Old Persian cuneiform

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Old Persian Cuneiform
Old Persian cuneiform syllabary (left), and the DNa inscription (part II, right) of Darius the Great (circa 490 BC), in the newly created script.
LanguagesOld Persian
Time period
525 BC – 330 BC
Parent systems
none; apparently inspired by Cuneiform script
  • Old Persian Cuneiform
ISO 15924Xpeo, 030
Unicode alias
Old Persian

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This Old Persian cuneiform word, because of its numerous occurrences in inscriptions, was correctly guessed as being the word for "King". The words positioned before it would then logically be the names of kings, which were known historically from other sources. Various characteristics of these words, such as length or recurrence of signs, allowed to discriminate between the various possible kings, and then create a correspondence between each cuneiform and a specific sound. This technique permitted the decipherment of a cuneiform script for the first time, in the absence of bilingual documents connecting it to a known language. This word is now known to be pronounced xšāyaϑiya (𐎧𐏁𐎠𐎹𐎰𐎡𐎹), and indeed means "King".[1][2]

Old Persian cuneiform is a semi-alphabetic cuneiform script that was the primary script for Old Persian. Texts written in this cuneiform have been found in Iran (Persepolis, Susa, Hamadan, Kharg Island), Armenia, Romania (Gherla),[3][4][5] Turkey (Van Fortress), and along the Suez Canal.[6] They were mostly inscriptions from the time period of Darius I, such as the DNa inscription, as well as his son, Xerxes I.[7] Later kings down to Artaxerxes III used more recent forms of the language classified as "pre-Middle Persian".[6]


Old Persian cuneiform is loosely inspired by the Sumero-Akkadian cuneiform; however, only one glyph is directly derived from it - l(a) (𐎾), from la (𒆷). (la did not occur in native Old Persian words, but was found in Akkadian borrowings.)

Scholars today mostly agree that the Old Persian script was invented by about 525 BC to provide monument inscriptions for the Achaemenid king Darius I, to be used at Behistun. While a few Old Persian texts seem to be inscribed during the reigns of Cyrus the Great (CMa, CMb, and CMc, all found at Pasargadae), the first Achaemenid emperor, or Arsames and Ariaramnes (AsH and AmH, both found at Hamadan), grandfather and great-grandfather of Darius I, all five, specially the later two, are generally agreed to have been later inscriptions.

Around the time period in which Old Persian was used, nearby languages included Elamite and Akkadian. One of the main differences between the writing systems of these languages is that Old Persian is a semi-alphabet while Elamite and Akkadian were syllabic. In addition, while Old Persian is written in a consistent semi-alphabetic system, Elamite and Akkadian used borrowings from other languages, creating mixed systems.


Much of the progress made in decipherment depended on the names of kings. Attempts at deciphering Old Persian cuneiform started in 1711 when some of Darius's inscriptions were published by Jean Chardin.[8] In 1802, Friedrich Münter realized that recurring groups of characters must be the word for “king” (𐎧𐏁𐎠𐎹𐎰𐎡𐎹, now known to be pronounced xšāyaϑiya). Georg Friedrich Grotefend extended this work by realizing a king's name is often followed by “great king, king of kings” and the name of the king's father.[1][2]

Caylus vase
The quadrilingual "Caylus vase" in the name of Xerxes I confirmed the decipherment of Grotefend once Champollion was able to read Egyptian hieroglyphs.[9]

Grotefend made a major breakthrough when he noticed that one of the kings' father was not a king. In Persian history around the time period the inscriptions were expected to be made, there were only two instances where a ruler came to power without being a previous king's son. They were Darius the Great and Cyrus the Great, both of whom became emperor by revolt. The deciding factors between these two choices were the names of their fathers and sons. Darius's father was Hystaspes and his son was Xerxes, while Cyrus' father was Cambyses I and his son was Cambyses II. Within the text, the father and son of the king had different groups of symbols for names so Grotefend assumed that the king must have been Darius. These connections allowed Grotefend to figure out the cuneiform characters that are part of Darius, Darius's father Hystaspes, and Darius's son Xerxes. Grotefend's contribution to Old Persian is unique in that he did not have comparisons between Old Persian and known languages, as opposed to the decipherment of the Egyptian hieroglyphics and the Rosetta Stone. All his decipherments were done by comparing the texts with known history.[2]

Grotefend published his deductions in 1802, but they were dismissed by the Academic community.[2] It was only in 1823 that Grotefend's discovery was confirmed, when the French philologist Champollion, who had just deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphs, was able to read the Egytian dedication of a quadrilingual hieroglyph-cuneiform inscription on an alabaster vase in the Cabinet des Médailles, the "Caylus vase".[9][10] The Egyptian inscription on the vase was in the name of King Xerxes I, and Champollion, together with the orientalist Antoine-Jean Saint-Martin, was able to confirm that the corresponding words in the cuneiform script (𐎧𐏁𐎹𐎠𐎼𐏁𐎠 𐏐 𐏋 𐏐 𐎺𐏀𐎼𐎣, Xšayāršā : XŠ : vazraka, "Xerxes : The Great King") were indeed using the words which Grotefend had identified as meaning "king" and "Xerxes" through guesswork.[9][10]

More advances were made on Grotefend's work and by 1847, most of the symbols were correctly identified. The decipherment of the Old Persian Cuneiform script was at the beginning of the decipherment of all the other cuneiform scripts, as various multi-lingual inscriptions between the various cuneiform scripts were obtained from archaeological discoveries.[2] The decipherment of Old Persian was notably useful to the decipherment of Elamite, Babylonian and ultimately Akkadian (predecessor of Babylonian), through the multi-lingual Behistun Inscription.


Most scholars consider the writing system to be an independent invention because it has no obvious connections with other writing systems at the time, such as Elamite, Akkadian, Hurrian, and Hittite cuneiforms.[11] While Old Persian's basic strokes are similar to those found in cuneiform scripts, Old Persian texts were engraved on hard materials, so the engravers had to make cuts that imitated the forms easily made on clay tablets.[8] The signs are composed of horizontal, vertical, and angled wedges. There are four basic components and new signs are created by adding wedges to these basic components.[12] These four basic components are two parallel wedges without angle, three parallel wedges without angle, one wedge without angle and an angled wedge, and two angled wedges.[12] The script is written from left to right.[13]

The name of Darius I in Old Persian cuneiform on the DNa inscription of his tomb: Dārayavauš (𐎭𐎠𐎼𐎹𐎺𐎢𐏁)

The script encodes three vowels, a, i, u, and twenty-two consonants, k, x, g, c, ç, j, t, θ, d, p, f, b, n, m, y, v, r, l, s, z, š, and h. Old Persian contains two sets of consonants: those whose shape depends on the following vowel and those whose shape is independent of the following vowel. The consonant symbols that depend on the following vowel act like the consonants in Devanagari. Vowel diacritics are added to these consonant symbols to change the inherent vowel or add length to the inherent vowel. However, the vowel symbols are usually still included so [di] would be written as [di] [i] even though [di] already implies the vowel.[14] For the consonants whose shape does not depend on the following vowels, the vowel signs must be used after the consonant symbol.[15]

Compared to the Avestan alphabet Old Persian notably lacks voiced fricatives, but includes the sign ç (of uncertain pronunciation) and a sign for the non-native l. Notably, in common with the Brahmic scripts, there appears to be no distinction between a consonant followed by an a and a consonant followed by nothing.

k- x- g- c- ç- j- t- θ- d- p- f- b- n- m- y- v- r- l- s- z- š- h-
-(a) 𐎠 𐎣 𐎧 𐎥 𐎨 𐏂 𐎩 𐎫 𐎰 𐎭 𐎱 𐎳 𐎲 𐎴 𐎶 𐎹 𐎺 𐎼 𐎾 𐎿 𐏀 𐏁 𐏃
-i 𐎡 𐎪 𐎮 𐎷 𐎻
-u 𐎢 𐎤 𐎦 𐎬 𐎯 𐎵 𐎸 𐎽
  • logograms:
    • Auramazdā: 𐏈, 𐏉, 𐏊 (genitive)
    • xšāyaθiya "king": 𐏋
    • dahyāuš- "country": 𐏌, 𐏍
    • baga- "god": 𐏎
    • būmiš- "earth": 𐏏
  • word divider: 𐏐
  • numerals:[16]
    • 1 𐏑, 2 𐏒, 5 𐏒𐏒𐏑, 7 𐏒𐏒𐏒𐏑, 8 𐏒𐏒𐏒𐏒, 9 𐏒𐏒𐏒𐏒𐏑
    • 10 𐏓, 12 𐏓𐏒, 13 𐏓𐏒𐏑, 14 𐏓𐏒𐏒, 15 𐏓𐏒𐏒𐏑, 18 𐏓𐏒𐏒𐏒𐏒, 19 𐏓𐏒𐏒𐏒𐏒𐏑, 20 𐏔, 22 𐏔𐏒, 23 𐏔𐏒𐏑, 25 𐏔𐏒𐏒𐏑, 26 𐏔𐏒𐏒𐏒, 27 𐏔𐏒𐏒𐏒𐏑, 40 𐏔𐏔, 60 𐏔𐏔𐏔,
    • 120 𐏕𐏔

Alphabetic properties[edit]

Close-up of the Behistun inscription
An Old Persian inscription in Persepolis

Although based on a logo-syllabic prototype, all vowels but short /a/ are written and so the system is essentially an alphabet. There are three vowels, long and short. Initially, no distinction is made for length: 𐎠 a or ā, 𐎡 i or ī, 𐎢 u or ū. However, as in the Brahmic scripts, short a is not written after a consonant: 𐏃 h or ha, 𐏃𐎠 hā, 𐏃𐎡 hi or hī, 𐏃𐎢 hu or hū. (Old Persian is not considered an abugida because vowels are represented as full letters.)

Thirteen out of twenty-two consonants, such as 𐏃 h(a), are invariant, regardless of the following vowel (that is, they are alphabetic), while only six have a distinct form for each consonant-vowel combination (that is, they are syllabic), and among these, only d and m occur in three forms for all three vowels: 𐎭 d or da, 𐎭𐎠 dā, 𐎮𐎡 di or dī, 𐎯𐎢 du or dū. (k, g do not occur before i, and j, v do not occur before u, so these consonants only have two forms each.)

Sometimes medial long vowels are written with a y or v, as in Semitic: 𐎮𐎡𐎹 dī, 𐎯𐎢𐎺 dū. Diphthongs are written by mismatching consonant and vowel: 𐎭𐎡 dai, or sometimes, in cases where the consonant does not differentiate between vowels, by writing the consonant and both vowel components: 𐎨𐎡𐏁𐎱𐎠𐎡𐏁 cišpaiš (gen. of name Cišpi- 'Teispes').

In addition, three consonants, t, n, and r, are partially syllabic, having the same form before a and i, and a distinct form only before u: 𐎴 n or na, 𐎴𐎠 nā, 𐎴𐎡 ni or nī, 𐎵𐎢 nu or nū.

The effect is not unlike the English [dʒ] sound, which is typically written g before i or e, but j before other vowels (gem, jam), or the Castilian Spanish [θ] sound, which is written c before i or e and z before other vowels (cinco, zapato): it is more accurate to say that some of the Old Persian consonants are written by different letters depending on the following vowel, rather than classifying the script as syllabic. This situation had its origin in Assyrian cuneiform, where several syllabic distinctions had been lost and were often clarified with explicit vowels. However, in the case of Assyrian, the vowel was not always used, and was never used where not needed, so the system remained (logo-)syllabic.

For a while it was speculated that the alphabet could have had its origin in such a system, with a leveling of consonant signs a millennium earlier producing something like the Ugaritic alphabet, but today it is generally accepted that the Semitic alphabet arose from Egyptian hieroglyphs, where vowel notation was not important. (See Proto-Sinaitic script.)


Old Persian cuneiform was added to the Unicode Standard in March 2005 with the release of version 4.1.

The Unicode block for Old Persian cuneiform is U+103A0–U+103DF and is in the Supplementary Multilingual Plane:

Old Persian[1][2]
Official Unicode Consortium code chart (PDF)
  0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 A B C D E F
U+103Ax 𐎠 𐎡 𐎢 𐎣 𐎤 𐎥 𐎦 𐎧 𐎨 𐎩 𐎪 𐎫 𐎬 𐎭 𐎮 𐎯
U+103Bx 𐎰 𐎱 𐎲 𐎳 𐎴 𐎵 𐎶 𐎷 𐎸 𐎹 𐎺 𐎻 𐎼 𐎽 𐎾 𐎿
U+103Cx 𐏀 𐏁 𐏂 𐏃 𐏈 𐏉 𐏊 𐏋 𐏌 𐏍 𐏎 𐏏
U+103Dx 𐏐 𐏑 𐏒 𐏓 𐏔 𐏕
1.^ As of Unicode version 13.0
2.^ Grey areas indicate non-assigned code points

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ a b Kent, R. G.: "Old Persian: Grammar Texts Lexicon", page 10. American Oriental Society, 1950.
  2. ^ a b c d e Sayce, Archibald Henry (2019). The Archaeology of the Cuneiform Inscriptions. Cambridge University Press. pp. 10–14. ISBN 978-1-108-08239-6.
  3. ^ Kuhrt 2013, p. 197.
  4. ^ Frye 1984, p. 103.
  5. ^ Schmitt 2000, p. 53.
  6. ^ a b Kent, R. G.: "Old Persian: Grammar Texts Lexicon", page 6. American Oriental Society, 1950.
  7. ^ Bachenheimer, Avi: "Old Persian: Dictionary, Glossary and Concordance", pages 27-92.
  8. ^ a b Kent, R. G.: "Old Persian: Grammar Texts Lexicon", page 9. American Oriental Society, 1950.
  9. ^ a b c Pages 10-14, note 1 on page 13 Sayce, Archibald Henry (2019). The Archaeology of the Cuneiform Inscriptions. Cambridge University Press. pp. 10–14. ISBN 978-1-108-08239-6.
  10. ^ a b Bulletin des sciences historiques, antiquités, philologie (in French). Treuttel et Würtz. 1825. p. 135.
  11. ^ Windfuhr, G. L.: "Notes on the old Persian signs", page 1. Indo-Iranian Journal, 1970.
  12. ^ a b Windfuhr, G. L.: "Notes on the old Persian signs", page 2. Indo-Iranian Journal, 1970.
  13. ^ Daniels, Peter T.: "The World's Writing Systems", page 134. Oxford University Press, 1996
  14. ^ Daniels, Peter T.: "The World's Writing Systems", page 136. Oxford University Press, 1996
  15. ^ Daniels, Peter T.: "The World's Writing Systems", page 135. Oxford University Press, 1996
  16. ^ Unattested numbers are not listed. The list of attested numbers is based on Kent, Ronald Grubb. Old Persian: Grammar, Text, Glossary (in Persian). translated into Persian by S. Oryan (1384 AP ed.). Tihrān: Pizhūhishkadah-i Zabān va Gūyish bā hamkārī-i Idārah-i Kull-i Umūr-i Farhangī. pp. 699–700. ISBN 964-421-045-X.
  • Windfuhr, Gernot L (1970). "Notes on the old Persian signs". Indo-Iranian Journal. 12 (2): 121–125. doi:10.1007/BF00163003. hdl:2027.42/42943. S2CID 161528694.
  • Daniels, Peter T; William Bright (1996). The World's Writing Systems. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 134–137.
  • Kent, Roland G. (1950). Old Persian; grammar, texts, lexicon. New Haven: American Oriental Society.


Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]