Iranian Languages

views updated May 29 2018


Family of languages spoken in Iran and adjacent countries.

The Iranian languages are closely related to those of the IndoAryan family, such as Sanskrit, Hindi, and Urdu; both families (the IndoIranian and IndoAryan languages) are part of the IndoEuropean language family, which also contains the Germanic, Slavic, Celtic, Romance, and Greek languages. The principal Iranian languages and groups of languages or dialects are discussed below.

The Southern and Southwestern Languages

Modern Persian is the official language of Iran, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan. There are numerous local variants, the most important being the spoken Persian of Afghanistan (Dari) and of Tajikistan (Tajik). The differences between standard Persian and Dari are not great; but the grammar of Tajik, especially the verbal system, has long been influenced by the neighboring Turkic languages and contains constructions that are foreign to standard Persian. Some of the earliest major Modern Persian texts, written by Persian Jews in the Hebrew alphabet, are in several variants of Persian and contain many archaic features.

Modern Persian is descended from Middle Persian, which is known through documents from the late Parthian and Sassanian periods (from c. 200 c.e.). The earliest examples are on coins from the rulers of Fars and inscriptions from the early Sassanian kings that are written in a local variant of the Aramaic alphabet. The Middle Persian Zoroastrian scriptures were written in a more developed variant of the same script, the Pahlavi alphabet, in which many letters are not distinguished. There is also a large Manichaean literature written in a Syriac script, and a few fragments of Christian texts.

Middle Persian is descended from Old Persian, the language of the Achaemenid inscriptions composed by Darius and Xerxes and their successors (c. 520340 b.c.e.). It is written in a simple cuneiform script invented by the Persians, rather than the complex cuneiform systems of the Babylonians and Elamites in use at the time.

The languages (dialects) spoken in southern and southwestern Iran in the areas of Bakhtiar, Lorestan, and Fars are all more closely related to Persian than to other Iranian languages.

Kurdish is spoken mainly in western Iran, eastern Iraq, Turkey, and in the southern areas of the former Soviet Union. There are several dialect groups: southern (e.g., Kermanshahi), central (e.g., Sorani, Mokri), and northern (e.g., Kurmanji).

West and east-northeast of Tehran, in Mazandaran, and along the southwestern coast of the Caspian Sea a group of related languages is spoken: Tati, Taleshi, Gilaki, Mazandarani, Semnani, and others. Probably also a member of this group is Zaza or Dimili, spoken in eastern Turkey. All of these languages may be ultimately related to the Parthian language, known through documents and Manichaean texts (c. 1st century b.c.e.3rd century c.e.).

South of the Central Desert, Dasht-e Kavir, a group of languages referred to as the Central Dialects is spoken: Khuri, Naʿini, the dialect of the Zoroastrians of Yazd and Kerman, and others. These may be related to the ancient Median language, the official language of the Median state (c. 700560 b.c.e.).

In southeastern Iran there are three related languages in several dialects: Larestani and North and South Bashkardi.

Baluchi is spoken mainly in eastern Iran and Pakistan. It has several dialects.

The Northern or Northeastern Languages

North and northeast of Iran, descendants of the various Scythian or Saka languages are still spoken.

Ossetic, in three dialects, is spoken in the Caucasus. It is the descendant of the old Alanic language(s), of which fragments are known.

Pakhtun is spoken in Afghanistan, where it is official language, and in northwest Pakistan.

Numerous languages are spoken in Afghanistan, north of the Afghan border with the central Asian republics, and east of the border with Pakistan; none of them has a written tradition. The most important are the Shughni group (Shughni, Sarikoli, Yazghulami, Roshani, etc.), Yidgha and Munji (Munjani), Yaghnobi, and Wakhi.

Yaghnobi is descended from a dialect of Sogdian, a Middle Iranian language known from a large corpus of Buddhist, Manichaean, and Christian texts, as well as secular documents (4th10th centuries, c.e.).

Wakhi is related to the Middle Iranian language Khotanese, spoken in Chinese Turkistan and known from a rich Buddhist literature and secular documents (c. 5th10th centuries c.e.).

Two other Middle Iranian languages, Bactrian (c. 1st century b.c.e.c. 4th century c.e.) and Chorasmian (Khwarazmian; c. 3rd14th centuries c.e.), have no known descendants.

Avestan is the language of the holy scriptures of the Zoroastrians. Old Avestan is very similar to the language of the Indian Rigveda and may have been spoken about the middle of the second millennium b.c.e. Young Avestan is similar to Old Persian and may have been spoken throughout the first half of the first millennium b.c.e.

Among the many grammatical features that distinguish the Iranian languages from one another three can be mentioned.


The distinction between grammatical masculine and feminine has been lost in Modern Persian and Balochi but exists in Kurdish and Pakhtun. For example: Persian, īn mard/zan āmad ; Pakhtun, dā saay rāyay (this man came) but dā šǝja rāyla (this woman came).


In many Iranian languages two or more cases are distinguished (in Ossetic, nine). For example: Mazandarani, per ume (my father came), pére sere ([my] father's house), Baluchi, ē ā mardē gis int (this is that man's house), gisā int (it is in the house), Pakhtun, da de sarī kitāb (this man's book).

Ergative Constructions

In many Iranian languages the past tense of transitive verbs is expressed by a construction that resembles the English passive. This construction was originally used for the perfect tenses, corresponding to the English "I have done." For example: Old Persian, adam akunavam (I did) but manā kąrtam (I have done); Pakhtun z rasedəm (I arrived) but dā saray me wúlid (I saw this man).

see also pushtun.


Dehghani, Yavar. Persian. Munich, Germany: LINCOM Europa, 2002.

Kent, Roland G. Old Persian: Grammar, Texts, Lexicon. New Haven, CT: American Oriental Society, 1953.

Lambton, A. K. S. Persian Grammar. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1971.

p. oktor skjaervo

Iranian languages

views updated May 23 2018

Iranian languages Group of languages forming a subdivision of the Indo-Iranian family of Indo-European languages. The major Iranian languages are Persian, Pashto, Kurdish, Mazanderani and Gilaki (of Iran), Baluchi (of Iran and Pakistan) and Tajik and Ossetic, spoken in the republic of Tajikistan and in South Ossetia (a part of Georgia) and North Ossetia (an autonomous region of the Russian Federation).


views updated May 18 2018

I·ra·ni·an / iˈrānēən; iˈrä-/ • adj. of or relating to Iran or its people. ∎  relating to or denoting the group of Indo-European languages that includes Persian (Farsi), Pashto, Avestan, and Kurdish.• n. a native or national of Iran, or a person of Iranian descent.