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Avestan is an Eastern Old Iranian language that was used to compose the hymns of the Zoroastrian holy book, the 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 major eastern branch of the Indo-European languages.
Along with Old Persian, Avestan is one of the two Old Iranian languages from which we have evidence. The structure of the language and its sound system testifies to its status as an East Iranian language.
The Avestan language, as reflected in the Avesta, is divided into two different stages:
1- Old Avestan or Gathic Avestan: This form of the language was used to compose the Gathas and Yasna Haptanghaiti , probably by Zarathushtra (Zoroaster) himself. Gathic Avestan is an extremely archaic language with a complicated grammar which consists of eight case forms and a highly inflected noun system. It is quite close to the Vedic sanskrit and was probably mutually understandable for the speakers of the latter. Based on philological conclusions, the Gathas were most likely composed around 1,300 BCE.
2- Young Avestan: the language used for composing the major parts of Avesta, including the rest of the Yasnas , the Yashts , and Vidaevdat . 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 priests (Magi) in later times in order to compose new texts. Vidaevdat is the most significant text that was composed in Artificial Young Avestan.
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.
- a ā ə ə̄ e ē o ō å ą i ī u ū
- k g γ x xv č ǰ t d δ θ t̰ p b β f
- ŋ ŋv ṇ ń n m y v r s z š ṣ̌ z h
The Avesta was not written until at least the first century AD, and most likely until 4th century AD. The script used for the writing of Avesta, called Din Dabireh , during the Sasanian times (226–650 AD) was a derivative of Pahlavi script of Middle Persian. Din Dabireh is specially designed to reflect the Avestan sound system, not unlike Devanagri, it allows phonetic disambiguation of allophones.