|Era||Late Bronze Age, Iron Age|
Yasna 28.1, Ahunavaiti Gatha (Bodleian MS J2)
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Avestan (/əˈvɛstən/) is an umbrella term for two Old Iranian languages: Old Avestan (c. 1500 – c. 1000 BCE) and Younger Avestan (c. 1000 – c. 500 BCE)[a]. They are known only from their conjoined use as the scriptural language of Zoroastrianism, and the Avesta likewise serves as their namesake. Both are early Eastern Iranian languages within the Indo-Iranian language branch of the Indo-European language family. Its immediate ancestor was the Proto-Iranian language, a sister language to the Proto-Indo-Aryan language, with both having developed from the earlier Proto-Indo-Iranian language; as such, Old Avestan is quite close in both grammar and lexicon to Vedic Sanskrit, the oldest preserved Indo-Aryan language.
The Avestan text corpus was composed in the ancient Iranian satrapies of Arachosia, Aria, Bactria, and Margiana, corresponding to the entirety of present-day Afghanistan as well as parts of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. The Yaz culture of Bactria–Margiana has been regarded as a likely archaeological reflection of the early "Eastern Iranian" culture that is described in the Zoroastrian Avesta.
"Avestan", which is associated with northeastern Greater Iran, and Old Persian, which belongs to the southwest, together constitute what is called Old Iranian. [f 1]
Scholars traditionally classify Iranian languages as "old", "middle" and "new" according to their age, and as "eastern" or "western" according to geography, and within this framework Avestan is classified as Eastern Old Iranian. But the east–west distinction is of limited meaning for Avestan, as the linguistic developments that later distinguish Eastern from Western Iranian had not yet occurred. Avestan does not display some typical (South-)Western Iranian innovations already visible in Old Persian, and so in this sense, "eastern" only means "non-western".
Old Avestan is closely related to Old Persian and largely agrees morphologically with Vedic Sanskrit. The old ancestor dialect of Pashto was close to the language of the Gathas.
The Avestan language is attested in roughly two forms, known as "Old Avestan" (or "Gathic Avestan") and "Younger Avestan". Younger Avestan did not evolve from Old Avestan; the two differ not only in time, but are also different dialects. Every Avestan text, regardless of whether originally composed in Old or Younger Avestan, underwent several transformations. Karl Hoffmann traced the following stages for Avestan as found in the extant texts. In roughly chronological order:
Many phonetic features cannot be ascribed with certainty to a particular stage since there may be more than one possibility. Every phonetic form that can be ascribed to the Sasanian archetype on the basis of critical assessment of the manuscript evidence must have gone through the stages mentioned above so that "Old Avestan" and "Young Avestan" really mean no more than "Old Avestan and Young Avestan of the Sasanian period".
The Avestan language is only known from the Avesta and otherwise unattested. As a result, there is no external evidence on which to base the time frame during which the Avestan languange was spoken and all attempts have to rely on internal evidence. Such attempts were often based on the life of Zarathustra as the most distinct event in the Avestan period. Zarathustra was traditionally based in the 6th century BCE meaning that Old Avestan would have been spoken during the early Achaemenid period. Given that a substantial time must have passed between Old Avestan and Young Avestan, the latter would have been spoken somewhere during the Hellenistic or the Parthian period of Iranian history.
However, this dating has been almost completely abonded by more recent scholarship. Instead, Zarathustra is now assumed to have lived several centuries earlier meaning that Old Avestan would have been spoken some time c. 1500 – c. 1000 BCE and Young Avestan c. 1000 – c. 500 BCE. This early dating is based on two main reaons. First, Old Avestan shows strong similarities with the oldest layers of Vedic Sanskrit as presented in the Rigveda and the society depicted in the Gathas fits a bronze age setting much better than the Achaemenid period. Second, the Young Avestan texts lack any dicernable influence of Persian, making a composition of the texts after the Achaemenids unlikely. These reasons combined have made the earlier dating the near consensus of recent scholarship and texbooks on Avestan have begun to reflect this change.
Main article: Avestan alphabet
The script used for writing Avestan developed during the 3rd or 4th century AD. By then the language had been extinct for many centuries, and remained in use only as a liturgical language of the Avesta canon. As is still the case today, the liturgies were memorized by the priesthood and recited by rote.
The script devised to render Avestan was natively known as Din dabireh "religion writing". It has 53 distinct characters and is written right-to-left. Among the 53 characters are about 30 letters that are – through the addition of various loops and flourishes – variations of the 13 graphemes of the cursive Pahlavi script (i.e. "Book" Pahlavi) that is known from the post-Sassanian texts of Zoroastrian tradition. These symbols, like those of all the Pahlavi scripts, are in turn based on Aramaic script symbols. Avestan also incorporates several letters from other writing systems, most notably the vowels, which are mostly derived from Greek minuscules. A few letters were free inventions, as were also the symbols used for punctuation. Also, the Avestan alphabet has one letter that has no corresponding sound in the Avestan language; the character for /l/ (a sound that Avestan does not have) was added to write Pazend texts.
The Avestan script is alphabetic, and the large number of letters suggests that its design was due to the need to render the orally recited texts with high phonetic precision. The correct enunciation of the liturgies was (and still is) considered necessary for the prayers to be effective.
The Zoroastrians of India, who represent one of the largest surviving Zoroastrian communities worldwide, also transcribe Avestan in Brahmi-based scripts. This is a relatively recent development first seen in the ca. 12th century texts of Neryosang Dhaval and other Parsi Sanskritist theologians of that era, which are roughly contemporary with the oldest surviving manuscripts in Avestan script. Today, Avestan is most commonly typeset in the Gujarati script (Gujarati being the traditional language of the Indian Zoroastrians). Some Avestan letters with no corresponding symbol are synthesized with additional diacritical marks, for example, the /z/ in zaraθuštra is written with j with a dot below.
Main article: Avestan phonology
Avestan has retained voiced sibilants, and has fricative rather than aspirate series. There are various conventions for transliteration of Dīn Dabireh, the one adopted for this article being:
The glides y and w are often transcribed as ii and uu, imitating Dīn Dabireh orthography. The letter transcribed t̰ indicates an allophone of /t/ with no audible release at the end of a word and before certain obstruents.
|Nasal||⟨m⟩ /m/||⟨n⟩ /n/||⟨ń⟩ /ɲ/||⟨ŋ⟩ /ŋ/||⟨ŋʷ⟩ /ŋʷ/|
|Plosive||voiceless||⟨p⟩ /p/||⟨t⟩ /t/||⟨č⟩ /tʃ/||⟨k⟩ /k/|
|voiced||⟨b⟩ /b/||⟨d⟩ /d/||⟨j⟩ /dʒ/||⟨g⟩ /ɡ/|
|Fricative||voiceless||⟨f⟩ /ɸ/||⟨θ⟩ /θ/||⟨s⟩ /s/||⟨š⟩ /ʃ/||⟨ṣ̌⟩ /ʂ/||⟨š́⟩ /ɕ/||⟨x⟩ /x/||⟨xʷ⟩ /xʷ/||⟨h⟩ /h/|
|voiced||⟨β⟩ /β/||⟨δ⟩ /ð/||⟨z⟩ /z/||⟨ž⟩ /ʒ/||⟨γ⟩ /ɣ/|
|Approximant||⟨y⟩ /j/||⟨v⟩ /w/|
According to Beekes, [ð] and [ɣ] are allophones of /θ/ and /x/ respectively (in Old Avestan).
|Close||i ⟨i⟩||iː ⟨ī⟩||u ⟨u⟩||uː ⟨ū⟩|
|Mid||e ⟨e⟩||eː ⟨ē⟩||ə ⟨ə⟩||əː ⟨ə̄⟩||o ⟨o⟩||oː ⟨ō⟩|
|Open||a ⟨a⟩||aː ⟨ā⟩||ɒ ⟨å⟩||ɒː ⟨ā̊⟩|
|Nasal||ã ⟨ą⟩||ãː ⟨ą̇⟩|
|Case||"normal" endings||a-stems: (masc. neut.)|
|Nominative||-s||-ā||-ō (-as), -ā||-ō (yasn-ō)||-a (vīr-a)||-a (-yasna)|
|Vocative||–||-a (ahur-a)||-a (yasn-a), -ånghō|
|Accusative||-əm||-ō (-as, -ns), -ā||-əm (ahur-əm)||-ą (haom-ą)|
|Instrumental||-ā||-byā||-bīš||-a (ahur-a)||-aēibya (vīr-aēibya)||-āiš (yasn-āiš)|
|Dative||-ē||-byō (-byas)||-āi (ahur-āi)||-aēibyō (yasn-aēibyō)|
|Genitive||-ō (-as)||-å||-ąm||-ahe (ahur-ahe)||-ayå (vīr-ayå)||-anąm (yasn-anąm)|
|Locative||-i||-ō, -yō||-su, -hu, -šva||-e (yesn-e)||-ayō (zast-ayō)||-aēšu (vīr-aēšu), -aēšva|
|ahyā. yāsā. nəmaŋhā. ustānazastō. rafəδrahyā.manyə̄uš. mazdā. pourwīm. spəṇtahyā. aṣ̌ā. vīspə̄ṇg. š́yaoθanā.vaŋhə̄uš. xratūm. manaŋhō. yā. xṣ̌nəwīṣ̌ā. gə̄ušcā. urwānəm.::||With outspread hands in petition for that help, O Mazda, I will pray for the works of the holy spirit, O thou the Right, whereby I may please the will of Good Thought and the Ox-Soul.|
The following phrases were phonetically transcribed from Avestan:
|tapaiti||It's hot||Can also mean "he is hot" or "she is hot" (in temperature)|
|vō vatāmi||I understand you|
|mā vātayaθa||You teach me||Literally: "You let me understand"|
|dim nayehi||Thou leadest him/her|
|dim vō nāyayeiti||He/she lets you lead him/her||Present tense|
|mā barahi||Thou carryest me|
|nō baraiti||He/she carries us|
|θβā dim bārayāmahi||We let him/her carry thee||Present tense|
|dīš drāwayāmahi||We let them run||Present tense|
|θβā hacāmi||I follow thee|
|dīš hācayeinti||They accompany them||Literally: "They let them follow"|
|θβā rāmayemi||I calm thee||Literally: "I let thee rest"|
Avestan is extremely similar to Vedic Sanskrit, as demonstrated by this sample text:[b]
|Avestan||tәm amanvantәm yazatәm||sūrәm dāmōhu sәvištәm||miθrәm yazāi zaoθrābyō|
|Vedic Sanskrit||tám ámavantam yajatám||śū́ram dhā́masu śáviṣṭham||mitrám yajāi hótrābhyaḥ|
|Proto-Indo-Iranian||*tám ámanvantam yaǰatám||*ćū́ram dhā́masu ćávištham||*mitrám yǎǰāi jháutrābhyas|
Since the evidence of Young Avestan place names so clearly points to a more eastern location, the Avesta is again understood, nowadays, as an East Iranian text, whose area of composition comprised – at least – Sīstån/Arachosia, Herat, Merw and Bactria.
Linguistic, literary and conceptual characteristics suggest that the Old(er) Avesta pre‐dates the Young(er) Avesta by several centuries.
Previously, a sixth century B.C.E. date based on Greek sources was accepted by many scholars, but this has now been completely discarded by present-day specialists in the field.
Recent research, however, has cast considerable doubt on this dating and geographical setting. [...] The similarity of the language and metrical system of the Gathas to those of the Vedas, the simplicity of the society depicted throughout the Avesta, and the lack of awareness of great cities, historical rulers, or empires all suggest a different time frame. [...] All in all, it seems likely that Zoroaster and the Avestan people flourished in eastern Iran at a much earlier date (anywhere from 1500 to 900 B.C.) than once thought.