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PAHLAVĪ, or Pehlevi, the name given by the followers of Zoroaster to the character in which are written the ancient translations of their sacred books and some other works which they preserve (see Persia: Language). The name can be traced back for many centuries; the great epic poet Firdousī (second half of the 10th Christian century) repeatedly speaks of Pahlavī books as the sources of his narratives, and he tells us among other things that in the time of the first Khosrau (Chosroes I., A.D. 531-579) the Pahlavī character alone was used in Persia.[1] The learned Ibn Moḳaffa‘ (8th century) calls Pahlavī one of the languages of Persia, and seems to imply that it was an official language.[2] We cannot determine what characters, perhaps also dialects, were called Pahlavī before the Arab period. It is most suitable to confine the word, as is now generally done, to designate a kind of writing—not only that of the Pahlavī books, but of all inscriptions on stone and metal which use similar characters and are written on essentially the same principles as these books.

At first sight the Pahlavī books present the strangest spectacle of mixture of speech. Purely Semitic (Aramaic) words—and these not only nouns and verbs, but numerals, particles, demonstrative and even personal pronouns—stand side by side with Persian vocables. Often, however, the Semitic words are compounded in a way quite unsemitic, or have Persian terminations. As read by the modern Zoroastrians, there are also many words which are neither Semitic nor Persian; but it is soon seen that this traditional pronunciation is untrustworthy. The character is cursive and very ambiguous, so that, for example, there is but one sign for n, u, and r, and one for y, d, and g, this has led to mistakes in the received pronunciation, which for many words can be shown to have been at one time more correct than it is now. But apart from such blunders there remain phenomena which could never have appeared in a real language; and the hot strife which raged till recently as to whether Pahlavī is Semitic or Persian has been closed by the discovery that it is merely a way of writing Persian in which the Persian words are partly represented—to the eye, not to the ear—by their Semitic equivalents. This view, the development of which began with Westergaard (Zendavesta, p. 20, note), is in full accordance with the true and ancient tradition. Thus Ibn Moḳaffa‘, who translated many Pahlavī books into Arabic, tells us that the Persians had about one thousand words which they wrote otherwise than they were pronounced in Persian.[3] For bread he says they wrote LHMA, i.e. the Aramaic laḥmā, but they pronounced nān, which is the common Persian word for bread. Similarly BSRA, the Aramaic besrā, flesh, was pronounced as the Persian gōsht. We still possess a glossary which actually gives the Pahlavī writing with its Persian pronunciation. This glossary, which besides Aramaic words contains also a variety of Persian words disguised in antique forms, or by errors due to the contracted style of writing, exists in various shapes, all of which, in spite of their corruptions, go back to the work which the statement of Ibn Moḳaffa‘ had in view.[4] Thus the Persians did the same thing on a much larger scale, as when in English we write £ (libra) and pronounce “pound” or write & or & (et) and pronounce “and.” No system was followed in the choice of Semitic forms. Sometimes a noun was written in its status absolutus, sometimes the emphatic â was added, and this was sometimes written as א sometimes as ה. One verb was written in the perfect, another in the imperfect. Even various dialects were laid under contribution. The Semitic signs by which Persian synonyms were distinguished are sometimes quite arbitrary. Thus in Persian khwēsh and khwat both mean “self”; the former is written NFShH (nafshā or nafsheh), the latter BNFShH with the preposition prefixed. Personal pronouns are expressed in the dative (i.e. with prepositional l prefixed), thus LK (lakh) for tu, “thou,” LNH for amā, “we.” Sometimes the same Semitic sign stands for two distinct Persian words that happen to agree in sound; thus because hānā is Aramaic for “this,” HNA represents not only Persian ē, “this,” but also the interjection ē, i.e. “O” as prefixed to a vocative. Sometimes for clearness a Persian termination is added to a Semitic word; thus, to distinguish between the two words for father, pit and pitar, the former is written AB and the latter ABITR. The Persian form is, however, not seldom used, even where there is a quite well-known Semitic ideogram.[5]

These difficulties of reading mostly disappear when the ideographic nature of the writing is recognized. We do not always know what Semitic word supplied some ambiguous group of letters (e.g. PUN for pa, “to,” or HT for agar, “if”); but we always can tell the Persian word—which is the one important thing—though not always the exact pronunciation of it in that older stage of the language which the extant Pahlavī works belong to. In Pahlavī, for example, the word for “female” is written mātak, an ancient form which afterwards passed through mādhak into mādha. But it was a mistake of later ages to fancy that because this was so the sign T also meant D, and so to write T for D in many cases, especially in foreign proper names. That a word is written in an older form than that which is pronounced is a phenomenon common to many languages whose Literature covers a long period. So in English we still write, though we do not pronounce, the guttural in through, and write laugh when we pronounce laf.

Much graver difficulties arise from the cursive nature of the characters already alluded to. There are some groups which may theoretically be read in hundreds of ways; the same little sign may be שׁ, ׳א, ׳ה, רא, רה, נא, נה, and the ה too may be either h or kh.

In older times there was still some little distinction between letters that are now quite identical in form, but even the Egyptian fragments of Pahlavī writing of the 7th century show on the whole the same type as our MSS. The practical inconveniences to those who knew the language were not so great as they may seem; the Arabs also long used an equally ambiguous character without availing themselves of the diacritical points which had been devised long before.

Modern MSS., following Arabic models, introduce diacritical points from time to time, and often incorrectly. These give little help, however, in comparison with the so-called Pāzand or transcription of Pahlavī texts, as they are to be spoken, in the character in which the Avestā itself is written, and which is quite clear and has all vowels as well as consonants. The transcription is not philologically accurate; the language is often modernized, but not uniformly so. Pāzand MSS. present dialectical variations according to the taste or intelligence of authors and copyists, and all have many false readings. For us, however, they are of the greatest use. To get a conception of Pahlavī one cannot do better than read the Minōi-Khiradh in the Pahlavī with constant reference to the Pāzand.[6] Critical labour is still required to give an approximate reproduction of the author's own pronunciation of what he wrote.

The coins of the later Sassanid kings, of the princes of Tabaristan, and of some governors in the earlier Arab period, exhibit an alphabet very similar to Pahlavī MSS. On the older coins the several letters are more clearly distinguished, and in good specimens of well-struck coins of the oldest Sassanians almost every letter can be recognized with certainty. The same holds good for the inscriptions on gems and other small monuments of the early Sassanian period; but the clearest of all are the rock inscriptions of the Sassanians in the 3rd and 4th centuries, though in the 4th century a tendency to cursive forms begins to appear. Only r and v are always quite alike. The character of the language and the system of writing is essentially the same on coins, gems and rocks as in MSS.—pure Persian, in part strangely disguised in a Semitic garb. In details there are many differences between the Pahlavī of inscriptions and the books. Persian endings added to words written in Semitic form are much less common in the former, so that the person and number of a verb are often not to be made out. There are also orthographic variations; e.g. long ā in Persian forms is always expressed in book-Pahlavī, but not always in inscriptions. The unfamiliar contents of some of these inscriptions, their limited number, their bad preservation, and the imperfect way in which some of the most important of them have been published[7] leave many things still obscure in these monuments of Persian kings; but they have done much to clear up both great and small points in the history of Pahlavī.[8]

Some of the oldest Sassanian inscriptions are accompanied by a text belonging to the same system of writing, but with many variations in detail,[9] and an alphabet which, though derived from the same source with the other Pahlavī alphabets (the old Aramaic), has quite different forms. This character is also found on some gems and seals. It has been called Chaldaeo-Pahlavī, &c. Olshausen tries to make it probable that this was the writing of Media and the other that of Persia. The Persian dialect in both sets of inscriptions is identical or nearly so.[10]

The name Pahlavī means Parthian, Pahlav being the regular Persian transformation of the older Parthava.[11] This fact points to the conclusion that the system of writing was developed in Parthian times, when the great nobles, the Pahlavans, ruled and Media was their main seat, “the Pahlav country.” Other linguistic, graphical and historical indications point the same way; but it is still far from clear how the system was developed. We know, indeed, that even under the Achaemenids Aramaic writing and speech were employed far beyond the Aramaic lands, even in official documents and on coins. The Iranians had no convenient character, and might borrow the Aramaic letters as naturally as they subsequently borrowed those of the Arabs. But this does not explain the strange practice of writing Semitic words in place of so many Persian words which were to be read as Persian. It cannot be the invention of an individual, for in that case the system would have been more consistently worked out, and the appearance of two or more kinds of Pahlavī side by side at the beginning of the Sassanian period would be inexplicable. But we may remember that the Aramaic character first came to the Iranians from the region of the lower Euphrates and Tigris, where the complicated cuneiform character arose, and where it held its ground long after better ways of writing were known. In later antiquity probably very few Persians could read and write. All kinds of strange things are conceivable in an Eastern character confined to a narrow circle. Of the facts at least there is no doubt.

The Pahlavī literature embraces the translations of the holy books of the Zoroastrians, dating probably from the 6th century, and certain other religious books, especially the Minōi-Khiradh and the Bundahish.[12] The Bundahish dates from the Arab period. Zoroastrian priests continued to write the old language as a dead tongue and to use the old character long after the victory of a new empire, a new religion, a new form of the language (New Persian), and a new character. There was once a not quite inconsiderable profane literature, of which a good deal is preserved in Arabic or New Persian versions or reproductions, particularly in historical books about the time before Islam.[13] Very little profane literature still exists in Pahlavī; the romance of Ardashīr has been mentioned above.

See E. W. West's “Pahlavī Literature,” in Geiger and Kuhn's Grundriss der iranischen Philologie (1896), vol. ii.; “The Extent, Language and Age of Pahlavi Literature” in Sitzungsber. der k. Akad. der wiss. Phil. u. hist. Klasse (Munich, 1888), pp. 399-443 and his Pahlavī Texts in Sacred Books of the East (1880-1897). The difficult study of Pahlavī is made more difficult by the corrupt state of our copies, due to ignorant and careless scribes.

Of glossaries, that of West (Bombay and London, 1874) is to be recommended; the large Pahlavī, Gujaratī and English lexicon of Jamaspji Dastur Minocheherji (Bombay and London, 1877-1882) is very full, but has numerous false or uncertain forms, and must be used with much caution.

(Th. N.)
  1. We cannot assume, however, that the poet had a clear idea of what Pahlavī was.
  2. The passage, in which useful facts are mixed up with strange notions, is given abridged in Fihrist, p. 13, more fully by Yaḳüt, iii. 925, but most fully and accurately in the unprinted Mafātiḥ al-‘olūm.
  3. Fihrist, p. 14, line 13 seq., cf. line 4 seq. The former passage was first cited by Quatremère, Jour. As. (1835), i. 256, and discussed by Clermont-Ganneau, ibid. (1866), i. 430. The expressions it uses are not always clear; perhaps the author of the Fihrist has condensed somewhat.
  4. Editions by Hoshangjī, Jamaspjī Asa and M. Haug (Bombay, 1870), and by C. Salemann (Leiden, 1878). See also J. Olshausen, “Zur Würdigung der Pahlavī-glossare” in Kuhn's Zeit. f. vergl. Sprforsch., N.F., vi. 521 seq.
  5. For examples of various peculiarities see the notes to Nöldeke's translation of the story of Artakhshīr i Pāpakān (Göttingen, 1879).
  6. The Book of the Mainyo-i-Khard in the Original Pahlavī, ed. by Fr. Ch. Andreas (Kiel, 1882); idem, The Pāzand and Sanskrit Texts, by E. W. West (Stuttgart and London, 1871).
  7. See especially the great work of F. Stolze, Persepolis (2 vols., Berlin, 1882). It was De Sacy who began the decipherment of the inscriptions.
  8. Thus we now know that the ligature in book-Pahlavī which means “in,” the original letters of which could not be made out, is for נ׳ו, “between.” It is to be read andar.
  9. Thus pus, “son,” is written נר׳ instead of נרה; pésh, “before,” is written קרסתה, but in the usual Pahlavī it is לויני = לעיבי.
  10. What the Fihrist (p. 13 seq.) has about various forms of Persian writing certainly refers in part at least to the species of Pahlavī. But the statements are hardly all reliable, and in the lack of trustworthy specimens little can be made of them.
  11. This was finally proved by Olshausen, following earlier scholars; see J. Olshausen, Parthava und Pahlav, Māda und Māh (Berlin, 1877, and in the Monatsb. of the Academy).
  12. Translations ed. by F. Spiegel (1860), the Bundāhish by N. L. Westergaard (Copenhagen, 1851) and F. Justi (Leipzig, 1868); other Pahlavī books by Spiegel and Haug, by Hoshangji, and other Indian Pārsees.
  13. One other book, the stories of Kalilag and Damnag, in a Syriac version from the Pahlavī, the latter taken from the Sanskrit.