Origins of Iranian Languages: The Central Asian component

  February 04, 2024   Read time 4 min
Origins of Iranian Languages: The Central Asian component
The Iranian languages constitute the western group of the larger Indo-Iranian family which represents a major eastern branch of the Indo-European languages. With an estimated 1 50 to 200 million native speakers, the Iranian languages are one of the world's major language families.

Today the Iranian languages are spoken from Central Turkey, Syria and Iraq in the west to Pakistan and the western edge of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region of China in the east. In the North, its outposts are Ossetic in the central Caucasus and Yaghnobi and Tajik Persian in Tajikistan in Central Asia, while in the South they are bounded by the Persian Gulf, except for the Kumzari enclave on the Masandam peninsula in Oman. Historically, the New Iranian stage overlaps with the Islamization of Iranian-speaking lands in the seventh century CEo The Middle Iranian stage began in the third century BCE. The oldest stages go back to the beginning of the second millennium BCE. The oldest physical doculJlent of Iranian is the Old Persian inscription by Darius I. of 522 BCE on the rock face of Mt. Behistun near Kermanshah along the highway that leads down from the Iranian plateau into Mesopotamia.

Research during recent decades suggests that the Proto-Indo-Iranians originated in the eastern European steppes (Pit-Grave culture, ca. 3500-2500 BCE). From there they apparently moved eastward to the southern Ural steppes and the Volga (Potapovo culture, 2500-1 900 BCE), then further on to Central Asia (Andronovo culture, from 2200 BCE onwards). At that stage they appear to have already formed two groups: the Proto-Iranians in the north, and the Proto-Indo-Aryans in the south. They came into contact with the proto-urban popUlation of the Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex (BMAC), also known as the Ox us Culture), which had ancient connections to northwest India, Elam and northern Mesopotamia. They assimilated, gained prominence, and transformed it, thereby attracting non-Indo-Iranian elements. In the process they had developed a new type of social structure, called' the khanate, which was ruled by a landlord (khiin) residing in fortified farmsteads (qala).

After 2000 BCE, most of the later Indo-Aryans moved southeast probably via Afghanistan into the Indian subcontinent (Panjab), and also southwest via the Iranian plateau into northern Mesopotamia (Mitanni kingdom), probably under pressure from the Iranians to their north. The later Iranians moved into and across the Iranian plateau, both carrying the new social structure with their languages, with a lasting impact on the socio-political structures of Iran and Afghanistan, and the subcontinent.

Linguistically, these cultural contacts with the non-Indo-European languages of the proto-urban civilization in lower Central Asia left distinct shared layers of loanwords in the lexicon of Indo-Aryan and Iranian. The Iranians on their part can probably be correlated with the subsequent so-called Yaz I culture in the BMAC complex, which reflects major cultural changes towards a more rural society after 1 500 BCE. They apparently remained in Central Asia, and only by the end of the second millennium BCE began to spread over the Iranian plateau.

By the second half of the eighth century BCE, Iranian Median and Persian tribes (Mada and Parswa) had already been long established among the original non-Iranian speakers of the Zagros mountain ranges of Iranian Kurdestan, according to the records of the Assyrian ruler Shalmaneser III (r. 858-824 BCE). Minorsky (1 957: 78) recognized that the name of the tiny village Qal'a Paswe near Solduz in Kurdestan retains the memory of the Iranian settlements (cf. also Zadok 2001; 2002). The successors of the Parswa tribes who settled in the southwest of the Iranian plateau created the Achaemenid Empire (ca. 558-330 BCE) which, beginning with the Sasanian period (224-651 CE) and thereafter, ultimately resulted in the dominance of Persian over the Iranian expanse.

While the Iranian plateau was increasingly Iranianized, the Iranian tribes known as Scythians by the Greek and as Saka by the Achaemenids remained in the wide expanses to the north, ranging from the Southern Russia to Central Asia and beyond, and became the predecessors of the Middle East Iranian languages, and of the surviving modern languages, including Ossetic. However, Scythian and Saka groups also invaded the Median Kingdom from southern Russia as early as the later 8th century. N umerous later incursions are known, to which belong the subgroups who settled in Zranka, later Sistan, in the two centuries straddling the common era during Parthian rule. The name Saka is still reflected in a good number of locations, including the province of Sista,n < *Sakastan, and probably Sangesar < ?* Saka-sar( a)- (for Scythians invasions of NW Iran and Media in the early 8th century BeE, and Scythian loans in Old Persian, cf. Lubotsky 2002).

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