Middle Persian

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Middle Persian
Pārsīk or Pārsīg
Region Sasanian Iran
Ethnicity Persian people
Era evolved into New Persian by the 9th century; thereafter used only by Zoroastrian priests for exegesis and religious instruction.
Early forms
Old Persian
  • Middle Persian
Pahlavi scripts, Manichaean script, Avestan script
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/ethnolect of southwestern Iran that during Sassanid times (224–654 CE) 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 Arsacid Dynasty. Another variant of Middle Persian, known locally as Pārsik, was the official language of the Sasanian Dynasty. 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 PIE -(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 Sassanian 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-Sassanian Zoroastrian variant of the language sometimes known as Pahlavi, which originally referred to the Pahlavi writing system,[7][8] and that was also the preferred writing system for several other Middle Iranian languages. Aside from the Aramaic-derived Pahlavi script,[9] Zoroastrian Middle Persian was occasionally also written in Pazend, a system derived from Avestan that, unlike Pahlavi, indicated vowels and did not employ Aramaic logograms. Manichaean Middle Persian texts were written in Manichaean script, which also derives from Aramaic but in an Eastern Iranian form via Sogdian.

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

Transition from Old Persian

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 Achaemenids in the 4th century BCE up to the fall of the Sassanids in the 7th 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

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 origin
  • The substitution of Arabic script for Pahlavi script.

Surviving literature

Pahlavi Middle Persian is the language of quite a large body of Zoroastrian literature which details the traditions and prescriptions of the Zoroastrian religion, which was the state religion of Sassanid Iran (224 to c. 650) before Iran was invaded by the Arab armies that spread Islam. The earliest texts in Zoroastrian Middle Persian were probably written down in late Sassanid 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 9th 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 Nestorian Christians, evidenced in the Pahlavi Psalter (7th century); these were used until the beginning of the second millennium in many places in Central Asia, including Turfan and even localities in Southern 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 Sassanian-era pronunciation of the former.[12]


Below is transcription and translation of the first page of the facsimile known as Arda Wiraz Namag or The Book of the Righteous Wiraz, originally written in Pahlavi script.[13]


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 word-for-word translation into Modern Persian:
Dāram andarz-ē az dānāyān
دارم اندرزی از داناگان
Az gufta-yi pēšēniyān
از گفتهٔ پیشینیان
Ba šumā be-gozāram
به شما بگزارم
Ba rāstī andar jahān
به راستی اندر جهان
agar īn az man pazīrēd
اگر این از من پذیرید
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



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

Middle Persian Other Indo-European Example(s)
-gerd Russian -grad, German -gart Mithradatgerd (City of Mithridates), Susangerd (City of Susan), Darabgerd (City of Darius), Bahramgerd (City of Bahram), Dastagerd, Virugerd, Borugerd
-vīl -ville, villa, village in English/French, Italian villaggio Arta-vil 'Holy City' (garbled into Ardabil), Erbil, Kabul and Zabol (where -vil (-bil) is garbled into -bol)
-āpāt (later -ābād) Ashkābād '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

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 Middle Persian (e.g. spās 'thanks'). However New Persian does not allow initial consonant clusters, whereas final consonant clusters are common (e.g. asp '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)
Pat To, at, in, on (به)
Hač From Az (از)
Šēr1 Lion Šīr (شیر) Preserved as šēr in Tajiki (шер), and in Kurdish (شِیر)
Šīr1 Milk Šīr (شیر) Šīr in Tajiki (шир) and Kurdish (شیر)
Āhsan Iron Āhan (آهن) Āsēn (آسِن) in Kurdish German eisen
Arjat Silver Extinct Latin argentum (French argent), Armenian arsat, Old Irish airget
Arž Silver coinage Arj (ارج) 'value/worth' Same as Arg (АргЪ) 'price' in Ossetian
Ēvārak Evening Īvārān (ایواران), extinct in Modern Persian Survived as ēvār (ایوار) in Kurdish and Lurish
Tāpstān (adjective for) Summer Tābestān (تابستان)
Hāmīn Summer Extinct Hāmīn has survived in Balochi, and Sorani Kurdish
Stārak, Star Star Sētāra (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 'day', 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 as šir. In this case, the correct pronunciation has been preserved in Kurdish and Tajiki languages.[17]

Middle Persian loanwords in other languages

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:[15][18][19]

Middle Persian Indo-European Cognates Arabic Borrowing English
Srat Latin strata Sirāt (صراط) Street
Tarjōmak French traduction, Italian traduzione, Greek dragomanos Tarjuma (ترجمة) Translation
Burg Germanic burg 'castle' or 'fort' Burj (برج) Tower
A-sar; A- (negation prefix) + sar (end, beginning) A- prefix in Greek; Sanskrit siras, Hittite harsar 'head' Azal (أزل) Infinite, endless
A-pad; a- (prefix of negation) + pad (end) Abad (أبد) Infinity, forever
Dēn (from Avestan daena) Dīn (دين) Religion
Ganǰ Kanz (كنز) Treasure
Čarāg Serāj (سراج) Lamp
Pargār Farjār (فرجار) Compass

Comparison of Middle Persian and Modern Persian names

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

See also

References and bibliography

  1. Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Pahlavi". Glottolog. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. 2.0 2.1 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.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. 7.0 7.1 "Linguist List - Description of Pehlevi". Detroit: Eastern Michigan University. 2007.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. See also Omniglot.com's page on Middle Persian scripts
  9. Literacy in the Persianate World: Writing and the Social Order, ed. Brian Spooner, William L. Hanaway, (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012), 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. 15.0 15.1 Template:MacKenzie, D. (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. "ARABIC LANGUAGE ii. Iranian loanwords in Arabic". Encyclopædia Iranica. 15 December 1986. Retrieved 31 December 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  19. Joneidi, F. (1965). Dictionary of Pahlavi Ideograms (فرهنگ هزوارش هاي دبيره پهلوي) (p. 8). Balkh (نشر بلخ).