Old Persian

Old Persian
RegionAncient Iran
Eraevolved into Middle Persian by c. 300 BCE
Old Persian cuneiform
Language codes
peo
ISO 639-3peo
oldp1254[1]
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History of the
Persian language
Proto-Indo-European (c. 3000 BCE)

Indo-Iranian languages


Proto-Indo-Iranian (c. 2000 BCE)

Iranian languages


Proto-Iranian (c. 1500 BCE)

Western Iranian languages


Old Persian (c. 525 – 300 BCE)

Old Persian cuneiform


Middle Persian (c. 300 BCE – 800 CE)

Pahlavi scriptsManichaean alphabetAvestan alphabet


Modern Persian (from 800)

Persian alphabetTajiki Cyrillic alphabet

Old Persian is one of the two directly attested Old Iranian languages (the other being Avestan) and it is the ancestor of Middle Persian (the language of Sasanian Empire). Like other Old Iranian languages, this language was known to its native speakers as Iranian language.[2] Old Persian appears primarily in the inscriptions, clay tablets and seals of the Achaemenid era (c. 600 BCE to 300 BCE). Examples of Old Persian have been found in what is now Iran, Romania (Gherla),[3][4][5] Armenia, Bahrain, Iraq, Turkey and Egypt,[6][7] with the most important attestation by far being the contents of the Behistun Inscription (dated to 525 BCE). Recent research (2007) into the vast Persepolis Fortification Archive at the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago have unearthed Old Persian tablets, which suggest Old Persian was a written language in use for practical recording and not only for royal display.[8]

Origin and overview

As a written language, Old Persian is attested in royal Achaemenid inscriptions. It is an Iranian language and as such a member of the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European language family. The oldest known text written in Old Persian is from the Behistun Inscriptions.[9] Old Persian is one of the oldest Indo-European languages which are attested in original texts.[10]

The oldest date of use of Old Persian as a spoken language is not precisely known. According to certain historical assumptions about the early history and origin of ancient Persians in southwestern Iran (where Achaemenids hailed from), Old Persian was originally spoken by a tribe called Parsuwash, who arrived in the Iranian Plateau early in the 1st millennium BCE and finally migrated down into the area of present-day Fārs province. Their language, Old Persian, became the official language of the Achaemenid kings.[10] Assyrian records, which in fact appear to provide the earliest evidence for ancient Iranian (Persian and Median) presence on the Iranian Plateau, give a good chronology but only an approximate geographical indication of what seem to be ancient Persians. In these records of the 9th century BCE, Parsuwash (along with Matai, presumably Medians) are first mentioned in the area of Lake Urmia in the records of Shalmaneser III.[11] The exact identity of the Parsuwash is not known for certain, but from a linguistic viewpoint the word matches Old Persian pārsa itself coming directly from the older word *pārćwa.[11] Also, as Old Persian contains many words from another extinct Iranian language, Median, according to P. O. Skjærvø it is probable that Old Persian had already been spoken before formation of the Achaemenid Empire and was spoken during most of the first half of the first millennium BCE.[10] Xenophon, a Greek general serving in some of the Persian expeditions, describes many aspects of Armenian village life and hospitality in around 401 BCE, which is when Old Persian was still spoken and extensively used. He relates that the Armenian people spoke a language that to his ear sounded like the language of the Persians.[12]