PAHLAVI pä’ lə ve’. This term was applied by the Persians to that dialect of their language that was used by the Sassanian dynasty from the 3rd cent. to the 7th cent. a.d. (from the overthrow of the Parthians to the time of the Muslim conquest). As a written alphabet, derived from a late form of Aram. or Syr. script, the Pahlavi script was used also to put down in written form a much earlier stage of the language known as Avestan, but preserved only in oral form from the period of Zoroaster. The Zoroastrian Scriptures, known as the Avesta, survived by oral tradition from the 6th cent. b.c. until the 7th cent. a.d., and then began to achieve written form, doubtless in answer to the challenge of the written Qur’an of the Muslims. The earliest datable inscrs., however, in Arsacid or Parthian Pahlavi appeared on the coins of Vologases I (51-79 a.d.; cf. R. Ghirshman: “Iran,” Penguin , pp. 256, 257). Previously, the Parthian coins bore Gr. inscrs. exclusively. The language came into its own as the official medium of communication only with the rise of the Sassanian dynasty under Ardashir I (c. 224 a.d.), and so remained until they were finally overwhelmed by the Muslims in 651. Unfortunately, however, there was little of the literary Pahlavi that survived destruction, although portions of the Dadhastan i Menoghkhrad (“Doctrine of Celestial Wisdom”) and the Ardagh Viraz-Namagh (“Vision of Ardagh Viraz”) contain material on Zoroastrian theology which is thought to go back to the period of Khosrau I (531-579; cf. EBr , xvii, 673). Likewise the legendary life of Ardashir I in Karnamak-i Ardashir-i Papakan has been shown to be current in the late Sassanian period before the Muslim conquest. Quite possibly the important later compilation known as the Denkard, which deals with matters of cosmology and religious legends of various sorts, contain historical references to Shapur I (241-270) as a patron of lit., who encouraged the tr. of major works in Gr. and Sanskrit into the Pahlavi language.
Certain major difficulties have beset the study of Pahlavi lit., the chief of which is the habit of the scribes in regard to the use of Aram. expressions and terms, which they employed in preference to the actual Pahlavi words that they represented. The reason for this practice seems to have been (a) the prestige that the earlier language enjoyed throughout the Middle E, and (b) the words could be written more briefly in Aram. than in the more polysyllabic Pahlavi. It was formerly supposed by modern scholars that the language had actually absorbed these Aram. terms into their actual speech (just as Pers. later absorbed a very high percentage of Arab.). A glossary has been preserved, the Frahang-i-Pahlavik, which lists these Aram. words with their Pahlavi equivalents, and the Pāzand texts of Zoroastrian religious books followed a policy of replacing the Aram. terms with Pers. equivalents equipped with vowels. These serve to indicate the way by which the Pahlavi texts actually were read aloud, rather usually were written in Aram. (e.g. the preposition “from” was written min, but read aloud as hac). The second major difficulty in the interpretation of Pahlavi is that the various letters of their alphabet of 18 letters tended to develop forms so similar to each other as to be virtually indistinguishable except for the context. Students of the language, lacking for the most part any vowel notation, and coping with the similar-appearing consonants, find certainty of interpretation extremely difficult to attain. Perhaps the most useful grammar is that of H. Nyberg: Hilfsbuch des Pahlavi (2 vols., 1928-1931). Inscriptions have been published by E. Herzfeld, Paikuli (1923), and by M. Sprengling, Third Century Iran (1954). For Sassanian lit. see J. C. Tavadia: Die mittelpersische Sprache und Literatur der Zarathustrier (1956). Translations of some of the most important religious texts appear in R. C. Zaehner: The Teachings of the Magi: A Compendium of Zoroastrian Beliefs (1956).