Predecessors of Modern Iranian languages

  February 04, 2024   Read time 3 min
Predecessors of Modern Iranian languages
Evidence for medieval stages mainly of numerous Western Iranian languages and dialects in particular are found in relatively brief, often poetic, citations in Classical and Early Modern Persian sources.

For western Iran, the main identifiable non-Indo-European languages are located along the Zagros Mountains: (I) Hurro-Urartian, which is a linguistic isolate, but may be remotely related to the Northeast Caucasian languages, in Azerbaijan and Iranian Kurdestan; (2) the linguistic isolate Kassite in the central Zagros; and (3) Elamite further south, possibly remotely related to Dravidian as mentioned. In terms of political and tribal entities, these correspond to the kingdoms/regions of Mannea, Parsua, Ellipi, Elam, and Anshan.

In the North, the languages along the western Caspian littoral probably included speakers of South Caucasian languages, and those along the eastern littoral may have belonged to an assumed so-called Central Asian linguistic continuum. On the central plateau and probably in Kerman province, at least some languages may have been related to Elamite and to the Dravidian languages towards the east.

Little is known about the non-Iranian speakers whom the Iranian speakers encountered on their way into and across Iran. In the east, in Baluchestan and further east in the Gandhara/Kabul region and Arachosia/Kandahar, the Iranians were most likely still in contact not only with speakers of Indo-Aryan, but also with speakers of Dravidian during the second half of the second millennium BCE.

There are a multitude of New Iranian languages. While the overall grouping of these languages has been well established, the internal dialectal divisions of the more extensive language groups in Iran are increasingly better understood due to renewed extensive field work, and data bases. That is the case in particular in regard to the relationship between Northern vs. Central and Southern Kurdish, and the re-assessment of earlier division of Balochi. More recent yet is the recognition of the distinction between Northern Talyshi vs. Central and Southern Talyshi; the separate status of Eastern Gilaki vs. Western Gilaki; the distinction among the dialects of Mazandarani, and the four-fold division of the Central Plateau dialects. Sharper dialect boundaries have been highlighted, such as those between Talyshi and Gilaki (Stilo), and between the Larestan dialects, which have a number of Tatic features, and the Fars dialects.

In general, even without any pre-modern evidence, the modern languages can safely be assumed to continue lost local and regional languages. For example, the modern languages of Azarbaijan and Central Iran, located in ancient Media Atropatene and Media proper, are "Median" dialects, even though Old Median is known mainly from Medisms in Old Persian. The traditional term Pahlav/Fahlav for dialect poetry and other samples of locales in western Iran found in medieval Persian sources reflects the Parthian period in these regions.

In addition to the continuation of Middle Persian in New Persian, three small modern languages show significant grammatical and lexical reflexes of other documented Middle Iranian languages: In Iran, Sangesari of the Semnan group shares a distinct set of features with Khwarezmian. In the east, Yaghnobi in Tajikistan continues a dialect of Sogdian, and Wakhi in the Pamirs shows distinct reflexes of Khotanese and Tumshuqese Saka. In fact, Wakhi is an example of the repeated invasions of Saka since antiquity.

Little is known about the languages that were erased by the progression of varieties of Persian into eastern Iran and much of western and central Afghanistan, and the expansion of Pashto inside Afghanistan (cf. Kieffer 1 989). Only Southeast Iranian Parachi and Ormuri still survive in a few islands, but are threatened by extinction. That they represent remnants of once continuous language areas, Parachi in the north and Ormuri in the south, is suggested not only by toponymy, but also by linguistic features. In particular, the retention of initial voiced stops (unlike their fricativation in other Eastern Iranian groups) suggests earlier transitional contact somewhere in central Afghanistan with non-Perside, i.e. "Northwest", Iranian language groups, now also erased. At the same time, morphology and morpho-syntax reflect successive contacts with Pashto for Ormuri, and for both contact with Indo-Aryan Dardic languages, and later superstrate interference from Afghan Persian varieties.

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