Middle Persian: Pahlavi the Language of Sassanid Empire

  April 11, 2021   Read time 3 min
Middle Persian: Pahlavi the Language of Sassanid Empire
Pahlavi was used in Iranian plateau when Sassanids ruled the land. Western parts of the Empire were pioneer in the use of the middle Persian. Later the language was extensively used by other parts of the land too.

Subgroup: Southwestern
Period: 3rd c. BC - 9th c. AD
Region: Pārs (Fārs)
Writing: Pahlavi alphabet, Manichaean (Palmyrenean) alphabet
Main sources: Sasanian inscriptions, Zoroastrian Pahlavi literature, Manichaean Middle Persian literature.
Grammars/Manuals: Skjærvø, P. O., Introduction to Pahlavi, 2007; Skjærvø, P. O., ‘Middle West Iranian’, in Windfuhr, G. (ed.) The Iranian Languages, London/New York, 2009, pp. 196-278; Rastorgueva, V. S., Srednepersidskiy Yazyk, Moscow, 1966.
Text editions: Pākzād, F., Bundahišn, Zoroastrische Kosmogonie und Kosmologie, Band I, Kritische Edition, Tehran, 2005; Madan, Dh. M., The Complete Text of the Pahlavi Dinkard, vol. I & II, Bombay, 1911; Jamasp-Asana, J. M., Corpus of Pahlavi Texts, Bombey, 1913.
Dictionaries: MacKenzie, D. N., A Concise Pahlavi Dictionary, London, Oxford University Press, 1971; Nyberg, H. S., A Manual of Pahlavi, vol. II, Wiesbaden, 1974; Durkin-Meisterernst, D., Dictionary of Manichaean texts, vol. III, Part 1. Dictionary of Manichaean Middle Persian and Parthian, Brepolis, 2004.

Speakers and area. Middle Persian (MP) is the direct descendant of Old Persian and the ancestor of New Persian.

It was spoken in the Pārs region, what is now the province of Fars of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Middle Persian had a prominent role during the Persian Sasanian dynasty (224-651 AD) which came from Pārs. Middle Persian was the native tongue of the Sasanian rulers, and for this reason MP became the state language of the Sasanian Empire, which stretched from the Euphrates to modern-day Afghanistan.

Later, it spread to the northeastern regions of the Sasanian Empire (Xwarasan, Khurasan), where it replaced the native Parthian. During the Islamic period, the Persian dialect of Khurasan became the main literary standard of Persian.

Script and literature. Main documentation of MP comes from two major sources: Middle Persian Zoroastrian and Manichaean religious texts. There are also Sasanian royal inscriptions left mostly by the early Sasanian kings and high-ranking officials of the state, which, as authentic epigraphical monuments, are important (besides the obvious historical reasons) for reconstructing the history of MP.

Most of the written MP sources can be dated between the 3rd-9th centuries AD.

Middle Persian Zoroastrian literature (also called Pahlavi literature) is comparatively rich and almost completely of religious character. It is written in the Pahlavi alphabet, which is a very complicated script. It developed from the older Aramaic alphabet and has only 14 characters (despite MP having 29/31 sounds). Major written texts in Zoroastrian Middle Persian include: Bundahišn, Dēnkard, Wizīdagīhā ī Zādsparam, Ardā-Wīrāz-Nāmag, Ayādgār ī Zarērān, Kārnāmag ī Ardaxšēr ī Pābagān, etc., and translations and commentary of parts of the Avesta.

Manichaeism was a gnostic religion founded by the prophet Mani (216-274 A.D.). Manichaean preachers were active in the Roman, Sasanian empires and later also in China.

Manichaean MP literature is written in a Palmyrenean type of alphabet which has 30 letters and thus provides scholars with a clearer picture of the phonetic structure of MP. The Manichaean MP texts were discovered in Turfan in the beginning of the 20th century. Most of the texts are only fragments from various religious works. One of the original books in Manichaean MP is the Šābuhragān.

Grammar. MP has an analytical grammatical structure, which makes it closer to New Persian. It has preserved no cases, although the Early Sasanian inscriptions attest to the initial existence of two cases: direct and oblique. This can be observed in the differentiated use of the 1st singular personal pronoun an (dir.) vs. man (obl.), and the use of forms like brād, pid (dir.) vs. brādar, pidar (obl.). No traces of grammatical gender nor dual number have been preserved. Phonetic structures have been simplified, leading to the monophthongization of OI diphthongs, e.g. -ai- > ē. -au- > ō (OP raṷcah- > MP rōz; OP daiva- > MP dēw).

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