The Story of Language in Iran—10 Objects from Epic Iran at the V&A, Part 2

The Story of Language in Iran—10 Objects from Epic Iran at the V&A, Part 2

The Arrival of Indo-European Languages

Foundation Slab: 522-486 BCE

Susa, Iran
Musée du Louvre, Paris

Found during 19th-century excavations, this slab is inscribed in Old Persian cuneiform with what is known as the foundation inscription of Darius I. In this unique inscription Darius describes the construction of his palace and gives valuable information about bringing workmen and materials from across the Empire to complete it. The materials included cedars from Lebanon and silver and ebony from Egypt, and the workmen included Median and Egyptian goldsmiths.

Recently we began a series of posts looking at 10 objects from Epic Iran, the new exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, co-organised by the Iran Heritage foundation. For our first object, we looked at a Proto-Elamite tablet, an example of some of the oldest writing found anywhere in the world, we considered the nature of the earliest writing systems, and what they were used for. On a level, we saw the earliest material evidence of any language anywhere in the world; on another level, these earliest tablets were products of business administration, accounting and mathematics. Language, with verbs and nouns arrived in material form only later, having, in a sense, appropriated this new technology. The one proper language we did touch on, Elamite, is the language spoken by the possible descendants of the people who wrote the Proto-Elamite tablets, but this link is far from clear as it only appears in writing centuries later, using a different writing system adapted from neighbouring Mesopotamia. It is certainly the first written language-proper we find in material form in Iran, but sadly, from a linguistic perspective, it also presents us with a cul-de-sac, with no clear link to any other languages, and certainly not the later languages we come to think of as ‘Iranian’, the ancestors of Persian.

This week, I want to go further, and talk about how languages are spoken, and therefore evolve, and how this gives us the first glimpse of the Persian we are ultimately concerned with on this website. To do that, I want to look at another object from Epic Iran, an inscribed foundation slab with a text in Old Persian. This object was made much later, nearly 2000 years later in fact, than our Proto-Elamite tablet, but the language written on it gives us access to a vast linguistic history, like an archaeological site in itself, containing linguistic artefacts pointing back to something even older than the Proto-Elamite tablet, and pointing forward, to the Persian spoken today in Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan.

46% of the world’s population today speak languages that can be traced back to a single linguistic community that most likely lived in the east of modern-day Ukraine—that is to say, they speak an Indo-European language. The language this linguistic community spoke, probably about 6000 years ago, is not known from any texts, and in fact it probably predates the tablet we discussed last time, therefore predating the invention of writing. The only evidence we have of it comes from the many languages it became. As the original linguistic community grew—perhaps through the movement of people themselves, but probably also through the adoption of the language by new and neighbouring communities—groups of speakers within it grew further and further apart, eventually becoming geographically separated. As we still see today, once these communities were cut off from each other they developed their own accents, quirks of speaking, which over time became so extreme as to be called new languages in their own right. Modern Persian is one of those languages, as is English, German, French, Latin, Greek, Armenian, Kurdish, Sanskrit, Hindi, Urdu. The list goes on, until you have that list of languages, the speakers of which account for 46% of the world’s population.

It is worth emphasizing that ‘linguistic community’, no more, no less, is exactly what we are talking about. The idea of a ‘people’, can only mean the people who spoke these languages and we should exercise the same caution in projecting a political or ethnic unity on to them as we would any modern population defined by language. In fact, since the only evidence we have for this community is linguistic in nature, we are, in our method, limited to talking about the language, and how it travelled. To what extent people, ethnicity and genes travelled with it, regardless of whether one even finds this interesting, cannot be seen this way. As is often the way with these things, the story is, anyway, probably a complex mixture of both.

The key thing is that, while these new languages travelled very far and became very different from their oldest common ancestor, they didn’t change beyond recognition. Most students, when noticing that English speakers say ‘mother’ and Persian speakers say ‘مادر/madar’, are struck by some kind of connection. In fact, one can take this observation even further and compare which sounds have survived in both cases, the ‘m’ at the beginning, for example. You can therefore tentatively reconstruct the single word the English and Persian must both be descended from—from these two examples, for instance, you can imagine a word meaning ‘mother’, beginning with ‘m’. If you take the number of Indo-European languages and words that can be compared, add to this a set of quite regular rules that govern how sounds in words change over time, and then also their grammar, you can imagine how complex this method can become, even quite dry. It produces in its results, however, a shimmering and ethereal ghost of a language we will never hear or read directly, but we know must have existed: Proto-Indo-European.

This brings us to our inscribed foundation slab, what makes it so interesting to this story? After the Proto-Elamite and Elamite cultures discussed in the last post, this inscription represents, in our story, the arrival of these Indo-European languages in Iran, specifically the Iranian branch of the Indo-Iranian languages. The inscription itself is in a cuneiform script—clearly inspired by earlier Elamite inscriptions, but with sign values are more or less completely different, adapted to represent a new language from a completely new family. Achaemenid inscriptions are some of the earliest direct material records of Iranian languages, but their spread in Iran probably began 500 years earlier. The plural, Iranian languages, is of course deliberate, as Old Persian, the direct ancestor of Modern Persian, is one of several Iranian languages that appear in Iran that include Median and Scythian. This inscribed foundation slab also stands for the Achaemenid empire, this vast political entity that appeared in the west of Iran, ruled by an aristocracy who called themselves by a new name: not Elamite, but Iranian. In this particular inscription, Darius I describes the construction of his palace at Susa, going into extensive detail around the materials used, and the workers he brought to construct it from across the empire, from Egypt to modern-day Pakistan.

The other great Iranian language that must have appeared in Iran at around this same point in our story, is the language of Zoroastrian scripture: Avestan. To find an example of Avestan in Epic Iran, one must look much later in the exhibition, jumping forward another 2000 years to a manuscript produced in Yazd in 1647. Avestan is known to us exclusively through the Avesta, the holy text of Zoroastrianism, and this text, while it was probably composed in around 1000 BCE, was not written down until much later, passed down instead through an oral tradition. It may be that earlier manuscripts of the Avesta existed, but it is the Sassanians, who were the first dynasty to officially adopt Zoroastrianism as a state religion, who provide us with the earliest extant manuscripts of the Avesta, in an adapted form of their Pahlavi script. And here, it seems only about a quarter of the original text survived. The Avesta is especially interesting for us, however, in understanding the Indo-European language family, as it is incredibly close to the Sanskrit of the oldest Vedas, ancient hymns that are the earliest holy texts of the Hindu traditions in India. The suggestion is that the closeness of these too languages can only mean that a single linguistic community, likely in Central Asia, must have existed only a little while before these texts were composed, which subsequently split into the Indic and Iranian language families.

Zoroastrian manuscript 1647 CE

Yazd, Kerman province, Iran
Black and red ink on paper, 40 × 26 cm
British Library, RSPA 230, folio 151v-2r Incorporated 1982

From the Epic Iran catalogue: Written in Avestan, this manuscript copy of the Videvdad Sadeh, a Zoroastrian law book, describes the nine-night purification ritual to be undergone by anybody who has come into contact with a dead body. The ritual would have been recited and performed by a priest inside a fire temple. This copy was made in Yazd for a Zoroastrian of Kerman in 1647. The seven coloured illustrations in this manuscript are all of trees. This manuscript was donated to the Royal Society of London by Burjorji Sorabji Ashburner of Bombay between 1864 and 1866, and was then transferred to the India Office in 1876. It was incorporated in the British Library collection in 1982.

As we have already touched on, how languages travel—whether through the movement of people, or through existing communities adopting new languages—is not straightforward. This complicated picture is ultimately supported by the objects found in Epic Iran which display a multitude of languages all associated with the Achaemenid empire. Not only is Old Persian one of several Iranian languages attested at the time, but it clearly did not replace the languages that came before it, such as Elamite, overnight. In fact, the Persian Empire itself made use of several languages in parallel; while Old Persian is often the language used for monumental inscriptions in places like تخت جمشید/Persepolis, the vast ancient complex near Shiraz, the administrative tablets that have been found there are still in Elamite. As we have also touched on, and as is evidenced in the very inscription we are looking at, the Achaemenid empire was a vast entity ruling over people of many cultures, many ethnic groups, and yes, many languages. In our next post we will be looking at probably the most iconic symbol of ancient Iran: the Cyrus Cylinder—an object that represents perhaps better than any other the political subtlety of language, and the complex linguistic reality of this early “Persianate” world.


Leonard Gethin
Persian Language Online coordinator at IHF

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