Middle Persian or Pahlavi, also known by its endonym Pārsīk or Pārsīg in its later form, is a Western Middle Iranian language which became the literary language of the Sasanian Empire. For some time after the Sasanian collapse, Middle Persian continued to function as a prestige language. It descended from Old Persian, the language of Achaemenid Empire and is the linguistic ancestor of Modern Persian, the official language of Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan.
"Middle Iranian" is the name given to middle stage of development of the numerous Iranian languages and dialects.:1 The middle stage of Iranian languages begins around 450 BCE and ends around 650 CE. One of those Middle Iranian languages is Middle Persian, i.e. the middle stage of the language of the Persians, an Iranian peoples of Persia proper, which lies in the south-western highlands on the border with Babylonia. The Persians called their language Parsik, meaning "Persian".
Another Middle Iranian language was Parthian, i.e. the language of the northwestern Iranian peoples of Parthia proper, which lies along the southern/south-eastern edge of the Caspian sea and is adjacent to the boundary between western and eastern Iranian languages. The Parthians called their language Parthawik, meaning "Parthian". Via regular sound changes Parthawik became Pahlawik, from which the word 'Pahlavi' eventually evolved. The -ik in parsik and parthawik was a regular Middle Iranian appurtenant suffix for "pertaining to". The New Persian equivalent of -ik is -i.
When the Arsacids (who were Parthians) came to power in the 3rd-century BCE, they inherited the use of written Greek (from the successors of Alexander the Great) as the language of government. Under the cultural influence of the Greeks (Hellenization), some Middle Iranian languages, such as Bactrian, also had begun to be written in Greek script. But yet other Middle Iranian languages began to be written in a script derived from Aramaic. This occurred primarily because written Aramaic had previously been the written language of government of the former Achaemenids, and the government scribes had carried that practice all over the empire. This practice had led to others adopting Imperial Aramaic as the language of communications, both between Iranians and non-Iranians, as well as between Iranians.:1251-1253 The transition from Imperial Aramaic to Middle Iranian took place very slowly, with a slow increase of more and more Iranian words so that Aramaic with Iranian elements gradually changed into Iranian with Aramaic elements.:1151 Under Arsacid hegemony, this Aramaic-derived writing system for Iranian languages came to be associated with the Parthians in particular (it may have originated in the Parthian chancellories:1151), and thus the writing system came to be called pahlavi "Parthian" too.:33
Aside from Parthian, Aramaic-derived writing was adopted for at least four other Middle Iranian languages, one of which was Middle Persian. In the 3rd-century CE, the Parthian Arsacids were overthrown by the Sassanids, who were natives of the south-west and thus spoke Middle Persian as their native language. Under Sassanid hegemony, the Middle Persian language became a prestige dialect and thus also came to be used by non-Persian Iranians. In the 7th-century, the Sassanids were overthrown by the Arabs. Under Arab influence, Iranian languages began be written in Arabic script (adapted to Iranian phonology), while Middle Persian began to rapidly evolve into New Persian and the name parsik became Arabicized farsi. Not all Iranians were comfortable with these Arabic-influenced developments, in particular, members of the literate elite, which in Sassanid times consisted primarily of Zoroastrian priests. Those former elites vigorously rejected what they perceived as 'Un-Iranian', and continued to use the "old" language (i.e. Middle Persian) and Aramaic-derived writing system.:33 In time, the name of the writing system, pahlavi "Parthian", began to be applied to the "old" Middle Persian language as well, thus distinguishing it from the "new" language, farsi.:32-33 Consequently, 'pahlavi' came to denote the particularly Zoroastrian, exclusively written, late form of Middle Persian. Since almost all surviving Middle Persian literature is in this particular late form of exclusively written Zoroastrian Middle Persian, in popular imagination the term 'Pahlavi' became synonymous with Middle Persian itself.
The ISO 639 language code for Middle Persian is pal, which reflects the post-Sasanian era use of the term Pahlavi to refer to the language and not only the script.
In the classification of the Iranian languages, the Middle Period includes those languages which were common in Iran from the fall of the Achaemenid Empire in the fourth century BCE up to the fall of the Sasanian Empire in the seventh century CE.
The most important and distinct development in the structure of Iranian languages of this period is the transformation from the synthetic form of the Old Period (Old Persian and Avestan) to an analytic form:
The modern-day descendant of Middle Persian is New Persian. The changes between late Middle and Early New Persian were very gradual, and in the 10th-11th centuries, Middle Persian texts were still intelligible to speakers of Early New Persian. However, there are definite differences that had taken place already by the 10th century:
Traces of Middle Persian are found in remnants of Sasanian inscriptions and Egyptian papyri, coins and seals, fragments of Manichaean writings, and treatises and Zoroastrian books from the Sasanian era, as well as in the post-Sasanian Zoroastrian variant of the language sometimes known as Pahlavi, which originally referred to the Pahlavi scripts, and that was also the preferred writing system for several other Middle Iranian languages. Aside from the Aramaic alphabet-derived Pahlavi script, Zoroastrian Middle Persian was occasionally also written in Pazend, a system derived from the Avestan alphabet that, unlike Pahlavi, indicated vowels and did not employ logograms. Manichaean Middle Persian texts were written in the Manichaean alphabet, which also derives from Aramaic but in an Eastern Iranian form via the Sogdian alphabet.
Pahlavi Middle Persian is the language of quite a large body of literature which details the traditions and prescriptions of Zoroastrianism, which was the state religion of Sasanian Iran (224 to c. 650) before the Muslim conquest of Persia. The earliest texts in Zoroastrian Middle Persian were probably written down in late Sasanian times (6th–7th centuries), although they represent the codification of earlier oral tradition. However, most texts, including the translated versions of the Zoroastrian canon, date from the ninth to the 11th century, when Middle Persian had long ceased to be a spoken language, so they reflect the state of affairs in living Middle Persian only indirectly. The surviving manuscripts are usually 14th-century copies. Other, less abundantly attested varieties are Manichaean Middle Persian, used for a sizable amount of Manichaean religious writings, including many theological texts, homilies and hymns (3rd–9th, possibly 13th century), and the Middle Persian of the Church of the East, evidenced in the Pahlavi Psalter (7th century); these were used until the beginning of the second millennium in many places in Central Asia, including Turpan and even localities in South India. All three differ minimally from one another and indeed the less ambiguous and archaizing scripts of the latter two have helped to elucidate some aspects of the Sasanian-era pronunciation of the former.
Below is transcription and translation of the first page of the facsimile known as Book of Arda Viraf, originally written in a Pahlavi script.
There are a number of phonological differences between Middle Persian and New Persian. The long vowels of Middle Persian did not survive in many present-day dialects. Also, initial consonant clusters were very common in Middle Persian (e.g. سپاس spās "thanks"). However, New Persian does not allow initial consonant clusters, whereas final consonant clusters are common (e.g. اسب asb "horse").
1 Since many long vowels of Middle Persian did not survive, a number of homophones were created in New Persian. For example, šir and šer, meaning "milk" and "lion", respectively, are now both pronounced šir. In this case, the correct pronunciation has been preserved in Kurdish and Tajiki.
There is a number of Persian loanwords in English, many of which can be traced to Middle Persian. The lexicon of Classical Arabic also contains many borrowings from Middle Persian. In such borrowings Iranian consonants that sound foreign to Arabic, g, č, p, and ž, have been replaced by q/k, j, š, f/b, and s/z. The exact Arabic renderings of the suffixes -ik/-ig and -ak/-ag is often used to deduce the different periods of borrowing. The following is a parallel word list of such terms: