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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 as well. Middle Persian is classified as Western Iranian language. It descends from Old Persian and is the nominal ancestor of Persian.

The native name for Middle Persian (and perhaps for Old Persian also) was Pārsik, "(language) of Pārs", present-day Fārs Provincemarker. The word is consequently (the origin of) the native name for the Modern Persian language.

Middle Persian was most frequently written in the Pahlavi writing system, which was also the preferred writing system for other Middle Iranian languages. Other forms of written Middle Persian include Pazend, a system derived from Avestan that, unlike Pahlavi, indicated vowels and did not employ Aramaic logograms.The ISO 639 language code for Middle Persian is '''pal''', which reflects the confusion resulting from the post-Sassanid-era use of 'Pahlavi' (a writing system) as the name for Middle Persian (a language). "Most texts, which include translated versions of the Zoroastrian canon, are 14th century transcriptions of texts from the 9th to the 11th century, when it had long ceased to be a spoken language." This late form "is thus not representative of the real state of Middle Persian."

Transition from Old Persian

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 3rd 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.

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 ca. 650) before Iranmarker was invaded by the Arab armies that spread Islam.


Below is transliteration 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.

A sample Middle Persian poem from manuscript of Jamasp Asana:

In New Persian:


See also

References and bibliography

  1. See also's page on Middle Persian scripts
  2. R. Mehri's Parsik/Pahlavi Web page

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