Indo-Iranian Languages in Asia; History and Development

Branches of Indo-Iranian languages
The two main branches of Indo-Iranian languages: Indo-Aryan and Iranian languages
Branches of Indo-Iranian languages
The two main branches of Indo-Iranian languages: Indo-Aryan and Iranian languages

The Indo-Iranian languages are a sub-branch of the larger Indo-European linguistic group. This group includes over 1.5 billion speakers worldwide who mostly reside in southwest and south Asia. Also known as Indo-Aryan languages, the core elements from this linguistic branch in historical texts suggest it dates back to the early second millennium BCE. Therefore, the origins of the Indo-Iranian language family are closely intertwined with the history of Iranian Languages.

The Indo-Iranian linguistic family is considered a Satem language, a classification of the Indo-European language family based on palatovelar consonants. It includes over 300 languages, but there are three major branches in this linguistic classification:

Indo-Aryan Languages

The chart of Indo-Aryan languages
There are over 200 Indo-Aryan languages

This linguistic group primarily includes various languages and dialects in the Indian subcontinent. There are over 200 Indo-Aryan languages, but the major sub-branches of this linguistic category include:

Old Indo-Aryan Languages

Sanskrit: One of the most ancient languages in Asia, it originated from Vedic-Sanskrit. The earliest example of written Vedic-Sanskrit is the Rigveda, a collection of hymns and one of the four sacred texts of the Hindu faith. Later forms of this language include Epic Sanskrit and Classical Sanskrit. It is no longer widely spoken, but highly used in religious and literary contexts. Its influence can be traced in other Indo-Aryan languages and scientific fields. There are traces of this language from 1200-1700 BCE.

Middle Indo-Aryan Languages

Prakrit: Also known as Apabhraṃśa, the language was derived from Sanskrit as the language of the masses. Sanskrit means “perfected”, while Prakrit means “derived”, showcasing a contrast in status since it is the common language derived from Vedic-Sanskrit. Historical evidence suggests it developed as early as the 3rd century BCE, but scholars speculate its development dates back to the 6th century BCE.

It includes three major literary dialects: Shauraseni Prakrit, Magadhi Prakrit, and Maharashtri Prakrit. The Brahmi script closely associated with Prakrit was the turning point in the evolution of Indo-Aryan language systems and writing. It highly influenced the Devanagari script associated with the Hindu language.

Later Indo-Aryan Languages

Hindi: The official language of India, it can be considered the offspring of Sanskrit and Prakrit. The earliest form of Hindi or Old Hindi (Apabhramsha) developed in the 7th century in North India. In the Medieval period, it developed further due to linguistic interactions with the Iranian and Arabic languages, creating a new form of Khari Boli. In the 19th and 20th centuries, it was standardized with the creation of the Devanagari script which played a vital role in shaping India’s national identity.

While the Devanagari script is derived from the Prakrit, much of its vocabulary, verb conjugation, noun declension, and grammatical structures are influenced by Sanskrit. Hindu has two main categories:

  1. Eastern Hindi dialects: Awadhi, Bagheli, and Chhattisgarhi
  2. Western Hindi dialects: Brajbhasha, Bundeli, Haryanvi, Kanuji, and Khariboli

Urdu: Urdu is an Indo-Aryan descendant of the Apabhraṃśa language dating back to the 6th-13th century CE. It is a Persianized register of the Hindustani language and was promoted by Mahatma Gandhi as an element for the unification of the subcontinent beyond religion and ethnicity.

Bengali is the official language of Bangladesh and India’s West Bengal state, Bangla. It is a derivative of Magadhi Prakrit and Sanskrit. In the Medieval era, it was influenced by Iranian, Arabic, and Turkic languages. The Bengali script is a derivative of Kutilalipi, an eastern variation of the Brahmic script.

Punjabi: Spoken in the Punjab region divided between India and Pakistan, Punjabi also evolved from the Apabhramsha and Prakrit languages with influence from Iranian, Arabic, and Turkic linguistic elements. The earliest traces of Punjabi date back to the 12th century, but it gained vast popularity under the Sikh empire. It was originally written in the Gurmukhi script, developed by the Sikh Empire. This variation is still popular in the Indian Punjab region.

However, the Shahmukhi script used in modern Pakistan is a derivative of the Iranian script. Punjabi speakers have migrated worldwide, and you can find the diaspora community in the UK, Canada, the U.S., and Australia.

Gujarati: Spoken in the Indian state of Gujarat and by diaspora communities, Gujarati is a derivative of Medieval Prakrit and Apabhramsha languages created in the 12th century. It shares characteristics of Hindi, Punjabi, and Bengali, but features a distinct grammar, vocabulary, and script. There are many Iranian and Arabic words in this language.

Marathi: The official language of the Indian state of Maharashtra, Marathi is another Sanskrit derivative and independent language that was formed in the 11th century. It is mainly written in Balbodh Devanagari script, but there is Marathi literature written entirely in the Modi script.

Nepali: The official language of Nepal, Nepali (originally Khaskura) is also spoken in Indian states such as Sikkim, West Bengal, Assam, the Darjeeling district, and the small nation of Bhutan. It is a derivative of the Khas language, the language of the Khas people, an ethnolinguistic group in the Himalayan region.

Other noteworthy Indo-Aryan languages include Assamese, Oriya (Odia), Sindhi, Kashmiri, Bhojpuri, Maithili, and Awadhi, mostly regional dialects in the Indian subcontinent.

Iranian Languages

The Iranian linguistic group is a major branch of the Indo-Iranian languages, primarily spoken in West Asia. It features a unique cultural identity shared by the people of Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and parts of central Asia. All Iranian (Iranic) languages originate from the Proto-Iranian language. Researchers speculate that a Satem ethno-linguistic group from the larger Indo-European group originated from the Andronovo culture in the Bronze Age, around 2000 BCE.

The major branches of this linguistic denomination are Eastern and Western Iranian languages. The Western variations of Iranian languages dominate Iran and Iraqi Kurdistan, while the Eastern Iranian languages are popular in Afghanistan, Central Asia, and the Caspian Sea region.

Old Iranian Languages

Two known old Iranian languages date to between the first and second millennium BCE: the two Avestan languages and Old Persian:

Old Avestan (Gathic): The main source of information about this old Iranian language comes from the Avesta, the Zoroastrian religious text. It dates back to the mid-second millennium BCE. The Avestan language does not specifically fall into the eastern-western categorization of Iranian languages, as it predates the criteria for that classification. It shares morphological ties with Vedic Sanskrit. Some researchers suggest that the retroflex phonemes in the Pashto language originate from the Gathic Avestan language.

Younger Avestan: The Old Avestan gradually developed in the 1st millennium BCE, and was simplified to a large extent. This included phonetic, morphological, and lexical innovations and simplifications. The younger Avestan language has more in common with the Old Persian Language.

Old Persian (Arya): The attested language of the Achaemenid Empire, was known by its speakers as Aryia. It is similar to Avestand and Rigveda in terms of inflection. The main example of Old Persian is the Bisotun inscription by Darius I, dating back to 525 BCE.

Development of the Persian alphabet
The development of the Pahlavi alphabet through history

Middle Iranian Languages

The Middle Iranian Linguistic era starts around the 4th century BCE and ends in 650 CE. In this period, the linguistic groups were divided into the eastern and western branches, characterized by geographical distribution and linguistic features, such as retroflex consonants.

The four major Middle Iranian languages were:

Parthian: The language of the Parthian Empire (Arsacid Pahlavi) was a Western Iranian Language that originally used the Greek script. However, there are records of usage of a variation of the Pahlavi script known as Inscriptional Parthian. It was the official language of the Arascid Parthian Empire between 248 BCE and 224 CE. It heavily influenced the development of the Armenian language, and there are still Parthian words used in the modern Armenian language.

Middle Persian (Pahlavi): This language developed in Persia Proper or Persis in modern Fars province. It is a Western Iranian language that adapted Imperial Aramaic to create the official script during the Sassanid rule. It heavily influenced the development of new Farsi after the Arab conquest.

Linguistically, it is the ancestor of modern Persian, Dari Persian, and Tajiki Persian. The development was gradual and marked the cultural resurgence of the Iranian identity. After the Arab invasion, Arabic became the official language of the ruling dynasties, and the use of Middle Persian was prohibited in writing books.

Bactrian (Ariao): Bactria was the eastern Iranian region in modern Afghanistan. It is an Eastern Iranian language written in Greek script and the official language of the Kushan Empire in the 1st century. The latest use of the Bactrian language dates back to the 9th century, the evidence of which was found in the Tochi Valley in Pakistan.

Sogdian: It is another Eastern Iranian language, which was predominant in the Sogdia civilization in northeastern Iran. This civilization was mentioned in Achaemenid texts, suggesting the existence of an older form from the era of Old Iranian languages.

Khwarezmian (Chorasmian): This Middle Iranian language is similar to the Sogdian language, sharing features of Eastern Iranian languages such as spirantization of word-initial positions. Little is known about the Khwarezmian language and its ancient form. It used a variation of Imperial Aramaic similar to Sogdian and Pahlavi and was replaced in the 13th century by the Persian language.

Other Middle Iranian languages from the Eastern category include Saka and Old Ossetic.

New Iranian Languages

The distribution of Iranian languages
A map showing the geographical distribution of Iranian languages

Following the Arab Invasion of Iran, the Iranian cultural identity underwent significant developments, and the Iranian language was no exception. This new era of development started in 900 CE and eventually resulted in the formation of the following languages:

Modern Persian (Farsi): Middle Persian evolved into the modern Parsi language (Farsi) and is widely used in Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Each has developed a unique variation, Iranian Persian, Eastern Persian (Dari), and Takiji Persian.

The word Dari is derived from Darbari, meaning the language of the royal court. After the prohibition of Middle Persian in the post-Islam era, Farsi-e Dari gradually developed in the Greater Khorasan Area two centuries after the Arab invasion. This resurrection is owed to the works of great literary figures such as Ferdowsi, Rudaki, and Jami.

Iranian Farsi and Dari are highly similar except in pronunciation and regional expression. Considered Western Iranian languages, they use the same alphabet which is derived from the Arabic alphabet with four unique characters: (P)”پ” (ZH)”ژ” (G)”گ” (CH)”چ”. However, Tajiki Persian uses Cyrillic script following Soviet rule and has loanwords from Russian.

Pashto: The native language of Pakistan and some regions in Afghanistan and Iranian borderlands to the east, Pashto is an Eastern Iranian language. It shares characteristics with Bactrian, Khwarezmian, and Saka languages in the same category. It shares the same alphabet as modern Persian except for one character, (G)”گ”.

Kurdish: A Western Iranian language, Kurdish has three main branches: Kurmanji (Northern Kurdish), Sorani (Central Kurdish), and Southern Kurdish. There are four writing systems in this language, the Hawar alphabet (Latin script, common among Kurds in Turkey and Syria), the Sorani Alphabet (Perso-Arabic script popular in Iran and Iraq), the Cyrillic alphabet, and the Armenian alphabet.

Balochi: It is one of the oldest Western Iranian languages originating from northwest Iran. Baloch people in the Baluchestan regions of Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan speak Balochi. In addition, there are Baloch speakers in Persian Gulf states, East Africa, and even Turkmenistan. The earliest Balochi poetry dates back to the 15th century, but it did not have a specific writing system until the 19th century. The remaining variations of this language include Koroshi, Southern-Western Balochi, and Eastern Balochi. The two main dialects are Mandwani and Domki (north and south, respectively).

Luri: This language originated from Middle Persian and is the closest living language to Archaic Persian. The dialects are Central Luri, Southern Luri, and Bakhtiari.

Other modern Iranian languages include Talyshi, Gilaki, and Mazandarani (Tabari).

Learn More about Indo-Iranian Languages

If you are traveling to Iran on an Iran tour package or independently, you can find ethnic groups, indigenous tribes, and individuals who still maintain their native Iranian language apart from Farsi. You can hear these ancient living languages in villages across northern Iran, Lorestan, Sistan and Baluchestan, and many other locations in Iran.

Frequently Asked Questions about Indo-Iranian Languages

If you have any unaddressed questions about Indo-Iranian languages, ask us in the comment section. We’ll respond as soon as possible.

What are Indo-Iranian languages?

Indo-Iranian languages are a branch of Indo-European languages that are spoken across Central, South, and Southwest Asia. The main groups of this branch are Indo-Aryan and Iranian languages.

How many people speak Indo-Iranian languages?

Nearly 1.5 billion people in Asia and worldwide speak Indo-Iranian languages. This includes India, Bangladesh, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and many other countries in West Asia.

What are the main branches of Iranian Languages?

Iranian languages are categorized into Eastern and Western languages. This categorization applies to Middle Iranian languages and any modern languages in this branch.

Where did Indo-Iranian languages originate?

These groups of languages originate from the proto-Indo-Iranian group, which traveled to the Iranian plateau in the Bronze Age.

Are Indo-Iranian Languages a Centum or Satem language?

Indo-Iranian languages are the main branch of Satem languages in Asia. Satem refers to Satemization, which refers to the articulation of palatovelars further forward in the mouth as opposed to Centum languages. It is the earliest sign of the separation of proto-Indo-Europeans into different ethnolinguistic groups.

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