The Parthian language, also known as Arsacid Pahlavi and Pahlawānīg, is a now-extinct ancient Northwestern Iranian language spoken in Parthia, a region of northeastern ancient Iran. Parthian was the language of state of the Arsacid Parthian Empire (248 BC – 224 AD), as well as of its eponymous branches of the Arsacid dynasty of Armenia, Arsacid dynasty of Iberia, and the Arsacid dynasty of Caucasian Albania.
This language had a huge impact on Armenian, a large part of whose vocabulary was formed primarily from borrowings from Parthian. Many ancient Parthian words were preserved, and now can be seen only in Armenian.
Parthian was a Western Middle Iranian language. Language contact made it share some features of the Eastern Iranian language group, the influence of which is attested primarily in loanwords. Some traces of Eastern influence survive in Parthian loanwords in Armenian.
The Parthian language was rendered using the Pahlavi writing system, which had two essential characteristics: First, its script derived from Aramaic, the script (and language) of the Achaemenid chancellery (i.e. Imperial Aramaic). Second, it had a high incidence of Aramaic words, rendered as ideograms or logograms, that is, they were written Aramaic words but understood as Parthian ones (See Arsacid Pahlavi for details).
The Parthian language was the language of the old Satrapy of Parthia and was used in the Arsacids courts. The main sources for Parthian are the few remaining inscriptions from Nisa and Hecatompylos, Manichaean texts, Sasanian multi-lingual inscriptions, and remains of Parthian literature in the succeeding Middle Persian. Among these, the Manichaean texts, composed shortly after the demise of the Parthian power, play an important role for reconstructing the Parthian language. These Manichaean manuscripts contain no ideograms.
This sample of Parthian literature is taken from a Manichaean text fragment:
Although Parthian was quite similar to Middle Persian in many aspects, we can still observe clear differences in lexical, morphological and phonological forms. In the text above, the following forms can be noticed:
Other prominent differences, not found in the text above, include the personal pronoun ⟨az⟩, I, instead of ⟨an⟩ and the present tense root of the verb ⟨kardan⟩, to do, ⟨kar-⟩ instead of Middle Persian ⟨kun-⟩. Also, the Middle Persian linking particle and relative pronoun ⟨ī(g)⟩ was not present in Parthian, but the relative pronoun ⟨čē⟩, what, was used in a similar manner.
In 224 AD, Ardashir I, the local ruler of Pars, deposed and replaced Artabanus IV, the last Parthian Emperor, and founded the fourth Iranian dynasty, and the second Persian dynasty, the Sassanian Empire. Parthian was then succeeded by Middle Persian, which when written is known as Sasanian Pahlavi. Parthian did not die out immediately, but remains attested in a few bi-lingual inscriptions from the Sasanian era.