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Old Persian language

From Academic Kids

Sketch of the first column of the
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Sketch of the first column of the Behistun Inscription

Old Persian is the oldest attested Persid language. It is classified in the group of Western Iranian languages.

This language was used in the inscriptions of the Achaemenid kings. Old Persian texts (including inscriptions, tablets and seals) have been found in Iran, Turkey and Egypt. It evolved into the Middle Persian language (Pahlavi) of Sassanid Iran, and eventually into modern Persian language.

Script

Old Persian was written from left to right in a kind of Cuneiform script. Old Persian cuneiform contains 36 signs which represent consonants, vowels, or sequences of single consonants plus vowels, a set of three numbers (1, 10, 100), one word divider, and eight ideograms. It is essentially alphabetic in nature.

While the letters may look like Sumero-Akkadian cuneiform, only one, L, derives from that script. (L didn't occur in native Old Persian words, but was found in Akkadian borrowings.) Scholars today mostly agree that the Old Persian script was invented by about 525 BC to provide monumental inscriptions for the Achaemenid king Darius I.

Although based on a logo-syllabic prototype, the system is essentially alphabetic in character. 13 out of 22 consonants are invariant, regardless of the following vowel (that is, they are alphabetic), while only 6 have a distinct form for each consonant-vowel combination (that is, they are syllablic), and among these, only d and m occur in three forms for all three vowels. (k, g, j, v only occur before two of the vowels, and so only have two forms.) In addition, 3 consonants, t, n, r, are partially syllabic, having the same form before a and i, and a distinct form only before u. For instance, =< could be na or ni, whereas <<= is specifically nu. Ambiguous syllables such as =< na/ni must be followed by a vowel for clarification, but in practice even unambiguous syllables such as <<= nu, or fully syllabic ma, mi, mu, are followed by explicit vowels.

The effect is not unlike the English sound, which is typically written g before i or e, but j before other vowels (gem, jam), or the Castillian Spanish sound, which is written c before i or e and z before other vowels (cinco, zapato). It is more accurate to say that some of the Old Persian consonants are written by different letters depending on the following vowel, rather than classifying the script as syllabic. This situation had its origin in the Assyrian cuneiform syllabary, where several syllabic distinctions had been lost and were often clarified with explicit vowels. However, in the case of Assyrian, the vowel was not always used, and was never used where not needed, so the system remained (logo-)syllabic.

For a while it was speculated that the alphabet could have had its origin in such a system, with a leveling of consonant signs a millennium earlier producing something like the Ugaritic alphabet, but today it is generally accepted that the Semitic alphabet arose from Egyptian hieroglyphs, where vowel notation was not important. (See Middle Bronze Age alphabets.)

See also

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