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 Origin of the Indo-European languages: Part IV

Migratory routes, Iranian group, ancient Persian language, Avesta, Pahlavi and Sogdian languages


Hi, this is Andrés Muni again. First of all, an acknowledgement: The first part of the current document is a study of the Migratory Routes which is a compendium of the works by various authors: Thomas V. Gramkrelidze, V.V. Ivanov, Franz Bopp, etc.

My task has been that of compiling the works by those great scholars. Of course, I have added lots of things of my own creation.

The aforesaid study is to be appended to my first document (Origin of the Indo-European Languages -Part I-).


 Migratory routes

Within the period of 2000 years that had passed before the Indo-Europeans go into the annals of history, the success of the agricultural revolution brought about a population explosion in the Indo-European community. This pressure of the demographical growth was going to impel the emigration of successive wave of Indo-Europeans in search of fertile areas to cultivate. The linguistic shifting of the Indo-European home from northern Europe down to Asia Minor requires the review of the theories about the migratory routes by which the Indo-European languages were spread through Eurasia.

Map of migratory routes

Here we can see the different migrations. There are three Eastern branches: toward Central Asia, India and Iran. There are mainly two Western branches: one going directly toward Greece and the other surrounding the Caspian Sea. This surrounding branch has given rise to the most of Western languages.

Thus, the Indo-Iranians --by following the more probable route-- would have come out of Asia Minor. Then, by going round the spurs of the Himālaya-s, the Indo-Iranians would have gone through Afghanistan until they took up residence in India. Europe is, according to this statement, the destination and not the origin of the Indo-European migration.

People who spoke Hittite, Luwian and other Anatolian languages did short migrations without coming out of their native land. Therefore, their language died with them.

Within the third millenium BC, the main Indo-European idiomatic community is fragmented. Thus, the longest-ranged migrations, formed from people speaking Greek-Armenian-Indo-Iranian dialects, started.

Within the second millenium BC, two groups of Indo-Iranian-speaking people went to the East. One of them was formed from people who spoke Kafiri languages, which are still spoken in Nuristan --a territory situated near the sides of Hindu Kush, in northeastern Afghanistan--. The second group went into the Ganges valley. It was formed from people who spoke a dialect from which are derived the historical languages of India. Its most primitive literary background is contained in the hymns of Ṛgveda, which has been written in an ancient variant of Sanskrit. The indigenous populations of the Ganges valley, which are known by the archaeological findings in their capital city Mohenjo-Daro, were displaced by the Indo-Iranians.

After the separation of the Indo-Iranians and their departure to the East, the Greek-Armenian community stayed in its native country for some time. There, it kept in touch with those who spoke Kartvelian language, Tocharian and the old Indo-European languages that subsequently would evolve and become the historical European languages.

Recent archaeological discoveries confirm the Greeks' belief about their forefathers: that they had come from western Asia, which is referred to in the Legend of Jason and the Argonauts who fetched the Golden Fleece near the Black Sea. The confimation of that the Greeks would have come from there sheds new light on the study of the Greek colonies on the Black Sea's northern shores. Those colonies were very primitive settlements that the Greeks were establishing at the beginning of their migrations which would lastly lead them to their final country on the banks of the Aegean.

The historical European languages (those that left literary legacy) have many indications that the dialects from which they are derived travelled along with the Tocharians through the inside of Central Asia. The migration toward Central Asia of the populations who spoke some primitive Indo-European dialects has been proven by means of the words taken from the linguistic group Finno-Ugric, which gave rise to the modern Finnish and Hungarian languages, respectively. The Tocharian --influenced by the Finno-Ugric-- transformed completely its consonantal system.

Words of the old European languages that have been taken from some languages of Central Asia confirm that the people who spoke those languages actually lived there. The ancient European people, by going around toward the West, settled on the Black Sea's northern banks for some time. They formed a little compact federation. Since 2000 BC up to the beginning of the Christian Era, the populations who spoke the old European languages spread throughout Europe. The archaeology demonstrates this coming by the arrival of a seminomadic culture. People belonging to this culture used to bury their deceaseds in tombs covered with stones (which were known as "funeral tumuli"). The languages of the former inhabitants of Europe, except the Basque (a non-Indo-European language), were displaced by the Indo-European dialects.


 Iranian group

The Iranian group is almost as vast and important as the Indian group. It produced a religious language known as Zend, and two great vulgar languages known as Sogdian and Pahlavi (the latter will eventually develop and become the modern Persian language). They served as civilizing languages in a part of Asia, for centuries.

The history of the Iranian language is a difficult-to-trace one. Only isolated documents without any continuity are left of the ancient period in which this language evolved quickly. Besides, a large quantity of dialects were only known at the present time and by means of fragmentary news.

In more ancient times, the Iranian language appeared in two forms, both of them belonging to the Western Iranian branch. Their names are as follows: the ancient Persian and Zend languages.


 Ancient Persian language

It is the dialect of Persis, in the southwestern area of the Iranian territory. It is only known through the inscriptions of kings Darius (522-486) and Xerxes (486-466), which were written by using cuneiform characters. The subsequent inscriptions are rare and not very interesting. It is neither a literary language established previously nor a vulgar language, nor even a diplomatic one. It is simply a dialect that was the mother tongue of the sovereigns and the members of their families. They wanted to get the texts establishing their power and celebrating their heroic feats to be transcribed into this dialect.

The inscriptions of kings Darius and Xerxes are bilingual or even trilingual ones. Besides the ancient Persian language (which belonged to the conquering aristocracy), they are written in Elamitic language (which belonged to the Cyrus' kingdom -Cyrus was the founder of the dinasty-) and Babylonian language (an ancient Asian language). These inscriptions may be found in various zones of the empire: in Persepolis, in Nakhs-i-Rustem (Darius' tomb), in Suez, in Elvend, etc. The largest inscription is a trilingual one and is engraved on the foothill of a mountain located in Behistun (northeastern Kermanshah).


 Zend or Avesta language

It is the language of a religious text known as Avesta, whose origin in time and space is difficult to be traced. This work belonging to Mazdaism was finished approximately at the Sassanian period. The Sassanian people, with the object of giving a better support to their official religion, got a liturgical text written with literary passages of different times which sometimes were not properly linked to each other. On some occasions those very passages were completed by using additions. Thus, there are now two series of texts differing from one another in spelling, grammar and size (which is nos homogeneous at all).

On one hand, the "gāthās" (chants) --sometimes even more archaic than Ṛgveda--; and on the other hand, the Avesta itself, a large compendium written in a language lacking in perfect unity. The Avesta's text was firstly written by using a Semitic alphabet (Aramaic), and it was then transcribed by people without a definite tradition into the special writing that we can see nowadays. So, the scripture requieres a constant interpretation which is not safe sometimes. However, a meticulous examination of Zend language shows that this language stands for a dialectal form which is not far from ancient Persian language.

Media is the birthplace of Zoroaster --the founder of Mazdaism-- according to the legend. Zend language is considered to be born from a Northern dialect with respect to the ancient Persian language, but both of them are really joined together and belong to the Western Iranian group. Apart from the ancient Persian and Zend languages, there is no documentation on some other ancient Iranian language. A pity indeed, because the few words or names transmitted by the Greek from the Scythian language, reveal a very different linguistical state with regard to Persian and Median languages. In effect, Scythian language belonged to the Northern Iranian group (it was actually northwestern Iranian group though).


 Pahlavi language

Several centuries later, in the Christian Era, Iranian language reappears in a very evolved way which is called "middle Iranian language", of which Pahlavi is its most well-known form. Pahlavi language belongs to the Persian group and is a direct predecessor of the modern Persian language. Between ancient Persian, Pahlavi and Persian languages there are no differences but those that are the natural outcome of the linguistical development. Although ancient Persian language has some dialectal characteristics that are not in Pahlavi language, it is lastly the same language. Thus, the texts written in ancient Persian language may also be considered to be written in recent Pahlavi language. Nowadays we can only find a few inscriptions in Pahlavi language by Artachir (the founder of the Sassanian dinasty).

Pahlavi was the official language during Sassanian Empire (226-652 A.D.). Its writing is of Semitic origin (Aramaic); and the Semitic influence is also perceived in its pronunciation. Pahlavi language is known from Mazdaist texts which were kept by Indian and Persian followers of Zoroaster, as well as from Manichean texts found in Central Asia. The latter may be traced to Mani himself (3rd century A.D.) and were written in a language which is closer to everyday language than to Sassanian Pahlavi language. Semitic equivalents do not exist in the aforesaid Manichean texts. These Semitic equivalents may be easily found (disguised) in the Sassanian inscriptions. That is why those texts have proven a crucial means to understand Pahlavi language. The documents written in Northern Pahlavi and Sogdian languages belong to middle Iranian language too. The name "Northern Pahlavi language" is to be applied to two series of texts:

Handwritten texts They are of Manichean origin, but they have a dialectal form that differs from those previously referred to.
Epigraphic texts They are at the side of the official Pahlavi language on the Sassanian inscriptions. The language used in these texts, which are sometimes erroneously named Chaldean-Pahlavi, is a form of Parthian language which was not utilized in the official epigraphy (written in Aramaic or Greek languages).

By means of Parthian language, the Iranian one had influence on the Armenian language.


 Sogdian language

This language is known from discoveries in Central Asia. The deciphered texts (they are mostly Buddhist texts, although there are some Christian ones) use a writing of Aramean origin, which is different from that of Pahlavi language. Most of them date from 8th century A.D., even though some texts dating from the beginning of Christian Era have been found too.

Sogdian language play an important role as civilized language, from Sogdia itself to Manchu. In fact, the trilingual inscription in Kara --Balgasun-- (9th century A.D.) is partly written in Sogdian language.

Sogdian language is really northeastern Iranian language. Certain discoveries in Turkestan have revealed a language belonging to Iranian group which is used by buddhists living in Khotan. This language belongs to the Śaka-s, and it is sometimes vaguely designated "Eastern Iranian language".


 Concludig remarks

Sometimes, linguistics may seem so difficult to learn, but it is not so. The groups that we have studied were formed from people like us, who spoke a certain language. They travelled and took their language with them. And by using the language as a vehicle, their culture was taken too. There is nothing difficult about it if you approach linguistics in the proper manner. Nevetheless, if you approach it only from a scholar viewpoint, you will face so much difficulty. No doubt about it.

Well, in the next document we will keep studying the Iranian group. See you.


 Further Information

Andrés Muni

This document was conceived by Andrés Muni, one of the two founders of this site, and conversant with linguistics.

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