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Have Iranians Ever Had an Alphabet of Their Own?
Maziar Aptin
August 27, 2011

Ancient Persian Alphabet

The answer to the above question is a big NO. Our ancestors had great deal of achievements in most areas of human activities but never invented an alphabet of their own.

According to Martin Huag, a 19th century German linguist, who was fluent in several East Indo-European languages including Avestan, Sanskrit, and Persian, the first alphabet/language  that the Iranians have used was in “Pyshdaadian” era which was borrowed from neighboring  Semitic country. Huag does not mention the name of the country.

At the beginning, he indicates, the alphabet/language was used only by kings to send and receive messages to and from neighboring countries. Because it was borrowed from their neighbor, they called it (Zabaaneh pahlooi) and gradually Pahlavi.

Avestan Persian Alphabet

Martin Huag continues that in the beginning the Pahlavi language was 100% Semitic but gradually Persian words were inserted, starting with names of people and places. By the time of Kyanian dynasty, the Pahlavi language had about 10% Persian words in it, during Achaemenid 30%, during Partians 50%, and during Sassanid 70%.

Pahlavi language was used the most during the Sassanid but only by government officials and Zoroastrian priests (Mobeds) as a writing not speaking language. Huag says that “in no period of time and in no place in Iran the Pahlavi language had any use for ordinary people; they simply could not understand it”.


Initially alphabet was invented by the Sumerians in second millennium B.C. starting as cuneiform and within a few centuries evolved into an alphabet. At the beginning only the Sumerians (a non Semitic people) were allowed to use the alphabet. But the rule was gradually relaxed and by around 1,750 B.C. the Sumerian alphabet was used by Semitic people of Akkad and gradually became widespread in the region. Sumer’s neighbor to the south, the country of Elam, also made use of the alphabet in their language.

Cyrus the Great used the Akkadian in his administration and when country of Elam was annexed, he started using both languages of Akkadian and Elaami. We know the Sumerian alphabet as “Khatt-e Mikhi” because of its resemblance to nail.

Tomb of Cyrus the Great in Pasargadai (at Morghab) was first inscribed in two languages of Akkadian and Elamite. After 521 B.C Dariush the Great ordered the” Mikhi alphabet” to be implemented in Persian language and added the third language (the Old Persian) to the other two inscriptions on tomb of Cyrus. Please see “The Persian Empire” by J.M. Cook.


During the Achaemenid dynasty the two languages of Akkadian and Elamite were used in official government businesses, also occasionally the Aramaic (Ashurian) had some use as well. But The Old Persian was used as an internal language only.

So many Iranian scholars have misconception about Pahlavi language and think that it is pure Persian but as I mentioned above only the name Pahlavi (Meaning the neighbor by) is Persian but the language originated from Semitic countries.

Pahlavi Persian Alphabet

The reason that the Pahlavi language did not survive and the present Arabic alphabet replaced it is; according to an Iranian scholar whom I do not recall his name, was that the Pahlavi language, grammatically could not be implemented and used within Persian language while Arabic language could be “Persionized” and vise versa. For example; a singular Persian word can be made plural using Arabic grammar structure and vise versa but this could not be done with Pahlavi.

Tazi Persian Alphabet

So even though I do not like the present day Arabic alphabet and prefer Latin, I do not miss Pahlavi either. I have seen the alphabet. It is not pretty.

Persian Latin Alphabet


A. Since we are on the subject of language, It is worth mentioning; according to Huag, in Sassanid period, the Avestan language was a dead language by four to six hundred years and the Mobeds were the only group that used it, mostly in religious ceremonies, and they did not know the language fluently, not enough to be able to translate Gathas from Avestan into Pahlavi writing.
Consequently they used to read Gathas, which was in Avestan (mother thong of Zarathustra), then whatever they could comprehend; they used to put it in Pahlavi writing. In other word, it was not a translation but interpretation. That is why they were called; “Zandeh Avesta”. “Zand” in Avestan language means interpretation. Then after some period of time, a younger Mobed would read the Zandeh Avesta and whatever he would understand from it would rewrite it and call it “Pazandeh Avesta”. “Pa” in Avestan language means “re”. In another word Pazandeh Avesta is reinterpretation of Avesta.

Huag continues that because Avestan is a very elaborate language which same word or sentence could have different meanings, depending where or how it has been used, he discredited all Zandeh Avestas and Pazandeh Avestas altogether.

He believes that the effort of Sassanid period Mobeds in this regard, due to misinterpretation, has changed the base of Zoroaster’s doctrine for worse and should be completely disregarded.

B. Martin Huag has translated Gathas himself in early 19th century which he thinks is the correct version and was well received by European scholars. I will discuss about this subject in my future writings, open for comments.

Related Material:

Why Change Persian Alphabet from Tazi to Latin?
Persian Latin Alphabet

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