Old Persian
𐎠𐎼𐎹 Ariya
RegionAncient Iran
EraEvolved into Middle Persian by c. 300 BCE
Old Persian cuneiform
Language codes
ISO 639-2peo
ISO 639-3peo
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Old Persian is one of two directly attested Old Iranian languages (the other being Avestan) and is the ancestor of Middle Persian (the language of the Sasanian Empire). Like other Old Iranian languages, it was known to its native speakers as ariya (Iranian).[1][2] Old Persian is close to both Avestan and the language of the Rig Veda, the oldest form of the Sanskrit language. All three languages are highly inflected.

Old Persian appears primarily in the inscriptions, clay tablets and seals of the Achaemenid era (c. 600 BCE to 300 BCE). Examples of Old Persian have been found in what is now Iran, Romania (Gherla),[3][4][5] Armenia, Bahrain, Iraq, Turkey and Egypt,[6][7] with the most important attestation by far being the contents of the Behistun Inscription (dated to 525 BCE).

2007 research into the vast Persepolis Fortification Archive at the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago unearthed Old Persian tablets, which suggest Old Persian was a written language in use for practical recording and not only for royal display.[8]

Origin and overview

As a written language, Old Persian is attested in royal Achaemenid inscriptions. It is an Iranian language and as such a member of the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European language family. The oldest known text written in Old Persian is from the Behistun Inscriptions.[9] Old Persian is one of the oldest Indo-European languages which are attested in original texts.[10]

The oldest date of use of Old Persian as a spoken language is not precisely known. According to certain historical assumptions about the early history and origin of ancient Persians in Southwestern Iran (where Achaemenids hailed from), Old Persian was originally spoken by a tribe called Parsuwash, who arrived in the Iranian Plateau early in the 1st millennium BCE and finally migrated down into the area of present-day Fārs province. Their language, Old Persian, became the official language of the Achaemenid kings.[10] Assyrian records, which in fact appear to provide the earliest evidence for ancient Iranian (Persian and Median) presence on the Iranian Plateau, give a good chronology but only an approximate geographical indication of what seem to be ancient Persians. In these records of the 9th century BCE, Parsuwash (along with Matai, presumably Medians) are first mentioned in the area of Lake Urmia in the records of Shalmaneser III.[11] The exact identity of the Parsuwash is not known for certain, but from a linguistic viewpoint the word matches Old Persian pārsa itself coming directly from the older word *pārćwa.[11] Also, as Old Persian contains many words from another extinct Iranian language, Median, according to P. O. Skjærvø it is probable that Old Persian had already been spoken before the formation of the Achaemenid Empire and was spoken during most of the first half of the first millennium BCE.[10]


Main article: Old Iranian languages

Old Persian belongs to the Iranian language family, a branch of the Indo-Iranian language family, itself within the large family of Indo-European languages. The common ancestors of Indo-Iranians came from Central Asia sometime in the first half of the 2nd millennium BCE. The extinct and unattested Median language is another Old Iranian language related to Old Persian; both are classified as Western Iranian languages, and many Median names appear in Old Persian texts.[12] The group of Old Iranian languages was presumably large; however, knowledge of it is restricted mainly to Old Persian, Avestan, and Median. The first two are the only languages in that group to have left written original texts, while Median is known mostly from loanwords in Old Persian.[13]

Language evolution

By the 4th century BCE, the late Achaemenid period, the inscriptions of Artaxerxes II and Artaxerxes III differ enough from the language of Darius' inscriptions to be called a "pre-Middle Persian," or "post-Old Persian."[14] Old Persian subsequently evolved into Middle Persian, which is in turn the ancestor of New Persian.

Professor Gilbert Lazard, a famous Iranologist and the author of the book Persian Grammar, states:[15]

The language known as New Persian, which usually is called at this period (early Islamic times) by the name of Parsi-Dari, can be classified linguistically as a continuation of Middle Persian, the official religious and literary language of Sassanian Iran, itself a continuation of Old Persian, the language of the Achaemenids. Unlike the other languages and dialects, ancient and modern, of the Iranian group such as Avestan, Parthian, Soghdian, Kurdish, Pashto, etc., Old, Middle and New Persian represent one and the same language at three states of its history. It had its origin in Fars and is differentiated by dialectical features, still easily recognizable from the dialect prevailing in north-western and eastern Iran.

Middle Persian, also sometimes called Pahlavi, is a direct continuation of Old Persian and was used as the written official language of the country.[16][17] Comparison of the evolution at each stage of the language shows great simplification in grammar and syntax. However, New Persian is a direct descendant of Middle and Old Persian.[13]


Old Persian "presumably"[14] has a Median language substrate. The Median element is readily identifiable because it did not share in the developments that were peculiar to Old Persian. Median forms "are found only in personal or geographical names [...] and some are typically from religious vocabulary and so could in principle also be influenced by Avestan." "Sometimes, both Median and Old Persian forms are found, which gave Old Persian a somewhat confusing and inconsistent look: 'horse,' for instance, is [attested in Old Persian as] both asa (OPers.) and aspa (Med.)."[14]


Main article: Old Persian cuneiform

Close-up of the Behistun inscription
An Old Persian inscription in Persepolis

Old Persian texts were written from left to right in the syllabic Old Persian cuneiform script and had 36 phonetic characters and 8 logograms. The usage of logograms is not obligatory.[18] The script was surprisingly[19] not a result of evolution of the script used in the nearby civilisation of Mesopotamia.[20] Despite the fact that Old Persian was written in cuneiform script, the script was not a direct continuation of Mesopotamian tradition and in fact, according to Schmitt, was a "deliberate creation of the sixth century BCE".[20]

The origin of the Old Persian cuneiform script and the identification of the date and process of introduction are a matter of discussion among Iranian scholars with no general agreement having been reached. The factors making the consensus difficult are, among others, the difficult passage DB (IV lines 88–92) from Darius the Great who speaks of a new "form of writing" being made by himself which is said to be "in Aryan":

King Darius says: By the grace of Ahuramazda this is the inscription which I have made. Besides, it was in Aryan ("ariyâ") script, and it was composed on clay tablets and on parchment. Besides, a sculptured figure of myself I made.

— Behistun Inscription (IV lines 88–92)[21]

Also, the analysis of certain Old Persian inscriptions are "supposed or claimed" to predate Darius the Great. Although it is true that the oldest attested Old Persian inscriptions are from Behistun monument from Darius, the creation of this "new type of writing" seems, according to Schmitt, "to have begun already under Cyrus the Great".[9]

The script shows a few changes in the shape of characters during the period it was used. This can be seen as a standardization of the heights of wedges, which in the beginning (i.e. in DB) took only half the height of a line.[22]


The following phonemes are expressed in the Old Persian script:

Front Back
Close i u
Open a
Labial Dental/
Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal m n
Plosive p b t d k ɡ
Fricative f θ x h
Affricate t͡s t͡ʃ d͡ʒ
Sibilant s z ʃ
Rhotic r
Approximant l j w

Notes: Lycian 𐊋𐊆𐊈𐊈𐊀𐊓𐊕𐊑𐊏𐊀 Kizzaprñna ~ 𐊈𐊆𐊖𐊀𐊓𐊕𐊑𐊏𐊀 Zisaprñna for (genuine) Old Persian *Ciçafarnā (besides the Median form *Ciθrafarnah) = Tissaphernes suggests /t͡s/ as the pronunciation of ç (compare [1] and Kloekhorst 2008, p. 125 in [2] for this example, who, however, mistakenly writes Çiçafarnā, which contradicts the etymology [PIIr. *Čitra-swarnas-] and the Middle Persian form Čehrfar [ç gives Middle Persian s]).[original research?]

The phoneme /l/ does not occur in native Iranian vocabulary, only in borrowings from Akkadian (a new /l/ develops in Middle Persian from Old Persian /rd/ and the change of /rθ/ to /hl/). The phoneme /r/ can also form a syllable peak; both the way Persian names with syllabic /r/ (such as Brdiya) are rendered in Elamite and its further development in Middle Persian suggest that before the syllabic /r/, an epenthetic vowel [i] had developed already in the Old Persian period, which later became [u] after labials. For example, Old Persian Vᵃ-rᵃ-kᵃ-a-nᵃ /wr̩kaːna/ is rendered in Elamite as Mirkānu-,[23] rendering transcriptions such as V(a)rakāna, Varkāna or even Vurkāna questionable and making Vrkāna or Virkāna much more realistic (and equally for vrka- "wolf", Brdiya and other Old Persian words and names with syllabic /r/).

While v usually became /v/ in Middle Persian, it became /b/ word-initially in New Persian, except before [u] (including the epenthetic vowel mentioned above), where it became /ɡ/. This suggests that it was really pronounced as [w].


Grammatical numbers

Old Persian has 3 types of grammatical number: singular, dual and plural.

Grammatical genders

Old Persian has three grammatical genders: masculine, feminine and neuter. In contrast, Modern Persian (as well as Middle Persian) is a gender-neutral language.


Old Persian stems:

-a -am
Singular Dual Plural Singular Dual Plural Singular Dual Plural
Nominative -a -ā, -āha -am
Accusative -am -ām
-aibiyā -aibiš -aibiyā -aibiš -āyā -ābiyā -ābiš
Dative -ahyā, -ahya -ahyā, -ahya
Genitive -āyā -ānām -āyā -ānām -āyā -ānām
Locative -aiy -aišuvā -aiy -aišuvā -āšuvā
-iš -iy -uš -uv
Singular Dual Plural Singular Dual Plural Singular Dual Plural Singular Dual Plural
Nominative -iš -īy -iya -iy -in -īn -uš -ūv -uva -uv -un -ūn
Vocative -i -u
Accusative -im -iš -um -ūn
-auš -ībiyā -ībiš -auš -ībiyā -ībiš -auv -ūbiyā -ūbiš -auv -ūbiyā -ūbiš
Dative -aiš -aiš -auš -auš
Genitive -īyā -īnām -īyā -īnām -ūvā -ūnām -ūvā -ūnām
Locative -auv -išuvā -auv -išuvā -āvā -ušuvā -āvā -ušuvā

Adjectives are declined in a similar way.


Active, Middle (them. pres. -aiy-, -ataiy-), Passive (-ya-).

Mostly the forms of first and third persons are attested. The only preserved Dual form is ajīvatam 'both lived'.

Present Active
Athematic Thematic
'be' 'bring'
Sg. 1.pers. miy barāmiy
3.pers. astiy baratiy
Pl. 1.pers. mahiy barāmahiy
3.pers. hatiy baratiy
Imperfect Active
Athematic Thematic
'do, make' 'be, become'
Sg. 1.pers. akunavam abavam
3.pers. akunauš abava
Pl. 1.pers. aku abavāmā
3.pers. akunava abava
Present participle
Active Middle
-nt- -amna-
Past participle


Proto-Iranian Old Persian Middle Persian Modern Persian meaning
*Háhurah mazdáH Auramazdā (𐎠𐎢𐎼𐎶𐏀𐎭𐎠) Ohrmazd 𐭠𐭥𐭧𐭥𐭬𐭦𐭣 Hormazd هرمزد Ahura Mazda (supreme God)
*Hácwah asa (𐎠𐎿) asp asb اسب / asp اسپ horse
*káHmah kāma (𐎣𐎠𐎶) kām kâm کام desire
*daywáh daiva (𐎭𐎡𐎺) dēw div دیو devil
*jráyah drayah (𐎭𐎼𐎹) drayā daryâ دریا sea
*jástah dasta (𐎭𐎿𐎫) dast 𐭩𐭣𐭤 dast دست hand
*bāǰíš bājiš (𐎲𐎠𐎩𐎡𐏁) bāj bâj باج / bâž باژ toll
*bráHtā brātā (𐎲𐎼𐎠𐎫𐎠) brād(ar) barâdar برادر brother
*búHmiš būmiš (𐏏) būm 𐭡𐭥𐭬 bum بوم region, land
*mártyah martya (𐎶𐎼𐎫𐎡𐎹) mard mard مرد man
*mā́Hah māha (𐎶𐎠𐏃) māh 𐭡𐭩𐭥𐭧 mâh ماه moon, month
*wáhr̥ derivative vāhara (𐎺𐎠𐏃𐎼) wahār bahâr بهار spring
*stuHnáH stūnā (𐎿𐎬𐎢𐎴𐎠) stūn sotun ستون stand (column)
*čyaHtáh šiyāta (𐏁𐎡𐎹𐎠𐎫) šād šâd شاد happy
*Hr̥tám artam (𐎠𐎼𐎫𐎶) ard ord ارد order, truth
*dráwgah drauga (𐎭𐎼𐎢𐎥) drōw doruğ دروغ lie
*cwáHdaH spāda (𐎿𐎱𐎠𐎭) spah 𐭮𐭯𐭠𐭧 sepâh سپاه army

See also


  1. ^ cf. Gershevitch, Ilya (1968). "Old Iranian Literature". Handbuch der Orientalistik, Literatur I. Leiden: Brill. pp. 1–31., p. 2.
  2. ^ Gnoli, Gherardo (2006). "Iranian Identity ii. Pre-Islamic Period". Encyclopædia Iranica. Vol. 13. New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul. ... in the Old Persian version, whose language was called "Iranian" or ariya.
  3. ^ Kuhrt 2013, p. 197.
  4. ^ Frye 1984, p. 103.
  5. ^ Schmitt 2000, p. 53.
  6. ^ "Old Persian Texts". Avesta – Zoroastrian Archives.
  7. ^ Kent, R. G. (1950) "Old Persian: Grammar Texts Lexicon", p. 6. American Oriental Society.
  8. ^ "Everyday text shows that Old Persian was probably more commonly used than previously thought". University of Chicago News Office (archived). June 15, 2007. Archived from the original on 2017-10-16.
  9. ^ a b Schmitt 2008, pp. 80–81.
  10. ^ a b c Skjærvø 2006, vi(2). Documentation. Old Persian..
  11. ^ a b Skjærvø 2006, vi(1). Earliest Evidence.
  12. ^ Schmitt 2008, p. 76.
  13. ^ a b Skjærvø 2006.
  14. ^ a b c Skjærvø 2005.
  15. ^ Lazard, Gilbert (1975). "The Rise of the New Persian Language". In Frye, R. N. (ed.). The Cambridge History of Iran. Vol. 4. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 595–632.
  16. ^ Ulrich Ammon; Norbert Dittmar; Klaus J. Mattheier; Peter Trudgill (2006). An International Handbook of the Science of Language and Society. Sociolinguistics. Vol. 3 (2nd ed.). Walter de Gruyter. p. 1912. Middle Persian, also called Pahlavi is a direct continuation of old Persian, and was used as the written official language of the country." "However, after the Moslem conquest and the collapse of the Sassanids, Arabic became the dominant language of the country and Pahlavi lost its importance, and was gradually replaced by Dari, a variety of Middle Persian, with considerable loan elements from Arabic and Parthian.
  17. ^ Bo Utas (2005). "Semitic on Iranian". In Éva Ágnes Csató; Bo Isaksson; Carina Jahani (eds.). Linguistic convergence and areal diffusion: case studies from Iranian, Semitic and Turkic. Routledge. p. 71. As already mentioned, it is not likely that the scribes of Sassanian chanceries had any idea about the Old Persian cuneiform writing and the language couched in it. Still, the Middle Persian language that appeared in the third century AD may be seen as a continuation of Old Persian
  18. ^ Schmitt 2008, p. 78.
  19. ^ Schmitt 2008, p. 78 Excerpt: "It remains unclear why the Persians did not take over the Mesopotamian system in earlier times, as the Elamites and other peoples of the Near East had, and, for that matter, why the Persians did not adopt the Aramaic consonantal script.."
  20. ^ a b Schmitt 2008, p. 77.
  21. ^ Behistun T 42 – Livius.
  22. ^ Schmitt 2008, p. 79.
  23. ^ Stolper, M. W. (1997). "Mirkānu". In Ebeling, Erich; Meissner, Bruno; Edzard, Dietz Otto (eds.). Reallexikon der Assyriologie und vorderasiatischen Archäologie. Volume 8: Meek – Mythologie. Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter. p. 221. ISBN 978-3-11-014809-1. Retrieved 15 August 2013.


  • Brandenstein, Wilhelm (1964), Handbuch des Altpersischen, Wiesbaden: O. Harrassowitz
  • Hinz, Walther (1966), Altpersischer Wortschatz, Nendeln, Liechtenstein: Kraus
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  • Sims-Williams, Nicholas (1996), "Iranian languages", Encyclopedia Iranica, vol. 7, Costa Mesa: Mazda: 238-245
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  • Schmitt, R. (2008), "Old Persian", in Roger D. Woodard (ed.), The Ancient Languages of Asia and the Americas (illustrated ed.), Cambridge University Press, pp. 76–100, ISBN 978-0521684941
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  • Tolman, Herbert Cushing (1908), Ancient Persian Lexicon and the Texts of the Achaemenidan Inscriptions Transliterated and Translated with Special Reference to Their Recent Re-examination, New York/Cincinnati: American Book Company

Further reading