The use of Aramaic cryptic symbols in ancient and middle Iranian Indo European texts

The use of Aramaic cryptic symbols in ancient and middle Iranian Indo European texts

Aramaic is the name a Semitic language very closely related to Arabic and Hebrew.

Aramaic was chosen as the written language of the Aryan Achaemenid Empire. When the Indo-European Achaemenids extended their rule westward into Mesopotamia, they adopted Aramaic language for written communication between themselves and the NON Indo-European subjects of their vast empire to the West.

It was the simplicity of the Aramaic script that recommended the use of Aramaic as the official written language of the Achaemenid Empire.

The ancient Iranian alphabet in use before Aramaic was cuneiform. Cuneiform was also an adaptation of Mesopotamian writing.

Scribes in the Achaemenid period simultaneously translated and wrote down in Aramaic a text spoken in a local Indo-European Iranian language.

The Indo-European Iranian words in the text were restricted to personal names, technical words for which they had no Aramaic equivalent.

There were in fact many ancient Iranian/Aryan loan words that later entered Aramaic, mainly because there were Iranian administrative, cultural, and technical terms that did not lend themselves to translation into Aramaic and because the knowledge of Aramaic on the part of Iranians was minimal.

Over time the remaining hundred or so Aramaic words served only as ideograms or cryptic symbols, and were automatically read and understood, NOT in Aramaic, but as into their Indo-European Iranian equivalents.

In the post-Achaemenid period, the scribes became entirely ignorant of Aramaic. The scribes were only trained to use the complex system of Aramaic cryptic words. They read and understood the foreign cryptic writing, in its Indo European Iranian equivalents.

The use of Aramaic words for the purpose of cryptography in Middle Persian is attested by Ebn al-Nadim; he quotes the 8th-century author Ebn al-Moqaffaʿ, who explains the following examples: for /gōšt/ “meat” one writes BSRʾ (actually BSLY.)”

This was not entirely dissimilar to the use of Sumerian cryptic symbols in Akkadian texts.

The cryptic Aramaic words so written were just the graphic representation of their ancient or Middle Persian equivalents.

Though not the first one to recognize the cryptic symbols as such, Theodore Nöldeke played an important part in (re-)establishing this fact. In 1879 he translated Kār-nāmagī Ardeshir and gave non-heterographic readings in the annotations.

Carl Salemann in 1887 (Salemann, in Grundriss I, p. 252, sec. 8, n. 1). Salemann (Grundiss I, p. 250) pointed to the lack of Aramaic loanwords in New Persian and in the Armenian, Syrian, and Greek sources dependent on Middle Persian.

There is also internal evidence for the cryptic character of the Aramaic elements in parallel passages that vary between “cryptographic” and “phonetic” writing (Humbach, 1973, p. 121).

At the start of the 20th century new discoveries gave clear support to the view that the hundred or so Aramaic cryptic symbols were part of masking the writing system rather than being part of the language.

The Middle Persian and Parthian texts in Manichean script found in Central Asia contain no Aramaic Cryptography whatsoever, but obviously represent the same languages as the ones used in the Sasanian bilingual inscriptions and Pahlavi texts.

A particularly telling demonstration of the purely graphic character of the crypto Aramaic symbols is provided by the Sogdian “Tale of the Pearl-borer” (Henning, 1945, pp. 465-69), of which two copies exist, one in Sogdian script, with the usual sprinkling of Aramaic cryptography, and one in Manichean script without any.


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