Middle Persian

Between the old and new Iranian languages lies the Middle Iranian group. The most important languages of this group are Parthian and Middle Persian, also known as Pahlavi. The beginning of the middle period may be placed at the beginning of the Parthian era (c. 350 BC).

Middle Persian (also called Pahlavi) is a further development of Old Persian. As is normal (even in the case of Old Persian, which borrowed from Median, Avestan, etc.), Middle Persian also borrowed vocabulary from other dialects. This is intermittently reflected in its extant literature. Words such as darāγ (pronounced darāgh) ‘bell’ from Parthian (New Persian [NP] darā[y]); yad ‘until, so that’ from Parthian, fīlāsōfā ‘philosopher’ from Greek; bid ‘again’ from Parthian, etc., and almost all the religious terminology (from Avestan, as in garōdmān [as a single word] ‘paradise’ < Avestan garō nəmāna-, a phrase meaning ‘house of praise’, with nəmāh- ‘praise’, related to New Persian namāz) show such influences.

In the following table from MacKenzie’s A Concise Pahlavi Dictionary, the different variations of the Aramaic script used for writing Middle Iranian are shown.

© 1971, Oxford University Press.

The script used for Middle Persian is a variation of Aramaic script. It is written from right to left. The so called Book Pahlavi consists of 14 characters, which represent all the basic Imperial Aramaic alphabetical system. Therefore some of these characters represent several sounds; such as a stroke “Ι”, which could be /n/, /r/, /w/, and in the ideograms (words of Aramaic origin), /‘ayn/ (as can be seen in the table below). The Psalter Pahlavi consists of 18 characters with an extra glyph for /y/ (that is to say, /y/ has two signs). The Psaltert was primarily used for writing Christian materials, especially the Psalms of David, whose manuscripts were discovered in northern China in an area called Turfan (hence, the denomination the Turfan Manuscripts).

In their inscriptions, Persians used a variation of Aramaic, which was slightly different in shape and number than the Book Pahlavi. It consisted of 19 characters, with /w/, /‘ayn/, and /r/ sharing the same sign (here, unlike the Book Pahlavi, /n/ uses a different glyph) and /m/ and /q/ sharing the same.

Aramaic (and the Middle Persian variation of it) is a consonantal writing system, that is, a system in whose orthography the short vowels are not incorporated. For example, instead of writing daftan ‘to breathe, blow’, only dptn| is written (notice the /p/ for /f/). If the vowel is long, however, it is incorporated; e.g., d’t’l, dādār ‘creator’ (notice the /t/ for /d/ and /l/ for /r/).

Normally a stroke is placed after each word, as a word divider; as in dptn| above. However, this stroke does not follow some of the terminal signs, such as /c/ (= /č/ = ch), /g/, /l/; e.g.:

  • hlbwlc, harborz ‘the mountain range surrounding the world’. It is New Persian Alborz from Old Iranian hara + bərəzaṇt- ‘tall, lofty’ it is also related to New Persian boland and barāzande. This is the epithet of Hara mouintain, and literally means, ‘the lofty Hara’)
  • patw’c, paywāz ‘answer’
  • wlc, warz ‘work; miracle; mace’
  • wlg, warg ‘leaf’
  • dwšplg, dušfarrag ‘unfortunate’
  • d’t’l (see above)
  • d’l, dār ‘tree’
  • dwb’l, dawāl ‘leather; trickery’
  • wl, war ‘breast, chest; lake; oath; shelter’

Middle Persian script has the following main characteristics:

  • Whether it is Book, Inscription, or Psalter Pahlavi, Parthian, Manichaean, etc., it is written in a variation of Aramaic script. (In the case of Manichaean, it has some Sogdian [another Middle Iranian language] influence, which in turn is designed after Syriac, another Aramaic derivative.)
  • It is written from right to left.
  • It incorporates historical orthography; that is, spelling the words as they were once pronounced (or, in some cases, written), regardless of their historical phonetic developments; such as, pgt’m for paygām ‘message’ (New Persian peyγām) from Old Iranian pati gāma-. This is a general Indo-European phenomenon; cf. the /gh/ segment in the English words daughter, light, etc., while the /gh/ segment is not pronounced any more, and the spelling only follows an archaic orthography; or the New Persian xāb ‘sleep; dream’, which is written as خواب xwāb. The /w/ was once pronounced, as is the case in many of today’s more conservative dialects, such as Dari of Afghanistan, whereby the word for “sleep; dream” is pronounced xwāb, with a glide over the /wā/ segment.
  • It incorporates huzwāreš(n); that is, ideograms. These are words of Semitic origin, which are written as Semitic words, intended to be read as Persian. In the English transcription of Middle Persian texts these words are normally written with upper case characters; e.g., ANH ’z ‘I’ (from the Aramaic anh). The process may be compared with the English abbreviation lb which is read pound.

The following fragment is from the Pahlavi text of Bundahišn ‘The Origin of Creation’:

nzdst| ’sm’n| YHBWN-t| lwšn| Y pyt’k| Y ’ pyl dwl W h’dkdys Y hwn’hyn| AYT gwhl [Y] ’lm’st| Y ZKL APš L‛YŠḤ BRA ‛L ’sl lwšn| ptwst|.

nazdist asmān dād rōšn ī paydāg ī abēr dūr ud xāyagdēs ī xwan-āhen ast gōhr [ī] almāst ī nar u-š sar be ō a-sar rōšn paywast

‘First [he] created the Heavens: bright, visible, very far, and egg-shaped, that was steel-bright, which is the essence of a strong metal; its end joined the boundless brightness.’