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Review of  Selected Features of Bactrian Grammar

Reviewer: Blake Justin Collin Lewis
Book Title: Selected Features of Bactrian Grammar
Book Author: Saloumeh Gholami
Publisher: ISD, Distributor of Scholarly Books
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Historical Linguistics
Subject Language(s): Bactrian
Language Family(ies): Indo-European
Issue Number: 27.2948

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Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


“Selected Features of Bactrian Grammar” by Saloumeh Gholami is a descriptive grammar of the long-extinct Iranian language, Bactrian, modified from her dissertation. In her book, Gholami provides an overview of Bactrian characteristics with numerous examples, which she collected from the few remaining sources of the language. The publication is written for linguist researchers and students interested in collecting Bactrian source data or researching a specific phenomenon, as the book focuses on examples rather than focusing on a position in an explanatory or theoretical approach. The book addresses issues primarily for those focusing on phonology or historical phonology. The book may also be of some value to those focusing on syntactic and morphological issues. However, as there are no morpheme boundaries given in the top line to assist work on syntax or morphology, the researcher in those fields may require some prior knowledge of the language or at the very least the Iranian language family. Additionally, a working knowledge of Greek Script is necessary, as the majority of the examples are not transliterated, which would force a reader unfamiliar with the Greek Script to frequently turn back to her charts. The reader should be advised that they will often need to look ahead a page or two for definitions of some abbreviations.


The monograph is divided into ten chapters: introduction, historical phonology of Bactrian, nominal phrases, pronouns, prepositions and postpositions, adverbs, conjunctions, the verb, word order, and compounds.

The introduction gives a very brief background on the history of Bactria. The author also briefly outlines the relation of Bactrian with other Iranian languages, as well as the early use of written communication with respect to the Greek script. Gholami provides an inventory of the remaining Bactrian sources, including coins, seals, inscriptions, manuscripts, and documents. She concludes by discussing her aims and the purpose of the book, which she states as designed “to present an overview of the different characteristics of this language and provide a basis for general comparison with other Middle Iranian languages” --and indeed she does.

Chapter Two covers the historical phonology of Bactrian, comparing it with Proto-Iranian. She divides up the first part of the chapter by types of consonant speech sounds, namely: plosives, fricatives and affricates, sonorants, and consonant clusters (involving numerous combinations of plosives, affricates, nasals, approximants, trills, and fricatives). The second half of the chapter is devoted to vowels, diphthongs, palatalization, and various phonological processes involving vowels. Throughout the chapter Gholami makes various claims about sound change, which seem to be based on the direct surface forms of Proto-Iranian and Bactrian. For instance, she states that in Bactrian the *ā is generally lost in final position, giving examples such as the reconstructed *mātā ‘mother’ changing to μαδο [mado] (for ease of reading, I have provided approximate transliterations in the brackets). However, she does not give any reason for such assumptions, nor does she discuss the possibility that the vowel simply changed and was not lost (in fact all of her *ā# > ∅ examples show a final /o/ in Bactrian). In some respects, Gholami is not overly specific in her usage, as she provides headings such as *au > o, where the o is sometimes /o/ (*sapauda changing to σαβολο [sabolo] ‘jar’) and other times /ω/ (*kaučapa changing to κωσοβο [kōsobo]. Therefore, if a reader were looking for examples of compensatory lengthening, they would need to examine the sections rather carefully.

Chapter Three covers nominal phrases and focuses on case morphology, genitives, apposition, and constructions containing multiple adjectives. In her case morphology section, Gholami shows examples of a two case system in the singular and plural (direct and oblique). She observes that the plural ending was generalized and that case distinction is very rare and concludes that such a distinction faded from use. Gholami also notes various word orders with respect to proper nouns and particles. It seems that although such nouns generally occur head final, there are some exceptions. Interestingly, Bactrian adjectival morphology is quite rich. Adjectives are formed from nouns via prefixes and suffixes, such as ‘belonging to’ or ‘likeness’, and get inflected for number only. Additionally, adjectives can occur in various positions in the nominal phrase, either before or after the noun (similar to Italian), or in a long distance relationship, separated by genitives and prepositions. Gholami does not posit a structure for adjectives, but does suggest that there may be a semantic difference between the orders. Another possibility is that it may be due to nominal topic or focus, which could be explored by examining the context (cf. Aboh 2004, Giusti 1996, Ntelitheos 2006). However, only fragments are given in this chapter.

Chapter Four discusses Bactrian pronouns. Bactrian makes use of both full and enclitic pronouns. The enclitic pronouns can be attached to conjunctions and prepositions. Interestingly, Bactrian does not use full third person pronouns, but rather demonstratives instead. Demonstratives in Bactrian, which have a variety of forms, can occur with or without a copula. In cases where no copula is used, Gholami concludes that demonstratives are also used in the function of a copula in Bactrian. However, it is odd that she does not address the notion that there is just a null copula in use, which is common in a case based system, as found in Latin and Greek (Danckaert 2012, Lewis 2014, Liceras et al. 2012). Also in the chapter, Gholami discusses reflexives (which has two reflexive pronoun and two reflexive adjective forms), indefinite pronouns (divided into two groups: animate and inanimate), possessive pronouns, and relative pronouns.

Chapter Five surveys prepositions and postpositions. Here Gholami makes a comparison with the Yidgha-Munji and Sanlechi (Pamir languages) in that a preposition can be used to mark the object of a transitive verb. She also notes that the preposition αβο [abo] can be used to mark an indirect object, which can also be inanimate and can occur with infinitives. Prepositions can be suffixed or prefixed to other words such as substantives and make a compound, such as an adjective or adverb. They can also be suffixed to conjunctions and negation particles.

Chapter Six discusses Adverbs, which can surface via suffixation. Gholami notes three kinds of adverbs in Bactrian: (i) words which only play the role of an adverb, such as ωσο [ōso] ‘now’, οαλο [oalo] ‘then’, and ταλο [talo] ‘there’; (ii) adverbs which are also used as pre-verbs and prepositions; and (iii) words that are nouns or adjectives, but used as an adverb. Adverbs in Bactrian occur in different syntactic positions , which is expected considering that they vary in their distribution in other languages and that adverbs are generally thought to merge at the phrase level at various positions in the hierarchy (Cinque 1999, 2004).

Chapter Seven discusses the various phrases level projections that can be conjoined. Conjunctions are observed to coordinate only words, nominal phrases, and clauses with words, nominal phrases, and clauses respectively. The only exception to this is αφαρσιδο [afarsido] ‘but, except’, which coordinates a clause with a nominal phrase. However, Gholami notes that this is rare and is found only in two documents.

Chapter Eight focuses on the verb. Interestingly, the verb can occur in various positions in the clause (such as either in the beginning, middle, or end of a clause) and in different orders between the main verb and embedded verb. For instance, infinitives can either precede or follow the main verb. Additionally, the verb tends to occur in the singular in non-ergative constructions, when there is more than one subject (as in coordinated subjects).

Chapter Nine gives special attention to word order. Similar to Latin, Bactrian has a flexible word order (perhaps due to topic and focus (Giusti 1996, Danckaert 2012); however Gholami does not provide any such discussion). In a transitive verb sentence the following word orders are possible: O-S-V (Object-Subject-Verb), O-V (where the subject is omitted), V-S-O, S-V-O, and S-O-V, with the latter being the most common. Gholami notes that due to a lack of material, it is not possible to take an in-depth survey or the word order in Bactrian.

Chapter Ten covers Bactrian compounds, both exocentric and endocentric. Gholami provides examples of compounds in the following orders. If the first element is a noun, it can be followed by a noun, adjective, suffix, adverb, or preposition or past stem. If the first element is an adjective, it can be followed by a noun, adjective, or preposition or past stem. If the first element is a number, prefix, or a preposition or past stem, it can only be followed by a noun. If the first element is a preposition, it can be followed by a noun, adjective, or adverb.


Overall this book presents a detailed catalogue of Bactrian, and it gives the reader a general impression of the structure of the language, while giving a few comparisons to other languages. Generally speaking, the book is a good source of data for historical phonologists and to some extent for those working on syntax or morphology.

As mentioned above, a reader would benefit if they already had a working knowledge of the Greek Script. Fortunately, I do have such knowledge, but I would think that if a reader did not, they would be forced to continually check Gholami’s charts, where she puts the only transliterations.

Readers may also fault Gholami for making numerous assumptions on sound change and syntax (a few of these were pointed out in the summary). It would seem that she is assuming the scholars she frequently cites, such as Sims-Williams.

If a second edition were to be written, I would suggest that Gholami provides transliterations for all her data, justify (or at least explain) her assumptions, make use of standardized IPA characters (especially for the phonology chapter), and remove minor sections from the table of contents and perhaps put them in an index (chapter 2 in the table of contents spans seven pages, making it hard to search).

However, the shortcomings of this book can be overlooked by a reader in search of Bactrian data or specific phenomena, as it is indeed a useful tool.


Aboh, Enoch. 2004. Topic and focus within D. Linguistics in the Netherlands. 1-12.

Cinque, Guglielmo. 1999. Adverbs and functional heads: A cross-linguistic perspective. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Cinque, Guglielmo. 2004. Issues in adverbial syntax. Lingua 114.6: 683-710.

Danckaert, Lieven. 2012. Latin embedded clauses: The left periphery series 184. John Benjamins.

Giusti, Giuliana. 1996. Is there a FocusP and a TopicP in the Noun Phrase structure? UVWPL 6. 105-128.

Lewis, Blake. 2014. The syntax and semantics of demonstratives: a DP-external approach. Proceedings of the 2014 Canadian Linguistics Association conference. 1-15.

Liceras, Juana M., Raquel Fernández Fuertes, & Anahí Alba de la Fuente. 2012. Overt subjects and copula omission in the Spanish and the English grammar of English–Spanish bilinguals: On the locus and directionality of interlinguistic influence. First Language 32.1-2: 88-115.

Ntelitheos, Dimitrios. 2004. Syntax of elliptical and discontinuous nominals. Unpublished MA thesis: UCLA: California.
Blake Lewis is a Masters graduate student in the department of Linguistics, Languages, and Culture at the University of Calgary. His research interests include the syntax-semantics interface, demonstratives, time, modality, and nominal-clausal parallelism. He focuses on the languages Latin, Greek, and Blackfoot.

Format: Paperback
ISBN-13: 9783447103008
Pages: 238
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