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Pahlavi or Pahlevi denotes a particular and exclusively written form of various Middle Iranian languages. The essential characteristics of Pahlavi are Pahlavi compositions have been found for the dialects/ethnolects of Parthia, Parsa, Sogdiana, Scythia, and Khotan. Independent of the variant for which the Pahlavi system was used, the written form of that language only qualifies as Pahlavi when it has the characteristics noted above.

Pahlavi is then an admixture of
  • written Imperial Aramaic, from which Pahlavi derives its script, logograms, and some of its vocabulary.
  • spoken Middle Iranian, from which Pahlavi derives its terminations, symbol rules, and most of its vocabulary.

Pahlavi may thus be defined as a system of writing applied to (but not unique for) a specific language group, but with critical features alien to that language group. It has the characteristics of a distinct language, but is not one. It is an exclusively written system, but much Pahlavi literature remains essentially an oral literature committed to writing and so retains many of the characteristics of oral composition.


The term Pahlavi is said to be derived from the Parthian language word parthav or parthau, meaning Parthia, a region just east of the Caspian Seamarker, with the -i suffix denoting the language and people of that region. If this etymology is correct, Parthav presumably became pahlaw through a semivowel glide rt (or in other cases rd) change to l, a common occurrence in language evolution (e.g. Arsacid sard became sal, zardzal, vardgol, sardarsalar etc.). The term has been traced back further to Avestan pərəthu- "broad [as the earth]", also evident in Sanskrit pŗthvi- "earth" and parthivi "[lord] of the earth". Common to all Indo-Iranian languages is a connotation of "mighty".


The earliest attested use of Pahlavi dates to the reign of Mithridates I (r. 171–138 BCE). The cellars of the treasury at Mithradatkird (near modern-day Nisa) reveal thousands of pottery sherds with brief records; several ostraca that are fully dated bear references to members of the immediate family of the king. Early Parthian coins also attest to the use Pahlavi.

Such fragments, as also the rock inscriptions of Sassanid kings, which are dateable to the 3rd and 4th centuries CE, do not however qualify as a significant literary corpus. Although, in theory, Pahlavi could have been used to render any Middle Iranian language and hence may have been in use as early as 300 BCE, no manuscripts that can be dated to before the 6th century CE have yet been found. Thus, when used for the name of a literary genre, i.e. Pahlavi literature, the term refers to Middle Iranian texts dated near or after the fall of the Sassanid empire and (with exceptions) extending to about 900 CE, after which Iranian languages enter the "modern" stage.

The oldest surviving example of the Pahlavi literary genre is from fragments of the so-called "Pahlavi Psalter", a 6th or 7th century CE translation of a Syriac Psalter found at Bulayiq on the Silk Road, near Turpanmarker in north-west China. It is in a more archaic script than Book Pahlavi.

In the present-day, "Pahlavi" is frequently identified with the prestige dialect of southwest Iran, formerly and properly called Pārsi, after Pars (Persia proper). This practice can be dated to the period immediately following the Islamic conquest.


Pahlavi script is one of the two essential characteristics of the Pahlavi system (see above). Its origin and development occurred independently of the various Middle Iranian languages for which it was used. Pahlavi script is derived from the Aramaic script as it was used under the Achaemenids, with modifications to support the greater consonantary of Iranian languages. Combined with the high incidence of logograms, Pahlavi script is not necessarily phonetic, and when it is, it does not have only one transliterational symbol per sign. (For a review of the transliteration problems of Pahlavi, see Henning.)

Pahlavi script consisted of two widely used forms: Inscriptional Pahlavi and Book Pahlavi. A third form, Psalter Pahlavi is not widely attested.

Inscriptional Pahlavi

Inscriptional Pahlavi is the earliest attested form, and is evident in clay fragments that have been dated to the reign of Mithridates I (r. 171–138 BCE). Other early evidence includes the Pahlavi inscriptions of Arsacid era coins and rock inscriptions of Sassanid kings and other notables such as Kartir.

Psalter Pahlavi

Psalter Pahlavi derives its name from the so-called "Pahlavi Psalter", a 6th or 7th century translation of a Syriac book of psalms. This text, which was found at Bulayiq near Turpanmarker in northwest China, is the earliest evidence of literary composition in Pahlavi, dating to the 6th or 7th century CE. The extant manuscript dates no earlier than the mid-6th century since the translation reflects liturgical additions to the Syriac original by Mar Aba I, who was Patriarch of Babylon c. 540 - 552.

The script of the psalms has altogether 18 graphemes, 5 more than "Book Pahlavi" (see below). The only other surviving source of Psalter Pahlavi are the inscriptions on a bronze processional cross found at Heratmarker, in present-day Afghanistan. Due to the dearth of comparable material, some words and phrases in both sources remain undeciphered.

Book Pahlavi

Book Pahlavi, which appears to have evolved after the fall of the Sassanid empire, is a smoother script in which letters often attached to form complicated ligatures. Book Pahlavi was the most common form of the script, with 12 or 13 graphemes (13 when including aleph) representing 24 sounds. In its later forms, attempts were made to improve the consonantary through diacritic marks.

Book Pahlavi continued to be in common use until about 900 CE. After that date, Pahlavi was preserved only by the Zoroastrian clergy who used it as a "secret" language.

Problems in reading and transliteration

Because of the convergence in form of many of the characters, there is a high degree of ambiguity in Pahlavi writing, which needs to be resolved by the context. For example, the name of God, Oharmazd, could equally be read (and, by Parsis, often was read) Anhoma. These difficulties were clearly felt by the Sassanian Persians themselves, as well as by modern scholars, as evidenced by the three methods used to reduce this ambiguity.

  1. Many common words were replaced by their Aramaic equivalents, which were used as logograms: because of their limited number, these were easily recognisable. For example, the word for "dog" was written KLB (Aramaic, kalbā) but pronounced sag. These words were known as huzvarishn.
  2. Important religious texts were sometimes transcribed into the Avestan alphabet, which was phonetically unambiguous: this system is called Pazend.
  3. After the Muslim conquest, the Pahlavi script was replaced by the Arabic script, except in Zoroastrian sacred literature.

Literary dialects

From a formal historical and linguistic point of view, the Pahlavi script does not have a one to one correspondence with any Middle Iranian language: none was written in Pahlavi exclusively, and inversely, the Pahlavi script was used for more than one language.

Arsacid Pahlavi

Following the overthrow of the Seleucids, the Parthian Arsacid—who considered themselves the legitimate heirs of the Achaemenids—adopted the manner, customs and government of the Persian court of two centuries previously. Among the many practices so adopted was the use of the Aramaic language ("Imperial Aramaic") that together with Aramaic script served as the language of the chancellery.

By the end of the Arsacid era, the written Aramaic words had come to be understood as or logograms. Commonly occurring words, pronouns, particles, numerals, and auxiliaries remained to a large measure derived from Aramaic. So, for example, the word for "bread" would be written as Aramaic lxm (lahmā) but understood as the sign for Iranian nān. To these "borrowings are tagged Iranian terminations, and it is the Iranian syntactical structure that preserves it from being classed under the Semitic group."

The use of Pahlavi gained popularity following its adoption as the language/script of the commentaries (Zend) on the Avesta. Propagated by the priesthood, who were not only considered to be transmitters of all knowledge but were also instrumental in government, the use of Pahlavi eventually reached all corners of the Parthian Arsacid empire.

Arsacid Pahlavi is also called Parthian Pahlavi (or just Parthian), Chaldeo-Pahlavi, or Northwest Pahlavi, the latter reflecting its apparent development from a dialect that was almost identical to that of the Medes.

Sasanian Pahlavi

Following the defeat of the Parthian Arsacids by the Persian Sasanians (Sassanids), the latter inherited the empire and its institutions, and with it the use of the Aramaic-derived language and script. Like the Parthians before him, Ardeshir, the founder of the second Persian Empire, projected himself as a successor to the regnal traditions of the first, in particular those of Artaxerxes II, whose throne name the new emperor adopted.

From a linguistic point of view, there was probably only little disruption. Since the Sassanids had inherited the bureacracy, in the beginning the affairs of government went on as before, with the use of dictionaries such as the Frahang-i Pahlavig assisting the transition. The royalty themselves came from a priestly tradition (Ardeshir's father and grandfather were both, in addition to being kings, also priests), and as such would have been proficient in the language and script. More importantly, being both Western Middle Iranian languages, Parthian was closely related to the dialect of the southwest (which was more properly called Pārsi, that is, the language of Pārsāmarker, Persia proper).

Arsacids Pahlavi did not die out with the Arsacids. It is represented in some bilingual inscriptions alongside the Sassanid Pahlavi; by the parchment manuscripts of Auroman; and by certain Manichaean texts from Turpanmarker. By the end of the Sassanid era however, the two dialects had both evolved to where they were indistinguishable. The process may also have been accelerated by the influence of the Pazend movement, which sought to replace words from non-Iranian languages (primarily Aramaic) with Iranian language equivalents. Although the Pazend movement also promoted the replacement of Pahlavi script with Din Dabireh, this did not gain sufficient popularity to survive the fall of the empire.

Sasanian Pahlavi is also called Sassanid Pahlavi, Persian Pahlavi, or Southwest Pahlavi.

Post-conquest Pahlavi

Following the Islamic conquest of the Sassanids, the term Pahlavi came to refer to the (written) "language" of the southwest (i.e. Pārsi). How this came to pass remains unclear, but it has been assumed that this was simply because it was the dialect that the conquerors would have been most familiar with.

As the language and script of religious and semi-religious commentaries, Pahlavi remained in use long after that language had been superseded (in general use) by Modern Persian and Arabic script had been adopted as the means to render it. As late as the 17th century, Zoroastrian priests in Iran admonished their Indian co-religionists to learn it.

Post-conquest Pahlavi (or just Pahlavi) is also called Zoroastrian Pahlavi.

See also

References and bibliography

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