|Spoken in:||liturgical language of Zoroastrianism|
|Language extinction:||likely by the 7th century BC|
|Language family:|| Indo-European|
|Writing system:||Avestan alphabet|
|Note: This page may contain IPA phonetic symbols in Unicode. See IPA chart for English for an English-
based pronunciation key.
Avestan is an Eastern Old Iranian language that was used to compose the sacred hymns and canon of the Zoroastrian Avesta. Iranian languages are part of the Indo-Iranian Language group which includes the Indo-Aryan languages such as Sanskrit. The Indo-Iranian language group is the biggest branch of the Indo-European language family. Avestan contains passive morpheme quite similar to that of Gorani or Hewrami, one of two major dialects spoken today by modern Kurds in Iran and Iraq.
Along with Old Persian, Avestan is one of the two oldest Iranian languages of which we have evidence (see also classification, below). The Avestan language should not be confused with the Avestan alphabet, which is a significantly later invention.
The Avestan language, as reflected in the Avesta, is divided into two different forms:
- Old Avestan or Gathic Avestan: This form of the language was used to compose the Gathas and other more ancient portions of the Yasna. Gathic Avestan is an archaic language with a complicated grammar which consists of eight case forms and a highly inflected noun system. It is still quite close to the Vedic Sanskrit. Like Zoroaster's lifetime, widely differing dates for Avestan have been proposed; scholarly consensus floats around 1000 BC (roughly contemporary to the Brahmana period of Vedic Sanskrit).
- Young Avestan: the language used for composing the greater part of the Avesta, including many of the Yashts of the "Little Avesta", the Vendidad and some sections of the Yasna. Young Avestan itself has two forms, one called Original Young Avestan, and the other, Artificial Young Avestan. The first form was probably a natural development of Old Avestan and was most likely also a spoken language up to the 8th century BCE. The Artificial Young Avestan however is a corrupt form of the language, a form that was never spoken and was used by the priesthood in later times in order to compose new texts. The Vendidad is the most significant collection of texts that were composed in Artificial Young Avestan.
Avestan is usually classified as Eastern Iranian. However, because the separation of Eastern and Western Iranian is poorly understood, and because there is no attestation of an Iranian language contemporary to Avestan, as well as because of the defective tradition of the Avestan texts, the validity, or even applicability, of this classification is uncertain.
For example, Avestan jwa "live" is cited as closer to Sogdian žw, Khotanian juv- than to Old Persian jīva, but phonological Eastern characteristics of Avestan such as this one have been suspected of being due to a phase of the historical tradition of the texts rather than an original feature of Avestan itself. According to Kellens, the only thing that can be asserted with confidence is that Avestan is not a Persian dialect (the only Old Iranian language besides Avestan known in any detail being Old Persian).
The original geographical location of Avestan is likewise uncertain, and it has been variously placed in north-western Iran, north-eastern Iran, Chorasmia, Sistan, and Bactria-Margiana.
After the alleged destruction of the Achaemenid palace library by Alexander the Great in 330 BC, the Avesta was transmitted orally until at least the first, and most likely until the 4th century AD. The script used for the writing of Avesta, called Dīn Dabireh, developed during the 5th or 6th century (late Sassanian times) was a derivative of Pahlavi script of Middle Persian. Dīn Dabireh is specially designed to reflect the Avestan sound system, not unlike Devanāgarī, it allows phonetic disambiguation of allophones.
The Avestan sound differs from the later Old Persian chiefly by the larger inventory of vowels. As opposed to Sanskrit, Avestan has retained voiced sibilants, and has fricative rather than aspirate series. There are various conventions for transliteration of Dīn Dabireh, the one adopted for this article being:
- a ā ə ə̄ e ē o ō å ą i ī u ū
- k g γ x xw č ǰ t d δ ϑ t̰ p b β f
- ŋ ŋw ṇ ń n m y w r s z š ṣ̌ z h
The glides y and w are often transcribed as ii and uu, imitating Dīn Dabireh orthography.
|Case||"normal" endings||a-stems: (masc. neut.)|
|Nominative||-s||-ā||-ō (-as), -ā||-ō (yasn-ō)||-a (vīr-a)||-a (-yasna)|
|Vocative||-||-ā||-ō (-as), -ā||-a (ahur-a)||-a (vīr-a)||-a (yasn-a), -ånghō|
|Accusative||-em||-ā||-ō (-as, -ns), -ā||-em (ahur-em)||-a (vīr-a)||-ą (haom-ą)|
|Instrumental||-ā||-byā||-bīš||-a (ahur-a)||-aēibya (vīr-aēibya)||-āiš (yasn-āiš)|
|Dative||-ē||-byā||-byō (-byas)||-āi (ahur-āi)||-aēibya (vīr-aēibya)||-aēibyō (yasn-aēibyō)|
|Ablative||-at||-byā||-byō||-āt (yasn-āt)||-aēibya (vīr-aēibya)||-aēibyō (yasn-aēibyō)|
|Genitive||-ō (-as)||-å||-ąm||-ahe (ahur-ahe)||-ayå (vīr-ayå)||-anąm (yasn-anąm)|
|Locative||-i||-ō, -yō||-su, -hu, -šva||-e (yesn-e)||-ayō (zast-ayō)||-aēšu (vīr-aēšu), -aēšva|
- Robert S. P. Beekes, A Grammar of Gatha-Avestan, E.J. Brill: Leiden, New York, København, Köln 1988 ISBN 90-04-08332-4
- Karl Hoffmann & Bernhard Forssman, Avestische Laut- und Flexionslehre (Innsbrucker Beiträge zur Sprachwissenschaft 84), Universität Innsbruck 1996 ISBN 3-85124-652-7
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