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

Overview. Old Persian was employed by the Achaemenid dynasty of Ancient Persia in their inscriptions. It is one of the two attested Old Iranian languages (the other is Avestan). Essentially epigraphic, it was unlike any spoken language.

Distribution. Formerly, in the Fars region of south-western Iran.

Status: Extinct. Documented from 520 to 330 BCE.

Oldest Documents. The oldest record of Old Persian is the Bisutun rock inscription of Darius I, chiseled at the foot of the Zagros mountains. Dating from c. 520 BCE, it registers the defeat and killing of the usurper Gaumata and the subsequent ascension of Darius to the throne. As most Achaemenid inscriptions, it is trilingual containing Old Persian, Elamite, and Babylonian versions.

    The great majority of the inscriptions belong to the reigns of Darius I (522-486 BCE) and Xerxes I (486-465 BCE). From Artaxerxes (465-425 BCE) they decrease in number and importance until they cease after Artaxerxes III (359-338 BCE). The later texts are plagued by grammatical faults, evidence of the progressive loss of understanding of the language.                                                    



  1. a)Monophthongs (6): three short (i, a, u), and three long vowels (ī, ā, ū).

  1. b)Diphthongs (4):  two short (ai, au), and two long diphthongs (āi, āu).

Consonants (22-23). The most remarkable feature of the consonantal system of Old Persian is the large number of fricatives (articulated at seven different places), most of which are voiceless. Consonant clusters are not allowed at the end of a word and only m, r, and ʃ occur at that position. The lateral liquid l is only attested in foreign names.


Vowel gradation: was extensively used in stem formation and derivation. It consisted in the strengthening of the vowels in the following manner:

  1. a  →  ā

  2. i  →  ai

  3. u  →  au

Stress: was not marked in the script.

Script and Orthography

    All the Old Persian texts are inscribed in a cuneiform syllabic script created ad hoc in the sixth century BCE. Its use was a royal prerogative and was restricted, mainly, to inscriptions. The Old Persian script consisted of 36 phonetic characters plus a few logograms for common words (which were used inconsistently). The majority of phonetic characters are syllabic though three represent the vowels of the language (a, i, u).

    The largest group of syllabic characters includes consonants with inherent vowel a which may be pronounced or not; thus the symbol for ka may actually represent [k] or [ka]. Two other groups of syllabic characters include consonants with inherent vowels i and u. In addition, there is a sign to separate words and signs for numerals. The script had a number of ambiguities and imperfections that difficult the reading of the inscriptions.

  1. [tʃ] is represented in transliteration as c.

  2. [dʒ] is represented in transliteration as j.

  3. [ʃ] is represented in transliteration as š.

  4. The sibilant [ʒ] does not have a separate character using the same sign as [dʒ].

  5. [w] is transliterated as v.

  6. [j] is transliterated as y.


Old Persian was an inflectional language. Nouns, adjectives and pronouns were inflected for gender, number and case, and verbs were conjugated. As the evidence left by the inscriptions is limited, it is only possible to draw a partial picture of the language's morphology.

  1. Nominal

  2. gender: masculine, feminine, neuter.

  1. number: singular, dual, plural.

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

  1. Seven of the eight cases of Proto-Indoeuropean are preserved, the dative (for indirect object) being absorbed by the genitive. The case system had also been simplified by blurring a number of formal distinctions among certain cases in some paradigms.

  2. Only the declension of words ending in a (masculine or neuter) and ā (feminine) is fully known (dual is not shown in the following paradigms).

  1. * not directly attested.

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

  1. Personal pronouns have accented and enclitic forms. They are genderless and don’t have a form for the 3rd person. For the latter, anaphoric pronouns which do not have a nominative case are used; they are enclitic and only masculine forms are attested ('he').

  1. Note: forms preceded by a dash are enclitic; a straight line means that the form is unattested.

  1. There are three demonstrative pronouns which distinguish gender and two deictic degrees: iyam (‘this’), aita (‘this’ [emphatic]) and hau (‘that’).

  1. The relative pronoun (‘who, which’) haya (taya in oblique cases) arose from the fusion of ancient demonstrative and relative pronouns: *sa/*ta  + *ya.

  1. The interrogative pronoun ka (‘who?/what?’) may be made indefinite (‘somebody, something’) by adding the particle -ci.

  1. compounds: Old Persian compound words contain two members. They are inherited from Proto-Indoeuropean but only two of its three main types have been attested: determinative and possessive. The copulative type is missing, perhaps due to the limited corpus of the language.

  1. Verbal. The verbal system inherited from Proto-Indoiranian (as attested in Sanskrit), has been simplified. The process is more evident in the reorganization of the tenses, which now are based mainly on the present stem, and the fading of aspectual distinctions.

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

  1. tense: present, imperfect, aorist (rare), perfect (extremely rare), periphrastic perfect.

  2. In the proto-language there were three past tenses (imperfect, aorist, perfect) which expressed different aspects, but in Old Persian the perfect is attested only once and the aorist rarely. Even when the aorist is attested, it has lost the aspectual distinction with the imperfect. The perfect is replaced by a new construction, the periphrastic perfect, in which the verb as (‘to be’) combines with the past passive participle to indicate that an action has been completed.

  1. The present of the indicative is made by adding 'primary endings' to the stem. The imperfect is based on the present stem but uses a different set of personal endings called 'secondary' and adds the prefix a to the stem (augment). A third set of personal endings are those of the imperative. Each set has active and middle voice forms (see voice).



  1. Note: a straight line means that the form is unattested; dual forms are not shown; the imperative has no 1st person forms.

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

  2. The subjunctive uses, like the present, 'primary endings' but differs from it by adding an a between the stem and the endings. The optative, like the imperfect, uses 'secondary endings' which are placed after the infix ī/iyā attached to the stem. The imperative adds its own personal endings to the present stem. The injunctive is restricted to prohibitive commands introduced by the negative particle .

  1. voice: Old Persian, like Sanskrit, had three voices, which is exceptional among Indo-European languages. The active and middle voices have their own personal endings. The middle voice was used, mainly, with intransitive verbs. The passive voice is formed by adding the affix -ya- to the root plus middle personal endings, or by employing the past passive participle.

  1. non-finite forms: infinitive, present active participle, present middle participle, past passive participle.

  2. The infinitive has one single form marked by the suffix -tanai.

  3. Present participles, active and middle, are made by adding the suffixes -nt and -mna, respectively,  to the present stem. They indicate that an action is ongoing.

  4. The past passive participle is formed by adding the suffix -ta to the root. It has a dual role, being partly a verb and partly an adjective (verbal adjective). It can be used in passive constructions or, combined with the copula, it may contribute to form the periphrastic perfect.


    Word order is essentially free but there is an underlying tendency towards Subject-Object-Verb. Frequently, the topic of the sentence is stated at its beginning and retaken later by a demonstrative pronoun or adverb. Relative clauses are common; they can be placed before or after the main one. The relative pronoun, besides its subordinating function, is used as the definite article.

    Nominal sentences without a verb are common because copulative verbs are normally omitted. Attributive adjectives agree with their nouns in case, gender and number and verbs agree with their subjects in person and number.


Old Persian has many borrowed words reflecting the multi-ethnic nature of the Achaemenid empire. Most of them are from Median, the language of the Medes who preceded them in the political arena. They form part of the terminology of government and administration. Other loanwords come from East Iranian languages and Elamite.

Basic Vocabulary

Knowledge of Old Persian vocabulary is limited. Most numerals are unknown because they are, generally, represented by their symbols.

one: aiva

three: çi

first: fratema

second: duvitīya

third: çitīya

ninth: navama

god: baga

man: martiya

king: xšāyaθiya

father: pitar

mother: mātar

brother: brātar

son: puça

daughter: duxθar

earth:  būmi

horse: aspa

wood: dāru

eye: čašman

hand: dasta

foot: pād

heart: anhuš

tongue: hazāna

  1. © 2013 Alejandro Gutman and Beatriz Avanzati                                                                               

Further Reading

  1. -'Old Persian'. R. Schmitt. In Ancient Languages of Asia and the Americas, 76-100. R. D. Woodward (ed). Cambridge University Press (2008).

  2. -Old Persian: Grammar, Texts, Lexicon (2nd edition). R. G. Kent. American Oriental Society (1953).

  3. -Handbuch des Altpersischen. W. Brandenstein & M. Mayrhofer. Otto Harrassowitz (1964).

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


  6. -An Introduction to Old Persian. P. O. Skjaervo (2002). Available online at:


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Old Persian

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