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Classification: Indo-European, Indo-Iranian, Old Iranian.

Overview. Avestan is one of the two attested Old Iranian languages (the other is Old Persian). It is preserved in the Avesta, the sacred text of ancient Iranian religion, and is closely related to Sanskrit. It has a very rich and complex morphology.

Distribution. Formerly, in eastern Iran.

Status. Extinct. The earliest form of Avestan is recorded in the oldest parts of the Avesta which go back, perhaps, to 900 BCE. The language ceased to be spoken about 400 BCE, but it was preserved through oral tradition until it was written down about 800 years later.

Oldest Document. It is the Avesta, the sacred book of Zoroastrian religion, a collection of texts transmitted first orally and then written down under the Sassanian dynasty in the 4th century CE. Only parts of the Avesta have survived and all its extant manuscripts derive from a single precursor. The most ancient section of the Avesta includes the Gāthās, attributed to Zoroaster himself, dating between 900-600 BCE.                                               

Language periods and Varieties. Old Avestan, attested in the Gāthās, and Young Avestan, attested in other sections of the Avesta, are the two, not strictly chronological, stages of the language.   

Phonology (Young Avestan)

Vowels. Avestan had six short vowels and seven long ones plus several diphthongs. [a] and [a:] had nasalized varieties.

  1. a)Monophthongs (13):


  1. b)Diphthongs (5):  ae:  ao  a:i  a:u  o:i.

Consonants (33). Avestan does not have aspirated stops as most old Indo-European languages, but in compensation has a large number of fricatives. This is the result of several phonological changes.            

    The voiceless aspirated stops of Proto-Indoeuropean evolved into the corresponding voiceless fricatives while the voiced aspirated stops lost their aspiration merging with the corresponding unaspirated voiced stops.

    The voiceless unaspirated stops  were preserved except before consonants where they developed into voiceless fricatives. Proto-Indo-European s became h before sonorants (vowels,  glides,  liquids or nasals).

    The velar voiceless fricative and the velar nasal have palatalized and labialized varieties (marked with an accent and a w superscript, respectively). Avestan has a rare voiceless nasal (usually nasals are voiced). The Proto-Indo-Iranian liquids [l] and [r] merged into [r].


Vowel gradation: was extensively used in stem formation and derivation.

Stress: was not marked in the script.

Script and Orthography

Avestan was written in an alphabetic script evolved from late Pahlavi writing which, in turn, derived from Aramaic. It was invented ad hoc, most likely in the 4th c. CE during Shapur II’s reign. Like in all Semitic alphabets, the direction of writing was from right to left. There is some redundancy in the script due to the representation of a number of allophones and the pronunciation of a few of the letters is uncertain. The Avestan alphabet has 53 characters (shown here from left to right for convenience); below each one its transliteration is shown as well as its equivalence in the International Phonetic Alphabet.



Avestan is an inflective language with a complex morphology.

  1. Nominal. Nouns, adjectives and pronouns are inflected for gender, number and case. Avestan preserved all of the eight cases of Proto-Indoeuropean as well as its three genders and numbers.

  1. gender: masculine, feminine, neuter.

  1. number: singular, dual, plural.

  1. case: nominative, vocative, accusative, instrumental, dative, ablative, genitive, locative.

  2. There are several types of nominal paradigms which can be divided between vocalic and consonant stems. These are the paradigms of the more frequent ones: a-stem aspa (masculine), ā-stem daenā (feminine), r-stem nar (masculine), s-stem manas (neuter):


  1. Note: * a not directly attested form;  — an unknown or non-existent form.

  1. pronouns: personal, demonstrative, relative, interrogative, indefinite.

  2. Personal pronouns have accented and enclitic forms. They are genderless and do not have a form for the 3rd person which is, usually, supplied by demonstrative pronouns. They are fully inflected (in 6 cases and 3 numbers) though several forms are not attested. A few 3rd person enclitics, that don't have nominative forms and distinguish two genders (masculine/feminine and neuter), are also known.


  1. Notes. The forms shown are a mixture of Old and Young Avestan forms. Those between brackets are enclitic.

  1. Avestan has four demonstrative pronouns which are fully inflected for case, gender and number. Of them, only ta ('this') is fully attested; its nominative forms are: / (m.s.), ta(n.s.), (f.s.), (m.p.), (n.p.), tā̊ (f.p.). The other pronouns are aēta ('this'), hvo ('this') and ayam ('that').

  1. The interrogative pronoun is and the relative is ya. They decline like the demonstratives.

  2. compounds: Avestan compound words have usually two members, including combinations of nouns, adjectives, past participles, adverbs and numerals. The three main types of Proto-Indoeuropean compounds, copulative, determinative and possessive, are attested in Avestan; the latter being particularly frequent.

  1. Verbal. Avestan verbs are marked for tense, mood, person, number and voice.

  2.     The fundamental unit of the verb is the root to which affixes are added to mark tense and mood. They are followed by personal endings encoding person, number and voice. From the root are built four different stem-types by modifications of the root (strengthening, reduplication) and/or attachment of a suffix to it. To the verbal stems (present, aorist, perfect, future) mood markers might be suffixed (subjunctive, optative) followed by one set of four possible personal endings (primary, secondary, perfect, imperative). The personal endings have separate forms for the active and middle voices.

  3.     The present of the indicative, of the optative, of the imperative and of the subjunctive, as well as the imperfect, are all based on the present stem. The aorist, the future and perfect have their own stems.

  1. person and number: Avestan distinguished three persons (1st, 2nd, 3rd) and three numbers (singular, dual, plural).

  1. tense: present, future, pluperfect, imperfect, aorist, perfect.

  2. Besides present and future, Avestan has four past tenses. The imperfect and aorist are marked by the prefix a (augment) attached to the root, but have different stems. The perfect stem is characterized by reduplication.

  3. There are four sets of personal endings: 'primary', 'secondary', imperative, perfect.

  4. The primary endings are used by the present and future of the indicative, and partly by the subjunctive.

  5. Secondary endings are used in the imperfect, aorist, and pluperfect of the indicative as well as in the injunctive, optative, and in part of the subjunctive.

  6. The perfect tense of the indicative has its own endings and the same happens with the imperative.

  1. Each set has specific forms for the active and middle voice. We show here the active endings of each set (excluding those of the dual number).

  1. Note: the imperative doesn't have 1st person forms. — means not attested.                          

  1. mood: indicative, subjunctive, optative, imperative, injunctive.

  2. The subjunctive employs a mixture of primary and secondary endings, and adds the mood marker a between the stem and the endings; it denotes intention or prospective action and, thus, has a future sense.

  3. The optative adds to the stem the iā/ī mood marker and expresses wishes, possibility or ability.

  4. The imperative has no mood marker and adds its own personal endings directly to the  stem. The injunctive is similar in formation to the imperfect but differs from it by the omission of the prefix a (augment); it is used for durative or iterative actions or states without specific time reference as well as for negative commands.

  1. aspect: perfective, imperfective, perfect. The perfective aspect refers to a single action in the past; it is expressed by the aorist. The imperfective aspect refers to an incomplete, ongoing action; it is expressed by the present and the imperfect. The perfect aspect refers to a completed action whose results continue to exist; it is expressed by the perfect and pluperfect.

  1. voice: active, middle, passive. Active and middle voices are marked by active and middle personal endings. Some verbs have only active voice, others only middle, others both. The passive voice is expressed by adding the suffix iia/iya to the root followed by middle endings or, alternatively, by employing the past passive participle.

  1. derivative conjugations: causative, denominative (a verb derived from a noun).

  1. non-finite forms: infinitive, several active and middle participles derived from the present, aorist, perfect, and future stems, past participle, and gerundive.

  2. Present participlesactive and middle,  are formed by adding, respectively, the suffixes -at and -amna/-āna to the present stem. They indicate that an action is ongoing.

  3. The past participle is made by adding the suffix -ta to the root. It has a dual role, being partly a verb and partly an adjective (verbal adjective). Those from transitive verbs have a passive sense but those derived from intransitive verbs tend to have an active one. All participles are declined like nouns.

  4. The gerundive is a specialized participial form that expresses obligation or necessity.


Word-order is relatively free, though a number of limitations and constraints exist. Attributive adjectives agree with their nouns in case, gender and number and verbs agree with their subjects in person and number.

Basic Vocabulary

one: aēuua

two:  duua

three: θraii, tišr (fem)

four: caθβar/catur, cataŋra (fem)

five: paṇca

six: xšuuaš

seven: hapta

eight: ašta

nine: nauua

ten: dasa

hundred: sata

god: baya

man: mašīm, mašya

father:  pitar

mother:  mātar

brother: brātar

son: puθra

daughter: dugdar

horse: aspa

wood: dāuru

eye: čašman

heart: zrad

tongue:  hizvā

Key Literary Works

Avestan literature is coterminous with the Avesta which is a collection of texts transmitted orally until they were recorded in writing under the Sassanians. It has perdured in a fragmentary state and not every section of it has real literary value. Its most important sections are:

*Yasna ("sacrifice"), in 72 chapters, is a heterogeneous compilation of liturgical texts recited during the preparation and offering of the haoma, the sacred drink. Yasnas 28-53 are older constituting the Gāthas. They are attributed to Zarathustra and are the only part of the corpus clearly composed in verse.

*Yasts consists of 21 hymns to different deities. They are our main source about early Iranian religion, especially of the pre-Zoroastrian strata.

*The Videvdat, containing rules and regulations in 22 chapters, informs us about Zoroastrian ritual.

  1. © 2013 Alejandro Gutman and Beatriz Avanzati                                                                               

Further Reading

  1. -'Avestan'. M. Hale. In The Ancient Languages of Asia and the Americas, 101-122. R. D. Woodward (ed). Cambridge University Press (2008).

  2. -Avestische Laut und Flexionslehre. K. Hoffmann & B. Forssman. Innsbrucker Beiträge zur Sprachwissenschaft (1996).

  3. -Old Iranian Online. S. L. Harvey, W. P. Lehmann & J. Slocum. Linguistics Research Center. The University of Texas at Austin. Available at:


  5. -The Gāthās of Zarathustra. S. Insler. Brill (1975).

  6. -The Gāthās of Zarathustra (2 vols.). H. Humbach. Carl Winter (1991).

  7. -Les Textes Vieil-Avestiques. J. Kellens & E. Pirart. Ludwig Reichert (1988).

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