Sogdian Language and Scripts

avatarVahid Ali
4 mins read

The people of Sogdiana with their capital of Afrasiab were first mentioned in the Achaemenid inscriptions. Darius the Great and Xerxes sources frequently mention the province of Sug(u)da as a part of the great Persian empire.

In the Avesta, sughdha refers to Sogdiana (as known in the West) as a country and Sogdian as a nation. Herodotus lists Sogdiana in a list of nations subject to the Achamaenid kings, and according to other Greek sources, the limits of Sogdiana are the Oxus river in the south and the Jaxartes in the north. Strabo notes that the people of Areia, Bactria, and Sogdiana spoke similar languages and could understand each other.

The Sogdians played a major role in trade between China and Central Asia. The religions of these peoples, who had settled in the Eastern Turkestan in the first to third centuries AD, were Buddhism, Manichaeism, or Christianity. After the collapse of the Persian empire in the 4th century BC, Sogdiana was ruled by a succession of the Greeks, the nomadic Yüeh-chih, the Kushan kings, the Sasanians, the Hephthalites, the Turks, and finally succumbing to the Mongols. The modern day Uzbakestan is the site of ancient Sogdiana.

The Sogdian Language

The Sogdian language is a branch of the eastern middle Iranian languages once spoken by a people of Iranian stock. This language is considered one of the most important of the eastern Iranian languages due to its significance as a vehicle of culture, literature, and commerce. The territory of Sogdian language bordered on the area of Persian speech in the west and extending the walls of China in the east.

The first direct information on the Sogdian language comes from the so-called Ancient Letters.

These documents were discovered in the early 20th century in the Eastern Turkestan and belong to the first half of the 4th century. However, the bulk of Sogdian literature comes from the sixth to the ninth centuries AD. The Sogdian material sources can be divided into the Ancient Letters, the documents from Tajikestan, the rock inscriptions of North Pakistan, and the religious texts of Buddhism, Manichaeism, and Christianity. An important fact is that the religious texts were written in different alphabets by their respective representatives. Although one expects different Sogdian dialects from various geographical areas, these dialectical differences are comparatively few.

The Sogdian language fell into disuse around the end of the 10th century. However, it was still in use until the 13th century in a smaller area. The Yaghnabi dialect, still spoken in Tajikestan, is believed to be the direct descendant of a variant of Sogdian.

The Sogdian Scripts

Apart from a single fragment in a Brahmi script, all Sogdian texts are written in three different scripts:

  • Ancient letters
  • Sogdian
  • Manichaean
  • Syriac

All three are based on the Semitic writing system.

Ancient letters script - Derived from a variant of the Aramaic script used to write the famous Ancient Letters. The Aramaic script was introduced into Sogdiana during the Achaemenian period, and was probably modified for Sogdian in the late Parthian period.

An ancient Manichaean Sogdian text

Sogdian script - Also known as the sutra script, was similar to the script of the Ancient Letters used in writing on papyri. All Buddhist texts as well as all secular material such as letters, legal documents, coin legends, and inscriptions were written in this script.

Manichaean script - The Manichaean orthography is influenced by the rules of both the Sogdian script and Manichaean variants of middle Persian and Parthian. This script is defective in showing Sogdian vowels in quality and quantity.

Syriac script - The Syriac script was used for Christian materials and better indicates the Sogdian vowels. The Sogdian Christian scribes added three new characters f, x, ž to the 22 letters of the Syriac alphabet in order to better distinguish the Sogdian consonants.