Earliest History

Persian is one of many Iranian languages spoken throughout a vast area of the Middle East. From the earliest times, following the separation of the Indians and Iranians—after they had branched out of their Indo-European parent, as the Indo-Aryan branch—different dialects started to develop within the Iranian family (as was also the case with the other sub branches). One must understand that a language is a living organism, constantly developing and changing. Words (more technically referred to as morphemes) as well as sounds (more technically referred to as phonemes) change according to the phonetic environments. For instance, one may name the mutation of the [-e-] in bero imperative ‘go!’, to [-o-], under the influence of the following /o/; hence, boro. Or the mutation of the proto Indo-European /e/, /o/, and /a/ as /a/ in proto Aryan, proto Iranian, and Old Persian.

The following examples show some of these phonemic changes (for the sake of brevity and simplicity, the diacritical symbols of articulation, such as breves, circumflexes, etc., are not included):

θ = th in “three”
xv = rounded kh
ç = th (but the tip of the tongue does not touch the teeth)
š = sh

Proto Indo-European Proto Aryan Median Avestan Old Persian
k s s θ
g and gh z z d
ku šu sp sp s
ghu zu zb zb z
tr and tl * tr θr θr ç
tr tr tr tr (θr >) ç
su f hv xv (h)u
ti θi θi θi ši

* The proto Indo-European tr after the fricatives (that is, f, v, s, z, š, ž, x, γ, h, etc.) appears unchanged in proto Aryan, Avestan, and Median, but becomes ç (from the earlier θr) in Old Persian.

Knowledge of these changes helps us reconstruct words of the so-called “dead languages;” that is, languages which have been abandoned entirely, either because they have developed into a newer version of the same language (such as Middle Persian, which has developed into New Persian), or another language has replaced them (such as ancient Assyrian, whose modern day speakers use a variation of Syriac dialect and also use a variation of the Syriac script for their writings). Reconstruction of a dead language is mostly based on evidence and analogy. For instance, although, with the exception of a few words in Old Persian, we do not have many Median words left for us, by the aid of references such as the chart above, it is possible to reconstruct some words of Median origin. For example, since the Old Persian /ç/ represents the Median and Avestan /θr/ (as in Old Persian puça-, Avestan puθra– ‘son’), the expected Old Persian word for the Avestan miθra- ‘Mithras’ (the deity who governs over pact) is miça-. The fact that even in Old Persian the word is miθra- (here meaning ‘friend’ and as a deity, ‘Mithras’) shows that the word was borrowed from another language. Since Median, as the administrative language of the empire was the most immediate dominant language before Old Persian, it is more likely that this word was borrowed from Median than from any of the other related languages, such as the Avestan. Based on what scholars know, Median has lent some other important administrative and religious words to Old Persian, such as xšāyaθiya- ‘king’, etc. This, of course, is a very simplified explanation of the process, but by and large this is how many words of a dead language are reconstructed: by comparison and analogy.

A language starts its mutation(s) rapidly and at a very early stage following its inception, like a living organism. Immediately after the separation of the Indian and Iranian branches of the Indo-Iranian family, new dialects started to develop in both. Although Avestan and Sanskrit retained their close affinity, their phonology and morphology immediately took separate paths. For example, Avestan. aspa- (Median aspa-, Old Persian asa-), Sanskrit áśva- ‘horse’ (New Persian asb اسب).

Out of numerous Iranian languages of the old world we only have evidence for four of them, namely Saka (also known as Scythian), Median, Old Persian, and Avestan. Median was spoken by the Iranians of north-western and western Iran; that is, roughly, the area to the south of the Caspian all the way to the western borders of today’s Iran. The capital city of the Median Empire was Ecbatana (today’s Hamadan همدان, also pronounced Hamedan).

Saka was probably spoken by some of the northern Iranian tribes, especially the Alani tribes. Alanis later on migrated to the central Iran and established the Parthian branch, which was to become one of the three main dynasties of pre-Islamic Iran, next to the Achaemenians and the Sassanians. From Saka and Median almost nothing is left, except for a few words, especially proper names of people and places, reflected in materials written in Old Persian, Avestan, Greek, and other sources.

We do not have any evidence to show that the Medes did write anything in their language, although Herodotus testifies that Deoices, the Median king (according to Herodotus, reigned from 728 to 675 BC), had the habit of having his exclamations written. Some of the known Median words and their New Persian counterparts are as follows:

Median New Persian
vzarka ‘great’ bozorg بزرگ
xšāyaθiy ‘king’ šāh شاه
miθra ‘Mitras’ mitrā میترا
asan ‘stone’ sang سنگ
frnah ‘eminence’ farr فرّ
spake ‘dog’ sag سگ

The Scythians lived from about one millennium BC to the 10th century AD, in a vast area which covered the coasts of the Black Sea all the way to the northern Chinese borders, and to the north of the Sogdian territory. There are no existing texts in the old Saka, however, we do have about 400 words, mostly proper names, left in the Greek, Latin, Indian, and other sources. Some of the Saka words and their New Persian counterparts are as follows:

Saka New Persian
huška ‘dry’ xošk خشک
hapta ‘seven’ haft هفت
arma ‘arm’ dast, bāzu (‘upper arm’) دست، بازو
pāda ‘foot, leg’ پا
ātar ‘fire’ āzar آذر
čarmae ‘leather’ čarm چرم

In his History, Herodotus names some of the Scythian gods, which probably reflect an earlier Indo-Iranian influence. In Book IV of the History, some of these deities are mentioned as Tabiti, probably at the supreme level of the pantheon, Papay, Api, in the middle, and Hoytosir, Argimpasa and two unnamed deities, at the lowest level.

Unlike Median and Saka, we have a substantial treasury of texts and inscriptions from Old Persian and Avestan, including a large number of inscriptions in the Old Persian cuneiform in the form of tablets, parchments, stone inscriptions, etc., and the Zoroastrian religious book, the Avesta, and other religious materials, written in Avestan.

It is important to understand that before the Iranians migrated to the land where they eventually settled and called home, there were other peoples who lived in the western and south-western regions of that land, such as the Elamites, Sumerians, Aramians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Akkadians, etc. Many of these civilizations had already flourished to a large scale and enjoyed a rich culture. They also had sophisticated literature, and produced written materials on a daily basis. From Babyloninas, for instance, we even have written musical notations and musical lessons. Many of these materials are still available and we enjoy studying them in our museums, and other types of collections and references. Decipherment and reading of these materials help us gather an ever increasing knowledge about the past and these ancient cultures. At some level, they help us to know ourselves better.