The Middle Persian: the Backgrounds and Perspectives

  December 10, 2023   Read time 5 min
The Middle Persian: the Backgrounds and Perspectives
Of all the Iranian languages of Persia, current or defunct, Persian is the only language with a clear pedigree. We know its parent and its grandparent. We can even reconstruct its great-grandparent, Old Iranian.

Other languages are known either in their modern forms, such as Pashto, Kurdish, Baluchi, Lori, Tati, Mazandarani, Gilaki, and the Pamir dialects, or we know only their middle stage through written documents, partly excavated in archeological explorations, as is the case with Parthian, Sogdian, Bactrian, and Khotanese. Yet other languages are only known in their old form, such as Avestan, the language of the holy scriptures of the Zoroastrians, and Old Persian, the language of the Achaemenid inscriptions, sixth to fourth centuries bce.

It was originally the language of the Persian tribes who settled in southern Persia and it became the official language of the Sassanid state under their rule (224–651 ce). It had begun to take shape, however, much earlier, toward the end of the Achaemenid period; but its documents appear only with the Sassanid Ardashir’s inscription (third century), which reads: “Majesty [bag] Ardashir, king of kings of Iran, son of his majesty Pabag the king, whose origin is from the gods.” Some of the early Sassanid kings were eager to make their deeds and exploits known for posterity and at the same time oblige Orientalist epigraphers! We should particularly be thankful to Shapur I, the second Sassanid monarch, for his long inscription, carved on the walls of a building at Naqsh-e Rostam, near Persepolis, in three languages: Middle Persian, Parthian, and Greek.

The reason it was written in these language is that Parthian was the language of the Arsacids (247 bce–224 ce) who ruled Persia before the Sassanids for some five hundred years, and in early Sassanid times still many people, particularly in Parthia, today’s Khorasan and Gorgan, spoke that language, and Shapur did not want them to miss his message; and Greek was a legacy of the Hellenistic period in Persia which began with Alexander’s conquest of Persia in 330 bce and continued during the Seleucids and, to a certain extent, the reign of the Arsacids. Shapur I’s inscription is most interesting and extremely historically valuable, second only to Darius’s inscription at Bisotun. Shapur I names his father Ardashir, his grandfather Pabag, his ancestor Sāsān, his queen of queens Aduranāhid, his four sons, and the high officials of his court and the courts of his father and his grandfather, but the most important topic of the inscription is the account of his extensive conquests in the eastern Roman provinces, which comprised Iraq, Syria, Cilicia, and Cappadocia, and which took place between 256 and 261 in the course of several campaigns. He relates his defeating of two Roman emperors, Gordianus and Valerianus (the latter taken prisoner), and his forcing a third one into an advantageous peace agreement. Being a good Zoroastrian, either by faith or expediency, he also mentions all the pious and charitable foundations, namely, fire temples, that he endowed for the peace and happiness of his soul and the souls of his parents and his queen, his sons, and even some dignitaries of his court.

Middle Persian inscriptions, like the legends of Sassanid coins, are written with a script derived from the Aramaic alphabet. The Pahlavi books that date from the ninth to the tenth centuries ce, that is, some three centuries after the birth of Islam, but whose contents derive from Sassanid times, are written with the same alphabet, but the cursive form of it, in which most of the letters are joined together. Furthermore, in the course of its evolution several letters merged and assumed the same shape, thus a letter could represent several sounds, for instance, there is a letter that can be read n, l, w, or not at all, and another letter which can be read y, d, g, or the beginning of letters s and sh. This multi-valence of some of the letters and the joining of a number of them together result in the fact that some words can be read in a great variety of ways, sometimes, at least theoretically, in more than forty or fifty. Consequently the correct reading of the Pahlavi script involves “deciphering” the words with considerable difficulty.

To compound this difficulty is another feature of Middle Persian writing, shared also by Parthian, Sogdian, and Chorasmian script: the inclusion of a fairly large number of words that are in fact Aramaic words, but are read as their Iranian equivalents. For instance, a Pahlavi scribe would write mlk’, that is, malkā, but would read it šāh (shah, king); or he would write ywm, and it would be read r ۦ z (day). This is very much like the ideographic reading of Chinese characters, which do not “spell” words, but certain “shapes” represent certain words, or like “$” or “i.e.”, which are read in English as “dollar” and “that is,” respectively. An Iranian reader of Pahlavi normally did not know that the Aramaic words were Aramaic; he only knew that certain combinations of letters have to be read in a certain way, which has nothing to do with the actual pronunciation of those letters. This was called huzwāreš in Pahlavi, and there existed dictionaries (of which one has survived) for instruction. When scholars transcribe Middle Persian into the Latin alphabet they write the Aramaic words with capital letters and the Iranian ones in lower case, for example, MLK’-n MLK’ would be read shāhan-shah (notice that the plural suffix after MLK’ is Iranian, not Aramaic). Arabic script, despite its many defects for Persian, is far clearer than Pahlavi cursive script.

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