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Parthian Script


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[from my letter to Michael Everson, 24 Nov 2004:]

With reference to delineating the various scripts for Parthian, I note that the Unicode Roadmap no longer has the BMP 0880-089F block reserved for Aramaic. Is there an implication that Aramaic will be unified with Hebrew? Or will Unicode allow a separate block for Imperial Aramaic script (IAS)? Does the fact that Parthian Aramaic script (PAS) expressed an Iranian vs. Semitic language provide any leverage in the decision for a separate block? Or, perhaps more pertinent, that PAS differences from IAS provide the starting point for a new branch of scripts?

Hopefully not throwing already ambiguous terms around too freely, here's an outline of what I see for PAS in Unicode.

(1) Aramaic Block Aramaic script of the Assyrian, Babylonian and Persian empires was fixed with no localized scripts even in the remotest provinces. [Naveh] This evolved into subordinate script branches, among them Hebrew script which has already been given a block. In retrospect, that block should have been named Aramaic and unified with its derivatives.

Imperial Aramaic increasingly contained Iranian (Parthian) loan words toward the end of the Achaemenids; where there are too many of them, it becomes Skjaervo's "faulty bureaucratic Aramaic". In the transition to Parthian, some inscriptions are uncertain as to whether they are in Aramaic or a Middle Iranian language, while the script remains the (somewhat modified) IAS. Graphically, there are minor differences in the alphabets. Since we encode scripts, not languages, it is a difficult decision whether or not to have a separate Parthian Aramaic block in Unicode based on appearance. [Note: I would favor unification of PAS in the Aramaic (Hebrew?) block. If PAS is not unified with Aramaic, scholars (and thus fontographers) must choose whether to use the Aramaic block or the Parthian Aramaic block for these texts. There is great usefulness in the ability to highlight a passage in a document and temporarily change the passage to an IAS font.]

But you asked for lines of division. Assuming creation of a separate Parthian Aramaic block for either linguistic family or graphic display reasons, and the need for a reasonable demarcation between simple and more complex Parthian scripts, we could have:

(2) Parthian Aramaic Block The 22 letters of IAS were adopted to express Western Iranian languages. These scripts included Parthian (northwest Middle Iranian), and Middle Persian (southwestern Middle Iranian, early Sasanian "Arsacid Pahlavi"). Included also are inscriptions of Nisa, Avroman, Dura(?), Hajjiabad, Hassan-kef, three Persis numismatic scripts (BCE, 1 and 2 centuries CE) and the little understood Elymais script. (K. Beyer 1986 provides others, fn. 27, pp. 28-29.) To my knowledge, the only extensions in this block are grouped letters "br" for the Persis scripts and "brh" for Persis and Elymais scripts. Some letters change meaning from IAS, and some are unused. Letterforms underwent some distinctive changes, and Aramaic ideograms (heterograms, Semitic masks) were expressed using Aramaic letters that persisted through the long evolution into Book Pahlavi. I draw a line between scripts with the unadorned 22 letters of this block and the later scripts which were cursive, developed diacritics or contained connected letters.

(3) Pahlavi/Avestan/Pazand Block I would suggest this group include Middle Persian (Sasanian, early cursive Pahlavi), Psalter, Book Pahlavi, and Late Avestan scripts. The development of ligatures, especially complex in late Pahlavi, and diacritics require block extensions specific to those scripts. The scripts in this block should not be unified with the Parthian Aramaic block and will require numerous extensions to handle special cases.

Parthian language was also written in Manichaean script but it and other "Sogdian" variant scripts are too different to be unified in the Pahlavi Block.

From Iranchamber.com, copied from Omniglot.com:

Parthian Script

The Parthian script developed from the Aramaic alphabet around the 2nd century B.C. and was used during the Parthian and Sasanid periods of the Persian Empire. The latest known inscription dates from 292 AD.

Notable Features

parthian_script_letters.gif (599x130 -- 3745 bytes)


Aramaic Alphabet

The Aramaic alphabet was developed sometime during the late 10th or early 9th century B.C. and replaced Assyrian cuneiform as the main writing system of the Assyrian empire. The Aramaic alphabet is thought to be the ancestor or a number of Semitic alphabets as well as the Kharosthi alphabet. At the end of the 3rd century B.C., the Aramaic alphabet spawned a number of new alphabets including Syriac, Nabataean, Palmyran and Hebrew square script.

Aramaic, a language which developed from Phoenician, became the Lingua Franca throughout the Near East and Asia Minor during the late Assyrian period (1000 to 600 B.C.).

Notable Features

aramaic_alphabet_letters.gif (574x114 -- 3129 bytes)


This page last updated 03 Jul 2019