Eastern Iranian languages

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Eastern Iranian
Central Asia, South Asia, Scythia
Linguistic classification: Indo-European
  • Northeastern
  • Southeastern
Glottolog: east2704[1]

The Eastern Iranian languages are a subgroup of the Iranian languages emerging in Middle Iranian times (from c. the 4th century BC). The Avestan language is often classified as early Eastern Iranian. The largest living Eastern Iranian language is Pashto, with some 50-60 million speakers between the Hindu Kush mountains in Afghanistan and the Indus River in Pakistan. As opposed to the Middle Western Iranian dialects, the Middle Eastern Iranian preserves word-final syllables.

The living Eastern Iranian languages are spoken in a contiguous area, in eastern Afghanistan as well as the adjacent parts of western Pakistan, Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Province of eastern Tajikistan, and the far west of Xinjiang region of China, while it also has two other living members in widely separated areas, the Yaghnobi language of northwestern Tajikistan (descended from Sogdian) and the Ossetic language of the Caucasus (descended from Scytho-Sarmatian). These are remnants of a vast ethno-linguistic continuum that stretched over most of Central Asia and parts of Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and West Asia in the 1st millennium BC, otherwise known as Scythia. The large Eastern Iranian continuum in Eastern Europe would continue up to including the 4th century AD by the successors of the Scythians, namely the Sarmatians.[2]


Eastern Iranian is thought to have separated from Western Iranian in the course of the later 2nd millennium BC, and was possibly located at the Yaz culture.

With Greek presence in Central Asia, some of the easternmost of these languages were recorded in their Middle Iranian stage (hence the "Eastern" classification), while almost no records of the Scytho-Sarmatian continuum stretching from Kazakhstan west across the Pontic steppe to Ukraine have survived.

Middle Persian/Dari spread around the Oxus River region, Afghanistan, and Khurasan after the Arab conquests and during Islamic-Arab rule.[3][4] The replacement of the Pahlavi script with the Arabic script in order to write the Persian language was done by the Tahirids in 9th century Khurasan.[5] The Persian Dari language spread and led to the extinction of Eastern Iranic languages like Bactrian, Khorezmian with only a tiny amount of Sogdian descended Yaghnobi speakers remaining among the now Persian speaking Tajik population of Central Asia, due to the fact that the Arab-Islamic army which invaded Central Asia also included some Persians who later governed the region like the Samanids.[6] Persian was rooted into Central Asia by the Samanids.[7]


Eastern Iranian remains a single dialect continuum subject to common innovation. Traditional branches, such as "Northeastern", as well as Eastern Iranian itself, are better considered language areas rather than genetic groups.[8][9]

The languages are as follows:[10]

Old Iranian

Avestan† (c. 1000 – 7th century BC) is commonly classified as Eastern, but is not assigned to a branch in this classification.

Middle Iranian


The Eastern Iranian area has been affected by widespread sound changes, e.g. č > ts.

English Avestan Pashto Munji Sanglechi Wakhi Shughni Parachi Ormuri Yaghnobi Ossetic
one aēva- yaw yu vak yi yiw žu ī iu
four čaθwārō tsalṓr čfūr tsəfúr tsībɨr tsavṓr čōr tsār tafór tsippar
seven hapta ōwə ōvda ō ɨb ūvd t avd avd

Lenition of voiced stops[edit]

Common to most Eastern Iranian languages is a particularly widespread lenition of the voiced stops *b, *d, *g. Between vowels, these have been lenited also in most Western Iranian languages, but in Eastern Iranian, spirantization also generally occurs in the word-initial position. This phenomenon is however not apparent in Avestan, and remains absent from Ormuri-Parachi.

A series of spirant consonants can be assumed to have been the first stage: *b > *β, *d > *ð, *g > *ɣ. The voiced velar fricative /ɣ/ has mostly been preserved. The labial member has been well-preserved too, but in most languages has shifted from a voiced bilabial fricative /β/ to the voiced labiodental fricative /v/. The dental member has proved the most unstable: while a voiced dental fricative /ð/ is preserved in some Pamir languages, it has in e.g. Pashto and Munji lenited further to /l/. On the other hand, in Yaghnobi and Ossetian, the development appears to have been reversed, leading to the reappearence of a voiced stop /d/. (Both languages have also shifted earlier *θ > /t/.)

English Avestan Pashto Munji Sanglechi Wakhi Shughni Parachi Ormuri Yaghnobi Ossetic
ten dasa las los / dā1 dos δas δis dōs das das dæs
cow gav- ɣ ɣṓw uɣūi ɣīw žōw gū gioe ɣov x”ug
brother brātar- wrōr vəróy vrūδ vīrīt virṓd b (marzā2) virūt ærvad

The consonant clusters *ft and *xt have also been widely lenited, though again excluding Ormuri-Parachi, and possibly Yaghnobi.

External influences[edit]

The neighboring Indo-Aryan languages have exerted a pervasive external influence on the closest neighbouring Eastern Iranian, as it is evident in the development in the retroflex consonants (in Pashto, Wakhi, Sanglechi, Khotanese, etc.) and aspirates (in Khotanese, Parachi and Ormuri).[8] A more localized sound change is the backing of the former retroflex fricative ṣ̌ [ʂ], to [x] or to x [χ], found in the Shughni–Yazgulyam branch and certain dialects of Pashto. E.g. "meat": ɡuṣ̌t in Wakhi and γwaṣ̌a in Southern Pashto, but changes to guxt in Shughni, γwaa in Central Pashto and γwaxa in Northern Pashto.


  • ^1 Munji is a borrowing from Persian but Yidgha still uses los.
  • ^2 Ormuri marzā has a different etymological origin, but generally Ormuri [b] is preserved unchanged, e.g. *bastra- > bēš, Ormuri for "cord" (cf. Avestan band- "to tie").

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Eastern Iranian". Glottolog. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  2. ^ J.Harmatta: "Scythians" in UNESCO Collection of History of Humanity – Volume III: From the Seventh Century BC to the Seventh Century AD. Routledge/UNESCO. 1996. pg. 182
  3. ^ Ira M. Lapidus (22 August 2002). A History of Islamic Societies. Cambridge University Press. pp. 127–. ISBN 978-0-521-77933-3. 
  4. ^ Ira M. Lapidus (29 October 2012). Islamic Societies to the Nineteenth Century: A Global History. Cambridge University Press. pp. 255–. ISBN 978-0-521-51441-5. 
  5. ^ Ira M. Lapidus (29 October 2012). Islamic Societies to the Nineteenth Century: A Global History. Cambridge University Press. pp. 256–. ISBN 978-0-521-51441-5. 
  6. ^ Paul Bergne (15 June 2007). The Birth of Tajikistan: National Identity and the Origins of the Republic. I.B.Tauris. pp. 5–. ISBN 978-1-84511-283-7. 
  7. ^ Paul Bergne (15 June 2007). The Birth of Tajikistan: National Identity and the Origins of the Republic. I.B.Tauris. pp. 6–. ISBN 978-1-84511-283-7. 
  8. ^ a b Nicholas Sims-Williams, Eastern Iranian languages, in Encyclopaedia Iranica, Online Edition, 2008
  9. ^ Antje Wendtland (2009), The position of the Pamir languages within East Iranian, Orientalia Suecana LVIII
  10. ^ Gernot Windfuhr, 2009, "Dialectology and Topics", The Iranian Languages, Routledge

External links[edit]

  • Compendium Linguarum Iranicarum, ed. Schmitt (1989), p. 100.