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Old Iranian Online

Lesson 1: Old Avestan

Scott L. Harvey, Winfred P. Lehmann, and Jonathan Slocum

The Gathas of Zarathustra are the earliest extant collection of an Old Iranian language. In form and stylistic technique, they are not unlike the larger collections of hymns preserved in the Indian Rigveda, since their author was a sacrificial priest reared in the same traditional methods of Indo-Iranian liturgical composition. Much of their grammar and vocabulary, however, is unique, and their strikingly different mythology gives a great deal more weight to theodicy and moral code than anything in any Indian work contemporary to the period. These differences often render comparison with the Indian texts well-nigh impossible; interpretation is often difficult, given the total absence of other contemporary works in Old Iranian dialects. Fortunately, Zarathustra's composition and ideology are rigorously unified and consistent and can at least be understood, albeit to a limited extent, within the framework of the hymns themselves.

Reading and Textual Analysis

Yasna 29, the Cow's Lament, is one of the most widely discussed Gathas in Zarathustra's opus. Nevertheless, it remains one of the most difficult to comprehend, since the hymn is unique among the Gathas for its dialogic form. Who is the cow? What is her purpose? Which other characters are speaking or described? Though the Rigveda preserves a number of hymns of this type, scholars have yet to determine their rules of composition with satisfactory precision. Thus, answers to these questions must be tentative at best. Yet as with Zarathustra's other compositions, the hymn shares themes and formulae with other Gathas and one can utilize these and the context of the hymn itself to formulate an interpretation.

The cow represents humanity at large, the Wise Lord's great flock of men. Her plight is their plight and the provider she seeks is the virtuous man who can lead them to prosperity. Zarathustra opens the hymn with the cow plaintively asking her Fashioner why He created for her such a sorrowful existence and imploring him to wrest her from its estate. In verse two, the Fashioner asks Truth to respond to the cow. Verse three is not easily attributed, though one may presume it is Truth's reply. Zarathustra makes the verse serve double duty, both as a warning against questioning the intentions of the gods and implying that Truth has sent him -- the poet -- as the 'savior' who is sought by the cow: "he to whom I shall go ... will be the strongest of beings." This introduces a major theme of the hymn. Verses four and five then read as the first direct address to Ahura Mazda, his Wise Lord. The remaining verses will be covered in Lesson 2.

1 - xshmaiby gush urv gerezhd       kahmi m thwarzhdm k m tashat

  • xshmaiby -- pronoun; dative plural masculine <yzhem-> 'you' -- to you
  • gush -- noun; genitive singular feminine <gao-> 'cow' -- cow's
  • urv -- noun; nominative singular masculine <urvan-> 'soul, self' -- soul
  • gerezhd -- verb; 3rd person singular imperfect indicative active <gerez-> 'lament, complain' -- lamented
  • kahmi -- interrogative pronoun; dative singular masculine <ka-> 'who, what' -- for whom
  • m -- enclitic pronoun; 1st person accusative singular <azem-> 'I' -- me
  • thwarzhdm -- verb; 2nd person plural s-aorist indicative middle <thwarz> 'carve, fashion, shape, create' -- did you create
  • k -- interrogative pronoun; nominative singular masculine <ka-> 'who, what' -- who
  • m -- enclitic pronoun; 1st person accusative singular <azem-> 'I' -- me
  • tashat -- verb; 3rd person singular aorist indicative active <tas> 'carve, create, fashion, shape' -- fashioned

m ashem hazas-c       rem hishy deresh-c tevish-c

  • -- preposition; <> '(up) to, toward, etc.' -- ...
  • m -- enclitic pronoun; 1st person accusative singular <azem-> 'I' -- me
  • ashem -- noun; nominative singular masculine <ashema-> 'anger, fury, wrath' -- cruelty
  • hazas-c -- noun; nominative singular masculine <haza-> 'power, violence, oppression' + conjunction; <ca> 'and' -- and oppression
  • rem -- noun; nominative singular masculine <rema-> 'bloodlust, violence, chains' -- bloodlust
  • hishy -- preposition; <> '(up) to, toward, etc.' + verb; 3rd person singular perfect indicative active <hishy-> 'bind, tie up' -- have fettered
  • deresh-c -- noun; nominative singular feminine <dares-> 'wantoness, rage, fury' + conjunction; <ca> 'and' -- and rage
  • tevish-c -- noun; nominative singular neuter <tevis-> 'violence' + conjunction; <ca> 'and' -- and violence

nit mi vst xshmat any       ath mi sst voh vstry

  • nit -- negative particle; <nit> 'no, none' -- no
  • mi -- enclitic pronoun; 1st person dative singular <azem-> 'I' -- for me
  • vst -- noun; nominative singular masculine <vstar-> 'herdsman' -- herdsman
  • xshmat -- pronoun; ablative singular <yzhem-> 'you' -- than you
  • any -- adjective; nominative singular masculine <anya-> 'other' -- other
  • ath -- adverb; <ath> 'so, thus, likewise' -- therefore
  • mi -- enclitic pronoun; 1st person dative singular <azem-> 'I' -- to me
  • sst -- verb; 2nd person plural s-aorist imperative active <sand> 'show, seem' -- you must all show
  • voh -- adjective; accusative plural neuter <vohu-> 'good' -- good
  • vstry -- noun; accusative plural neuter <vstrya-> 'herdsman; pasture' -- pastures

2 - ad tash gush peresat       ashem kath ti gavi ratush

  • ad -- adverb; <ad> 'then, thereupon, thus' -- then
  • tash -- noun; nominative singular masculine <tashar-> 'carver, fashioner, shaper, creator' -- fashioner
  • gush -- noun; genitive singular feminine <gao-> 'cow' -- cow's
  • peresat -- verb; 3rd person singular imperfect indicative active <peres-> 'ask' -- asked
  • ashem -- noun; accusative singular neuter <asha-> 'truth' -- Truth
  • kath -- adverb; <kath> 'how, in what way' -- what
  • ti -- pronoun; genitive singular masculine <ha-> 'you' -- your
  • gavi -- noun; dative singular feminine <gao-> 'cow' -- for the cow
  • ratush -- noun; nominative singular masculine <ratu-> 'judgement, model, plan' -- allotment

hyat hm dt xshayant       had vstr gaody thwaxsh

  • hyat -- relative adverb; <hyat> 'if, so, when' -- when
  • hm -- demonstrative pronoun; accusative singular feminine <ha-> '(s)he, this' -- her
  • dt -- verb; 2nd person plural aorist indicative middle <d-> 'give, put' -- you all gave
  • xshayant -- present participle active; nominative plural masculine <xshaya> 'ruling' -- ruling
  • had -- preposition; <had> 'together with' -- together with
  • vstr -- noun; instrumental singular masculine <vstrya-> 'herdsman; pasture' -- pasturage
  • gaody -- compound adjective; accusative singular neuter <gao-> 'cow' + <d-> 'give, put' -- cow-tending
  • thwaxsh -- noun; accusative singular neuter <thwaxsha-> 'zeal, care, nurture' -- nourishment

km hi usht ahurem       y dregvdebsh ashemem vdyit

  • km -- interrogative pronoun; accusative singular masculine <ka-> 'who, what' -- whom
  • hi -- demonstrative pronoun; dative singular feminine <ha-> '(s)he, this' -- for her
  • usht -- verb; 2nd person plural imperfect indicative active <vas> 'desire, wish' -- do all of you desire
  • ahurem -- noun; accusative singular masculine <ahura-> 'lord' -- as the Lord
  • y -- relative pronoun; nominative singular masculine <ya-> 'who, what, which' -- who
  • dregvdebsh -- noun; instrumental plural masculine <dregvant-> 'possessor of the Lie' -- by the Possessor of the Lie
  • ashemem -- noun; accusative singular masculine <ashema-> 'anger, fury, wrath' -- cruelty
  • vdyit -- verb; 3rd person singular present optative active <vdya-> 'destroy' -- would destroy

3 - ahmi ash nit sarej       advash gavi pait-mravat

  • ahmi -- demonstrative pronoun; dative singular masculine <aym-> 'this, that' -- to him
  • ash -- noun; instrumental singular neuter <asha-> 'truth' -- with Truth
  • nit -- negative particle; <nit> 'no, none' -- not
  • sarej -- compound noun; nominative singular masculine <sar-> 'protection, alliance' + <jan> 'smite, slay, destroy' -- slayer of the alliance
  • advash -- compound noun; nominative singular masculine <a-> (privative) + <dvaesa-> 'hatred' -- free from hatred
  • gavi -- noun; dative singular feminine <gao-> 'cow' -- for the cow
  • pait-mravat -- verbal prefix; <paiti> 'near, toward, with respect to' + verb; 3rd person singular present subjunctive active <mr> 'speak, say' -- would reply

avashm nit vduy       y shavait drng ereshvngh

  • avashm -- demonstrative pronoun; genitive plural neuter <ava-> 'this, that' -- of those
  • nit -- negative particle; <nit> 'no, none' -- not
  • vduy -- infinitive; dative singular; <vid> 'see, know, obtain' -- to know
  • y -- relative pronoun; instrumental singular masculine <ya-> 'who, what, which' -- by which
  • shavait -- verb; 3rd person singular present indicative middle <shava-> 'drive forth, set in motion' -- He drives
  • drng -- noun; accusative plural masculine <dra-> 'lowly' -- lowly
  • ereshvngh -- noun accusative plural masculine <ereshva-> 'lofty' -- to lofty

htm hv aojisht       yahmi zavng jim keredush

  • htm -- present participle active; genitive plural masculine <ah-> 'be, become' -- of beings
  • hv -- demonstrative pronoun; nominative singular masculine <ha-> '(s)he, this' -- he
  • aojisht -- adjective; nominative singular masculine <ughra-> 'strong' + superlative suffix; <-ista-> indicates superlative -- strongest
  • yahmi -- relative pronoun; dative singular masculine <ya-> 'who, what, which' -- to whom
  • zavng -- noun; accusative plural neuter <zava-> 'call, request' -- requests
  • jim -- verb; 1st person singular aorist subjunctive active <gam> 'go' -- I shall go
  • keredush -- perfect active participle; instrumental singular masculine <(hapax) krd> 'send' (?) -- on account of having sent out

4 - mazd saxvr mairisht       y z vverezi pair-citht

  • mazd -- noun; nominative singular masculine <mazda-> 'wise one' -- the Wise One
  • saxvr -- noun; accusative plural neuter <saxvr-> 'invocation, poetically formulated vow' -- pacts
  • mairisht -- adjective; nominative singular masculine <mairishta-> 'knowing/remembering best' -- remembering best
  • y -- relative pronoun; nominative accusative masculine <ya-> 'who, what, which' -- that
  • z -- emphatic particle; <zi> 'for, indeed' -- indeed
  • vverezi -- verb 3rd person singular perfect indicative middle <verez> 'do, make, perform' -- has made
  • pair-citht -- adverb; <pairi> 'around, among' + <cith> indefinite marker -- sometime before

davish-c mashyish-c       y-c vareshait aip-citht

  • davish-c -- noun; instrumental plural masculine <dava-> 'divine being' + conjunction; <ca> 'and' -- and by daevas
  • mashyish-c -- noun; instrumental plural masculine <mashya-> 'human being' + conjunction; <ca> 'and' -- and by men
  • y-c -- relative pronoun; nominative singular masculine <ya-> 'who, what, which' + conjunction; <ca> 'and' -- and that
  • vareshait -- verb; 3rd person singular aorist subjunctive active <verez> 'do, make, perform' -- will make
  • aip-citht -- adverb; <aipi> 'toward, approaching' + <cith> indefinite marker -- sometime later

hv vcir ahur       ath n anghat yath hv vasat

  • hv -- demonstrative pronoun; nominative singular masculine <ha-> '(s)he, this' -- he
  • vcir -- adjective; nominative singular masculine <vcira-> 'discerning' -- discerning
  • ahur -- noun; nominative singular masculine <ahura-> 'lord' -- Lord
  • ath -- adverb; <ath> 'so, thus, likewise' -- just as
  • n -- enclitic pronoun; dative plural masculine <azem-> 'I' -- for us
  • anghat -- verb; 3rd person singular present subjunctive active <ah-> 'be, become' -- it will be
  • yath -- adverb; <yatha> 'just as, like' -- just as
  • hv -- demonstrative pronoun; nominative singular masculine <ha-> '(s)he, this' -- he
  • vasat -- verb; 3rd person singular present subjunctive active <vas> 'desire, wish' -- would wish

5 - at v ustnish ahv       zastish frnemn ahuri

  • at -- particle; <at> 'then, but, and, so, thus' -- so
  • v -- emphatic particle; <v> 'indeed, for, etc.' -- then
  • ustnish -- adjective; instrumental plural masculine <ustana-> 'stretched forth' -- stretched out
  • ahv -- noun; instrumental singular feminine <ah> 'energy, zest, zeal' -- with zeal
  • zastish -- noun; instrumental plural masculine <zasta-> 'hand' -- with hands
  • frnemn -- present participle middle; nominative dual masculine <fr> 'devote' -- devote ourselves
  • ahuri -- noun; dative singular masculine <ahura-> 'lord' -- the Lord
  • -- preposition; <> '(up) to, toward, etc.' -- to

m urv gush-c azy       hyat mazdm dvaid frasby

  • m -- adjective pronoun; nominative singular masculine <ma-> 'my' -- my
  • urv -- noun; nominative singular masculine <urvan-> 'soul, self' -- soul
  • gush-c -- noun; genitive singular feminine <gao-> 'cow' + conjunction; <ca> 'and' -- and the cow's
  • azy -- adjective; genitive singular feminine <azi-> 'fertile' -- fertile
  • hyat -- conjunction; <hyat> 'if, so, when' -- so
  • mazdm -- noun; accusative singular masculine <mazda-> 'wise one' -- the Wise One
  • dvaid -- verb; 1st person dual aorist indicative middle <d-> 'give, put' -- we may dispose
  • frasby -- noun; dative plural feminine <fras-> 'question, inquiry' -- to inquiries

nit erezhejyi frajyitish       nit fshuyent dregvas pair

  • nit -- negative particle; <nit> 'no, none' -- no
  • erezhejyi -- adjective; dative singular masculine <erezheji-> 'living justly' -- living justly
  • frajyitish -- noun; nominative singular masculine <frajyiti> 'life's possibility' -- prospect
  • nit -- negative particle; <nit> 'no, none' -- no
  • fshuyent -- present participle active; dative singular masculine <fsuya-> 'breed (esp. cattle)' -- for the cattle breeder
  • dregvas -- noun; locative plural masculine <dregvant-> 'possessor of the Lie' -- the Possessors of the Lie
  • pair -- postposition; <pairi> 'around, among' -- among

Lesson Text

1 xshmaiby gush urv gerezhd       kahmi m thwarzhdm k m tashat
m ashem hazas-c       rem hishy deresh-c tevish-c
nit mi vst xshmat any       ath mi sst voh vstry

2 ad tash gush peresat       ashem kath ti gavi ratush
hyat hm dt xshayant       had vstr gaody thwaxsh
km hi usht ahurem       y dregvdebsh ashemem vdyit

3 ahmi ash nit sarej       advash gavi pait-mravat
avashm nit vduy       y shavait drng ereshvngh
htm hv aojisht       yahmi zavng jim keredush

4 mazd saxvr mairisht       y z vverezi pair-citht
davish-c mashyish-c       y-c vareshait aip-citht
hv vcir ahur       ath n anghat yath hv vasat

5 at v ustnish ahv       zastish frnemn ahuri
m urv gush-c azy       hyat mazdm dvaid frasby
nit erezhejyi frajyitish       nit fshuyent dregvas pair

Translation

1   The cow's soul lamented to you, [the gods]: "For whom did you create me?
          Who fashioned me?
    Cruelty, oppression, bloodlust, rage, and violence have fettered me,
    [And] there is no herdsman for me other than you.
          Therefore, you must all show me [the way to] good pastures."
     
2   Then the cow's Fashioner asked Truth: "What [was] your allotment for the cow
    when, ruling [the earth], you all gave her cow-tending nourishment
          together with pasturage?
    Whom do all of you desire as the Lord who would destroy the cruelty [wielded] by the
          Possessor of the Lie?"
     
3   [The one who is] not a slayer of the alliance with Truth
          [and is] free from hatred for the cow would reply to him:
    "[One] is not to know of those [things] by which He drives the lowly to lofty [heights].
    [But] he to whom I shall go, on account of [his] having sent out requests [for aid?],
          [will be] the strongest of beings.
     
4   [Zarathustra:] "The Wise One [is he] remembering best the pacts
          that, indeed, he has made with daevas and men sometime before [now]
    And [those also] that he will make sometime later.
    He is the discerning Lord; it will be for us just as he would wish."
     
5   [Zarathustra: And] so, then, do we two -- my soul and the fertile cow's --
          devote ourselves with zeal, with hands stretched out to the Lord,
    So [that] we may dispose the Wise One to [answer our] inquiries.
    Is there no prospect for the cattle-breeder living justly among the Possessors of the Lie?"

Grammar

1. The Alphabet

The earliest complete Avestan manuscripts date from the 13th to 14th centuries A.D. They are written in a script based on the Pahlavi, or Middle Persian alphabet, invented to record an earlier version of the texts during the Sassanid dynasty (ca. 224-640 A.D.). This earlier script had itself evolved from the Aramaic characters brought to the Iranian plateau several centuries earlier still. Like Aramaic, Avestan is read from right to left.

The alphabet is presented here in its English transliteration, organized by place and manner of articulation. The example of each character's approximate pronunciation is taken from American English unless otherwise noted.

Letter   Sound       Letter   Sound       Letter   Sound
a   gutter       k   kipper       y   youth
  father       x   Ger. Loch       r   room
i   sit, Ger. bitte       h   horse       v   vice; medially, werewolf
  me       xv   h + v            
u   book       g (g)   gipper       s   sound
  choose       gh   approx. brogue, Sp. haga       sh (shy)   shout
e   red       ng   sing       sh   wish you were here
  hey       c   chip, It. ciao       z   zoo
o   goat, Sp. rojo       j   jest       zh   azure
  hoe       n   Sp. ao            
e   approx Fr. peut-tre       t   approx. as British bitter       h   horse
  herd, Fr. peur       t   time            
  gong       d   dime            
  bawdy       th   theater            
            dh   father            
            n   never            
            n   before t, d = n; before k, g = ng; before p, b = m            
            p   pour            
            f   fair            
            b   boar            
            B   Sp. recibir            
            m   moot            
            m   hmm...            

In addition to the alphabet as described, the diphthongs /ay/ and /ao/ are written as contiguous letters:

    a   sight
    ao   ouch
2. The Sound System
2.1. Phonology

The original pronunciation of both the old and the younger Avestan language is unknown. Existing texts reflect only the liturgical enunciation of the hymns at the time they were first written down, ca. 400 A.D. No more than a few fragments of these earliest recensions are extant; peculiar word breaks, meaningless repetitions of verbal prefixes, and metrical erosion show that the scribes had lost living contact with the language by this time. (Pliny and the Parsi tradition both refer to an older manuscript recorded under the Arsacids who ruled from ca. 250 B.C. to 226 A.D., but no physical evidence survives. Scholars who accept its existence believe that it had an even simpler and more ambiguous orthography than the Sassanid fragments.) The degree of phonemic change that occurred between the original composition and this fifth century recension, and between this recension and the extant manuscripts from ca. 1350 A.D., cannot be gauged. Nevertheless, the pronunciation of the existing script is more or less certain. Each letter represents one discrete phoneme and must, for the most part, be read individually. Exceptions are the vowel combinations comprising diphthongs and the sequence ng.

Vowels:   Front       Central       Back
High   i,               u,
Mid       o,       e,    
Low           a,        
            e,        
Diphthongs:   , a, ao
     
Consonants:                            
    Unaspirated   Aspirated   Unaspirated   Aspirated   Nasal   Sibilant   Sibilant
    Unvoiced   Unvoiced   Voiced   Voiced       Unvoiced   Voiced
Velars:   k   x, h, xv   g, g   gh   ng        
Palatals:   c       j       n   sh, shy, sh   zh
Cerebrals:   t                        
Dentals:   t   th   d   dh   n, (n)   s   z
Labials:   p, f       b, B       m, m        
Semivowels:   y, r, v
Aspirates:   h
2.2. Accentuation

Avestan orthography does not indicate accentuation, but scholars have traced four phonetic patterns that must be ascribed to stress. The change h > xe is seen to occur when the vowel following h is accented. Likewise, an r clustered with a following unvoiced velar, dental, or labial devoices when the vowel preceding that r is accented: rk > hrk, rt > , and rp > hrp. In both instances, ca 'and' when added to the word shifts the accent to the final syllable.

2.3. Length of Final Vowels

Word-final vowels are generally long in Old Avestan (OAv) and short in Younger Avestan (YAv). The examples in these lessons are in Old Avestan.

3. Noun Inflection

Avestan is highly inflected. This means that, unlike English whose syntax is primarily governed by word order and the use of prepositions, the functional relationships among the various words in a sentence are expressed by inflections, or endings, added to the stem, or base form, of a noun or adjective.

There are cases in Avestan. In addition to syntactic function, these also express number -- singular, dual, or plural. Each noun also has gender: masculine, feminine, or neuter.

The cases are as follows:

Case   Primary Function   English Translation
Nominative   Grammatical Subject   (subject)
Accusative   Direct Object   (object)
Instrumental   Object of Means   by, with
Dative   Indirect Object   to, for, for the sake of
Ablative   Object of Origin   from, out of, on account of
Genitive   Subject of Possession or Character   of
Locative   Object of Location   in, on, upon, over, under, at, etc.
Vocative   Object of Address   ('you', or name of person being addressed)

Case names and other grammatical terms are often abbreviated in these lessons (e.g., 'sg.' for singular, 'du.' for dual).

The nominal inflections applied to nouns and adjectives are classified according to the final letter of the noun's stem. Each "stem type" takes its own set of inflections, for which paradigms will be given through the course of these lessons. For each paradigm, a single word will be used; where a case form is not attested for that word, but is found for other words of the same stem type, the 'reconstructed' form will be marked by an asterisk. Where no attestation of a case exists for any word of the stem type, the form will be labelled 'unattested'.

3.1. a-Stem Nouns, Masculine and Neuter
Singular:   Masculine aspa- 'horse'   Neuter shyauthna- 'work'
Nom.   asp, asp   *shyauthnem
Acc.   aspem   shyauthnem
Instr.   *asp   shyauthn
Dat.   *aspi   shyauthni
Abl.   *aspt   shyauthnt
Gen.   *aspahya   *shyauthnahya
Loc.   *aspai   shyauthnai
Voc.   *asp   *shyauthna
Dual:        
Nom.   asp   shyauthne
Acc.   asp   shyauthne
Instr/Dat/Abl.   aspaebya   shyauthnaebya
Gen.Loc.   aspayh   shyauthnh
Plural:        
Nom.   asp, aspngh   shyauthn
Acc.   *aspng   shyauthn
Instr.   *aspish   shyauthnish
Dat/Abl.   *aspaeby   shyauthnaeby
Gen.   *aspm, aspanm   shyauthnanm
Loc.   aspaeshu   shyauthnaeshu
3.2. -Stem Nouns, Feminine
Singular:   dan 'insight'
Nom.   dan
Acc.   danm
Instr.   danay
Dat.   danayi
Abl/Gen.   danayo
Loc.   danay
Voc.   dane
Dual:    
Nom.   *dane
Acc.   dane
Instr/Dat/Abl.   *danbya
Gen/Loc.   *danay
Plural:    
Nom.   dan
Acc.   dan
Instr.   danbish
Dat/Abl.   danby
Gen.   dananm
Loc.   *danhu, danhva
4. Verb Inflection

Verbal inflections are added to a stem whose form conveys the tense of a verb. These endings express person, number, mood, and voice.

There are three persons (first, second, and third), and three numbers (singular, dual, and plural).

'Mood' refers to the attitude of the speaker towards an action. The indicative mood conveys a merely descriptive sense and is translated with the simple verb. The imperative mood indicates a command. Avestan also includes two potential moods, a subjunctive and an optative; the former conveys a greater sense of probability than the latter. As in Sanskrit, the subjunctive is found much more frequently in the older language (Vedic, Old Avestan) than in the younger (Classical Sanskrit, Younger Avestan); its functions are gradually replaced, with respect to the degree of probability to be communicated, by the optative mood and the future tense.

'Voice' refers to the nature of the action with respect to the logical subject of a sentence. The active voice indicates direct action. The middle voice signals that a self-reflexive purpose or benefit to the subject motivates the action expressed. The passive is used when the agent of a sentence is not the grammatical subject; it is treated in Lesson 5.

The four tenses -- present, aorist, perfect, and future -- are classified by the formation of the stem, to which endings are added. The present system is divided into two types, thematic and athematic. The thematic classes are presented below; the athematic classes and the other tense systems will be treated in subsequent lessons.

4.1. The Present Tense

The present tense conveys action that occurs at the time of speaking. It may be translated with either a general sense, as in "Zarathustra spins a tale," or with a continuous sense, as in "Zarathustra is spinning a tale."

Stems of the present system that end with the theme-vowel -a- are called thematic. This -a- may be added directly to a verbal root in its stong or weak grade (cf. Section 8.2 on vowel gradation) as in the examples below, or it may be a part of the fuller suffixes -ya- or -aya-. To this stem, various endings are added.

Thematic Present Paradigms: bara- 'carry, bear'

Indicative   Active   Middle
1 sg.   barmi   baire
2 sg.   barahi   unattested
3 sg.   baraiti   baraite
         
3 du.   unattested   *baraite
         
1 pl.   barmahi   *baramaide
2 pl.   baratha   *barathve
3 pl.   barenti   barente
         
         
Imperative        
2 sg.   bara   barangvha
3 sg.   baratu   *baratm
         
2 pl.   *barata   *baradhBvem
3 pl.   barentu   *barenta
         
Subjunctive        
1 sg.   barni   *barne, *bari
2 sg.   barhi   *barnhe
3 sg.   *bariti, bart   *barite
         
3 du.   *bart   unattested
         
1 pl.   barma   unattested
2 pl.   *bartha   unattested
3pl.   *barn   barngte, *barire
Optative        
1 sg.   unattested   baraya
2 sg.   baraish   baraisha
3 sg.   barait   baraita
         
1 pl.   baraima   *baraimaide
2 pl.   *baraita   *baraithem
3 pl.   barayen   *barayanta
4.2. The Imperfect

The present system also includes the imperfect, a past tense; it is discussed in Lesson 5.

5. Word Order

The standard word order of an Avestan clause or sentence is generally Subject-Object-Verb, though the texts in these lessons are poetic in nature and tend to be freer in form. Two common exceptions to the "verb last" rule are when a verb is accompanied by an adverbial preposition, which may appear in the final position, and when a verb is embedded between an adjective and a noun. Adjectives generally precede the nouns they modify, though sometimes separated by other words.

As an example of the "verb last" rule, Yasna 29 opens with a clause ended by the verb gerezhd:

    xshmaiby   gush   urv   gerezhd
    To you   the cow's   soul   laments...

The first line of verse 5 demonstrates typical adjective-noun word order,

    at   v   ustnish   ahv   zastish   frnemn   ahuri-
    And so   we two   with outstretched   dwell   (with) hands   devoting ourselves   to the Lord,

where ustnish 'outstretched' precedes the noun zastish 'hands' and the phrase ends in the adverb rather than the verb (or, as here, rather than the verbal adjective). The adjective and noun enclosing the clause's main verb ahv 'we two dwell' is a form of discontinuous word order called 'enclosure'.

These rules are of great help to the translator or interpreter of an Avestan liturgical text. Nevertheless, ambiguity may occasionally occur. A line from Yasna 43.15, for example, may be rendered in two ways:

    ... vspng angrng ashan dare
    ... They call all the evil (ones) truthful.
    ... They call all the truthful (ones) evil.

Here, the accusative plural adjective vspng 'all' precedes both of the accusative plural nouns angrng 'evil' and ashan 'truthful', and may be taken with either one since the stylistic device of the 'enclosure' may or may not be employed. In such situations one must decide, based on context, which of the meanings best represents the author's intent.

An exception to the standard adjective-noun pattern became formulaic in the later language: ahura- mazdah-, literally 'Lord wise'. The phrase first appeared in the Gathas, but only with a caesura or another [enclosed] word in between, as in 51.15 or 51.5,

caesura:   gar demn ahur       mazd jasat ...
    Ahura Mazda went into the house of song ...
     
enclosure:   ahur xshathr mazd...
    Ahura Mazda, by (his) power...

The phrase grew increasingly frequent in the Yasna Haptanhaiti and, by the time of the younger language, would become the usual form, with or without caesura or enclosure.