The Story of Language in Iran—10 Objects from Epic Iran at the V&A, Part 1

The Story of Language in Iran—10 Objects from Epic Iran at the V&A, Part 1

Persian Language Online is a flagship project of the Iran Heritage Foundation, which is proud to have co-organised Epic Iran, a major exhibition currently showing at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Open until September 2021, Epic Iran explores 5,000 years of Iranian art, design and culture, bringing together more than 300 objects from ancient, Islamic and contemporary Iran. It is the UK’s first major exhibition in 90 years to present an overarching narrative of Iran from 3000 BC to the present day.

It has been a privilege to see up close the development of something so significant to the public understanding of Iranian history and culture which, naturally, complements the aims of our own website. However, many of our users are spread throughout the world and sadly may not be able to visit the exhibition in person. Therefore, over the next few months as the exhibition is running, Persian Language Online would like to share a series of articles, each taking a closer look at an object on display at the exhibition. We hope this way as many people as possible can benefit from this special event, and for those who are able to come, we hope it can enrich the experience.

We also want to remind people of our own subject: language. Arguably language is the common thread that allows an exhibition like this to take place, linking objects from over 5,000 years and covering an area beyond the modern country, which is often and tellingly called the Persianate world.

Over the coming months we will look at ten objects from Epic Iran, from across all three of its sections: Ancient, Islamic and contemporary. These will include clay tablets, illustrated manuscripts, and recent multimedia pieces by Iranian artists. All of these objects, in some way, relate to language, but not necessarily Persian. In fact, the exhibition displays objects relating to many different languages, but they are all in some way part of a story that has brought us to the language we teach today. By looking at some of the earliest writing recorded in the world, medieval manuscripts, and contemporary art showing what Persian means to its speakers today, Epic Iran, gives us a unique opportunity to consider the long history and diverse linguistic culture that surrounds and informs what we do on this website.

For our first object this week, we will be looking at some of the very first material traces of language anywhere in the world, with a Proto-Elamite Tablet from 3200-2900 BCE.

Proto-Elamite

Proto-Elamite tablet
about 3200-2900 BCE

Excavated at Tepe Sialk
Isfahan province, Iran
Clay, 6.2 × 8.3 cm
Musée du Louvre, Paris, AO 18173

From the Epic Iran catalogue: This numerical tablet is written in Proto- Elamite script that is not yet completely understood but apparently records the numbers of items in three batches of different substances. It provides evidence for a sophisticated accounting system at Tepe Sialk in central Iran in the Early Bronze Age.

No language can claim to have been spoken continuously for 5,000 years and still be recognisable—if languages are spoken, they must inevitably change. These changes are usually gradual and where one language ends and another begins can be very hard to locate, but Modern Persian is generally accepted to have around a 1000-year history. In fact, in this, Persian is already quite special, sitting at the upper limit of how long one language can reasonably be called one language. For example, Persian speakers in Iran, Tajikistan or Afghanistan today will understand pretty well Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh composed 1000 years ago (more on which later), but English speakers without specialist education will really struggle with The Canterbury Tales written only 600 years ago. Before we can even talk about the evolution of languages though, and identify something like an ancestor to our Modern Persian, we must talk about one of the oldest objects on display at the exhibition, and one of the first objects found in Iran that displays some kind of language: a Proto-Elamite tablet.

There is archaeological evidence of settled communities in Iran beginning 10,000 years ago, but it is with these tablets, which appear in about 3,200-2900 BCE, that we see the first writing. With writing, it could be argued that recorded history proper begins, and this, in turn, is where Epic Iran begins. Writing in the Middle-East seems to have developed at around the same time in several places. There are the first Hieroglyphs in Ancient Egypt, a system called Proto-Cuneiform in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) and in the south-west of modern-day Iran, these tablets, with a writing system called Proto-Elamite. It’s not fully known whether this new technology, writing, was invented in one place and then spread, or happened in several places independently. These three earliest writing systems do, however, show some kind of connection, but this could also come from later contact.

The script on this ‘Proto-Elamite’ tablet is still not completely understood, but from what can be deciphered, the tablets seem to describe transactions—recording the exchange of animals, food and the payment of workers. In fact, this is something else that the first writing systems found in the Middle-East seem to have in common, developing not to tell stories or compose poetry, but to keep track of complex economic transactions. In that sense, it is probably wrong to think of this earliest writing as representing language per se, as we speak it, with syntax and grammar—perhaps these tablets could be thought of more like ancient Excel spreadsheets, than texts made up of sentences. This also makes it difficult to know what to call this proto-script, as it is impossible to associate it directly with any language or linguistic culture. It is thought that there is some continuity between the people in Iran who produced these tablets, and the later culture and language called Elamite, hence the name Proto-Elamite, but what obscures the connection even further, is that the Proto-Elamite script disappears quite soon after its invention, and in fact for about 500-600 years, no writing at all is attested in Iran.

Brick with Elamite incscription
about 1340-1300 BCE

Excavated at Susa,
Khuzestan province, Iran
Clay, 38.5 × 17.5 × 9 cm
Musées royaux d’Art et d’Histoire, Brussels, IR.2

From the Epic Iran catalogue: This baked brick with Elamite inscription was excavated at Susa by Jacques de Morgan and acquired by the Royal Museums in Brussels in 1908. The inscription records that Untash-Napirisha, son of Humban-numena, king of Anshan and Susa, has built for the god Sin a temple in baked brick and has placed therein a gold statue of Sin and asks for prosperity and long life for himself and his dynasty. Untash-Napirisha’s reign as king of Elam would last for some 40 years. His name derives from that of the Elamite deity Napirisha.

When writing reappears in Iran, it is as Elamite cuneiform. Where Proto-Elamite disappeared, Proto-Cuneiform in ancient Mesopotamia survived and developed into scripts used to write a variety of ancient languages, including Akkadian and Sumerian, it was these scripts that, in turn, were borrowed and adapted by the civilization in Iran known as the Elamites. With its wedge-shaped marks, cuneiform has a distinctive look and, indeed, this is how it gets its name—from the Latin, cuneus, meaning wedge. This video from the British Museum gives a nice demonstration of how it was written by pressing a cut reed (in fact, in this case I think it’s the stick from an ice-lolly) into wet clay.

Most importantly for us, the Elamite cuneiform script is fully deciphered, and it is also, for the most part, syllabic, meaning that sounds are represented (the Proto-Elamite tablets seem to be logographic, meaning, crudely, that the symbols represent things rather than sounds). For the first time, we can directly link a writing system to a spoken language and a distinct linguistic culture in ancient Iran, and we can begin in earnest, to get meaningful answers about the first languages that were spoken in Iran. Crucially, and this is perhaps in equal parts exciting and disappointing for our project, as far as anyone can tell, Elamite is unrelated to any language we have a record for. If we are trying to trace the idea we began with, the origin through drift and evolution of languages, and the ancestor to the Persian we teach on this website today, Elamite is not our candidate. These tablets do however represent a sophisticated, and literary culture very early in Iran. The archaeological work at the beginning of the 20th century that first uncovered what appear to be some of the earliest complex civilizations in the Middle-East, and the world, focused largely on Egypt and Iraq. Here Epic Iran has been able to draw on more recent discoveries and scholarship to show how central Iran was in one of the most significant inventions in human history, writing.

To find the true ancestor to Persian, however, we must look outside of Iran, to a migrating linguistic community, probably originating somewhere in the west of modern-day Russia. How this community, or forms of its language at least, came to Iran will be the subject of our next post, as we continue our tour of Epic Iran and look at an inscription in Old Persian, the true ancestor to Modern Persian. That inscription, however, is in the cuneiform writing system (but with different sign values) that speakers of Elamite first adopted in Iran.

—For those who are interested in finding out more about Tepe Sialk, the site in Iran, near Kashan, where this Proto-Elamite tablet was found, the Iran Heritage Foundation has published a book, the result of three academic conferences about the site, also organised by IHF. You can, purchase the book, or read it online for free, at https://www.iranheritage.org/tappeh-sialk-book.html

Leonard Gethin
Persian Language Online coordinator at IHF

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