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date: 25 February 2021

Old Persian was the Iranian language spoken by the ruling class of the Achaemenid Empire, probably reflecting the Southwest Iranian dialect of Persis (see Persia). It is preserved in documents in a cuneiform script superficially modeled on Mesopotamian (Sumero-Akkadian) writing and first used under Darius I in the late 6th century bce. As a spoken language, Old Persian was the direct ancestor of Middle Persian and Modern Persian (Farsi). The script was the first cuneiform writing to be deciphered by modern scholars, starting in 1802 with the pioneering work of Georg Grotefend; this laid the basis for the subsequent decipherment of Mesopotamian cuneiform and the languages written in it, one of the most far-reaching achievements of 19th-century science (see cuneiform).

Of the two Old Iranian languages that survive in written records (the other being Avestan, the language of the Zoroastrian liturgical texts), only Old Persian is attested to in original documents contemporary with when it was spoken. Most are monumental royal inscriptions, often trilingual (Old Persian, Elamite, Babylonian) in the early period, and have been found primarily in the historical regions of Persis, Elam, and Media. Many of these, most famously the massive trilingual inscribed on a high rock face at Bisotun (Behistun) that records the deeds of Darius I, are of immense value to historians. Though there is evidence of the language throughout the reign of Artaxerxes III (d. 338 bce), most of its remains stem from the time of Darius I and Xerxes I; later inscriptions are of lesser quality, devolving into clichéed bricolage and sometimes exhibiting grammatical errors. A smaller number of inscriptions are found on vases and other objects, as well as on seals.

Linguistic Features

Linguistically, Old Persian is considerably further developed than Avestan, which, though not written down until much later, is phonologically and morphologically more archaic. In spite of its traditional labeling as an Old Iranian language, Old Persian has already undergone many typical Middle Iranian developments such as vowel contractions, loss of case distinctions in the noun, and loss of aspectual distinctions in the verb. Due to ambiguities in spelling and limitations of the writing system, which is partly syllabic and partly alphabetic, historians lack a complete picture of Old Persian phonology, but some characteristic features are ascertainable. The inherited Indo-European palatal stops became θ‎ and d rather than s and z as in the rest of Iranian (thus, e.g., Old Persian maθišta-‎ [“greatest”], ardata- [“silver”], versus Avestan masišta-, ǝrǝzata-‎). The Proto-Iranian consonant cluster *θr‎ became a single sound transliterated as ç (probably some sort of sibilant), thus Old Persian çitīya- (“third”) versus Avestan θritiia-‎. Also unique is the s in a word like asa- (“horse”) alongside the sp in the rest of Iranian (aspa-) as the reflex of an old cluster of palatal stop plus *w. These and other phonological developments allow scholars to distinguish native Old Persian vocabulary from loanwords from Median, the otherwise unattested language of the Medes, which constitute an important adstrate at least in the artificial royal form of Old Persian. Most Median loanwords have to do with royalty, the military, bureaucratic administration, and other matters of importance to governance.

Bibliography

  • Kent, Roland. Old Persian: Grammar, Texts, Lexicon. New Haven, CT: American Oriental Society, 1953.
  • Schmitt, Rüdiger. “Altpersisch.” In Compendium Linguarum Iranicarum. Edited by Rüdiger. Schmitt, 56–85. Wiesbaden, Germany: Reichert Verlag, 1989.
  • Schmitt, Rüdiger. Die altpersischen Inschriften der Achaimeniden. Wiesbaden, Germany: Reichert Verlag, 2009.