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For other uses, see Median.
Region ancient Iran
Era 500 BCE – 100 CE[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-3 xme
Linguist list
Glottolog None

The Median language (also Medean or Medic) was the language of the Medes.[2] It is an Old Iranian language and classified as belonging to the Northwestern Iranian subfamily, which includes many other languages such as Azari, Zazaki, Gorani, Gilaki, Mazandarani, Kurdish, and Baluchi.[3]


Median is only attested by numerous loanwords in Old Persian. Nothing is known of its grammar, "but it shares important phonological isoglosses with Avestan, rather than Old Persian." "Under the Median rule [...] Median must to some extent have been the official Iranian language in western Iran.[4]

No documents dating to Median times have been preserved, and it is not known what script these texts might have been in. "So far only one inscription of pre-Achaemenid times (a bronze plaque) has been found on the territory of Media. This is a cuneiform inscription composed in Akkadian, perhaps in the 8th century BCE, but no Median names are mentioned in it.[5]

Some modern research suggests that the so-called Linear Elamite—which still has not been deciphered—may have been written in the language of Medes, assuming Kutik-Inshushinak was the original Iranian name of Cyaxares the Great and not a much earlier Elamite king.[6]


A distinction from other ethno-linguistic groups (such as the Persians) is evident primarily in foreign sources, for instance from mid-9th century BCE Assyrian cuneiform sources[7] and from Herodotus' mid-5th century BCE second-hand account of the Perso-Median conflict. It is not known what the native name of the Median language was (this is also true for all other Old Iranian languages), or whether the Medes themselves nominally distinguished it from the languages of other Iranian peoples.

Median is "presumably"[4] a substrate of Old Persian. The Median element is readily identifiable because it did not share in the developments that were particular to Old Persian. Median forms "are found only in personal or geographical names [...] and some are typically from religious vocabulary and so could in principle also be influenced by Avestan." "Sometimes, both Median and Old Persian forms are found, which gave Old Persian a somewhat confusing and inconsistent look: 'horse,' for instance, is [attested in Old Persian as] both asa (OPers.) and aspa (Med.)." [4]

Using comparative phonology of proper names attested in Old Persian, Roland Kent[8] notes several other Old Persian words that appear to be borrowings from Median, for example, taxma, 'brave', as in the proper name Taxmaspada. Diakonoff[9] includes paridaiza, 'paradise'; vazraka, 'great' and xshayathiya, 'royal'. In the mid-5th century BCE, Herodotus (Histories 1.110[10]) noted that spaka is the Median word for a female dog. This term and meaning are preserved in living Iranian languages such as Talyshi.

In the 1st century BCE, Strabo (c. 64 BCE–24 CE) would note a relationship between the various Iranian peoples and their languages: "[From] beyond the Indus [...] Ariana is extended so as to include some part of Persia, Media, and the north of Bactria and Sogdiana; for these nations speak nearly the same language." (Geography, 15.2.1-15.2.8[11])

Traces of the (later) dialects of Media (not to be confused with the Median language) are preserved in the compositions of the fahlaviyat genre, that is, verse composed in the old dialects of the Pahla/Fahla regions of Iran's northwest.[12] Consequently, these compositions have "certain linguistic affinities" with Parthian, but the surviving specimens (which are from the 9th–18th centuries CE) are much influenced by Persian. For an enumeration of linguistic characteristics and vocabulary "deserving mention", see Tafazzoli 1999. The use of fahla (from Middle Persian pahlaw) to denote Media is attested from late Arsacid times; that is, it reflects the pre-Sassanid use of the word to denote "Parthia", which during Arsacid times included most of Media.

Predecessor of Modern Iranian languages[edit]

A number of modern Iranian languages spoken today have had medieval stages with evidences found from citations in Classical and Early Modern Persian sources. According to G. Windfuhr, "[t]he modern [Iranian] languages of Azarbaijan and Central Iran, located in ancient Media Atropatene and Media proper, are "Median" dialects" and those languages "continue lost local and regional language" of Old Median which is mainly known as "Medisms in Old Persian".[13] The term coming from the regional name Pahlav/Fahlav (see fahlaviyat) in traditional medieval Persian sources and used to call "dialect poetry and other samples of locales in western Iran reflects the Parthian period" of those regions[13] and their languages, "being survivals of the Median dialects have certain linguistic affinities with Parthian".[14]


  1. ^ Median at MultiTree on the Linguist List
  2. ^ "Ancient Iran::Language". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 2007. Retrieved 2007-03-09. 
  3. ^ Schmitt, Rüdiger (1989). Compendium Linguarum Iranicarum. Wiesbaden: Reichert. 
  4. ^ a b c Skjærvø, Prods Oktor (2005). An Introduction to Old Persian (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Harvard. 
  5. ^ Dandamayev, Muhammad & I. Medvedskaya (2006). "Media". Encyclopaedia Iranica (OT 10 ed.). Costa Mesa: Mazda. 
  6. ^ Cyaxares: Media’s Great King in Egypt, Assyria & Iran, by: Professor Gunnar Heinsohn, University of Bremen, May 2006
  7. ^ "Ancient Iran::The coming of the Iranians". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 2007. Retrieved 2007-02-28. 
  8. ^ Kent, Roland G. (1953). Old Persian. Grammar, Texts, Lexicon (2nd ed.). New Haven: American Oriental Society.  pp. 8-9.
  9. ^ Diakonoff, Igor M. (1985). "Media". In Ilya Gershevitch. Cambridge History of Iran, Vol 2. London: Cambridge UP. pp. 36–148. 
  10. ^ Godley, A. D. (ed.) (1920). Herodotus, with an English translation. Cambridge: Harvard UP.  (Histories 1.110)
  11. ^ Hamilton, H. C. & W. Falconer (1903). The Geography of Strabo. Literally translated, with notes 3. London: George Bell & Sons.  p. 125. (Geography 15.2)
  12. ^ Tafazzoli, Ahmad (1999). "Fahlavīyāt". Encyclopaedia Iranica 9.2. New York: iranicaonline.org. 
  13. ^ a b Page 15 from Windfuhr, Gernot (2009), "Dialectology and Topics", in Windfuhr, Gernot, The Iranian Languages, London and Newyork: Routledge, pp. 5–42, ISBN 978-0-7007-1131-4 
  14. ^ Tafazzoli 1999

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