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Parthian Language

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Greek served as the official written language on coins and elsewhere, and surely there were many educated Parthians who knew Greek. We know Greek drama was cultivated, not only from the classical sources, but from excavations of theaters and a form for making a comedy mask from Nisa. [Frye (1963), p. 188]

The Greek coin inscriptions gradually degenerated to an almost unreadable form on the late coins, an indication of the lessening Hellenistic influence.

Letter from Artabanus II to SusaTwo Parthian inscriptions in Greek are found on the Parthian reliefs at Behistun; from Susa there are various inscriptions, especially a letter from Artabanus II (12 - 38 A.D.) to the city of Susa


Parthian is a North Western Iranian language. It has also been called by the obsolete terms Northwest Pahlavi, Arsacid Pahlavi, or Chaldeo-Pahlavi. Parthian and Middle Persian inscriptions, and Zoroastrian MP texts (see below), are written in a script derived from Aramaic. The Manichean texts are written in Manichean script.

The Achaemenid bureaucratic practice had been to "read off" Aramaic writing in the local Iranian language. R. N. Frye [Heritage (1963), p. 142] suggests that the Seleucid administration, in addition to officially using Greek, held on to the Achaemenid Aramaic chancellery and that this official use of Aramaic retarded the normal development of writing in Iran or, stated differently, the support of the old system by the Greeks kept the use of 'bureaucratic' Aramaic side by side with the Greek. He believes this may explain why  Kharoshthi writing in northwest India borderlands developed as an alphabetic language using Aramaic script while Middle Persian developed as an ideographic system. Frye believes there was a flourishing oral literature at the courts of nobles and rulers. [Frye, p. 188]

Before the Arsacid dynasty, Parthian was spoken only in a small region but, as a state language of the Parthian Empire (together with Greek), it later spread throughout Iran, Mesopotamia and Armenia, and was widely used in Central Asia. The oldest Parthian documents found include the economic documents from Nisa (1st century B.C.) and there are as well rock inscriptions dating back to the 3rd century B.C. They are written in Parthian script with additions of Aramaic ideograms. Arsacid Parthian is later found in some bilingual inscriptions alongside the Sasanian Middle Persian, in the parchment manuscripts of Avroman, and in certain Manichaean texts from Turfan. Parthian declined when Sasanian power expanded, but was still spoken widely until the 6th century A.D.

There are three pairs of vowel phonemes in Parthian - long and short a, i, u, â, î, û, and two single long vowels ê, ô which appeared from ancient diphthongs. Consonant mutations included the following: dw- > b-, j-z text imageand some others. Due to a loss of word-final syllables, many nominal and verbal categories were lost, which are in part replaced by analytical constructions. The nominal system is reduced to two cases. Parthian exhibits "split ergativity", transitive verbs agreeing with the patient in person and number in tenses involving the past stem (which is derived from the Old Iranian perfect participle in -ta-).

Parthian is closely related to Middle Persian, the official language of the Sasanian empire. Middle Persian is chiefly attested in writings of the Zoroastrian (Zoroastrian MP) and Manichean (Manichaean MP) religions and in inscriptions. Zoroastrian Middle Persian is also called (Book-)Pahlavi. However, as the term Pahlavi has also been used to denote Middle Persian as a whole, or Middle Persian plus Parthian, it is better to use the unambiguous terms Zoroastrian MP (MPZ, MPB), Manichean MP (MMP, MPM), and inscriptional MP (MPI).

Middle Persian continued in use as the religious language of the Zoroastrian communities even after the Arab conquest in the 7th century A.D. while the language usually spoken is called New Persian from that time onwards. Although much of the Middle Persian literature was translated into Arabic, the bulk of its writings was lost during Islamic times.

Some scholars believe there was an attempt to eradicate Parthian literature during the Sasanian period, and attempts to eradicate religious texts of the Parthians and Sasanians following the Islamic conquest.

See the discussion on how Parthians used Aramaic writing on the Attested Names of Parthian Rulers page.

The Manichean Parthian texts themselves are available in transliteration (some also in transcription) in The Titus Index of the Academy of Sciences in Berlin, and images of the original Parthian text fragments (besides fragments in Middle Persian, Sogdian and some others) can be found in the Digital Turfan Archive on these pages:
        Mitteliranische Texte in manichäischer Schrift

This page last updated 21 Apr 2008

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