Middle Persian

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Middle Persian
Pārsīk or Pārsīg
Region Sasanian Empire
Ethnicity Persian people
Era evolved into New Persian by the ninth century; thereafter used only by Zoroastrian priests for exegesis and religious instruction.
Early forms
Old Persian
  • Middle Persian
Pahlavi scripts, Manichaean alphabet, Avestan alphabet
Language codes
ISO 639-2 pal
ISO 639-3 Either:
pal – Zoroastrian Middle Persian ("Pahlavi")
xmn – Manichaean Middle Persian (Manichaean script)
Glottolog pahl1241  (Pahlavi)[1]
Linguasphere 58-AAC-ca

Middle Persian is the Middle Iranian language or ethnolect of southwestern Iran that during the Sasanian Empire (224–654) became a prestige dialect and so came to be spoken in other regions of the empire as well. Middle Persian is classified as a Western Iranian language. It descends from Old Persian and is the linguistic ancestor of Modern Persian.

Middle Persian consisted of several dialects and variants. One of these variants was called Pahlavīk (Pahlavi) which stands for Parthian, and refers to the Middle Persian that was the language of the Parthian Empire. Another variant of Middle Persian, known locally as Pārsik, was the official language of the Sasanian Empire. Most scholars refer to the latter variant when using the term "Middle Persian".[2][3]

The native name for Middle Persian was Pārsīk[2][4] (later Pārsīg) translating to "language of Pārs". It consists of Pārs (local name of the Persis province) + adjective suffix -īk[5] ("having to do with"; from Proto-Indo-European -(i)ko and related to Greek –ikos, French –ique, Slavic –isku;[6] e.g. Āsōrik "Assyrian", etc.). The word is consequently the origin of the native name for the Modern Persian language—Parsi or Fārsī.

Traces of Middle Persian, or Parsik, are found in remnants of Sasanian inscriptions and Egyptian papyri, coins and seals, fragments of Manichaean writings, and treatises and Zoroastrian books from the Sasanian era, as well as in the post-Sasanian Zoroastrian variant of the language sometimes known as Pahlavi, which originally referred to the Pahlavi scripts,[7][8] and that was also the preferred writing system for several other Middle Iranian languages. Aside from the Aramaic alphabet-derived Pahlavi script,[9] Zoroastrian Middle Persian was occasionally also written in Pazend, a system derived from the Avestan alphabet that, unlike Pahlavi, indicated vowels and did not employ logograms. Manichaean Middle Persian texts were written in the Manichaean alphabet, which also derives from Aramaic but in an Eastern Iranian form via the Sogdian alphabet.

The ISO 639 language code for Middle Persian is pal, which reflects the post-Sasanian era use of the term Pahlavi to refer to the language and not only the script.

Transition from Old Persian[edit]

History of the
Persian language
Proto-Iranian (ca. 1500 BCE)

Western Iranian languages

Old Persian (c. 525 BCE - 300 BCE)

Old Persian cuneiform

Middle Persian (c.300 BCE-800 CE)

Pahlavi scriptsManichaean alphabetAvestan alphabet

Modern Persian (from 800)

Persian alphabetTajiki Cyrillic alphabet

In the classification of the Iranian languages, the Middle Period includes those languages which were common in Iran from the fall of the Achaemenid Empire in the fourth century BCE up to the fall of the Sasanian Empire in the seventh century CE.

The most important and distinct development in the structure of Iranian languages of this period is the transformation from the synthetic form of the Old Period (Old Persian and Avestan) to an analytic form:

Transition to New Persian[edit]

The modern-day descendant of Middle Persian is New Persian. The changes between late Middle and Early New Persian were very gradual, and in the 10th-11th centuries, Middle Persian texts were still intelligible to speakers of Early New Persian. However, there are definite differences that had taken place already by the 10th century:

  • Sound changes, such as
    • the dropping of unstressed initial vowels
    • the epenthesis of vowels in initial consonant clusters
    • the loss of -g when word final
    • change of initial w- to either b- or (gw- → g-)
  • Changes in the verbal system, notably the loss of distinctive subjunctive and optative forms, and the increasing use of verbal prefixes to express verbal moods
  • Changes in the vocabulary, especially the substitution of a large number of Arabic loanwords for words of native or Aramaic origin
  • The substitution of Arabic script for Pahlavi script.

Surviving literature[edit]

Pahlavi Middle Persian is the language of quite a large body of literature which details the traditions and prescriptions of Zoroastrianism, which was the state religion of Sasanian Iran (224 to c. 650) before the Muslim conquest of Persia. The earliest texts in Zoroastrian Middle Persian were probably written down in late Sasanian times (6th–7th centuries), although they represent the codification of earlier oral tradition.[10] However, most texts, including the translated versions of the Zoroastrian canon, date from the ninth to the 11th century, when Middle Persian had long ceased to be a spoken language, so they reflect the state of affairs in living Middle Persian only indirectly. The surviving manuscripts are usually 14th-century copies.[7] Other, less abundantly attested varieties are Manichaean Middle Persian, used for a sizable amount of Manichaean religious writings, including many theological texts, homilies and hymns (3rd–9th, possibly 13th century), and the Middle Persian of the Church of the East, evidenced in the Pahlavi Psalter (7th century); these were used until the beginning of the second millennium in many places in Central Asia, including Turpan and even localities in South India.[11] All three differ minimally from one another and indeed the less ambiguous and archaizing scripts of the latter two have helped to elucidate some aspects of the Sasanian-era pronunciation of the former.[12]


Below is transcription and translation of the first page of the facsimile known as Book of Arda Viraf, originally written in a Pahlavi script.


pad nām ī yazdān

ēdōn gōwēnd kū ēw-bār ahlaw zardušt dēn ī padīrift andar gēhān rawāg be kard. tā bawandagīh [ī] sēsad sāl dēn andar abēzagīh ud mardōm andar abē-gumānīh būd hēnd. ud pas gizistag gannāg mēnōg [ī] druwand gumān kardan ī mardōmān pad ēn dēn rāy ān gizistag *alek/sandar ī *hrōmāyīg ī muzrāyīg-mānišn wiyāb/ānēnīd *ud pad garān sezd ud *nibard ud *wišēg ō ērān-šahr *frēstīd. u-š ōy ērān dahibed ōzad ud dar ud xwadāyīh wišuft ud awērān kard. ud ēn dēn čiyōn hamāg abestāg ud zand [ī] abar gāw pōstīhā ī wirāstag pad āb ī zarr nibištag andar staxr [ī] pābagān pad diz [ī] *nibišt nihād ēstād. ōy petyārag ī wad-baxt ī ahlomōγ ī druwand ī anāg-kardār *aleksandar [ī] hrōmāyīg [ī] mu/zrāyīg-mānišn abar āwurd ud be sōxt.

In the name of God

Thus they have said that once the righteous Zoroaster accepted a religion, he established it in the world. After/Within the period of 300 years (the) religion remained in holiness and the people were in peace and without any doubt. But then, the sinful, corrupt and deceitful spirit, in order to cause people doubt this religion, illusioned/led astray that Alexander the Roman, resident of Egypt, and sent him to Iran with much anger and violence. He murdered the ruler of Iran and ruined court, and the religion, as all the Avesta and Zand (which were) written on the ox-hide and decorated with water-of-gold (gold leaves) and had been placed/kept in Stakhr of Papak in the 'citadel of the writings.' That wretched, ill-fated, heretic, evil/sinful Alexander, The Roman, who was dwelling in Egypt, and he burned them up.


A sample Middle Persian poem from manuscript of Jamasp Asana:

Original in Middle Persian:
Dārom andarz-ē az dānāgān
Az guft-ī pēšēnīgān
Ō šmāh bē wizārom
Pad rāstīh andar gēhān
Agar ēn az man padīrēd
Bavēd sūd-ī dō gēhān
Near literal translation into Modern Persian:
Dāram andarz-ē az dānāyān
دارم اندرزی از دانایان
Az gufta-yi pēšēniyān
از گفتهٔ پشنیان
Ba šumā be-gozāram
به شما بگزارم
Ba rāstī andar jahān
به راستی اندر جهان
agar īn az man pazīrēd
اگر این از من پذیرد
Buwad sūd-i dō jahān
بوَد سود دو جهان
Translation into English:
I have a counsel from the wise,
from the advises of the ancients,
I will pass it upon you
By truth in the world
If you accept this counsel
It will be your benefits for this life and the next

Other sample texts[edit]

Šābuhr šāhān šāh ī hormizdān hamāg kišwarīgān pad paykārišn yazdān āhang kard ud hamāg gōwišn ō uskār ud wizōyišn āwurd pas az bōxtan ī ādūrbād pad gōwišn ī passāxt abāg hamāg ōyšān jud-sardagān ud nask-ōšmurdān-iz ī jud-ristagān ēn-iz guft kū nūn ka-mān dēn pad stī dēn dīd kas-iz ag-dēnīh bē nē hilēm wēš abar tuxšāg tuxšēm ud ham gōnag kard.

Shapur, the king of kings, son of Hormizd, induced all countrymen to orient themselves to god by disputation, and put forth all oral traditions for consideration and examination. After the triumph of Ādurbād, through his declaration put to trial by ordeal (in disputation) with all those sectaries and heretics who recognized (studied) the Nasks, he made the following statement: ‘Now that we have gained an insight into the Religion in the worldly existence, we shall not tolerate anyone of false religion, and we shall be more zealous.

Andar xwadāyīh šābuhr ī ohrmazdān tāzīgān mad hēnd ušān xōrīg ī rudbār grift was sāl pad xwār tāzišn dāšt t šābuhr ō xwadāyīh mad oyšān tāzīgān spōxt ud šahr aziš stād ud was šāh tāzīgān ābaxšēnēd ud was maragīh.

During the rulership of Shapur, the son of Hormizd, the Arabs came; they took Xorig Rūdbār; for many years with contempt (they) rushed until Shapur came to rulership; he destroyed the Arabs and took the land and destroyed many Arab rulers and pulled out many number of shoulders.



There are a number of affixes in Middle Persian that did not survive into Modern Persian:[14][15][16]

Middle Persian English Other Indo-European Example(s)
A- Privative prefix, un-, non-, not- Greek a- (e.g. atom) a-spās 'ungrateful', a-bim 'fearless', a-čār 'inevitable', a-dād 'unjust'
An- Prevocalic privative prefix, un-, non- English -un, German ant- an-ērān 'non-Iranian', an-ast 'non-existent'
-ik (-ig in Late Middle Persian) Having to do with, having the nature of, made of, caused by, similar to English -ic, Latin -icus, Greek –ikos, Slavic -isku Pārsīk 'Persian', Āsōrik 'Assyrian', Pahlavik 'Parthian', Hrōmāyīk/Hrōmīk 'Byzantine, Roman', Tāzīk 'Arab'

Location Suffixes[edit]

Middle Persian Other Indo-European Example(s)
-gerd Russian -grad, German -gart Mithradatgerd "Mithridates City", Susangerd (City of Susan), Darabgerd "Darius City", Bahramjerd "Bahram City", Dastgerd, Virugerd, Borujerd
-vīl -ville, villa, village in English/French, Italian villaggio Ardabil "Holy City", Erbil, Kabul and Zabol
-āpāt (later -ābād) Ashkābād > Ashgabat "Land of Arsaces"
-stān English stead 'town', Russian stan 'settlement', common root with Germanic stand Tapurstan, Sakastan

Comparison of Middle Persian and Modern Persian vocabulary[edit]

There are a number of phonological differences between Middle Persian and New Persian. The long vowels of Middle Persian did not survive in many present-day dialects. Also, initial consonant clusters were very common in Middle Persian (e.g. سپاس spās "thanks"). However, New Persian does not allow initial consonant clusters, whereas final consonant clusters are common (e.g. اسب asb "horse").

Early Middle Persian English Early New Persian (Dari) Notes Other Indo-European
Drōt Hello (lit. 'health') Dōrūd (درود)
Pat-drōt Goodbye Bē dōrūd (به درود), later bedrūd (بدرود)
Spās Thanks Sipās (سپاس) PIE speḱ-
Pat To, at, in, on (به)
Hač From Az (از)
Šēr1 Lion Šēr (شیر) From Old Persian *šagra-. Preserved as Tajiki шер šer and Kurdish (شِیر) şer
Šīr1 Milk Šīr (شیر) From Old Persian **xšīra-. Tajiki шир šir and Kurdish (şêr, شێر) from PIE *swēyd-
Āhsan Iron Āhan (آهن) Āsēn (آسِن) in Kurdish German Eisen
Arjat Silver Extinct Latin argentum (French argent), Armenian arsat, Old Irish airget, PIE h₂erǵn̥t-, an n-stem
Arž Silver coinage Arj (ارج) 'value/worth' Same as Arg (АргЪ) 'price' in Ossetian
Ēvārak Evening Extinct in Modern Persian Survived as ēvār (ایوار) in Kurdish and Lurish
Tāpstān (adjective for) summer تابستان Tābestān
Hāmīn Summer Extinct Hāmīn has survived in Balochi, and Central Kurdish
Stārak, Star Star Setāre (ستاره) Latin stella, Old English steorra, Gothic stairno, Old Norse stjarna
Fratom First Extinct Preserved as pronin in Sangsari language First, primary, Greek prim
Fratāg Tomorrow Fardā (فردا) Fra- 'towards' + tāg 'light' Greek pro-, Lithuanian pra, etc.

German tag 'day'

Mūrt Died Mōrd (مرد) Latin morta, English murd-er, Old Russian mirtvu, Lithuanian mirtis
Rōč Day Rūz (روز) From rōšn 'light'. Kurdish rūž (رُوژ), also preserved as rōč (رُوچ) in Balochi Armenian lois 'light', Latin lux 'light'
Sāl Year Sāl (سال) Sanskrit sarð 'year', Armenian sārd 'sun', German sonne, Russian solntsi
Mātar Mother Mādar (مادر) Latin māter, Old Church Slavonic mater, Lithuanian motina
Pētar Father Pēdar (پدر) Latin pater (Italian padre), Old High German fater
Brātar Brother Barādar (برادر) Old Ch. Slavonic brat(r)u, Lithuanian brolis, Latin frāter, Old Irish brathair, O. H. German bruoder
Xāhar Sister Xāhar (خواهر) Armenian khoyr
Dōxtar Daughter Dōxtar (دختر) Gothic dauhtar, O. H. German tohter, Old Prussian duckti, Armenian dowstr, Lithuanian dukte
Ōhāy Yes ārē (آری)
No Na (نه)

1 Since many long vowels of Middle Persian did not survive, a number of homophones were created in New Persian. For example, šir and šer, meaning "milk" and "lion", respectively, are now both pronounced šir. In this case, the correct pronunciation has been preserved in Kurdish and Tajiki.[17]

Middle Persian loanwords in other languages[edit]

There is a number of Persian loanwords in English, many of which can be traced to Middle Persian. The lexicon of Classical Arabic also contains many borrowings from Middle Persian. In such borrowings Iranian consonants that sound foreign to Arabic, g, č, p, and ž, have been replaced by q/k, j, š, f/b, and s/z. Here is a parallel word list of such terms:[18][19][20]

Middle Persian English Indo-European Cognates Arabic Borrowing English
Srat Street Latin strata 'street', Welsh srat 'plain'; from PIE root stere- 'to spread, extend, stretch out' (Avestan star-, Latin sternere, Old Church Slavonic stira) Sirāt (صراط) Path
Tarjōmak Translation French traduction, Italian traduzione, Greek dragomanos; from PIE root tra- 'to across, over, beyond' Tarjama (ترجمة) Translation
Burg Tower Germanic burg 'castle' or 'fort' Burj (برج) Tower
A-sar; A- (negation prefix) + sar (end, beginning) Infinite, endless A- prefix in Greek; Sanskrit siras, Hittite harsar 'head' Azal (أزل) Infinite
A-pad; a- (prefix of negation) + pad (end) Infinity - Abad (أبد) Infinity, forever
Dēn (from Avestan daena) Religion Dīn (دين) Religion
Bōstān ( 'aroma, scent' + -stan place-name element) Garden Bustān'


Čarāg Lamp Sirāj (سراج) Lamp
Tag Crown, tiara Tāj (تاج) Crown
Pargār Compass Firjār (فرجار) Compass (drawing tool)
Ravāg Current Rawāj (رواج) Popularity
Ravāk (older form of ravāg; from the root rav (v. raftan) 'to go') Current Riwāq (رواق) Place of passage, corridor
Gund Army, troop Jund (جند) Army
Šalwār Trousers Sirwāl (سروال) Trousers
Rōstāk Village, district, province Ruzdāq (رزداق) Village
Zar-parān Saffron zaʿfarān (زعفران) Saffron

Comparison of Middle Persian and Modern Persian names[edit]

Middle Persian New Persian Old Persian English
Anāhid Nāhid Anāhitā Anahita
Artaxšēr Ardašir Artaxšatra Artaxerxes
Mitr Mihr Mithra Mithra
Rokhsāna Roksāne Rokh-šwana Roxana
Pāpak Bābak
Āleksandar, Sukandar Iskandar Alexander the Great
Pērōz Pīruz Pērōč
Mithradāt Mihrdād Mithridates
Borān Borān Borān
Husraw, Xusraw Khosrow Chosroes
Zaratu(x)št Zartōšt Zartušt Zoroaster
Ōhrmazd Hormizd Ahura Mazda Ahura Mazda, astr. Jupiter

See also[edit]

References and bibliography[edit]

  1. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Pahlavi". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. 
  2. ^ a b Strazny, P. (2005). Encyclopedia of Linguistics (p. 325). New York: Fitzroy Dearborn.
  3. ^ Marashi, M. (1994). Persian studies in North America: Studies in honor of Mohammad Ali Jazayery (p. 262). Bethesda, Md.: Iranbooks.
  4. ^ Joneidi, F. (n.d.). (Pahlavi Language and Script: Sassanid and Arsacid) نامه پهلواني خودآموز زبان پهلوي (p. 24). Balkh (نشر بلخ).
  5. ^ Joneidi, F. (n.d.). (Pahlavi Language and Script: Sassanid and Arsacid) نامه پهلواني خودآموز زبان پهلوي (p. 231). Balkh (نشر بلخ), -ik adjective-forming element (ایک،ای، پسوند نسبت: Ikpahlavi.jpg)
  6. ^ "-ic". Etymology Online. Retrieved 12 December 2015. 
  7. ^ a b "Linguist List - Description of Pehlevi". Detroit: Eastern Michigan University. 2007. 
  8. ^ See also Omniglot.com's page on Middle Persian scripts
  9. ^ Spooner, Brian; Hanaway, William L. (2012). Literacy in the Persianate World: Writing and the Social Order. University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 1-934536-56-3. , p. 14.
  10. ^ Sundermann, Werner. 1989. Mittelpersisch. P. 141. In Compendium Linguarum Iranicarum (ed. Rüdiger Schmidt).
  11. ^ Sundermann, Werner. 1989. Mittelpersisch. P. 138. In Compendium Linguarum Iranicarum (ed. Rüdiger Schmidt).
  12. ^ Sundermann, Werner. 1989. Mittelpersisch. P. 143. In Compendium Linguarum Iranicarum (ed. Rüdiger Schmidt).
  13. ^ R. Mehri's Parsik/Pahlavi Web page (archived copy) at the Internet Archive
  14. ^ Joneidi, F. (1966). Pahlavi Script and Language (Arsacid and Sassanid) نامه پهلوانی: آموزش خط و زبان پهلوی اشکانی و ساسانی (p. 54). Balkh (نشر بلخ).
  15. ^ David Neil MacKenzie (1971). A Concise Pahlavi Dictionary. London: Oxford University Press. 
  16. ^ Joneidi, F. (1972). The Story of Iran. First Book: Beginning of Time to Dormancy of Mount Damavand (داستان ایران بر بنیاد گفتارهای ایرانی، دفتر نخست: از آغاز تا خاموشی دماوند).
  17. ^ Strazny, P. (2005). Encyclopedia of linguistics (p. 325). New York: Fitzroy Dearborn.
  18. ^ Mackenzie, D. N. (2014). A Concise Pahlavi Dictionary. Routledge. ISBN 978-1-136-61396-8. 
  19. ^ "ARABIC LANGUAGE ii. Iranian loanwords in Arabic". Encyclopædia Iranica. 15 December 1986. Retrieved 31 December 2015. 
  20. ^ Joneidi, F. (1965). Dictionary of Pahlavi Ideograms (فرهنگ هزوارش هاي دبيره پهلوي) (p. 8). Balkh (نشر بلخ).