Bactrian language

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Native to Bactria
Region Central Asia
Era 300 BC – 1000 AD[1]
Greek script
Manichaean script
Official status
Official language in
Kushan Empire
Hephthalite Empire
Language codes
ISO 639-3 xbc
Linguist list
Glottolog bact1239[2]
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters.
Bactrian was predominantly written using the Greek script with the addition of the letter sho (here in majuscule and minuscule) to represent the /ʃ/ sound.
Faravahar background
History of Greater Iran
Until the rise of modern nation-states

The Bactrian language (Bactrian: αρια, Arya) is an Eastern Iranian language which was spoken in the Central Asian region of Bactria (present-day Afghanistan), and used as the official language of the Kushan and the Hephthalite empires. Bactrian was closely related to the extinct Middle Iranian languages Sogdian, Khwarezmian, and Parthian, as well as to the modern Eastern Iranian languages Pashto, Yidgha, and Munji.[3]


Bactrian was natively known as αρια or "Arya" language. Because Bactrian was written predominantly in an alphabet based on the Greek script, Bactrian is sometimes referred to as "Greco-Bactrian", "Kushan" or "Kushano-Bactrian". Until the 1970s, Bactrian was sometimes referred to as "Eteo-Tocharian", because in medieval times, Bactria was also known as Tokharistan after the incoming Yuezhi Tocharian tribes. But it is now certain that Bactrian is not closely related to the Tocharian languages, which do not belong to the Indo-Iranian language group.

Some medieval scholars thought that Avestan represented "Old Bactrian", but this notion had "rightly fallen into discredit by the end of the 19th century".[4]


Following the conquest of Bactria by Alexander the Great in 323 BC, for about two centuries Greek was the administrative language of his Hellenistic successors, that is, the Seleucid and the Greco-Bactrian kingdoms. Eastern Scythian tribes (the Saka, or Sacaraucae of Greek sources) invaded the territory around 140 BC, and at some time after 124 BC, Bactria was overrun by Yuezhi Tocharian tribes. Subsequently, one of the Yuezhi tribes advanced to found the Kushan dynasty in the 1st century AD.

The Kushans at first retained the Greek language for administrative purposes, but soon began to use Bactrian. The Bactrian Rabatak inscription (discovered in 1993 and deciphered in 2000) records that the Kushan king Kanishka (c. 127 AD)[5] discarded Greek (Ionian) as the language of administration and adopted Bactrian ("Arya language"). The Greek language accordingly vanishes from official use and only Bactrian is attested. The use of the Greek script however remained to write Bactrian.

In the 3rd century, the Kushan territories west of the Indus river fell to the Sassanids, and Bactrian began to be influenced by Middle Persian. Next to Pahlavi script and (occasionally) Brahmi script, some coinage of this period is still in Greco-Bactrian script. Beginning in the mid-4th century, Bactria and northwestern India yielded to the Hephthalite tribes. The Hephthalite period is marked by linguistic diversity and in addition to Bactrian, Middle Persian, North Indo-Aryan, Turkish and Latin vocabulary is also attested. The Hephthalites ruled their territories until the 7th century when they were overrun by the Arabs, after which the official use of Bactrian ceased. Although Bactrian briefly survived in other usage, that too eventually ceased, and the latest examples of the language date to the end of the 9th century.[6]

The territorial expansion of the Kushans helped propagate Bactrian to Northern India and parts of Central Asia. Sites at which Bactrian language inscriptions have been found are (in North-South order) Afrasiab in Uzbekistan; Kara-Tepe, Airtam, Delbarjin, Balkh, Kunduz, Baglan, Ratabak/Surkh Kotal, Oruzgan, Kabul, Dasht-e Navur, Ghazni, Jagatu in Afghanistan; and Islamabad, Shatial Bridge and Tochi Valley in Pakistan. Of eight known manuscript fragments in Greco-Bactrian script, one is from Lou-lan and seven from Toyoq, where they were discovered by the second and third Turpan expeditions under Albert von Le Coq. One of these may be a Buddhist text. One other manuscript, in Manichaean script, was found at Qočo by Mary Boyce in 1958.

Writing system[edit]

Among Indo-Iranian languages, the use of the Greek script is unique to Bactrian. Although ambiguities remain, some of the disadvantages were overcome by using heta (Ͱ, ͱ) for /h/ and by introducing sho (Ϸ, ϸ) to represent /ʃ/. Xi (Ξ, ξ) and psi (Ψ, ψ) were not used for writing Bactrian as the ks and ps sequences do not occur in Bactrian. They were however probably used to represent numbers (just as other Greek letters were).


  1. ^ Bactrian at MultiTree on the Linguist List
  2. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Bactrian". Glottolog. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  3. ^ Henning (1960), p. 47. Bactrian thus “occupies an intermediary position between Pashto and Yidgha-Munji on the one hand, Sogdian, Choresmian, and Parthian on the other: it is thus in its natural and rightful place in Bactria”.
  4. ^ Gershevitch 1983, p. 1250
  5. ^ Falk (2001), p. 133.
  6. ^ History of Civilizations of Central Asia: The Development of Sedentary and Nomadic Civilizations, 700 B. C. to A, Part 250 (illustrated ed.). UNESCO. 1994. p. 433. ISBN 9231028464. Retrieved 27 March 2013. 


  • Falk (2001): “The yuga of Sphujiddhvaja and the era of the Kuṣâṇas.” Harry Falk. Silk Road Art and Archaeology VII, pp. 121–136.
  • Henning (1960): “The Bactrian Inscription.” W. B. Henning. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 23, No. 1. (1960), pp. 47–55.
  • Gershevitch, Ilya (1983), "Bactrian Literature", in Yarshater, Ehsan, Cambridge History of Iran 3 (2), Cambridge: Cambridge UP, pp. 1250–1258, ISBN 0-511-46773-7 .
  • Sims-Williams, Nicholas (1989), "Bactrian Language", Encyclopedia Iranica 3, New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, pp. 344–349 .
  • Sims-Williams, Nicholas (1989), "Bactrian", in Schmitt, Rüdiger, Compendium Linguarum Iranicarum, Wiesbaden: Reichert, pp. 230–235 .
  • Sims-Williams, Nicholas (1997), New Findings in Ancient Afghanistan: the Bactrian documents discovered from the Northern Hindu-Kush, [lecture transcript], Tokyo: Department of Linguistics, University of Tokyo