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Classification. Indo-European, Indo-Iranian, Middle Iranian, Eastern. Sogdian is related to other Middle Iranian languages of Central Asia like Chorasmian, Khotanese and Tumshuqese.

Overview. Sogdian was an international language of Central Asia widely used along the Silk Road for trade and religious proselytism during a good part of the first millennium CE.

Distribution. It was native from Sogdiana, a land between the mighty rivers Amur Darya and Syr Darya, now belonging to southern Uzbekistan and Western Tajikistan, of which the most important cities were Samarkand and Bukhara. Sogdian was carried by merchants, Manicheans and Christians into the Chinese Turkestan, China and Mongolia.

Status. Extinct. Though the Sogdians were already mentioned by the Achaemenids, their language is documented only from the 4th century CE up to the 9th.

Main Documents

  1. Five ancient letters, discovered in Chinese Turkestan, near Dunghuang, written in the 4th century CE dealing with commercial and personal matters.

  1. Graffiti left by merchants along the Karakorum Highway in North Pakistan.

  1. Sogdian-Sanskrit bilingual inscription of Bugut, the earliest document of the first Türk Khaganate, inscribed towards 590 CE.

  1. Letters, administrative and legal documents from Mount Mug in northern Tajikistan, part of the archive of Diwästich, the last local ruler of Samarkand.

  1. A trilingual inscription (Sogdian-Chinese-Uighur) from the beginning of the 9th c. from Karabalghasun (capital of the Uighurs in Mongolia).

  1. Buddhist texts from Dunhuang.

  1. Manichean and Christian texts from Turfan.

  1. Translations of religious texts: Buddhist from Chinese, Manicheans from Persian and Parthian, Christian from Syriac.

  1. Coin inscriptions.


Vowels (11). The Sogdian vowel system included 6 short vowels, all of which, except schwa (ə), had long counterparts.


Vowel length was phonemic (it is indicated in transliteration by a macron i.e [a:] = ā, etc. Sogdian had also two diphthongs (āi, āu).

Consonants (19-27). Sogdian consonants were articulated at four points: labial, dental-alveolar, palatal and velar. The voiced stops and affricates became voiced fricatives and were only retained as such after nasalized vowels. The change was from: b → β, t → ð, dʒ → ʒ and g → ɣ.

    Besides voiced stops, there were other marginal phonemes (between brackets): [l] and [h] which appeared mostly in loanwords, and [ts] and [ŋ] which were inconsistently recognized in writing.


Scripts. Five different scripts were used to write Sogdian: Old Sogdian Aramaic, Sogdian-Uighur, Manichean, Nestorian Christian, and Northern Brāhmī.

  1. The Old Sogdian Aramaic script is used in the Ancient Letters and in graffiti on rocks along the Karakorum Highway in northern Pakistan.

  1. The Sogdian-Uighur script, a cursive variant of the above, is the most common, being preferred for secular documents, as well as for Buddhist and Manichean texts.

  1. The Manichean and Nestorian scripts were employed for Manichean and Christian texts, respectively.

  1. There are a small number of late Sogdian manuscripts from Turfan written in Northern Brāhmī script.

Except Brāhmī, these scripts derive from Aramean, a Semitic script, and their notation of vowels is imperfect or non-existent.

Morphology. Sogdian morphology is more conservative than that of Western Middle Iranian languages (Pahlavi, Parthian), as well as  than that of Bactrian.

  1. Nominal. Nouns, adjectives and pronouns were inflected for gender, number, and case.

  2. gender: masculine, feminine, neuter (rare with nouns but common with adjectives).

  1. number: singular, plural, numerative. The numerative is used for nouns (but not for adjectives) placed immediately after a numeral; it developed from the Old Iranian dual.

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

  2. These cases occur in light stems (having a short vowel) but in heavy stems (with a long vowel) the case system is reduced to an opposition between direct and oblique, besides the occasional vocative.

  3. Plural declension of light stems is common to all genders; its endings are those of the feminine singular but with the addition of the infix -t-. These are the declensional paradigms of three light-stem nouns:


  1. black: noun stem;

  2. blue: declensional endings; brown: plural marker.

  1. The numerative nominative/accusative forms are: rama, βaɣne, wane.

  1. The declension of heavy stems doesn't differentiate gender. Plural forms are marked, like in light stems, by the infix -t-. For example:

  1. black: noun stem;

  2. blue: declensional endings; brown: plural marker.

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

  2. Personal pronouns have independent and enclitic forms. They are inflected in just two cases: direct and oblique. The 3rd person independent pronouns are provided by the 'weak' demonstratives.

  1. Demonstratives are of two kinds: 'strong' and 'weak'. Strong demonstratives are the proper demonstrative pronouns while the weak demonstratives function as articles and 3rd person pronouns. Demonstratives are inflected in four cases (nominative, accusative, genitive-dative, locative) and distinguish three deictic degrees (proximal, intermediate, distal).

  1. Interrogative pronouns and adverbs can function also as relative pronouns and adverbs. The main ones are ke (who?), tʃu (what?) and katār/katām (which?). As a relative pronoun, ke is the most frequent being used for animate and inanimate antecedents. In contrast, tʃu is restricted to inanimate antecedents. The main interrogative-relative adverbs are (where?), kūtsā (to where?, whence?), kaða (when?), tʃānō (how?), tʃāf/tʃāfar (how much?).


  1. Verbal.

  2. person and number: 1s, 2s, 3s; 1p, 2p, 3p.

  1. tense: Sogdian verbs derive from three possible stems: present, imperfect and past.

  2. Present and imperfect are the primary tenses formed by attaching personal endings to their respective stems.

  3. Preterite and perfect are periphrastic. The preterite of intransitive verbs is formed by attaching the past stem to the inflected auxiliary verb 'to be'. That of transitive verbs by attaching it to the auxiliary 'to have'. The perfect is formed with an auxiliary verb + past participle.

  4. A future sense is conveyed by adding the suffix -kām to the present. A progressive sense by adding the particle -skun at the end of the inflected verb.

  1. aspect: imperfective, perfective.

  1. mood: indicative, imperative, optative, subjunctive, injunctive, irrealis. The irrealis mood denotes irreal or counterfactual situations.

  1. voice: active, middle, passive. The passive voice is formed by the past participle + auxiliary verb.

  1. non-finite forms: infinitive (present and past), verbal noun, gerund (an action preceding another), present participle (an ongoing action), past passive participle, gerundive (obligation or necessity).


The unmarked order in Sogdian is Subject-Object-Verb, but the verb in initial position is also found. As most Sogdian texts are translations from other languages, their word order tends to mimic those of the originals. In noun phrases, articles, demonstratives, possessor nouns and adjectives precede the head noun. Adverbs usually stand before verbs or objects of verbs.


The core vocabulary of Sogdian is typically East Iranian. Sanskrit loan-words abound in Buddhist texts, and Syriac loans in Christian texts.

Basic Vocabulary

one: ēw

two: ǝðu

three: ǝθrē

ten: ðǝsa:

twelve:  ðǝwātǝs

hundred: stu

god: βǝγ:

man: martij

father: pǝtǝr

mother: māt

brother: βrāt

sister: xwār

son: zātē

daughter: ðuγt

horse: ǝsp

foot: pað

heart: ʒyāwǝr

  1. © 2013 Alejandro Gutman and Beatriz Avanzati                                                                               

Further Reading

  1. -A Grammar of Manichean Sogdian. I. Gershevitch. Blackwell (1954) .

  2. -'Sogdian'. N. Sims-Williams. In Compendium Linguarum Iranicarum, 173-192. R. Schmitt (ed). Reichert (1989).

  3. -The Sogdian Ancient Letters 1, 2, 3, and 5. N. Sims-Williams. Available online at:


  5. -Sogdian Letters. A History. É. de la Vaissière. Translator: J. Ward. Brill (2005).

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