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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.

Arsacid Pahlavi
Native toParthian Empire (incl. Arsacid dynasty of Armenia, Arsacid dynasty of Iberia and Arsacid Dynasty of Caucasian Albania)
RegionParthia, ancient Iran
EraState language 248 BC – 224 AD. Marginalized by Middle Persian from the 3rd century, though longer existent in the Caucasus due to several eponymous branches
Inscriptional Parthian, Manichaean alphabet
Language codes
ISO 639-3xpr

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.[2]

Taxonomically, Parthian, an Indo-European language, belongs to the Northwestern Iranian language group while Middle Persian belongs to the Southwestern Iranian language group.[3][4]

Written ParthianEdit

The Parthian language was rendered using the Pahlavi writing system, which had two essential characteristics: First, its script derived from Aramaic,[5] 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 Hecatompolis, Manichaean texts, Sasanian multi-lingual inscriptions, and remains of Parthian literature in the succeeding Middle Persian.[6] Among these, the Manichaean texts, composed shortly after the demise of the Parthian power, play an important role for reconstructing the Parthian language.[7] These Manichaean manuscripts contain no ideograms.


Attestations of the Parthian language include:[8]


This sample of Parthian literature is taken from a Manichaean text fragment[12]:

A fragment from Mani’s own account of his life
Parthian English
Āγad hēm Parwān-Šāh, u-m wāxt ku: Drōd abar tō až yazdān.

Šāh wāxt ku: Až ku ay? – Man wāxt ku: Bizišk hēm až Bābel

zamīg. [...] ud pad hamāg tanbār hō kanīžag društ būd. Pad

wuzurg šādīft ō man wāxt ku: Až ku ay tū, man baγ ud anǰīwag?

I came to the Parwan-Shah and said: "Benidictions ⟨be⟩ upon you from the gods (in honorific

Plural)!" The Shah said: "From where are you?" I said: "I am a physician from the land

of Babylon." [Fragment missing in which Mani seems to describe his miraculous

healing of the Shah's handmaiden] and in ⟨her⟩ whole body the handmaiden

became healthy ⟨again⟩. ⟨The Shah⟩ in great joy said to me: "From where are you,

my lord and saviour?"

Differences from Middle PersianEdit

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:

  • ⟨āγad⟩, came, instead of Middle Persian ⟨āyad⟩.
  • ⟨wāxt⟩, said, instead of ⟨gōft⟩. This form for the verb to say can still be found in many contemporary Northwestern Iranian languages, e.g. Mazandarani ⟨vātεn⟩ or Zazaki ⟨vatış; vaten⟩. It is also common in Tati and Talysh, though not in Gilaki, Kurmanji or Sorani.
  • ⟨až⟩, from, instead of ⟨az⟩. Observe also in ⟨kanīžag⟩, handmaiden, instead of ⟨kanīzag⟩ and even in ⟨društ⟩, healthy, instead of ⟨drust⟩. The rendering of the Persian sound /z/ as /ʒ/, /tʃ / or /dʒ/ is also very common in Northwestern Iranian languages of today.
  • ⟨ay⟩, you are (Singular), instead of ⟨hē⟩.
  • ⟨zamīg⟩, land, instead of ⟨zamīn⟩. The form ⟨zamīg⟩ can be found in Balochi. The form <zamin> can be found in Persian.
  • ⟨hō⟩, that or the, instead of ⟨(h)ān⟩.
  • The abstractive nominal suffix ⟨-īft⟩ instead of ⟨-īh⟩, as in ⟨šādīft⟩, joy, Middle Persian ⟨šādīh⟩.

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.[13]


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.

See alsoEdit



  1. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Parthian". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  2. ^ Lecoq, Pierre (1983). "Aparna". Encyclopedia Iranica. 1. Costa Mesa: Mazda Pub.
  3. ^ "Iranian languages". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2017-09-20.
  4. ^ "Iran Chamber Society: History of Iran: Parthian History and Language". Retrieved 2017-09-20.
  5. ^ "Iran Chamber Society: Iranian Scripts: Parthian Script". Retrieved 21 March 2018.
  6. ^ "Parthian language". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2017-09-20.
  7. ^ Josef Wiesehfer, "Ancient Persia: From 550 Bc to 650 A.D.", translated by Azizeh Azado, I.B. Tauris, 2001. p. 118.
  8. ^ Tafazzoli, A.; Khromov, A.L. "Sasanian Iran: Intellectual Life" in History of civilizations of Central Asia, UNESCO, 1996. Volume 3
  9. ^ A. D. H. Bivar (1981). "The Second Parthian Ostracon from Qubmis (Qubmis Commentaries No. 3)". Journal of the British Institute of Persian Studies. 19 (1): 81–84. doi:10.1080/05786967.1981.11834270.
  10. ^ The Bilingual Inscription of Vologeses son of Mithridates
  11. ^
  12. ^ "Manichaean Reader, Part No. 4: A fragment from Maniʼs own account of his life".
  13. ^ Sims-Williams, Nicholas (2004). Corpus Fontium Manichaerum: Dictionary of Manichaean Texts, Vol. III, Part 1: Dictionary of Manichaen Middle Persian and Parthian. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols. p. 129. ISBN 2-503-51776-5.


  • Lecoq, Pierre (1983). "Aparna". Encyclopedia Iranica. 1. Costa Mesa: Mazda Pub.
  • Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Parthia" . Encyclopædia Britannica. 20 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 871.
  • Boyce, Mary; Ghirshman, R. (1979). "Review: R. Ghirshman's L'Iran et la Migration des Indo-Aryens et des Iraniens". Of the American Oriental Society. Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 99, No. 1. 99 (1): 119–120. doi:10.2307/598967. JSTOR 598967.

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