The Old Iranian Languages and Scripts

avatarVahid Ali
3 mins read

The migration of various Iranian tribes from central Asia in the ancient times, helped spread various Iranian languages and dialects throughout the middle east and the neighboring areas. By the 1st millennium BC, Iranian languages had dominated a vast region from the northern shores of the Black Sea in the north (inhabited by the western Saka or Scythian tribes), to the borders of China in the east (occupied by the eastern Sakas). In the west they spread to the northwestern Iranian plateau (inhabited by the Medes), and to the shores of the Persian Gulf in the south (territory of the Persian tribes). Besides the Persians, the Medes, and the Sakas, other Iranian tribes of the 1st millennium BC are: the Parthians (southeastern central Asia), the Arians (today's Harat), the Bactrians (today's Balkh), the Sogdians (on the Zarafshan river), and the Khwarezmians (on the Oxus river).

The Old Iranian Languages

All Iranian languages stem from a common proto-Iranian language. This common (old Iranian) language in turn belongs to the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European family of languages. Old Iranian language began to break up and evolve into different languages and dialects, as the various Iranian tribes separated and settled in vast areas of southeastern Europe, the Iranian plateau, and central Asia.

Basically, linguists divide Old Iranian languages into two main groups:

  1. The eastern group
  2. The western group

The eastern group includes the languages of the Sogdians, Khwarezmians, Sakas, and the Avestan (also known as Old Bactrian) language. The western group on the other hand can be further divided into two groups:

  1. The southwestern group
  2. The northwestern group

The southwestern branch encompasses the Old Persian language, and the northwestern branch includes the Median language.

The major resources of Old Iranian languages are from the Old Persian Achamaenid inscriptions, and the Avesta the holy book of the Zarathushtrians. A very limited number of Mede and Saka words have also remained.

The Old Iranian Scripts

The only Old Iranian script known is the Old Persian cuneiform. The Achamaenid tablets, which many remain today, are in the Old Persian inscribed in cuneiform.

Although Avestan is categorized as an ancient or Old Iranian language, its alphabet was created during the Sasanian era based on the middle Persian.