Sogdian the Middle Iranian Language

  June 30, 2021   Read time 2 min
Sogdian the Middle Iranian Language
Sogdian is a Middle Iranian language once spoken in Sogdiana. Among the Middle Iranian languages Sogdian is classified as belonging to the North-Eastern group which also includes Khotanese, Tumshuqese, Bactrian, and Choresmian.

The land of Sogdiana is located between the two great rivers of Central Asia, the Amu-Darya and the Syr-Darya (part of modern Uzbekistan and Tajikistan). Sogdiana consisted of several oasis-states which were located along the rivers Zarafshan and Kashka-Darya, the leading cities being Samarqand, Buchara, and Kish (present day Shahr-i Sabz). The eastward movement of the Sogdians led them to colonize Tashkent and an area beyond, and consequently a Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang who went to India via Central Asia in the seventh century referred to the region between Semirechie and Iron Gate, located to the south of Kish, as Suli, i.e. Sogdiana.

The history of Sogdiana is largely obscure. It constituted a satrapy of the Achaemenian Empire, and after the conquest of the empire by Alexander the Great in the fourth century Be, Sogdiana was under the control of neighbouring super powers, such as the Kushans (first to third centuries), the Sasanians (third century), the Kidarites (fourth to fifth centuries?), the Hephtalite (fifth to sixth centuries), the Western Turks (sixth to seventh centuries), and Chinese (seventh to eighth centuries). However, it was able to enjoy a degree of independence until it was conquered by the Arabs in the eighth century. During this period of relative independence the Sogdians played an active role as international traders along the Silk Road between China and the West, with the result that the Sogdian language became a kind of lingua franca in the region between Sogdiana and China, where the Sogdians founded many trade diasporas.

The dominion by the Achaemenian Empire was important for Sogdian in that the chancellery language of the Empire, Aramaic, was introduced to Sogdiana, from which later the Sogdian script developed after the Empire had collapsed and Aramaic ceased to be used by the local scribes. By the end of the sixth century, this Sogdian script came to be written vertically rather than horizontally from right to left, and lines running from left to right.

The Sogdian materials handed down to us reflect the activities played by the Sogdians in history. Except for the very short inscriptions discovered in Kultobe, Kazakhstan (ct'. Sims-Williams and Grenet 2006) and the legends found on coins of the early centuries of CE, the earliest substantial materials are the so-called 'Ancient Letters' discovered by Sir Aurel Stein in a watch tower located on the route between Dunhuang and Loulan. They were sent to the addressees staying in Samarqand and oasis cities lying in between by Sogdian merchants and their families resident in China, who reported the news about their activities, and were shown to have been written in the early fourth century (ct'. Grenet and SimsWilliams 1 987). Numerous rock inscriptions or graffiti discovered in North Pakistan along the ancient route connecting Central Asia and North West India are similar to the Ancient Letters in the ductus and seem to have been inscribed by merchants who came there either directly from Sogdiana or by way of China.

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