Persian ezāfe as a contact-induced feature

2020. №5, 91-114

Ilya S. Yakubovich
Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow, Russia;


The paper addresses the origin of the right-branching morphosyntactic pattern known as the ezāfe construction, which permeates the Persian noun phrase syntax. In Section 1, I attempt to demonstrate that this construction poses challenges for word order typology. Furthermore, it represents a deviation from the pattern of left-branching, predominant in the nominal syntax of those modern Iranian languages that avoided intensive contacts with Persian. In Section 2, I extend the analysis to Old and Middle Iranian and argue that the right-branching construction with the relative pronoun haya- / taya- functioning as a linker, the ancestor of the later ezāfe construction, was grammaticized in Old Persian. Section 3 constitutes the core of this paper, and presents arguments for the influence of the Elamite language on syntactic restructuring in Old Persian. First, Elamite shares with Persian the unusual combination of the basic SOV word order and right-branching nominal syntax. Second, Elamite constructions with class agreement could plausibly be calqued by noun phrases with the Old Persian relative pronoun haya- / taya- in the linking function. Third, the demonstrable language shift from Elamite to Iranian along the northern shore of the Persian Gulf in the first millennium BCE provides a suitable sociolinguistic correlate for partial syntactic restructuring in Old Persian. Section 4 tackles the arguments for Urartian, alongside Elamite, aff ecting Iranian nominal syntax, and pleads for their inconclusive character. Section 5 addresses noun phrases in Bactrian, Khwarezmian, and Younger Avestan, which may potentially be used as evidence against the proposed scenario, and off ers their alternative interpretations.

For citation:

Yakubovich I. S. Persian ezāfe as a contact-induced feature. Voprosy Jazykoznanija, 2020, 5: 91–114.


Many ideas underlying this contribution were fi rst discussed in the course of my teaching Old Persian and Middle Iranian languages at the University of Oxford in 2011–2012. The fi rst version of this paper was presented at the 7th International Conference in Iranian Linguistics (ICIL-7), held at the Institute of Asian and African Studies, Moscow State University, between 28–30 August 2017. I am grateful to my former students and colleagues at Oxford and the audience of the Moscow conference for their constructive feedback. Subsequent work on the article benefited from the advice of O. I. Belyaev (Moscow), D. Hitch (Whitehorse, Yukon), Th. Jügel (Frankfurt), V. A. Plungian (Moscow), N. Sims-Williams (Cambridge), J. Tavernier (Louvain-la-Neuve), and two anonymous reviewers. I am much obliged to all these scholars and, needless to say, I am alone to be blamed for my shortcomings.