Ossetic language

Ossetic language
Spoken in

 Russia (North Ossetia)

 South Ossetia (recognized as independent by Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Nauru)
Ethnicity Ossetians
Native speakers ca. 640,000  (no date)
Language family
Official status
Regulated by No official regulation
Language codes
ISO 639-1 os
ISO 639-2 oss
ISO 639-3 oss
Linguasphere 58-ABB-a
Oseta latina skribo.jpg
Ossetian text from a book published in 1935. Part of an alphabetic list of proverbs. Latin script.
The Ethnolinguistic patchwork of the modern Caucasus - CIA map

Ossetian (Ирон æвзаг, Iron ævzag), also sometimes called Ossete,[1] is an East Iranian language spoken in Ossetia, a region on the slopes of the Caucasus Mountains.

The area in Russia is known as North Ossetia-Alania, while the area south of the border is referred to as South Ossetia, recognized by Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Nauru as an independent state but by the rest of the international community as part of Georgia. Ossetian speakers number about 525,000, sixty percent of whom live in North Ossetia-Alania, and ten percent in South Ossetia.[citation needed]


History and classification

Ossetian is the spoken and literary language of the Ossetes, a people living in the central part of the Caucasus and constituting the basic population of the republic of North Ossetia-Alania, which belongs to the Russian Federation, and of the South Ossetia, which is de facto independent (belongs to the Georgian Republic according to most other states). Ossetian belongs to the Northern subgroup of the Eastern-Iranian group of the Indo-European family of languages. Thus, it is genetically related to the other Eastern-Iranian languages, e.g. Pashto and Yaghnobi.

From deep Antiquity (since the 7th-8th centuries B.C.), the languages of the Iranian group were distributed in a vast territory including present-day Iran (Persia), Central Asia, Eastern Europe and the Caucasus. Ossetian is the sole survivor of the northeastern branch of Iranian languages known as Scythian. The Scythian group included numerous tribes, known in ancient sources as the Scythians, Massagetae, Saka, Sarmatians, Alans and Roxolans. The more easterly Khorezmians and the Sogdians were also closely affiliated, in linguistic terms.

Ossetian, together with Kurdish, Tati and Talyshi, is one of the main Iranian languages with a sizable community of speakers in the Caucasus. It is descended from Alanic, the language of the Alans, medieval tribes emerging from the earlier Sarmatians. It is believed to be the only surviving descendant of a Sarmatian language. The closest genetically related language is the Yaghnobi language of Tajikistan, the only other living member of the Northeastern Iranian branch.[2][3] Ossetian has a plural formed by the suffix -ta, a feature it shares with Yaghnobi, Sarmatian and the now-extinct Sogdian; this is taken as evidence of a formerly wide-ranging Iranian-language dialect continuum on the Central Asian steppe. The Greek-derived names of ancient Iranian tribes in fact reflect this pluralization, e.g. Saromatae (Σαρομάται) and Masagetae (Μασαγέται).[4]

Evidence for Medieval Ossetian

The earliest known written sample of Ossetian is an inscription which dates from the 10th to 12th centuries CE and was found near the River Bolshoi Zelenchuk at Arkhyz. The text is written in the Greek alphabet, with special digraphs.


This transliterates as:

Saxiri Furt Xovs
Istori Furt Bæqætar
Bæqætari Furt Æmbalan
Æmbalani Furt Lak
Ani čirtī

This translates to English as "K., son of S., son of I., son of B., son of A.; [this is] their monument." [5]

The only other extant record of Proto-Ossetic are the two lines of "Alanic" phrases appearing in the Theogony of John Tzetzes, a twelfth-century Byzantine poet and grammarian:

Τοῖς ἀλανοῖς προσφθέγγομαι κατά τήν τούτων γλῶσσαν
Καλή ημέρα σου αὐθεντα μου αρχόντισσα πόθεν εἶσαι

Ταπαγχὰς μέσφιλι χσινὰ κορθὶ κάντα καὶ τ’άλλα
ἂν ὃ ἒχη ἀλάνισσα παπὰν φίλον ἀκούσαις ταῦτα
οὐκ αἰσχύνεσσι αὐθέντρια μου νὰ μου γαμὴ τὸ μουνί σου παπᾶς

τὸ φάρνετζ κίντζι μέσφιλι καίτζ φουὰ σαοῦγγε[6]

The italicized portions above are Ossetian. Going beyond a direct transliteration of the Greek text, scholars have attempted a phonological reconstruction using the Greek as clues, thus, while τ (tau) would usually be given the value "t," it instead is "d," which is thought to be the way the early Ossetes would have pronounced it. The scholarly transliteration of the Alanic phrases is: "dæ ban xʷærz,mæ sfili, (æ)xsinjæ kurθi kændæ" and "du farnitz, kintzæ mæ sfili, kajci fæ wa sawgin?"; equivalents in modern Ossetian would be "Dæ bon xwarz, me’fšini ‘xšinæ, kurdigæj dæ?" and "(De’) f(s)arm neč(ij), kinźi æfšini xæcc(æ) (ku) fæwwa sawgin".[7] The passage translates as:

The Alans I greet in their language:
"Good day to you my lord's lady, where are you from?"
"Good day to you my lord's lady, where are you from?" and other things:
When an Alan woman takes a priest as a lover, you might hear this:
"Aren't you ashamed, my lordly lady, that your cunt is being fucked by a priest?"
"Aren't you ashamed, my lady, to have a love affair with the priest?"[6][7]

There are also recently found marginalia to Greek religious books with some parts (like headlines) of the book translated into Old Ossetic.

It is theorized that during the Proto-Ossetic phase, Ossetian underwent a process of phonological change conditioned by a Rhythmusgesetz or "Rhythm-law" whereby nouns were divided into two classes, those heavily or lightly stressed. "Heavy-stem" nouns possessed a "heavy" long vowel or diphthong, and were stressed on the first-occurring syllable of this type; "light-stem" nouns were stressed on their final syllable. This is precisely the situation observed in the earliest (though admittedly scanty) records of Ossetian presented above.[8] This situation also obtains in Modern Ossetian, although the emphasis in Digor is also affected by the "openness" of the vowel.[9] The trend is also found in a Jassic glossary dating from 1422.[10]


There are two important dialects: Iron and Digor—the former being the more widely spoken. Written Ossetian may be immediately recognized by its use of the Cyrillic letter Ae (Ӕ ӕ), a letter to be found in no other language using a Cyrillic alphabet. A third dialect of Ossetian, Jassic, was formerly spoken in Hungary. The overwhelming majority of Ossetes speak the Iron dialect, and the literary language is based on it. The creator of the Ossetian literary language is the national poet Kosta Xetagurov (1859–1906).[2]


Ossetic has 7 vowels:

Front Central Back
Close и /i/ ы /ɨ/ у /u/
Mid е /e/ æ /ə/ о /o/
Open а /a/

Ossetian researcher V.I. Abaev distinguishes 26 consonants, to which five labialized consonants and two semivowels may be added. Unusually for an Indo-European language, there is a series of glottalized (ejective) stops and affricates. This can be considered an areal feature of languages of the Caucasus.

Labial Dental/
Velar[11] Uvular[11]
Plain Labialized Plain Labialized
Stops Voiced б /b/ д /d/ г /ɡ/ гу /ɡʷ/
Voiceless п /p/ т /t/ к /k/ ку /kʷ/ хъ /q/ хъу /qʷ/
Ejective пъ /pʼ/ тъ /tʼ/ къ /kʼ/ къу /kʷʼ/
Affricates Voiced дз /dz/ дж /dʒ/
Voiceless ц /ts/ ч /tʃ/
Ejective цъ /tsʼ/ чъ /tʃʼ/
Fricatives Voiced в /v/ з /z/ гъ /ʁ/
Voiceless ф /f/ с /s/ х /χ/ ху /χʷ/
Nasals м /m/ н /n/
Lateral л /l/
Rhotic р /r/
Approximants й /j/ у /w/

The phonetic realization of /s/ and /z/ varies between [s], [z] and [ʃ], [ʒ]. Voiceless consonants become voiced word-medially (this is reflected in the orthography as well). /tʃ/, /dʒ/, and /tʃʼ/ were originally allophones of /k/, /ɡ/, and /kʼ/ when followed by /e/, /i/ and /ɨ/; this alternation is still retained to a large extent.

Stress normally falls on the first syllable, unless it has a "weak" vowel (/ə/ or /ɨ/), in which case it falls on the second syllable. In the Iron dialect, definiteness is expressed in post-initially stressed words by shifting the stress to the initial syllable. This reflects the fact that historically they received a syllabic definite article (as they still do in the Digor dialect), and the addition of the syllable caused the stress to shift.[2]


According to V.I. Abaev,

In the course of centuries-long propinquity to and intercourse with Caucasian languages, Ossetian became similar to them in some features, particularly in phonetics and lexicon. However, it retained its grammatical structure and basic lexical stock; its relationship with the Iranian family, despite considerable individual traits, does not arouse any doubt.

According to the Encyclopædia Britannica 2006[12] Ossetian preserves many archaic features of Old Iranian, such as eight cases and verbal prefixes. It is debated what part of these cases are actually inherited from Indo-Iranian case morphemes and what part have re-developed, after the loss of the original case forms, through cliticiziation of adverbs or re-interpretations of derivational suffixes: the number of "inherited" cases according to different scholars ranges from as few as three (nominative, genitive and inessive) to as many as six (nominative, dative, ablative, directive, inessive). Some (the comitative, equative, and adessive) are secondary beyond any doubt.[13]

Nouns and adjectives share the same morphology and distinguish two numbers (singular and plural) and nine cases: nominative, genitive, dative, directive, ablative, inessive, adessive, equative, and comitative. Unusually for an Indo-European language, the nominal morphology is agglutinative: the case suffixes and the number suffix are separate, the case suffixes are the same for both numbers and the number suffix is the same for all cases. Definiteness is also expressed. There is no grammatical gender.[2]

Verbs distinguish six persons (1st, 2nd and 3d, singular and plural), three tenses (present, past and future, all expressed synthetically), and three moods (indicative, subjunctive, imperative). The person, tense and mood morphemes are mostly fused. Passive voice is expressed periphrastically with the past passive participle and an auxiliary verb meaning "to go"; causative and reflexive meaning are also expressed by periphrastic constructions. Verbs may belong to one of two lexical aspects (perfective vs imperfective); these are expressed by prefixes, which often have prepositional origin. There is an infinitive (morphologically coinciding with the 1st person singular, but syntactically forming a nominal phrase), four participles (present and past active, past passive, and future), and a gerund. Vowel and consonant alternations occur between the present and past stems of the verb and between intransitive and transitive forms. Intransitive and transitive verbs also differ in the endings they take in the past tense (in intransitive verbs, the construction is, in origin, a periphrastic combination of the past passive participle and the verb "to be").[2]

Ossetic uses mostly postpositions (derived from nouns), although two prepositions exist in the language. Noun modifiers precede nouns. The word order is not rigid, but tends towards SOV. The morphosyntactic alignment is nominative–accusative, although there is no accusative case: rather, the direct object is in the nominative (typically if inanimate or indefinite) or in the genitive (typically if animate or definite).[2]

For numerals above twenty, two systems are in use - a decimal one used officially, and a vigesimal one used colloquially.[2]

Writing system

Ossetic text written with Georgian script, from a book on Ossetian folklore published in 1940 in South Ossetia

Prior to the Russian conquest, Ossetian was reportedly an unwritten language. After the Russian conquest Ossetians used the Cyrillic script: the first Ossetian book being published in Cyrillic letters in 1798. At the same time the Georgian script was used in some regions to the south of the Caucasian mountains: in 1820 I.Yalguzidze published an alphabetic primer, modifying the Georgian alphabet with 3 special characters. That Georgian-based script was in use in the territory of South Ossetia (Georgian autonomy) in 1937–1954

A Cyrillic alphabet was created by a Russian scientist of Finnish-Swedish origin Andreas Sjögren in 1844: there were separate letters for each sound in that alphabet (much like in the modern Abkhaz alphabet). After a brief experiment with a Latin alphabet, Soviet authorities in 1937 returned to a Cyrillic alphabet, with digraphs introduced to replace most diacritics (while the Georgian-based script was then introduced in South Ossetia and used there until 1954[14]). The "one nation - two alphabets" issue caused an uprising in South Ossetia in the year 1951 demanding reunification of the script.

The modern Cyrillic alphabet, used since 1937, with values for the Iron dialect in the IPA. Letters in parentheses are not officially in the alphabet but are listed here to represent distinctive sounds:

Modern Cyrillic alphabet
Letter А Ӕ Б В Г (Гу) Гъ (Гъу) Д Дж Дз Е З И Й К (Ку) Къ (Къу) Л
a ӕ б в г (гу) гъ (гъу) д дж дз е з и й к (ку) къ (къу) л
IPA /a/ /ə/ /b/ /v/ /ɡ/ /ɡʷ/ /ʁ/ /ʁʷ/ /d/ /d͡ʒ/ /d͡z/ /e/ /z~ʒ/ /i/ /j/ /k/ /kʷ/ /kʼ/ /kʷʼ/ /l/
Letter М Н О П Пъ Р С Т Тъ У Ф Х (Ху) Хъ (Хъу) Ц Цъ Ч Чъ Ы
м н о п пъ р с т тъ у ф х (ху) хъ (хъу) ц цъ ч чъ ы
IPA /m/ /n/ /o/ /p/ /pʼ/ /r/ /s~ʃ/ /t/ /tʼ/ /u, w/ /f/ /χ/ /χʷ/ /q/ /qʷ/ /t͡s/ /t͡sʼ/ /t͡ʃ/ /t͡ʃʼ/ /ɨ/

In addition, the letters ⟨ё⟩, ⟨ж⟩, ⟨ш⟩, ⟨щ⟩, ⟨ъ⟩, ⟨ь⟩, ⟨э⟩, ⟨ю⟩, and ⟨я⟩ are used to transcribe Russian loans.

The Latin alphabet (used 1923-1937)
Letter A Æ B C Ch Č Čh D Dz E F G Gu H Hu I J K Ku
a æ b c ch č čh d dz e f g gu h hu i j k ku
IPA /a/ /ə/ /b/ /ts/ /tsʼ/ /t͡ʃ/ /t͡ʃʼ/ /d/ /d͡z/ /d͡ʒ/ /e/ /f/ /ɡ/ /ɡʷ/ /ʁ/ /ʁʷ/ /i/ /j/ /k/ /kʷ/
Letter Kh Khu L M N O P Ph Q Qu R S T Th U V X Xu Y Z
kh khu l m n o p ph q qu r s t th u v x xu y z
IPA /kʼ/ /kʷʼ/ /l/ /m/ /n/ /o/ /p/ /pʼ/ /q/ /qʷ/ /r/ /s~ʃ/ /t/ /tʼ/ /u, w/ /v/ /χ/ /χʷ/ /ɨ/ /z~ʒ/

In addition, the letters ⟨š⟩ and ⟨ž⟩ were used to transcribe Russian words. The "weak" vowels ⟨æ⟩ [ə] and ⟨ы⟩ [ɨ] are extremely common in the language.

Language usage

The first page of the first issue of the Ossetian newspaper "Ræstdzinad". Sjögren's Cyrillic alphabet. 1923

The first printed book in Ossetian appeared in 1798. The first newspaper, Iron Gazet, appeared on July 23, 1906 in Vladikavkaz. The first complete translation of the Bible appeared in 2010 in Vladikavkaz, the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures in modern-day Ossetian.[15]

While Ossetian is the official language in both South and North Ossetia (along with Russian), its official use is limited to publishing new laws in Ossetian newspapers. There are two daily newspapers in Ossetian: Ræstdzinad (Рæстдзинад, "Truth") in the North and Xurzærin (Хурзæрин, "The Sun") in the South. Some smaller newspapers, such as district newspapers, use Ossetian for some articles. There is a monthly magazine Max dug (Мах дуг, "Our era"), mostly devoted to contemporary Ossetian fiction and poetry. The Watchtower magazine, published by Jehovah's Witnesses, is available in a quarterly edition and a monthly study edition; as well as a web site in Ossetian from the same publishers.[16]

Ossetian is taught in secondary schools for all pupils. Native Ossetian speakers also take courses in Ossetian literature.


The following table illustrates some common words and gives cognates in other Indo-European languages.

Meaning fire month new mother sister night nose three red yellow green wolf
Translations into different languages
Ossetian арт
Sanskrit agni/atar māsa nava matar svasā rātri nāsa traya rudhira peeta harita vrkis
Kurdish agir mang mak/daik xoşk şev difn/lut sor zer kesk/şîn gurg
Pashto اور
Persian آتش
بینی / پوزه
poze / bini
بور/ زرد
zard / bur
Hindi āg mahīna nayā behn rāt nāk tīn lāl pīlā harā bheyrryā
English fire month new mother sister night nose three red yellow green wolf
German Feuer Monat neu Mutter Schwester Nacht Nase drei rot gelb grün Wolf
Latin ignis mēnsis novus māter soror nox nasus trēs ruber flāvus, gilvus viridis lupus
French feu mois nouveau mère sœur nuit nez trois rouge jaune vert loup
Italian fuoco mese nuovo madre sorella notte naso tre rosso giallo verde lupo
Spanish fuego mes nuevo madre hermana noche nariz tres rojo amarillo verde lobo
Catalan foc mes nou mare germana nit nas tres roig / vermell groc verd llop
Romanian foc luna nou mamă soră noapte nas trei roşu galben verde lup
Greek φωτιά
Lithuanian ugnis mėnuo naujas motina sesuo naktis nosis trys raudona geltona žalias vilkas
Bulgarian огън
Russian огонь
красный, рыжий
krasnyi, ryzhyi

See also


  1. ^ Dictionary of Languages by Andrew Dalby, Bloomsbury Press 1998
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Abaev, V. I. A Grammatical Sketch of Ossetian. Translated by Stephen P. Hill and edited by Herbert H. Paper, 1964 [1]
  3. ^ Thordarson, Fridrik. 1989. Ossetic. Compendium Linguarum Iranicarum, ed. by Rudiger Schmitt, 456-79. Wiesbaden: Reichert. [2]
  4. ^ Ronald Kim, "On the Historical Phonology of Ossetic: Origins of the Oblique Case Suffix,"Journal of the American Oriental Society, Jan-Mar2003, Vol. 123 Issue 1, p. 69
  5. ^ op. cit., pp. 55-6. The original, following Zgusta, translates only initials; presumably this is because although the uninflected forms may be inferred, no written records of them have been found to date.
  6. ^ a b Ladislav Zgusta, "The old Ossetic Inscription from the River Zelenčuk" (Veröffentlichungen der Iranischen Kommission = Sitzungsberichte der österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften. Philosophisch-historische Klasse 486) Wien:Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1987. ISBN 3-7001-0994-6 in Kim, op.cit., 54.
  7. ^ a b Kambolov, Tamerlan (2007). "Some New Observations on the Zelenchuk Inscription and Tzetzes’ Alanic Phrases". Scythians, Sarmatians, Alans – Iranian-Speaking Nomads of the Eurasian Steppes (7–10 May 2007): Abstracts. Barcelona. pp. 21–22. http://seneca.uab.es/antiguitat/SCYTHIANS/CONGRESS%20Files/Abstracts%20Barcelona.pdf. Retrieved 2008-12-06. 
  8. ^ Ronald Kim, "On the Historical Phonology of Ossetic: Origins of the Oblique Case Suffix,"Journal of the American Oriental Society, Jan-Mar2003, Vol. 123 Issue 1, p. 47
  9. ^ Zgusta, op. cit., 51
  10. ^ Zgusta, op. cit., 55
  11. ^ a b It should be noted that despite the transcription used here, Abaev refers to /k/ and /ɡ/ as "postpalatal" rather than velar, and to /q/, /χ/ and /ʁ/ as velar rather than uvular.
  12. ^ Ossetic language. (2006). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved August 26, 2006, from Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service: http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-9057571
  13. ^ Т.Т. Камболов. 2006 Очерк истории осетинского языка. p.330-339
  14. ^ Correspondance table between the Georgian based and the modern script with examples of use (Russian)
  15. ^ Jehovah’s Witnesses release first complete Bible in Ossetian
  16. ^ Watchtower.org in Ossetian language


  • Abaev, V.I. A grammatical sketch of Ossetic (Russian version)
  • Abaev, V.I. Ossetian Language and Folklore, USSR Academy of Sciences, Moscow-Leningrad, 1949
  • Arys-Djanaieva, Lora. Parlons Ossète. Paris: L'Harmattan, 2004, ISBN 2-7475-6235-2.
  • Nasidze et al., Genetic Evidence Concerning the Origins of South and North Ossetians. Annals of Human Genetics 68 (6), 588-599(2004)

External links

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