or can only understand it very imperfectly. It is for this reason that the Zoroastrians cherish their Dari, and are somewhat unwilling to teach it to a stranger... To me they were as a rule ready enough to impart information about it; though when I tried to get old Jamshid the gardener to tell me more about it, he excused himself, saying that knowledge of it could be of no possible use to me."
Yazdi Dari Dialect
The principle Yazdi dehs 'villages' or neighbourhoods, have their own Dari variation that can sometimes be distinguished by the accent of the speaker, accents that can be quite 'thick'. While there are twenty-four such variations of Dari in use today, the Yazdis broadly group the different variations into the Sharifabadi and Mahlati dialects, Sharifabadi being the older and most difficult to understand while Mahlati is considered the more 'mainstream' dialect. Sharifabad is one of the oldest and most conservative of Yazdi villages. Mahlati is derived from Mahal-e Yazd / Mahale-ye Yazd, the Zoroastrian section of old Yazd city proper (the villages or neighbourhoods of Yazd are discussed further below.
Danger of Extinction
In their paper, The Dari Language Project, Annahita Farudi and M. Doustdar Toosarvandani quote Mazdapour (1995) as listing Deh-No, Deh-Abshahi, Ahmadabad, Shahabad, and Mehdiabad as some of the Dari varieties / dialects that have become extinct within the last thirty years. Given the diaspora and emancipation of Yazdi Zoroastrians, Dari is falling out of use within families.
» Further reading: The Dari Language Project by Annahita Farudi and M. Doustdar Toosarvandani (pdf)
Oral Avestan Texts
The original Avesta was transmitted orally by priests and laity memorizing Avestan passages as verse, hymns, and manthra.
Written Avestan Texts
At some point in history, the oral Avestan texts were committed to writing. The first record of a written text of the Avesta comes from the Middle Persian language (Pahlavi) writer Arda Viraf, in his book the Arda Viraf Nameh. In it, he writes that the the Persian Achaemenian kings (c. 700 - 300 BCE) commissioned the commitment of the Avesta to writing and deposited the texts in the royal library at Istakhr. "...the entire Avesta and Zand, written on parchment with gold ink, were deposited in the archives at Stakhar Papakan (Istakhr, near Persepolis and Shiraz in Pars province), ... and the invader Alexander of Macedonia... burned them. He also killed several judges, dasturs, mobeds, herbads and other upholders of the religion, as well as the competent and wise of the country of Iran" (in an attempt to destroy the oral tradition as well).
After the overthrow of the Macedonian occupation, surviving information was collected and the texts were reassembled as best as possible.
The above mention by Arda Viraf of a written copy of the Avesta during Achaemenian times leaves open the possibility that a script other that cuneiform was in use during Achaemenian times for the writing of the Avesta. We discuss this further in the section on scripts below.
The earliest known written text of the Avesta that has survived is a fragment of a 10th century CE Sogdian manuscript discovered in the 'Caves of a Thousand Buddhas' - a cliff wall near the city of Dunhuang, a town on the Silk Road in northwest China. The manuscript was written in the Sogdian using the Avestan script.
The alphabet and system of writing is called a script.
The earliest known written texts of the Iranian language family are the Achaemenian era (c. 700 - 300 BCE) Old Persian written texts that use the cuneiform script. The script used to write the Middle Persian language was the Pahlavi script that was in turn based on the Aramaic script. The earliest known surviving examples of texts written in Pahlavi date to the beginning of the Sassanid era (226-651 CE) - from 3rd century CE to 4th century CE. The earliest known examples of the Avestan script, from the 10th century ACE, post-date the Pahlavi texts even though Avestan is the older of the two languages. The range of vowel and consonant sounds in Avestan is wider than that found in Pahlavi. The range of Avestan alphabet sounds is closer to the range found in Sanskrit. For this reason the Avestan alphabet is better suited for writing the Avestan texts.
The direction of writing for the cuneiform script is left to right, while the direction of writing for the cursive Pahlavi and Avestan scripts is right to left.
Cuneiform was a wedged shaped system of writing that was developed around 3,000 BCE to write on soft clay that was then hardened. Cuneiform was also used to engrave inscriptions on rock. Some of the earliest examples of cuneiform appear in Southern Mesopotamia (today's Southern Iraq).
The Achaemenians used the cuneiform script for their Old Persian inscriptions, tablets and plaques. Old Persian Cuneiform script is written from left to right and consists of thirty-six signs representing vowels and consonants, eight logograms, and three signs that are combined to represent numbers.
Further reading: See our page on Old Persian.
|Darius' listing of Persian Empire nations|
Cuneiform Inscription at Behistun
Column 1 lines 9-17
|Letter written in Aramaic from Arsham, Persian Satrap of Egypt (423-403 BCE),|
to his agent Nehtihur, asking his agent to look after his interests
Aramaic was the language of the Aramean (also spelt Aramaean) people, a people who inhabited the upper reaches of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, an area that would have placed it within, or in close proximity to Ranghaya, the sixteenth Aryan nation listed in the Vendidad, a book of the Zoroastrian scriptures, the Avesta.
While the Achaemenian Persians used Old Persian for communication with other Persians, Achaemenian Persian King Darius I, the Great, and his successors used Aramaic as the official language with which to communicate their officials throughout the empire.
We do not have any examples of the Aramaic script used to write Old Persian. However, we have surviving examples of Parthian and Sassanian Middle Persian written in a derivative of the Aramaic script which we know as the Pahlavi script.
Further reading: See our page on Aramaic.
The Pahlavi script is said to be derived from Aramaic and consists of a large number of ideograms - Aramaic words that were read as Pahlavi words. It is written from right to left.
The Pahlavi alphabet and sounds does not contain the range of the Avestan script.
|Example of Pahlavi writing|
The Avestan alphabet and script was the writing system used to develop a written Avestan text during the Sassanian era (226-651 CE). For this reason it is also called din dabireh or din dabiri, meaning 'religious script' in Middle Persian.
The Avestan script is written from right to left and is said to have been based on the Pahlavi script. The advantage of the Avestan script over the Pahlavi script was that the Avestan alphabet encompassed a greater range of sounds.
|Gathas in Avestan script|
|Avestan alphabet and script|
PPerin Pudumjee Coyaji, based in Pune, India, is a calligrapher who taught herself the Avestan script and then analysed each alphabet - going beyond the script to uncover the art form latent in each letter.
» Online resources at Avesta.org
» Old Persian at Ancient Scripts
» Old Persian Dictionary at University of Texas
» Wikipedia Old Persian Language
Pahlavi Fonts, Script & Grammar:
» Ancient Iranian Font Project at St. Catherine University
» Fravahr.org Persic Font
» Iran Chamber Pahlavi Font
Avesta Fonts, Script & Grammar:
» Teach Yourself Avesta Language by Dr. Ervad Ramiyar Parvez Karanjia (2005) at Avesta.org (pdf file)
» Ancient Iranian Font Project at St. Catherine University
» Iran Chamber Avestan Alphabet
» Omniglot Avestan
» Avestan Grammar at University of Texas
» Lessons in Avesta by Bharucha at Avesta.org
» Old Avestan at Harvard University
» Wikipedia Avestan Language
» A Grammar of Gatha-Avestan by Robert Beekes
Rig Veda (links provided by Vaibhav Niku):
» Rig Veda: a Metrically Restored Text, by Barend A. van Nooten and Gary B. Holland, 1994
» John Robert Gardner's website on the Rigveda
» Karen Thomson's homepage with links