An insatiable appetite for ancient and modern tongues

Alternative Name: Arsacid Pahlavi.

Classification. Indo-European, Indo-Iranian, Middle Iranian, Western.

Overview. Parthian was the official language of the Parthian empire (248 BCE-224 CE). Known from a limited number of inscriptions and documents, it was similar to Pahlavi (the prototypical Middle Iranian language), but sharing some features with the Eastern Iranian languages.

Distribution. Native from the province of Parthia, in northeastern Iran (Khorasan), it later spread to the entire Parthian empire.

Status. Extinct. Parthian was spoken between 300 BCE-600 CE. In some parts of Central Asia, like Turfan (an oasis in the Silk Road), Parthian lasted as a religious dead language until the 10th century.    

Main Documents

  1. 100 BCE. Around 3,000 ostraca from the Arsacid capital Nisa (Turkmenistan).

  1. c. 50 CE. Parchment from Awraman about the sale of a property.

  1. 150 CE. Bilingual inscription of Seleukia.

  1. 215 CE. Inscription of Ardavan V, found in Susa.

  1. 250 CE. The inscription at Kal-e Jangal.

  1. 3rd c. CE. Documents of Dura-Europos including graffiti, ostraca, and a fragment of a letter.

  1. 50-220 CE. Coins of the Parthian kings.

  1. 224-303 CE. Parthian versions of inscriptions left by the early Sasanian kings Ardashir I, Shapur I, and Narseh.

  1. 500-900 CE. Manichean texts found at Turfan, in the Chinese province of Xinjiang.                                                          

Phonology. Parthian phonology is imperfectly known but more or less similar to that of Pahlavi. Their vowel systems were probably identical, but the Parthian consonant system was a bit more complex having perhaps two more voiced fricatives, bilabial and dental, that contrasted with b and d, respectively.

Scripts. Parthian was written with the Parthian and Manichean scripts. The Parthian script (very similar to that used to write Pahlavi) was based on the Aramaic cursive script and, like it, lacked notation for vowels and was read from right to left. It  had only comparatively few letters and many ambiguities. A number of Aramaic-based logograms were used to write many verbs and certain words. The Manichean script was derived from Syriac Estrangelo with Sogdian influences and did not use Aramaic logograms.

Morphology. In contrast with the elaborate case and verbal systems of Old Iranian, Middle Iranian morphology was drastically simplified. Parthian morphology is similar to that of Pahlavi but its understanding is still quite limited.

Basic Vocabulary

one: ēw

two: dō

three: hrē

four: čafār

five: panǰ

six: šwah

seven: haft

eight: hašt

nine: nah

ten: das

hundred: sad

father: pid

mother: mādar

brother: brād, brādar

son: puhr

daughter: duxt/duxtar

eye: čašm

foot: pāδ

heart: dil

tongue: izβān

horse: asp


The only surviving texts of literary value are those found in Central Asia, Manichean in nature. Among them, excel the hymn cycles of the poet Mar Ammo (second half of 3rd century CE).

  1. © 2013 Alejandro Gutman and Beatriz Avanzati                                                                               

Further Reading

  1. -'Middle West Iranian'. P. O. Skjœrvø. In The Iranian Languages, 196-278. G. Windfuhr (ed). Routledge (2009).

  2. -'Parfjanskij jazyk'. V. S. Rastorgueva & E. K. Molcanova. In Osnovy iranskogo jazykoznanija: Sredneirankie jazyki, 147-232. Nauka (1981).

  3. -Essai sur la Langue Parthe. A. Ghilain. Bibliotheque du Museon, vol. 9. Louvain, Institut orientaliste and Publications universitaires  (1939).

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