RegionGreater Iran
EraLate Bronze Age, Iron Age
Language codes
ISO 639-1ae
ISO 639-2ave
ISO 639-3ave
Yasna 28.1, Ahunavaiti Gatha (Bodleian MS J2)
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Avestan (/əˈvɛstən/)[1] 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,[2] corresponding to the entirety of present-day Afghanistan as well as parts of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. The Yaz culture[3] 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 and Old Persian are the two languages comprising Old Iranian,[4] and while Avestan was localized in the northeastern parts of Greater Iran[f 1] according to Paul Maximilian Tedesco [de] (1921), other scholars have favored regarding Avestan as originating in eastern parts.[4][5]

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".[6]

Old Avestan is closely related to Old Persian and largely agrees morphologically with Vedic Sanskrit.[7] The ancestor of Pashto was close to the language of the Gathas.[8]

Forms and stages of development

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".[4]


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 language 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.[9] 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.[10]

However, this dating has been almost completely abandoned by more recent scholarship.[11] 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 reasons. 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.[12] These reasons combined have made the earlier dating the near consensus of recent scholarship and textbooks on Avestan have begun to reflect this change.[13][14]


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:


a ā ə ə̄ e ē o ō å ą i ī u ū


k g γ x xʷ č ǰ t d δ θ t̰ p b β f
ŋ ŋʷ ṇ ń n m y w r s z š ṣ̌ ž h

The glides y and w are often transcribed as ii and uu, imitating Dīn Dabireh orthography. The letter transcribed indicates an allophone of /t/ with no audible release at the end of a word and before certain obstruents.[15]


Labial Dental Alveolar Post-alveolar Retroflex Palatal or
Velar Labiovelar Glottal
Nasal ⟨m⟩ /m/ ⟨n⟩ /n/ ⟨ń⟩ /ɲ/ ⟨ŋ⟩ /ŋ/ ⟨ŋʷ⟩ /ŋʷ/
Plosive voiceless ⟨p⟩ /p/ ⟨t⟩ /t/ ⟨č⟩ // ⟨k⟩ /k/
voiced ⟨b⟩ /b/ ⟨d⟩ /d/ ⟨j⟩ // ⟨g⟩ /ɡ/
Fricative voiceless ⟨f⟩ /ɸ/ ⟨θ⟩ /θ/ ⟨s⟩ /s/ ⟨š⟩ /ʃ/ ⟨ṣ̌⟩ /ʂ/ ⟨š́⟩ /ɕ/ ⟨x⟩ /x/ ⟨xʷ⟩ // ⟨h⟩ /h/
voiced ⟨β⟩ /β/ ⟨δ⟩ /ð/ ⟨z⟩ /z/ ⟨ž⟩ /ʒ/ ⟨γ⟩ /ɣ/
Approximant ⟨y⟩ /j/ ⟨v⟩ /w/
Trill ⟨r⟩ /r/

According to Beekes, [ð] and [ɣ] are allophones of /θ/ and /x/ respectively (in Old Avestan).


Front Central Back
short long short long short long
Close i ⟨i⟩ ⟨ī⟩ u ⟨u⟩ ⟨ū⟩
Mid e ⟨e⟩ ⟨ē⟩ ə ⟨ə⟩ əː ⟨ə̄⟩ o ⟨o⟩ ⟨ō⟩
Open a ⟨a⟩ ⟨ā⟩ ɒ ⟨å⟩ ɒː ⟨ā̊⟩
Nasal ã ⟨ą⟩ ãː ⟨ą̇⟩



Case "normal" endings a-stems: (masc. neut.)
Singular Dual Plural Singular Dual Plural
Nominative -s -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 -byā -bīš -a (ahur-a) -aēibya (vīr-aēibya) -āiš (yasn-āiš)
Dative -byō (-byas) -āi (ahur-āi) -aēibyō (yasn-aēibyō)
Ablative -at -byō -āt (yasn-āt)
Genitive -ō (-as) -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


Primary active endings
Person Singular Dual Plural
1st -mi -vahi -mahi
2nd -hi -tha -tha
3rd -ti -tō, -thō -ṇti

Sample text

Latin alphabet
Avestan alphabet
English Translation[16]
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.

Example phrases

The following phrases were phonetically transcribed from Avestan:[17]

Avestan English Comment
tapaiti It's hot Can also mean "he is hot" or "she is hot" (in temperature)
šyawaθa You move
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
drawāmahi We run
dīš drāwayāmahi We let them run Present tense
θβā hacāmi I follow thee
dīš hācayeinti They accompany them Literally: "They let them follow"
ramaiti He rests
θβā rāmayemi I calm thee Literally: "I let thee rest"

Avestan and Sanskrit

Avestan is extremely similar to Vedic Sanskrit, as demonstrated by this sample text:[18][19][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

See also

Explanatory notes

  1. ^ With Old Iranian being used in the southwest.
  1. ^ "These datings of the Old and Young Avestan reflect the opinion of recent scholarship. For a more thoughrough discussion of the chronology and other possible datings, see below."
  2. ^ "This powerful deity; strong, among the living the strongest; Mithra, I honor with libations."


  1. ^ Wells, John C. (1990), Longman pronunciation dictionary, Harlow, England: Longman, p. 53, ISBN 0-582-05383-8 entry "Avestan"
  2. ^ Witzel, Michael. "THE HOME OF THE ARYANS" (PDF). Harvard University. p. 10. Retrieved 8 May 2015. 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.
  3. ^ Mallory, J. P. (1997). Encyclopedia of Indo-European culture. page 653. London: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers. ISBN 978-1-884964-98-5. entry "Yazd culture".
  4. ^ a b c Hoffmann, Karl (1989), "Avestan language", Encyclopedia Iranica, vol. 3, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, pp. 47–52.
  5. ^ Gnoli, Gherardo (1989), "Avestan geography", Encyclopedia Iranica, vol. 3, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, pp. 44–47, It is impossible to attribute a precise geographical location to the language of the Avesta... With the exception of an important study by P. Tedesco (1921 [...]), who advances the theory of an 'Avestan homeland' in northwestern Iran, Iranian scholars of the twentieth century have looked increasingly to eastern Iran for the origins of the Avestan language and today there is general agreement that the area in question was in eastern Iran—a fact that emerges clearly from every passage in the Avesta that sheds any light on its historical and geographical background.
  6. ^ Encyclopaedia Iranica: EASTERN IRANIAN LANGUAGES. By Nicholas Sims-Williams
  7. ^ Hoffmann, K. Encyclopaedia Iranica. AVESTAN LANGUAGE. III. The grammar of Avestan.: "The morphology of Avestan nouns, adjectives, pronouns, and verbs is, like that of the closely related Old Persian, inherited from Proto-Indo-European via Proto-Indo-Iranian (Proto-Aryan), and agrees largely with that of Vedic, the oldest known form of Indo-Aryan. The interpretation of the transmitted Avestan texts presents in many cases considerable difficulty for various reasons, both with respect to their contexts and their grammar. Accordingly, systematic comparison with Vedic is of much assistance in determining and explaining Avestan grammatical forms."
  8. ^ Morgenstierne, G. Encyclopaedia Iranica: AFGHANISTAN vi. Paṧto "it seems that the Old Iranic ancestor dialect of Paṧtō must have been close to that of the Gathas."
  9. ^ Shahbazi, Alireza Shapur (1977). "The 'Traditional Date of Zoroaster' Explained". Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies. 40: 25–35.
  10. ^ Hintze, Almut (2015). "Zarathustra's Time and Homeland - Linguistic Perspectives". In Stausberg, Michael (ed.). The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Zoroastrianism. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. p. 38. ISBN 9781118785539. Linguistic, literary and conceptual characteristics suggest that the Old(er) Avesta pre‐dates the Young(er) Avesta by several centuries.
  11. ^ Bryant, Edwin (2001). The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture. Oxford University Press. p. 130. 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.
  12. ^ Daniel, Elton L. (2012). The History of Iran. Greenwood. p. 47. ISBN 978-0313375095. 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.
  13. ^ Schmitt, Rüdiger (2000). "Die Sprachen der altiranischen Periode". Die iranischen Sprachen in Geschichte und Gegenwart. Dr. Ludwig Reichert Verlag.
  14. ^ Skjaervø, P. Oktor (2009). "Old Iranian". In Windfuhr, Gernot (ed.). The Iranian Languages. Routledge. ISBN 9780203641736.
  15. ^ Hale, Mark (2004). "Avestan". In Roger D. Woodard (ed.). The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the World's Ancient Languages. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-56256-2.
  16. ^ "AVESTA: YASNA: Sacred Liturgy and Gathas/Hymns of Zarathushtra". avesta.org.
  17. ^ Lubotsky, Alexander (2010). Van Sanskriet tot Spijkerschrift: Breinbrekers uit alle talen [From Sanskrit to Cuneiform: Brain teasers from all languages] (in Dutch). Amsterdam University Press. pp. 18, 69–71. ISBN 978-9089641793. Retrieved 30 April 2016.
  18. ^ Jackson, A V Williams (1892). An Avestan Grammar. pp. xxxii.
  19. ^ Beckwith, Christopher (2009). Empires of the Silk Road. Princeton. p. 368. ISBN 978-0-691-13589-2.

General sources

  • Beekes, Robert S. P. (1988), A Grammar of Gatha-Avestan, Leiden: Brill, ISBN 90-04-08332-4.
  • Hoffmann, Karl; Forssman, Bernhard (1996), Avestische Laut- und Flexionslehre, Innsbrucker Beiträge zur Sprachwissenschaft 84, Institut fur Sprachwissenschaft der Universität Innsbruck, ISBN 3-85124-652-7.
  • Kellens, Jean (1990), "Avestan syntax", Encyclopedia Iranica, vol. 3/sup, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul
  • Skjærvø, Prod Oktor (2006), Old Avestan, fas.harvard.edu.
  • Skjærvø, Prod Oktor (2006), Introduction to Young Avestan, fas.harvard.edu.
  • Vaan, Michiel (2014), Introduction to Avestan (Brill Introductions to Indo-European Languages, Band 1), Brill, ISBN 978-90-04-25809-9.