Iranian languages

Iranian languages
Southwest Asia, Central Asia, and western South Asia
Linguistic classification: Indo-European
Proto-language: Proto-Iranian
ISO 639-2 and 639-5: ira
Iranian language family tree

The Iranian languages (also called Iranic languages) form a subfamily of the Indo-Iranian languages which in turn is a subgroup of Indo-European language family. They have been and are spoken by Iranian peoples.

The Iranian languages are considered in three stages of Old (until 400 BCE), Middle (400 BCE – 900 CE), and New (since 900 CE) stages. From the Old Iranian languages the better understood and recorded ones are Old Persian (a language of Achaemenid Iran) and Avestan (the language of Zarathushtra). Middle Iranian languages included Middle Persian (a language of Sassanid Iran) and Parthian (a language of Arsacid Iran). There are many Iranian languages, the largest amongst them are Persian, Pashto, Balochi and Kurdish.

Today, there are an estimated 150–200 million native speakers of Iranian languages.[1] The Ethnologue lists 87 Iranian languages.[2] Persian has about 65 million native speakers, Pashto about 50-60 million, Kurdish about 18 million, Lurish about 2.3 million, and Balochi about 7 million.


The term

The term Iranian language is applied to any language which is "descended from a proto-Iranian parent language".[3] As such these proto-languages were unattested and spoken first and presumably by people/tribes in Central Asia sometime in the late 3rd to early 2nd millennium BCE. The area in which Iranian languages, i.e. descendants of proto-Iranian language, have been spoken stretches from western China to western Europe. The proto-Iranian language was related to, also unattested, proto-Indo-Aryan language. The proto-Indo-Aryan gave birth to various Indic languages over the time.[3]

The collection of all Iranian languages and all Indo-Aryan languages and "perhaps separate"[4] Nuristani languages is called the Indo-Iranian (IIr.) branch of the Indo-European language family.[3]

The term Iranian has been introduced 1836 by Christian Lassen,[5] followed by Wilhelm Geiger and his Grundriss der Iranischen Philologie (1895) whereas Friedrich von Spiegel in 1859 prefers the term Eranian.[6] Robert Needham Cust, however, used the term Irano-Aryan as early as 1878.[7] Orientalists such as George Abraham Grierson and Max Müller also differentiated between Irano-Aryan and Indo-Aryan. Grierson also uses the term Eranian.[8] Recent scholarship has seen a revival of the term Irano-Aryan in analogy to Indo-Aryan.[9][10] The linguist Ahmad Hasan Dani uses the term and asserts Iranian is short for Irano-Aryan.[11] The linguist Gilbert Lazard, specialist for Persian, has been using the term consequently in his publications,[12] whereas Mohammad Djafar[13] suggests to establish Aryan for the branch.[14]


Indo-European language family tree.

Soon after the formation of Indo-European family of languages in 19th century, the Iranian languages (Avestan, Old Persian, ...) together with the Indic languages (Sanskrit, ..) were recognized by works of the linguist Rasmus Rask in 1826 as the eastern branch of Indo-European languages.[15] The Armenian language was also considered as an Iranian language but was very soon (in 1875 effectively) established as a separate language in the Indo-European group of languages.[15]

Iranian languages are divided into Eastern and Western subfamilies, totalling about 84 languages (SIL estimate). Of the most widely-spoken Iranian languages, Kurdish, Persian, and Balochi are all Western Iranian languages, while Pashto is an Eastern Iranian language.

Proto-Iranian and Old Iranian languages

Historical distribution in 100 BC: shown is Sarmatia, Scythia, Bactria and the Parthian Empire

Together with the other Indo-Iranian languages, the Iranian languages are descended from a common ancestor, Proto-Indo-Iranian. The Indo-Iranian languages are thought to have originated in Central Asia. The Andronovo culture is the suggested candidate for the common Indo-Iranian culture ca. 2000 BC.

It was situated precisely in the western part of Central Asia that borders present-day Russia (and present-day Kazakhstan). It was in relative proximity to the other satem ethno-linguistic groups of the Indo-European family, like Thracian, Balto-Slavic and others, and to common Indo-European's original homeland (more precisely, the steppes of southern Russia to the north of the Caucasus), according to the reconstructed linguistic relationships of common Indo-European.

Proto-Iranian thus dates to some time after Proto-Indo-Iranian break-up, or the early second millennium BCE, as the Old Iranian languages began to break off and evolve separately as the various Iranian tribes migrated and settled in vast areas of southeastern Europe, the Iranian plateau, and Central Asia.

Avestan, mainly attested through the Avesta, a collection of sacred texts connected to the Zoroastrian religion, is considered to belong to a central Iranian group,[16] where only peripheral groups such as southwestern (represented by Old Persian) and northeastern Sogdian and Sakan language (Scythian) had developed. Among the less known Old Iranian languages is Median, spoken in western and central Iran, which may have had an “official” status during the Median era (ca. 700–559 BC). Apart from place and personal names, some words reported in Herodotus' Histories and some preserved forms in Achaemenid inscriptions, there are numerous non-Persian words in the Old Persian texts that are commonly considered Median. Some of the modern Western and Central Iranian dialects are also likely to be descended from Median.[17]

Other such languages are Carduchi (the predecessor to Kurdish) and Parthian (which evolved into the language of the later empire).[18]

Middle Iranian languages

What is known in Iranian linguistic history as the "Middle Iranian" era is thought to begin around the 4th century BCE lasting through the 9th century. Linguistically and historically one can classify these into two main families, Western and Eastern.

The Western family includes Parthian (Arsacid Pahlavi) and Middle Persian, while Bactrian, Sogdian, Khwarezmian, Saka, and Old Ossetic (Scytho-Sarmatian) fall under the Eastern category. The two languages of the western group were linguistically very close to each other, but quite distinct from their eastern counterparts. On the other hand, the Eastern group retained some similarity to Avestan. They were inscribed in various Aramaic-derived alphabets, which had evolved from the Achaemenid Imperial Aramaic.

Middle Persian (Pahlavi) was the official language of the Sassanids. It was in use from the 3rd century CE until the beginning of the 10th century. Pahlavi and Parthian were also the languages of the Manichaeans, whose texts also survive in various non-Iranian languages, from Latin to Chinese. The Imperial Aramaic script used in this era underwent significant maturing.

New Iranian languages

Dark green: countries where Iranian languages are official.
Teal: regional co-official/de facto status.

Following the Islamic Conquest of Persia (Iran), there were important changes in the role of the different dialects within the Persian Empire. The old prestige form of Middle Iranian, also known as Pahlavi, was replaced by a new standard dialect called Dari as the official language of the court. The name Dari comes from the word darbâr (دربار), which refers to the royal court, where many of the poets, protagonists, and patrons of the literature flourished. The Saffarid dynasty in particular was the first in a line of many dynasties to officially adopt the new language in 875 CE. Dari may have been heavily influenced by regional dialects of eastern Iran, whereas the earlier Pahlavi standard was based more on western dialects. This new prestige dialect became the basis of Standard New Persian. Medieval Iranian scholars such as Abdullah Ibn al-Muqaffa (8th century) and Ibn al-Nadim (10th century) associated the term "Dari" with the eastern province of Khorasan, while they used the term "Pahlavi" to describe the dialects of the northwestern areas between Isfahan and Azerbaijan, and "Pârsi" ("Persian" proper) to describe the Dialects of Fars. They also noted that the unofficial language of the royalty itself was yet another dialect, "Khuzi", associated with the western province of Khuzestan.

The Islamic conquest also brought with it the adoption of Arabic script for writing Persian, Pashto and Balochi. All three were adapted to the writing by the addition of a few letters. This development probably occurred some time during the second half of the 8th century, when the old middle Persian script began dwindling in usage. The Arabic script remains in use in contemporary modern Persian. Tajik script was first Latinised in the 1920s under the then Soviet nationality policy. The script was however subsequently Cyrillicized in the 1930s by the Soviet government.

The geographical area in which Iranian languages were spoken was pushed back in several areas by newly neighbouring languages. Arabic spread into some parts of Western Iran (Khuzestan), and Turkic languages spread through much of Central Asia, displacing various Iranian languages such as Sogdian and Bactrian in parts of what is today Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Sogdian barely survives in a small area of the Zarafshan valley east of Samarkand, and Saka (as Sariqoli) in parts of southern Xinjiang as well as Ossetic in the Caucasus. Various small Iranian languages in the Pamirs survive that are derived from Eastern Iranian.

Comparison table

English Zazaki Kurmanji/Sorani Pashto Balochi Mazandarani Persian Middle Persian Parthian Old Persian Avestan Ossetic
beautiful rind rind,bedew, delal/cwan ʂkulai/xkulai, ʂɑjista/xɑjista sharr, soherâ ṣəmxâl/ Xəş-nəmâ zibâ/ xuš-chehreh hučihr, hužihr hužihr naiba vahu-, srîra ræsughd
blood goyni xwîn/xwên wina hon xun xūn xōn gōxan vohuni- tug
bread nan nan ɖoɖəi, nəɣɑn nân, nagan nûn nân nân nân dzul
bring ardene anîn/hênan/weranîn, hawirdin rɑ wɺ̡əl âurten, yārag, ārag biyârden âvardan/biyar âwurdan, āwāy-, āwar-, bar- āwāy-, āwar-, bar- bara- bara, bar- xæssyn
brother bıra bira wror brāt, brās birâr barādar brād, brâdar brād, brādar brâtar brâtar- æfsymær
come amayene hatin/wara rɑ tləl āhag, āyag Biyamona, enen âmadan âmadan, awar awar, čām ây-, âgam âgam- cæwyn
cry berbayene girîn ʒaɺ̡əl greewag, greeten bərmə/ qâ geristan/geryeh griy-, bram- kæwyn
dark tari tarî/tarîk tjɑrə thár siyo târîk târīg/k târīg, târēn sâmahe, sâma tar
daughter/girl çena keç, kîj,qîz, dot/kiç, kîj, kenîşk lur dohtir, duttag kijâ/ dether doxtar duxtar duxt, duxtar duxδar čyzg (Iron), kizgæ (Digor)
day roce/roje/roze roj wrad͡z roç rezh rûz rōz raucah- raocah- bon
do kerdene kirin/kirdin kawəl kanag, kurtin hâkerden kardan kardan kartan kạrta- kәrәta- kænyn
door çeber derge/derke, derga war, daɺ̡a gelo, darwāzag bəli dar dar dar, bar duvara- dvara- dwar
die merdene mirin/mirdin mrəl mireg mərnen murdan murdan mạriya- mar- mælyn
donkey her ker xar her xar xar xar xæræg
egg hak hêk/hêlke hagəi heyg, heyk merqâna toxm toxmag, xâyag taoxmag, xâyag taoxma- ajk
earth êrd (uncertain origin) erd/herd (uncertain origin) zməka zemin zemi zamin zamīg zamīg zam- zãm, zam, zem zæxx
evening shan êvar/êware mɑʂɑm/mɑxɑm begáh nəmâşun begáh sarshab êbêrag izær
eye çım çav/çaw stərga ch.hem, chem bəj, Çəş chashm chašm chašm čaša- čašman- cæst
father pi bav/bab, bawk plɑr pit, piss piyer pedar pidar pid pitar pitar fyd
fear ters tirs vera, tars turs, terseg təşəpaş tars tars tars tạrsa- tares- tas
fiancé washte dezgîran t͡ʃanɣol nām zād xasgar nâm-zad - - usag
fine weş xweş ʂa/xa wash, hosh xaar xosh dârmag srîra xorz / dzæbæx
finger gisht til/qamik, engust gwəta lenkutk, mordâneg angoos angošt angust dišti- ængwyldz
fire adır agir/awir, agir or âch, âs tesh âtaš, âzar âdur, âtaxsh ādur âç- âtre-/aêsma- art
fish mase masî kab mâhi, mâhig mahi mâhi mâhig mâsyâg masya kæsag
food / eat werdene xwarin/xwardin xoɺ̡ə / xwaɺ̡əl warag, warâk Xərak/ xəynen Gaza / xordan parwarz / xwâr, xwardīg parwarz / xwâr hareθra / ad-, at- xærinag
go şiyayene çûn tləl jwzzegh, shutin shunen / burden raftan raftan, shudan ay- ai- ay-, fra-vaz cæwyn
god heq xwedê/xwa xwdai hwdâ homa, xəda khodâ bay, abragar baga- baya- xwycaw
good rınd baş, rind/baş, çak ʂə/xə jawáin, šarr xâr xub / nîuū xūb, nêkog vahu- vohu, vaŋhu- xorz
grass vaş giya/gya wɑʂə/wɑxə rem, sabzag sabzeh, giyâh giyâ dâlūg urvarâ kærdæg
great gırs / pil mezin/gewre, mezin loj, ɣwara mastar, mazan gat, belang, pila bozorg wuzurg, pīl vazraka- uta-, avañt styr
hand dest dest lɑs dast dess dast dast dast dasta- zasta- k'ux / arm
head ser ser sar, kakaɺ̡ai saghar kalə sar, kalleh sar sairi sær
heart zerre dil/dill zɺ̡ə dil, hatyr dil/dill del dil dil aηhuš zærdæ
horse estor hesp/esp ɑs asp istar asp, astar asp, stōr asp, stōr aspa aspa- bæx
house keye mal/mall, xanu kor, xuna log, dawâr səre xâneh xânag demâna-, nmâna- xædzar
hunger vêşan birçîtî/birsêtî lwəʐa/lwəga shudhagh veyshna gorosnegi gursag, shuy stong
language (also tongue) zıwan, zon ziman/ziman, ziwan ʒəba zevân, zobân ziwân zabân zuwân izβân hazâna- hizvâ- ævzag
laugh huyayene kenîn/pêkenîn, kenîn xandəl khendegh, hendeg xandidan xandīdan karta Syaoθnâvareza- xudyn
life jewiyaene jiyan ʒwandun zendegih, zind zendegi zīndagīh, zīwišnīh žīwahr, žīw- gaêm, gaya- card
man merd mêr/ pyaw saɺ̡ai, meɺ̡ə merd merd mard mard mard martiya- mašîm, mašya adæjmag
moon ashmê heyv/mang spoʐmai/spogmai, mjɑʃt máh mithra mâh māh māh mâh- måŋha- mæj
mother maye dayik, mak mor mât, mâs mâr mâdar mādar mādar mâtar mâtar- mad
mouth fek dev/dem xwlə dap dahân dahân, rumb åŋhânô, âh, åñh dzyx
name name nav/naw num nâm num nâm nâm nâman nãman nom
night şewe şev/şew ʃpa šap, shaw sheow shab shab xšap- xšap- æxsæv
open akerdene vekirin/kirdinewe prɑnistəl, xlɑsawəl pabožagh, paç vâ-hekârden bâz-kardan abâz-kardan būxtaka- būxta- gom kænyn
peace kotpy aştî roɣa ârâm âshti, ârâmeš, ârâmî âštih, râmīšn râm, râmīšn šiyâti- râma- fidyddzinad
pig xoz beraz xug, seɖar khug xi xūk xūk xwy
place ja cih/jê d͡zɑj hend, jâgah jâh/gâh gâh gâh gâθu- gâtu-, gâtav- ran
read wendene xwendin/xwêndin lwastəl wánagh baxinden xândan xwândan kæsyn
say vatene gotin/witin, gutin wajəl gushagh baotena goftan, gap(-zadan) guftan, gōw-, wâxtan gōw- gaub- mrû- dzuryn
sister wae xweşk,xoe xor gwhâr xâxer xâhar/xwâhar xwahar x ̌aŋhar- "sister" xo
small qıc biçûk kut͡ʃnai, waɺ̡ukai, kam gwand, hurd pətik, bechuk, perushk kuchak, kam, xurd, rîz kam, rangas kam kamna- kamna- chysyl
son qıj kur/kurr zoj baç, phusagh pisser pesar, pûr, baça pur, pusar puhr puça pūθra- fyrt
soul gan gyan, rewan arwɑ rawân ravân rūwân, gyân rūwân, gyân urvan- ud
spring usar bihar/behar psarlai bhârgâh wehâr bahâr wahâr vâhara- θūravâhara-
tall berz bilind/berz lwaɺ̡, d͡ʒəg bwrz, buland boland / bârez buland, borz bârež barez- bærzond
ten des deh/de les deh da dah dah datha dasa dæs
three hire dre sey se se hrē çi- θri- ærtæ
village dewe gund/dê kəlai helk, kallag, dê deh deh, wis wiž dahyu- vîs-, dahyu- vîs qæw
want waştene xwestin/wîstin ɣuʂtəl/ɣuxtəl lotagh bexanen xâstan xwâstan fændyn
water owe av/aw obə âp ab âb/aw âb âb âpi avô- don
when key kengê/key, kengê kəla ked kay kay ka čim- kæd
wind va ba bɑd gwáth bâd wâd vâta- dymgæ / wad
wolf verg gur/gurg lewə, ʃarmuʂ/ʃarmux gurkh varg gorg gurg varka- vehrka birægh
woman ceniye jin ʂəd͡za/xəd͡za jan zhənya zan zan žan gǝnā, γnā, ǰaini-, sylgojmag / us
year serre sal/sall kɑl sâl sâl sâl θard ýâre, sarәd az
yes / no ya / né erê,bêle, a / na ho (wo) / na, ja ere / na baleh, ârē, hā / na, nee hâ / ney hâ / ney yâ / nay, mâ yâ / noit, mâ o / næ
yesterday vizêri duh/dwênê parun direz diruz dêrûž diya(ka) zyō znon
English Zazaki Kurmanji/Sorani Pashto Balochi Mazandarani Persian Middle Persian Parthian Old Persian Avestan Ossetic

See also


  1. ^ Windfuhr, Gernot. The Iranian languages. Routledge Taylor and Francis Group. 
  2. ^ Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. (ed.) (2005). "Report for Iranian languages". Ethnologue: Languages of the World (Dallas: SIL International). 
  3. ^ a b c (Skjærvø 2006)
  4. ^ "the Nuristani languages, appears to constitute a separate branch of Indo-Iranian, but the exact relationship is disputed". cf. (Skjærvø 2006)
  5. ^ Lassen, Christian. 1936. Die Altpersischen Keilschrift von Persepolis. Entzifferung des Alphabets und Erklärung des Inhalts. Bonn: Weber. S. 182.
  6. ^ Spiegel, Friedrich von. 1859. Avesta. Engelmann. P. vii.
  7. ^ Cust, Robert Needham. 1878. A sketch of the modern languages of the East Indies. London: Trübner.
  8. ^ Grierson, George. A. 1920. Ishkashmi, Zebaki and Yazghulami. An Account of Three Eranian Dialects. London: Royal Asiatic Society.
  9. ^ Lazard, Gilbert. 1977. Preface in: Oranskij, Iosif M. Les langues iraniennes. Traduit par Joyce Blau.
  10. ^ Schmitt, Rüdiger. 1994. Sprachzeugnisse alt- und mitteliranischer Sprachen in Afghanistan in: Indogermanica et Caucasica. Festschrift für Karl Horst Schmidt zum 65. Geburtstag. Bielmeier, Robert und Reinhard Stempel (Hrg.). De Gruyter. S. 168–196.
  11. ^ Dani, Ahmad Hasan. 1989. History of northern areas of Pakistan. Historical studies (Pakistan) series. National Institute of Historical and Cultural Research.
    That is why we distinguish between the Aryan languages of Iran, or Irano-Aryan, and the Aryan languages of India, or Indo-Aryan. For the sake of brevity, Iranian is commonly used instead of Irano-Aryan ...
  12. ^ Lazard, Gilbert. 1998. Actancy. Empirical approaches to language typology. Mouton de Gruyter. ISBN 3110156709, 9783110156706
  13. ^ Djafar, Mohammad Un néologisme non fondé: "Irano-Aryen". Le Message de l'Islam 67 (1989) 24–27
  14. ^ Die Sprache, Band 28–29 Von Wilhelm Havers, Wiener Sprachgesellschaft.
  15. ^ a b (Mallory & Adams 2006, pp. 6–7)
  16. ^ Nicholas Sims-Williams, Iranica, under entry: Eastern Iranian languages
  17. ^ (Skjaervo 2006) vi(2). Documentation.
  18. ^ Roland G. Kent: "Old Persion: Grammar Texts Lexicon". Part I, Chapter I: The Linguistic Setting of Old Persian. American Oriental Society, 1953.


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