The Middle Persian Language and Script

avatarVahid Ali
4 mins read

Five and a half centuries separated the end of the Achamaenian empire and the beginning of the Sasanian dynasty.

The Persians through Ardashir Pabagan were able to regain power by defeating the Parthians. His son Shapur I (d. AD 272) consolidated the empire by defeating the Romans in the west and the Kushans in the east. He took an interest in the great Iranian teacher, Mani (AD 216-274) the founder of a universal religion.

Shapur left long inscriptions in several languages in Naqshe Rostam.

Taqe Bostan frieze or King Ardashir II (379-383 AD)

During the Sasanian time, the phonetic Avestan alphabet was developed based on the Middle Persian Aramaic, in order to preserve the ancient Zoroastrian scriptures. The Sasanians were also great patrons of the arts.

Iranian art of this era radiated over an area stretching from China to the Atlantic.

The Middle Persian language

Middle Persian, also known as Pahlavi, was the official language of the Sasanian empire (226-652 AD).

It existed from the 3rd to the 10th century and was replaced by the New Persian language. It was a continuation, albeit not a linear one, of Old Persian.

Among all middle Iranian languages, middle Persian has the most number of records left. Coins with inscriptions in Pahlavi from the era of the Persian kings (circa 2nd century BC) still remain.

The major part of Pahlavi literature is religious, including translations from and commentaries on the Avesta. Little has survived from pre-Islamic times, and the Bundahishn and Denkart, both Zoroastrian religious works, date from the Islamic period. Manuscripts were preserved by the Parsis (Zoroastrians) of India. Middle Persian was also the language of the Manichaean and books written during the 3rd to the 10th century AD.

Some texts have survive unchanged from the 3rd century AD, the time of Mani himself. Major discoveries of Manichaean manuscripts were made early in the 20th century in Turfan in eastern Turkestan.

The most important of the Middle Persian inscriptions is that of Shapur I, which has parallel versions in Parthian and Greek.

The Middle Persian scripts

The script of Middle Persian derives ultimately from that of the official Aramaic of Old Persian used during the Achaemenian empire.

This script is also called the Imperial Aramaic. In the course of time, however, a high degree of development occurred in the script. The Imperial Aramaic alphabet evolved into four different forms and various heterograms which were all used to inscribe the Middle Persian language.

These four alphabets are:

  • Inscriptional
  • Pslater
  • Book
  • Early Cursive

Inscriptional - This type of alphabet was to inscribe on rocks, papyrus, metals, precious stones, etc. The inscriptions relate to the Sasanian kings starting from Ardashir I (224 - 242 AD) . This alphabet was written from right to left with many Aramaic ideograms. Although written in Aramaic, these ideograms were read in Middle Persian.

Psalter - A variant of the Persian script used for writing on paper is so-called Psalter script, known from the Psalms of David written on a fragmentary manuscript found in Chinese Turkestan.

Early Cursive and Book - The Psalter script developed from a simplified variant called the Early Cursive, into the so-called Book script, so named after the script used in Zoroastrian books.

Heterograms (ideograms) - The written Aramaic language of the Achamaenid period evolved into local Iranian, and the scribes began to insert Iranian words into their texts. The text language therefore turned into a "mixed" or "bastardized" Aramaic, but eventually the entire language was Iranian. However, Aramaic words were still written, but they became mere symbols for the corresponding Iranian words. These so-called "Semitic masks" are called "ideograms" or more recently called heterograms.

Manichaean Middle Persian - In addition to Aramaic, Middle Persian was also written in the Manichaean script which is a variant of the Syriac script known as Estrangelo. The Manichaean script was used also to write many other Iranian languages, such as Sogdian and non-Iranian languages such as Old Turkish.