Old Persian

Old Persian
1) The linguistic setting of Old Persian


Old Persian is the name applied to the Persian language used in the cuneiform inscriptions of the Achaemenian dynasty; it can be localized as the language of the southwestern Persia, or Persis in the narrower sense, and was the vernacular speech of the Achaemenian rulers. The OP inscriptions are commonly accompanied also by translations into Elamite and Accadian, engraved in other types of cuneiform writing, and sometimes by an Aramaic version or an Egyptian hieroglyphic version. Linguistically, OP belongs to the Iranian branch of Indo-Iranian or Aryan, which is one of the main divisions of the Indo-European family of languages.


The Iranianian Languages are, like many other sets of languages, divisible on a chronological basis into three periods: Old Persian, Middle Iranian, and New Iranian.
Old Iranian includes two languages represented by texts, Old Persian and Avestan, and a number of other dialects which are but very slighty known.
Old Persian is known by inscriptional texts found in Persis, at Persepolis and the nearby Naqsh-i Rustam and Murghab (Pasargadae); in Elam, at Susa; in Media, at Hamadan and the not too distant Behistan and Elvend; in Armenia, at Van; and along the line of the Suez Canal. They are mainly inscriptions of Darius the Great (521-486 b.c.) and Xerxes (486-65); but others, mostly in a corrupted from the language, carry the line down to Artaxerxes III (359-38).


Among the less known Old Iranian languages the most important was Median, known only from glosses, place and personal names, and its developments in Middle Persian, apart from borrowings in OP, which are of considerable importance for the understanding of OP itself. Others were the language of the Carduchi, presumably the linguistic ancestor of modern Kurdish; Partian, later the language of a great empire which contended against Rome in the time just before and after the beginning ot the Christian era; Sogdian in the northeast, ancestor of the medieval Sogdian; Scythian, the language or languages of the varius tribes known in OP as Saka, located to the east of the Caspian and north of Parthia and Sogdiana, but also to the west of the Caspian on the steppes north of the Euxine Sea (Black Sea).


Dialect mixture in the old Persian inscriptions. Like most or perhaps all other series of documents, the OP inscriptions are not in pure OP dialect, free from admixture from outside. They contain the expected borrowings of names of persons and places, and presumably of some cultural materials. The Aq ura ‘Assyria’, Babiruy ‘Babylon’,Mudraya ‘Egypt’ are from semitic; Izala (a district in Assyria), Dubala (a district in Babylonia), Labanana ‘Mt. Lebanon’, Haldita- (name of an Armenian) betray their non-Iranian character by l; a few words lack of convincing IE etymology, such as sinkabruy ‘carnelian’, q armiy ‘timber’, yaka (a kind of wood), skauq iy ‘weak, lowly’, or are obvious borrowings, such as mayka- ‘inflated skin’ from Aramaic. But the main outside influence is that of the Median dialect, seen in phonetic and lexical differences, perhaps also in variant grammatical forms. Aramaic also seems to have had a certain influences on the phrasing and the syntax. There is no evidence that OP itself, at the time of the inscriptions, possessed a literature of any kind apart from these inscriptions themselves.


The Median Dialect was the language of the great Median Empire, which at the death of Cyaxares in 584 extended from Iran to the Halys River; the last Median ruler was Astyages son of Cyaxares, who in 559 was conquered and deposed by his grandson Cyrus, son of Cambyses King of Persis and of Mandane daughter of Astyages. The new ruler naturally took over the Median chancellery and the Median royal titles, and their influence is still seen in the language of the OP inscriptions of Darius and his followers.


Aramaic Influence. Aramaic, a Semitic language, was the international language of southwestern Asia from the middle of the eighth century B.C.; speaker of Aramaic were in charge of all archives for some centuries thereafter. As OP had no developed literary style at the time of the inscriptions, it is to be expected that the style of the inscriptions should reflect the style of Aramaic; and it does. Notable are the short sentences, with repetition of all essential words; certain of the official titles; and the anacoluthic definition of place and personal names.

2) The Script of Old Persian


The Script of the Old Persian inscription is, as we have said, of the cuneiform type: that is, the characters are made of strokes which can be impressed on soft materials by a stylus having an angled end. The OP inscriptions, being on hard materials, must have been made with engraving tools with which the strokes impressed on soft materials were imitated. There was no tradition from antiquity as to the significance of the characters, nor was any OP inscription accompanied by a version in a previously known system of writing; modern scholars were therefore obliged to start from the very beginning in the task of decipherment.


Early steps in the decipherment. OP inscriptions and writing are mentioned in a number of ancient authors, from Herodotus onward, and are remarked upon and described by certain modern travelers early in the seventeenth century, who published parts of inscriptions from Persepolis in the accounts of their travels. The first inscription to be piblished in complete form was DPc(Darius, Persepolis c), given by Chardin in 1711. Better copies of several were given in 1778 by Carsen Niebuhr, who recognized that the inscriptions were composed in three systems of writing, and that the writing ran from left to right: the direction of the writing was shown by two copies of XPe(Xerxes, Persepolis e) with somewhat differing line-divisions. O.G. Tychsen in 1798 discovered that the three systems of writing represented three different languages, and that a recurring diagonal wedge in the simplest of the three types was a word-divider; but he wrongly assigned the inscriptions to the Parthian period. Friedrich Muenter in 1802 indepently identified the word-divider, and thought that a frequently recurring series of characters must be the word for ‘king’; he assigned that inscriptions to the Achaemenian period.


G.F. Grotefend of Frankfurt in 1802 applied himself to the problem of the decipherment, and by a comparison of DPa and XPe(in Niebuhr’s copies) he made the fist real progress. He assumed that the inscriptions were inscriptions of the Achaemenian kings, that they consisted essentially of the names and titles of the kings, and that those in the simplest type of writing were in Persian, closely resembling the language of the Avesta. He was helped by Silvestre de Sacy’s recent decipherment of the royal titles in Pahlavi,’…, great king, king of kings, king of Iran and non-Iran ,son of …, great king,’ etc., which guided him as to what to expect. To facilitate the exposition, we set the two inscriptions in parallel columns:


Darayavauy :
xyayaqiya : vazraka :
xyayaqiya :
xyayaqiyanam :
xyayaqiya : dahyunam :
Viytaspahya :

puVa :  Haxamaniyiya :
hya : imam : tacaram :


xyayarya :
xyayaqiya : vazraka :
xyayaqiya :
xyayaqiyanam :

Darayavhauy :
xyayaqiyahya :
puVa :  Haxamaniyiya :

Grotefend recognized correctly that the names of two different kings were followed by titles, ‘great king, king of kings’, and then a third similar title in the one which was lacking in the other; that then followed the name of the king’s father, who was the same person in one inscription as the king in the other, and that in the other the fother did not bear the title king. He decided upon Darius, whose father Hystaspes had not been king, rather than under Cyrus, since Cyrus and his father Cambyses had names beginning with the same letter whereas the corresponding two names in the inscription began with different characters; he thought the name of Artaxerxes to be too long. Thus he saw in the three names Hystaspes, Darius, Xerxes, in the transliteration of which he used the later Iranian pronunciations:


g      o      sch      t      a      s      p
d      a        r        h      e      u     sch
kh     sch    h        a      r     sch     a


vi      i      ya      ta      a      sa      pa
da     a      ra      ya     va      u       ya
xa     ya     ya      a      ra       ya      a

Thus he had identified, for all but the inherent a the characters a, u, x (his kh), t, d, p, r, s, y (his sch), and elsewhere he identified f. But his reliance on the later pronunciations misled him sorely, and of the 22 different signs in DPa and XPe he got only 10 correctly, and even for two of these he admitted two values each (a and e, p and b). Apart from the three names, ‘king’ and ‘great’ were the only words which he idetified correctly; later (1815) he identified the name ‘Cyrus’ in CMa(Cyrus, Murghab a). But the remainder of his readings, even in these inscriptions, is sorry stuff, and he could never realize in later years that the foundations which he had laid had been built upon and improved.

Old Persian


The completion of the decipherment. After a gap of twenty-one years other scholars took up the task, but progress was mainly in identifying individual characters and single words. The notable steps in the decipherment were the following: Lassen in 1836 supplied the vowel a after many consonants; that is, he realized that these consonants had an inherent a. Lassen in 1839 noted that some characters were used only before i and others only before u; Rawlinson in 1846, Hincks in 1846, and Oppert in 1847 independently realized that these consonants had inherent i and inherent u. Oppert at the same time discovered that diphthongs were indicated by i or u after a consonants with inherent a, and that n and m were omitted before consonants.


The Old-Persian syllabary. The inscriptions composed in the old Persian language are inscribed on various hard material in a syllabary, each character having the value of a vowel or of a consonant plus a vowel. To the 36 characters of this nature must be added 5 ideograms, one ligature of ideogram and case ending, the world-divider, and numerical symbols.
This syllabary quite obviously goes back to the cuneiform syllabary of Akkadian, but its simplicity as compared with its parent syllabary shows that it has been specially drawn up for its present purpose. There is no conclusive evidence how the Akkadian characters were utilized and how the new characters received OP values; though several scholars have advanced theories.
It is uncertain also when this old Persian system of writing was invented. The extant inscriptions are largely those of Darius I and of Xerxes, and it is tempting to ascribe the invention to the orders of Darius when he wished to record the events of his accention, on the Rock of Behistan; but there are three inscriptions of Cyrus, as well as one each purporting to be of Ariaramnes and of Arsames. These last two may have been set up as labels to small monuments or other objects of a later period; the orthography points to aproximately the time of Artaxerxes II. Of the inscriptions of Cyrus, one is very fragmentary, and the other two are brief labels; yet as they were inscribed in the palace which belonged to Cyrus, at Pasargadae (Murghab), they show that the OP cuneiform syllabary existed and was in use in Cyrus’s time.

3) More informations


Declension in OP. The OP noun, along with the pronoun and the adjective, shows approximately the expected assortment of forms.
All the cases found in Sanskrit and Avestan are found in OP, except the dative, which has been lost, its functions being assumed by the genitive form. The Ablative has no distinctive form, but has been merged in the instrumental and the locative either by phonetic development or by analogy; except for one form, babirauy, which is identical with the genitive, as in Sanskrit. Similarly the accusative plural has become identical with the nominative, either by phonetic process or by analogy, except in the enclitic pronouns which have no nominative form.
Both singular and plural numbers are represented in OP, and there are a few dual forms.


The Persian calendar and Behistan. In Behistan 4.4, Darius states that the 19 battles recorded by him in the first three columns of the inscription, with the attendant capture of 9 usupers, took place hamahyaya q arda ‘in one and the same year’. For eighteen of the battles dates are given in the Persian calendar, with translation into the Elamite and the Akkadian. The difficulty has been to arrange these dates within one year, beginning with the killing of Gaumata, the false Smerdis; for the order of the months in the Persian calendar, and in the other calendars, was by no means certain. Now, however, with evidence from additional Akkadian and Elamite tablets which have no Old Persian version, Arno Poebel has succeeded in reconstructing the lists of month, as follows:


Old Persian, Roland G. Kent, New Haven, 1953





~ by pegahespantman on November 27, 2010.

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