The Old Persian Script

After Darius came to power around 522 BC, one of his many contributions to the Persian Empire (and Persian culture) was the invention of the Old Persian cuneiform. As was mentioned in Earliest History, before the settlement of the Persians in Persia proper, almost all the nations immediately to the west of this land (such as the Elamites, Sumerians, Aramians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Akkadians, etc.), each implemented a variation of the cuneiform writing system. Darius designed the Persian variation after some of these people’s, especially the Akkadians.

The Old Persian writing system was completely different from the Modern Persian used today. It was written from left to right, like Modern English. It was a syllabic system; that is, a system in which each character represented either a vowel or a consonant governed by a following vowel (namely, a, i, u, ba, pa, ta, tu, ka, ku, etc.). But notice that it bears little or no resemblance to today’s written Persian, which uses basic Arabic script.

The following chart is from Kent’s Old Persian:


© Kent, 1953

The number of the characters in the Old Persian syllabary is 36. These characters are divided as follows:

  • 3 vowels: a, i, u
  • 22 consonant signs with a as the inherent vowel: ka, xa, ga, ca, ja, ta, θa, ça, da, na, pa, fa, ba, ma, ya, ra, la, va, sa, ša, za, ha
  • 4 consonants with i: ji, di, mi, vi
  • 7 consonants with u: ku, gu, tu, du, nu, mu, ru

The consonants of Old Persian are divided into two groups: one set is governed by a following vowel and the other is not, as follows:

  • 13 consonants which are not governed by a following vowel: p, b, f, ç, θ, s, z, h, č, š, y, x, l
  • 20 consonants which are governed by a following vowel: da, ma, ka, ga, ja, va, ta-i, na-i, ra-i, di, mi, ji, vi, du, mu, tu, nu, ru, ku, gu

In addition, there are eight ideograms, or graphic symbols that represent a concept: one for xšāyaθiya ‘king,’ two for dahyāuš ‘land, province, district,’ one for baga ‘god,’ one for būmiš ‘earth, ground,’ two for Auramazdā ‘the Wise Lord,’ and one for the genitive singular masculine of Auramazdā as Auramazdāha.

Finally, there are two word dividers: one in the form of a backward angled bracket, and the other, in the form of a slanted wedge.

In addition, they used the following somewhat symbolic numbering system:

The Old Persian numerals

© 1996, Oxford University Press, Inc.

This variation of the cuneiform is the one used by Darius and his successors during the Achaemenian period for registering chronicles, official documents, and other sorts of written materials. It is noteworthy that in addition to this script, a variation of Aramaic was also used in the Achaemenian period, mostly for official documents, some of which have been discovered through the excavations at Persepolis, the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenian empire.

In the exordium of his famous trilingual inscription at Behistan, near Kermanshah, in western Iran, Darius makes the following declaration, in Old Persian, Elamite, and Akkadian. (Here the Old Persian is presented; the colons reflect the placement of the word dividers in the original inscription):

adam : dārayavauš : xšāyaθiya : vazarka : xšāyaθiya : xšāyaθiyānām : xšāyaθiya : pārsaiy : xšāyaθiya : dahyūnām : vištāspahyā : puça : aršāmahyā : napā : haxāmanišiya….

‘I (am) Darius, the great king, King of Kings, king of Persia, king of [many] lands, son of Hystaspes, grandson of Arsames, an Achaemenian….’

In New Persian this may be read as follows:

man(am) dāriyūš, šāh-e bozorg, šāh-e šāhān, šāh-e pārs, šāh-e dehāt (the New Persian deh ‘village, a rustic setting’ is the development of the Old Persian dahyu- ‘land, province, district’), pesar-e goštāsb, nave-ye āršām, haxāmaneši…

من (ام) داریوش. شاه بزرگ. شاه شاهان. شاه پارس. شاه دهات (سرزمین ها). پسر گشتاسب. نوه ی آرشام. هخامنشی.

Except for the phonemic (i.e., sound related) developments and mutations, a comparison of the vocabulary would clearly show us the tight kinship between this ancient language and the New Persian:

Old Persian New Persian
xšāyaθiya- ‘king’ šāh شاه
vazarka- ‘great, big, large’ bozorg بزرگ
pārsa- ‘Persia’ (nowadays, only Persia proper) pārs, fārs پارس، فارس
dahyu- ‘land, province, district’ deh ده ‘village’
vištāspa- ‘Hystaspes’ gošn-asb, goštāsp, goštāsb گشتاسب
puça- ‘son’ pesar پسر ‘boy, son’
napā- ‘grandson’ (< napāt-; orig., ‘offspring’) nave نوه ‘grandchild’
aršāma- ‘Arsames’ āršām آرشام
haxāmanišiya- ‘Achaemenian’ haxāmaneši هخامنشی

(And, of course, the New Persian منش maneš ‘behavior, disposition’ which is the same as the second component of the compound noun haxāmaniš- ‘having a friendly behavior.’)