Iranian Languages

Iranian Languages

A family of languages, descended from an Aryan (i.e., Indo-Iranian) prototype, which in turn is derived from the Indo-European parent language. The Iranians and Indians separated, generally speaking, about 1000 B.C., and in the next century Iranian tribes reached the plateau that bears their name.

Chronologically there are three stages in the development of the Iranian languages: (to the fourth century B.C), Middle Iranian (to the ninth century A.D.), and New Iranian (to the present). Linguistically one may divide the Iranian languages into two main groups, Western and Eastern dialects, although some are difficult to classify.
From the Old Iranian period we have literary remains in two languages: Old Persian, written in cuneiform characters probably devised under the reign of Darius I, and Avestan. Old Persian was the language of the Per¬sians of Fars Province and is preserved only on rock inscrip¬tions or metal plates. The inscriptions were engraved by order of the Achaemenid kings, and the longest, a trilingual inscription of Darius I at Bisutun near Kermanshah, pro¬vided the key to the decipherment of Akkadian, Elamite, and other languages written in cuneiform. The language of the Medes is preserved chiefly in a few loanwords in Old Persian. Old Persian is a highly inflected language, like Avestan, but has only a limited vocabulary.

In the Middle Iranian period there is a great simplification of the Iranian languages such as the loss of inflection of nouns, loss of gender, and simplification of verbal forms. We have literary remains in five Middle Iranian languages: Parthian, Middle Persian, Khwarazmian, .Sogdian, and Khotanese Saka. The first was the language of the Arsacid rulers of Iran to the third century A.D., although the lan¬guage is found on inscriptions in Sassanian times. It was used by the Manichaeans, and Parthian texts from later years have been found in Chinese Turkestan.

Middle Persian was the Sassanian state language, a de¬scendant of Old Persian and forerunner of modern Persian. Pahlavi is the name of the alphabet in which the Middle Persian books of the Zoroastrians are written, and the term is often extended to include the language. The rock inscrip¬tions of the Sassanian kings are written in a more archaic, inscriptional alphabet. Middle Persian texts of the Mani¬chaeans have also been found in Chinese Turkestan.
Khwarazmian, a language spoken south of the Aral Sea, is preserved in a few glosses, written in the Arabic alphabet, to Arabic books, and on fragments excavated by Soviet archaeologists. It seems to be related to Avestan.
Sogdian was the pre-Islamic lingua franca of Central Asia, with its center in Samarkand. It was replaced by Turkish languages in the New Iranian period. Fragments in this language have also been found in Chinese Turkestan.
Khotanese Saka, so named because the vast majority of documents come from Khotan in Chinese Turkestan, was presumably the language of Saka tribes in central Asia. The main literature is Buddhist and there are many Indian loanwards in the language.

New Iranian includes New Persian, the language of Iran; Kurdish; BalocT (see also BALOCT); Pashto (Pasto; spoken in Afghanistan); the various Pamir languages; Yagnobi; Ossetic; and Persian dialects. One may divide these languages and dialects into an eastern group (Ossetic, Yagnobi, Pamir lan¬guages, and Pashto) and a western group (New Persian, Kurdish, Caspian dialects, and other dialects). A further central group between the two would comprise BalocT and certain Pamir languages. Ossetic is spoken in the Caucasus Mountain region of the U.S.S.R. by descendants of the medieval Alans. Yagnobi is spoken in Tadzhikistan by descendants of the Sogdians. The Pamir languages (Wakhl, Ormuri, Shughni, etc.) are spoken in isolated areas in northeastern Afghanistan, in Pakistan, or in the U.S.S.R., and have many archaic features.

Of the new Iranian languages only Persian has an extensive written literature from early times. Pashto and Ossetic have modern written literatures; Kurdish has only recently developed one. Iranian languages have influenced their neighbors: Urdu and Armenian (greatly), Syriac and Arabic (slightly). There are probably at least 50,000,000 speakers of Iranian languages, but this is only a rough estimate.

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