Avestan /əˈvɛstən/, also known historically as Zend, is a
language known only from its use as the language of Zoroastrian
scripture (the Avesta), from which it derives its name. The language
is classified as an Iranian language, a branch of the Indo-Iranian
languages within the Indo-European family. Its immediate ancestor was
the Proto-Indo-Iranian language, and as such it is a sister language
to the proto-Indic language, which is assumed to have been quite close
Avestan text corpus was composed in ancient Arachosia, Aria,
Bactria, and Margiana, corresponding to the entirety of present-day
Afghanistan, and parts of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
The Yaz culture of Bactria-
Margiana has been regarded as a likely
archaeological reflection of the early "Eastern Iranian" culture
described in the Avesta.
Avestan's status as a sacred language has ensured its continuing use
for new compositions long after the language had ceased to be a living
language. It is closely related to
Vedic Sanskrit, the oldest
preserved Indo-Aryan language.
2 Forms and stages of development
6 Sample text
7 Example phrases
8 See also
12 Further reading
"Avestan, which is associated with northeastern Iran, and Old Persian,
which belongs to the southwest, together constitute what is called Old
Iranian."[f 1] The
Old Iranian language group is a branch of the
Indo-Iranian language group.
Iranian languages are traditionally
classified as "eastern" or "western", and within this framework
Avestan is classified as eastern. But this distinction is of limited
meaning for Avestan, as the linguistic developments that later
distinguish Eastern from Western Iranian had not yet occurred. Avestan
does not display some typical (South-)Western Iranian innovations
already visible in Old Persian, and so in this sense, "eastern" only
means "non-western". That is not to say that
Avestan does not
display any characteristic innovations of its own – e.g., the
sibilant pronunciation of the consonant in aša, corresponding to
original /rt/ that is preserved in the
Old Persian form (arta), as
Avestan is closely related to
Old Persian and agrees largerly in
Vedic Sanskrit. It is believed that it might be close to
an ancestor dialect of
Pashto as well.
Forms and stages of development
Avestan language is attested in roughly two forms, known as "Old
Avestan" (or "Gathic Avestan") and "Younger Avestan". Younger Avestan
did not evolve from Old Avestan; the two differ not only in time, but
are also different dialects. Every
Avestan text, regardless of whether
originally composed in Old or Younger Avestan, underwent several
transformations. Karl Hoffmann traced the following stages for Avestan
as found in the extant texts. In roughly chronological order:
The natural language of the composers of the Gathas, the Yasna
Haptanghaiti, the four sacred prayers (Y. 27 and 54).
Changes precipitated by slow chanting
Changes to Old
Avestan due to transmission by native speakers of
The natural language of the scribes who wrote grammatically correct
Deliberate changes introduced through "standardization"
Changes introduced by transfer to regions where
Avestan was not spoken
Adaptions/translations of portions of texts from other regions
Composition of ungrammatical late
Phonetic notation of the
Avestan texts in the Sasanian archetype
Post-Sasanian deterioration of the written transmission due to
Errors and corruptions introduced during copying
Many phonetic features cannot be ascribed with certainty to a
particular stage since there may be more than one possibility. Every
phonetic form that can be ascribed to the Sasanian archetype on the
basis of critical assessment of the manuscript evidence must have gone
through the stages mentioned above so that "Old Avestan" and "Young
Avestan" really mean no more than "Old
Avestan and Young
the Sasanian period."
The script used for writing
Avestan developed during the 3rd or 4th
century AD. By then the language had been extinct for many centuries,
and remained in use only as a liturgical language of the
As is still the case today, the liturgies were memorized by the
priesthood and recited by rote.
The script devised to render
Avestan was natively known as Din dabireh
"religion writing". It has 53 distinct characters and is written
right-to-left. Among the 53 characters are about 30 letters that
are – through the addition of various loops and
flourishes – variations of the 13 graphemes of the cursive
Pahlavi script (i.e. "Book" Pahlavi) that is known from the
post-Sassanian texts of Zoroastrian tradition. These symbols, like
those of all the Pahlavi scripts, are in turn based on Aramaic script
Avestan also incorporates several letters from other writing
systems, most notably the vowels, which are mostly derived from Greek
minuscules. A few letters were free inventions, as were also the
symbols used for punctuation. Also, the
Avestan alphabet has one
letter that has no corresponding sound in the
Avestan language; the
character for /l/ (a sound that
Avestan does not have) was added to
Avestan script is alphabetic, and the large number of letters suggests
that its design was due to the need to render the orally recited texts
with high phonetic precision. The correct enunciation of the liturgies
was (and still is) considered necessary for the prayers to be
The Zoroastrians of India, who represent one of the largest surviving
Zoroastrian communities worldwide, also transcribe
Brahmi-based scripts. This is a relatively recent development first
seen in the ca. 12th century texts of Neryosang Dhaval and other Parsi
Sanskritist theologians of that era, and which are roughly
contemporary with the oldest surviving manuscripts in
Avestan is most commonly typeset in
Gujarati script (Gujarati
being the traditional language of the Indian Zoroastrians). Some
Avestan letters with no corresponding symbol are synthesized with
additional diacritical marks, for example, the /z/ in zaraϑuštra is
written with j with a dot below.
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 ž h
The glides y and w are often transcribed as ii and uu, imitating Dīn
Dabireh orthography. The letter transcribed t̰ indicates an allophone
of /t/ with no audible release at the end of a word and before certain
According to Beekes, [ð] and [ɣ] are allophones of /θ/ and /x/
respectively (in Old Avestan).
a-stems: (masc. neut.)
-ō (-as), -ā
-ō (-as), -ā
-a (yasn-a), -ånghō
-ō (-as, -ns), -ā
-su, -hu, -šva
-aēšu (vīr-aēšu), -aēšva
Primary active endings
Gujarati script approximation
ahiiā. yāsā. nəmaŋhā. ustānazastō.1
rafəδrahiiā.maniiə̄uš.2 mazdā.3 pouruuīm.4 spəṇtahiiā.
aṣ̌ā. vīspə̄ṇg.5 š́iiaoϑanā.6vaŋhə̄uš. xratūm.7
manaŋhō. yā. xṣ̌nəuuīṣ̌ā.8 gə̄ušcā. uruuānəm.9::
(du. bār)::ahiiā. yāsā. nəmaŋhā. ustānazastō.
rafəδrahiiā.maniiə̄uš. mazdā. pouruuīm. spəṇtahiiā.
aṣ̌ā. vīspə̄ṇg. š́iiaoϑanā.vaŋhə̄uš. xratūm.
manaŋhō. yā. xṣ̌nəuuīṣ̌ā. gə̄ušcā. uruuānəm.::
અહીઆ। યાસા। નામંગહા।
ક્સરતૂમ્।૭ મનંગહો। યા।
(દુ। બાર્)::અહીઆ। યાસા।
ક્સરતૂમ્। મનંગહો। યા।
The following phrases were phonetically transcribed from Avestan:
Can also mean "he is hot" or "she is hot" (in temperature)
I understand you(p)
You(p) teach me
Literally: "You let me understand"
You lead him/her
dim vō nāiiaiieiti
He/she lets you(p) lead him/her
You carry me
He/she carries us
θβā dim bāraiiāmahi
We let him/her carry you
We let them run
I follow you
They accompany them
Literally: "They let them follow"
I calm you
Literally: "I let you rest"
Note: "you" is singular unless marked with a (p) for plural.
^ "It is impossible to attribute a precise geographical location to
the language of the Avesta... With the exception of an important study
by P. Tedesco (1921 [...]), who advances the theory of an 'Avestan
homeland' in northwestern Iran, Iranian scholars of the twentieth
century have looked increasingly to eastern
Iran for the origins of
Avestan language and today there is general agreement that the
area in question was in eastern Iran—a fact that emerges clearly
from every passage in the
Avesta that sheds any light on its
historical and geographical background."
^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds.
Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute
for the Science of Human History.
^ Wells, John C. (1990), Longman pronunciation dictionary, Harlow,
England: Longman, p. 53, ISBN 0-582-05383-8 entry
^ Witzel, Michael. "THE HOME OF THE ARYANS" (PDF). Harvard University.
p. 10. Retrieved 8 May 2015. Since the evidence of Young Avestan
place names so clearly points to a more eastern location, the Avesta
is again understood, nowadays, as an East Iranian text, whose area of
composition comprised -- at least -- Sīstån/Arachosia, Herat, Merw
^ Mallory, J P (1997). Encyclopedia of Indo-European culture. page
653. London: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers. ISBN 978-1-884964-98-5.
entry "Yazd culture".
^ Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices by Mary Boyce
^ a b Hoffmann, Karl (1989), "
Avestan language", Encyclopedia Iranica,
3, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, pp. 47–52 .
^ Gnoli, Gherardo (1989), "
Avestan geography", Encyclopedia Iranica,
3, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, pp. 44–47 .
^ Encyclopaedia Iranica: EASTERN IRANIAN LANGUAGES. By Nicholas
^ Hoffmann, K. Encyclopaedia Iranica. AVESTAN LANGUAGE. III. The
grammar of Avestan.: "The morphology of
Avestan nouns, adjectives,
pronouns, and verbs is, like that of the closely related Old Persian,
inherited from Proto-Indo-European via Proto-Indo-Iranian
(Proto-Aryan), and agrees largely with that of Vedic, the oldest known
form of Indo-Aryan. The interpretation of the transmitted Avestan
texts presents in many cases considerable difficulty for various
reasons, both with respect to their contexts and their grammar.
Accordingly, systematic comparison with
Vedic is of much assistance in
determining and explaining
Avestan grammatical forms."
^ Morgenstierne, G. Encyclopaedia Iranica: AFGHANISTAN vi. Paṧto "it
seems that the Old Iranic ancestor dialect of Paṧtō must have been
close to that of the Gathas."
^ Hale, Mark (2004). "Avestan". In Roger D. Woodard. The Cambridge
Encyclopedia of the World's Ancient Languages. Cambridge University
Press. ISBN 0-521-56256-2.
^ Lubotsky, Alexander (2010). Van Sanskriet tot Spijkerschrift:
Breinbrekers uit alle talen [From
Sanskrit to Cuneiform: Brain teasers
from all languages] (in Dutch). Amsterdam University Press.
pp. 18, 69–71. ISBN 9089641793. Retrieved 30 April
Beekes, Robert S. P. (1988), A Grammar of Gatha-Avestan, Leiden:
Brill, ISBN 90-04-08332-4 .
Hoffmann, Karl; Forssman, Bernhard (1996), Avestische Laut- und
Flexionslehre, Innsbrucker Beiträge zur Sprachwissenschaft 84,
Institut fur Sprachwissenschaft der Universität Innsbruck,
ISBN 3-85124-652-7 .
Kellens, Jean (1990), "
Avestan syntax", Encyclopedia Iranica, 3/sup,
London: Routledge & Kegan Paul
Skjærvø, Prod Oktor (2006), Old Avestan, fas.harvard.edu .
Skjærvø, Prod Oktor (2006), Introduction to Young Avestan,
Avestan language at avesta.org
Old Iranian (including Old and Young Avestan) at The University of
Avestan and Young
Avestan at Harvard University
Text samples and
Avesta Corpus at TITUS.
Boyce, Mary (1989), "
Avestan people", Encyclopedia Iranica, 3, London:
Routledge & Kegan Paul, pp. 62–66 .