Middle Persian

Middle Persian
Middle Persian
Spoken in Iran
Extinct evolved into Modern Persian by the 9th century
Language family
Language codes
ISO 639-2 pal (see text left)
ISO 639-3 pal
Linguasphere 58-AAC-ca

Middle Persian (Persian: پارسی میانه), indigenously known as "Pârsig" sometimes referred to as Pahlavi or Pehlevi,[1] is the Middle Iranian language/ethnolect of Southwestern Iran that during Sassanid times (224-654 CE) became a prestige dialect and so came to be spoken in other regions as well. Middle Persian is classified as a Western Iranian language. It descends from Old Persian and is the linguistic ancestor of Persian.

The native name for Middle Persian (and perhaps for Old Persian also) was Pārsik, "(language) of Pārs", present-day Fārs Province. The word is consequently (the origin of) the native name for the Modern Persian language.

Middle Persian was most frequently written in the Pahlavi writing system,[2] which was also the preferred writing system for other Middle Iranian languages. Other forms of written Middle Persian include Pazend, a system derived from Avestan that, unlike Pahlavi, indicated vowels and did not employ Aramaic logograms. The ISO 639 language code for Middle Persian is 'pal', which reflects the post-Sassanid-era use of the term Pahlavi to refer to the language and not only the script.


Transition from Old Persian

In the classification of the Iranian languages, the Middle Period includes those languages which were common in Iran from the fall of the Achaemenids in the 4th century BCE up to the fall of the Sassanids in the 7th century CE.

The most important and distinct development in the structure of Iranian languages of this period is the transformation from the synthetic form of the Old Period (Old Persian and Avestan) to an analytic form:

Transition to New Persian

The modern-day descendant of Middle Persian is New Persian. The changes between late Middle and Early New Persian were very gradual, and in the 10th-11th centuries, Middle Persian texts were still intelligible to speakers of Early New Persian. However, there are definite differences that had taken place already by the 10th century:

  • Sound changes, such as
    • the dropping of unstressed initial vowels
    • the epenthesis of vowels in initial consonant clusters
    • the loss of -g when word final
    • change of initial w- to either b- or (gw- → g-)
  • Changes in the verbal system, notably the loss of distinctive subjunctive and optative forms, and the increasing use of verbal prefixes to express verbal moods
  • Changes in the vocabulary, especially the substitution of a large number of Arabic loanwords for words of native origin
  • The substitution of Arabic script for Pahlavi script.

Surviving literature

Pahlavi Middle Persian is the language of quite a large body of Zoroastrian literature which details the traditions and prescriptions of the Zoroastrian religion, which was the state religion of Sassanid Iran (224 to ca. 650) before Iran was invaded by the Arab armies that spread Islam. The earliest texts in Zoroastrian Middle Persian were probably written down in late Sassanid times (6th-7th centuries), although they represent the codification of earlier oral tradition.[3] However, most texts, including the translated versions of the Zoroastrian canon, date from the 9th to the 11th century, when Middle Persian had long ceased to be a spoken language, so they reflect the state of affairs in living Middle Persian only indirectly. The surviving manuscripts are usually 14th-century copies.[1] Other, less abundantly attested varieties are Manichaean Middle Persian, used for a sizable amount of Manichaean religious writings, including many theological texts, homilies and hymns (3rd - 9th, possibly 13th century), and the Middle Persian of Nestorian Christians, evidenced in the Pahlavi Psalter (7th century); these were used until the beginning of the second millennium in many places in Central Asia, including Turfan and even localities in Southern India.[4] All three differ minimally from one another and indeed the less ambiguous and archaizing scripts of the latter two have helped to elucidate some aspects of the Sassanian-era pronunciation of the former.[5]


Below is transliteration and translation of the first page of the facsimile known as Arda Wiraz Namag or The Book of the Righteous Wiraz, originally written in Pahlavi script.[6]

Pa Nâm i Yazdân

Edon gowend ku ew-bâr ahlaw Zardusht den padirift, andar gehân ravâ be kard, tâ buwandagih i sesad sâl, den andar abezagih, u mardom andar abe-gumânih bud hend. U pas, gujasta gannâ meno i druwand, gumân kardan i mardomân be in den râ, an gujasta Aleksandar i hromayi i Muzrây-mânishn wiyâbânid u be grân sezd u nabard u bish o Eran-shahr frestâd. Oy Eran-dihbad ozad, u dar u khwadâyih wishuft u awirân kard; u in den chon hama Abastâ u Zand abar gâv postihâ i wirâsta pa âb i zarr nibishta, andar Stakhr i Pabagân pa diz i nibisht nihâd istad, oy patiyâra i wadbakht i ahlomog i druwand i andar-kerdâr, Aleksandar i hromayi, ..."

In the name of God

Thus they have said that once the righteous Zoroaster accepted a religion, he established it in the world. After/Within the period of 300 years (the) religion remained in holiness and the people were in peace and without any doubt. But then, the sinful, corrupt and deceitful spirit, in order to cause people doubt this religion, illusioned/led astray that Alexander the Roman, resident of Egypt, and sent him to Iran with much anger and violence. He murdered the ruler of Iran and ruined court, and the religion, as all the Avesta and Zand (which were) written on the ox-hide and decorated with water-of-gold (gold leaves) and had been placed/kept in Stakhr of Papak in the 'citadel of the writings.' That wretched, ill-fated, heretic, evil/sinful Alexander, The Roman, ..."

A sample Middle Persian poem from manuscript of Jamasp Asana:

Dārom andarz-ē az dānāgān

Az guft-ī pēšēnīgān

Ō šmāh bē wizārom

Pad rāstīh andar gēhān

Agar ēn az man padīrēd

Bavēd sūd-ī dō gēhān

In New Persian:

Dāram andarz-ē az dānāgān

دارم اندرزی از داناگان

Az gufte-ye pēšēnīgān

از گفته ی پیشینیان

Be šumā be gozāram

به شما بگزارم -گزارش دهم

Be rāstī andar jahān

به راستی اندر جهان

agar īn az man pazīrēd

اگر این از من پذیرید

Buvad sūd-ī dō jahān

بُوَد سود دو جهان


I have a counsel from the wise,

from the advices of the ancients,

I will pass it upon you

By truth in the world

If you accept this counsel

It will be your benefits for this life and the next

See also

References and bibliography

  1. ^ a b "Linguist List - Description of Pehlevi". Detroit: Eastern Michigan University. 2007. http://linguistlist.org/forms/langs/LLDescription.cfm?code=pal. 
  2. ^ See also Omniglot.com's page on Middle Persian scripts
  3. ^ Sundermann, Werner. 1989. Mittelpersisch. P. 141. In Compendium Linguarum Iranicarum (ed. Rüdiger Schmidt).
  4. ^ Sundermann, Werner. 1989. Mittelpersisch. P. 138. In Compendium Linguarum Iranicarum (ed. Rüdiger Schmidt).
  5. ^ Sundermann, Werner. 1989. Mittelpersisch. P. 143. In Compendium Linguarum Iranicarum (ed. Rüdiger Schmidt).
  6. ^ R. Mehri's Parsik/Pahlavi Web page (archived copy) at the Internet Archive

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