SOAS University of London

Department of Religions and Philosophies

Pahlavi Language

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Full Year

Middle Persian is a Western Middle Iranian language and represents the middle phase in the development of the Persian language from Old and to New Persian. It was the language of the Sasanian state and of the Zoroastrian and Manichaean traditions during the Sasanian period and far into Islamic  times.

This course is an introduction to the Middle Persian language for undergraduate and postgraduate students. No prior knowledge of the language is required, although students with a basic knowledge of Persian or another Iranian language will be particularly well-placed to benefit from this course. The course is designed to provide students with a clear understanding of the basic principles of the Middle Persian (Pahlavi) script and language in a way that enables them to translate simple Middle Persian texts and to analyse their grammar. Students who complete the course successfully will be able to handle simple primary sources in the original Pahlavi and to assess critically translations made by various scholars.

The essential course books are in English and no knowledge of any other specific language will be required, though a general familiarity with standard grammatical terminology and concepts will be an advantage.  


This course may be taken in any year of a postgraduate degree programme.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

On successful completion of this course, you will:
Have acquired a basic knowledge of the Middle Persian scripts and language;
Have acquired a clear understanding of simpler texts in Middle Persian;
Have developed analytical skills in the understanding and interpretation of primary textual sources;
Have engaged with the most important reference works such as grammars and dictionaries of Middle Persian;
Have experienced the special character of Middle Persian texts and textual problems;
Be able to evaluate critically the grammatical and textual interpretations offered by different scholars;
Have produced written work on a number of approved topics relevant to the course;
Have recorded and reflected on your experience of the subject matter on the course, particularly with regard to its application to other disciplines.


Two hours of classes per week over 22 weeks. Students are required to submit weekly written work for correction and prepare texts for reading in class.

Scope and syllabus

The course is based on the reading of texts, including texts in Manichaean Middle Persian and a short prose text, simple in style, ‘The Book of the Deeds of Ardaxšīr, son of Bābag’, the Kārnāmag ī Ardaxšīr ī Bābagān, which will be read in the original Pahlavi script. Some memorization of grammar and vocabulary will be required. Extensive handouts and reading materials will be supplied.

Method of assessment

There will be two term tests (each 10%) and one three-hour written examination at the end of the course in May/June (80%). The examination will include passages for translation from texts read in class (but not unseen texts) together with linguistic and general questions arising from them.

Suggested reading

M. Boyce, “Middle Persian Literature”. In: B. Spuler (ed.), Handbuch der Orientalistik, vol.4.2.1: Iranistik, Literatur. Leiden/Köln: Brill, 1968, pp.31-76.
M. Boyce, A Word-List of Manichaean Middle Persian and Parthian. Tehran/Liège: Brill, 1977 (Acta Iranica 9a).
Ch.J. Brunner, A Syntax of Western Middle Iranian. Delmar 1977.
M.J. Dresden, “Middle Iranian”. In: Th. Sebeok (ed.), Current Trends in Linguistics vol.6, The Hague and Paris 1970, pp.26–63.
W.B. Henning, “Mitteliranisch”. In: B. Spuler (ed.), Handbuch der Orientalistik, vol.4.2.1: Iranistik, Literatur. Leiden/Köln: Brill, 1968,
D.N. MacKenzie, “Iranian Languages”. In: Th. Sebeok (ed.), Current Trends in Linguistics vol.5, The Hague and Paris 1969, 450–477.
D.N. MacKenzie, A Concise Pahlavi Dictionary. Lon­don: OUP, 1971, repr. with corrections 1986.
H.S. Nyberg, A Manual of Pahlavi. 2 vols., Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1964, 1974.
D. Weber, “Pahlavi Morphology”. In: A.S. Kaye (ed.), Morphologies of Asia and Africa. 2 vols., Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 2007, vol.2, 941–973.


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules