Linguistic Clues to the Ossetian Past
The genetic classification of the Ossetian language places it in the Northeastern branch (see the bottom right branch in the tree on the left) of the Iranian language family. (As is often the case in linguistic classification, the Iranian language family is itself a branch of an even bigger family, in this instance, of the Indo-European stock.) The closest relatives of Ossetian include Avestan and Sogdian; both are by now extinct. Its closest living relative is the language called Yagnobi, spoken by some 2,000 speaker in a high mountain valley of the Yagnob River in western Tajikistan (see the map below). The better-known “cousins” of the Ossetian language in other branches of the Iranian family include Farsi, Kurdish, Balochi, Hazaragi and Pashto, and are spoken in Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The only other Iranian languages found in the Caucasus region — Tat and Talysh, both spoken in Azerbaijan — belong to a different branch of the Iranian family.
The classification of Ossetian as an Iranian language is based primarily on the abundance of words of Iranian, or more generally Indo-European, origin among its basic vocabulary. For example, the Ossetian word for ‘new’ is næwæg is a cognate of the Pashto nəvay, the Persian now (pronounced like the English no, not like now), and more distantly, the Sanskrit nava, the Russian novyj and even the English new. Similarly, the Ossetian word for ‘mother’ — mad — is cognate with the Pashto mōr, the Persian mādar, the Russian mat’ and the English mother itself (compare it also to the Old English word modor ‘mother’). Other cognates highlight the classification of the Ossetian language as a member of the Iranian family, though no obvious correspondences exist with the western Indo-European languages, like English or Russian. For instance, compare the Ossetian shyrx ‘red’ with its Indo-Aryan cognates: the Pashto sur and the Persian sorx.
Bt the affinity of Ossetian with other Iranian languages can be found not only in the basic vocabulary but also in the deep grammatical patterns of the language. For example, Ossetian is like other Iranian languages in featuring the Subject-Object-Verb order, which is quite unlike the order in most other Indo-European languages, including English, which have the Subject-Verb-Object order. For instance, the sentence ‘The elders gave a name to the boy’ in Ossetian is Xishtærtæ læppujyl nom shæværdtoj, literally, ‘the elders on the boy the name put’. In line with the cross-linguistic typological tendencies, being a Subject-Object-Verb language, Ossetian also has postpositions rather than prepositions, so that words like ‘in’ or ‘to’ appear after rather than before the noun. So, ‘near the house’ in Ossetian is literally ‘house near’ and ‘behind the house’ is ‘house behind’.
Another grammatical pattern that places Ossetian among Iranian languages and distinguishes is quite clearly from languages indigenous to the Caucasus is the way its case system works. To illustrate this, let’s consider the English pronouns first (as English nouns have lost their case marking in the wake of the Norman conquest). In English, a pronoun used as a subject appears in the same form (called “nominative case”) regardless of whether an object is also present or not: thus, He kissed Mary and He left. However, if a pronoun is used as an object, it appears in a different form (called “accusative case”): for example, Mary kissed him (not *Mary kissed he). The same applies to other Indo-European languages, such as Latin, German, Romanian and Russian. In contrast, indigenous Caucasian languages, such as Chechen or Georgian, exhibit a different pattern, called “ergative-absolutive”: unlike in English, the subjects of ‘He kissed him’ and ‘He left’ are not in the same form. Instead, the subject of an object-less (in linguistic lingo, “intransitive”) sentence like ‘He left’ appears in the same form as the object (it is called “absolutive case”), so you can think of these sentences as being literally ‘He kissed him’ and ‘Him left’. The subject that co-occurs with an object is in the so-called “ergative case”, hence the term “ergativity”. Crucially for our discussion, Ossetian patterns with other Indo-European languages and not with Chechen and Georgian in this respect.
However, even thought the Ossetian’s “relationship with the Iranian family, despite considerable individual traits, does not arouse any doubt” (in the words of an Ossetian linguist Vaso Abaev), its two-thousand year sojourn in the Caucasus left an indelible mark on various aspects of the language, including its vocabulary, its sound system, and even its grammar.
As one would expect, Ossetian borrowed numerous words from languages that are indigenous to the region. For example, its southern neighbors the Georgians contributed zwar ‘cross, sanctuary’ (note that both Iron Ossetians and Georgians are Christians), and its western neighbors the Kabardians supplied žatʃ’e ‘beard’. The latter word also features a kind of sound that is commonly found in languages indigenous to the Caucasus, but which is otherwise exotic and not found in other Indo-European languages (except some dialects of Armenian, which must have borrowed it from its Caucasian neighbors too). This sound is the ejective /tʃ’/. It sounds like the first and the last sounds in church but with a certain “spat out” quality to it, achieved by closing the space between the vocal cords (called “glottis”), which greatly raises air pressure in the mouth, creating a dramatic burst of air (don’t try this at home!). In addition to /tʃ’/, Ossetian has four other ejective sounds: /p’/, /t’/, /k’/, and /ts’/, as in p’a ‘kiss’, t’æpp ‘blow’, k’uʃ ‘bowl’, and ts’iu ‘little bird’, all four “spat out” variants of /p/, /t/, /k/, and /ts/ respectively. (You can hear snippets of Ossetian radio shows here.)
As mentioned above, such ejective sounds are relatively rare cross-linguistically: they are found in about 15% of the world’s languages and not in any familiar ones: Athabaskan, Siouan and Salishan languages in North America; Quechua and Aymara (spoken in Bolivia); Amharic (spoken in Ethiopia); Hadza and Sandawe (spoken in Tanzania); Khoisan languages of southern Africa; and Itelmen (spoken in Kamchatka). These language families are unrelated among themselves, which means that ejective sounds arose in multiple places independently. Moreover, if you’ve seen the movie Avatar, you’ve heard some ejective sounds in the made-up language Na’vi.
The similarities between Ossetian and other languages of the Caucasus do not end with just a few borrowed words or sounds, and can be found in some deep grammatical patterns as well. As mentioned above, Ossetian has the kind of case system common among Indo-European languages, where the subject appears in the nominative case regardless of whether an object is also present. However, unlike a typical Indo-European language which makes do with an average of four cases, Ossetian has nine cases: nominative, genitive, dative, allative, ablative, inessive, adessive, equative and comitative. This relatively rich system of cases – including several locative cases such as allative (‘to’), ablative (‘from’), inessive (‘in’), adessive (‘at, on’) – may well be a borrowed Caucasian trait. The Ossetians’ neighbors to the east, especially in Dagestan, are well-known for their very rich systems of cases to mark location and direction: for example, Lezgin (a Lezgic language with some 784,000 speakers mostly in Dagestan) has 14 cases to mark different types of location and direction; Avar (an Avar-Andic language with 788,000 native speaker and also used as a lingua franca of Dagestan) has 20 locative cases; Dido (also known as Tsez, another Avar-Andic language with some 7,000 speakers in southern Dagestan) has 28 locative cases (and 56 cases if the distal/non-distal distinction is taken into account); Tabasaran (a Lezgic language with some 129,000 speakers in southern Dagestan) is said to top the charts with perhaps as many as 53 locative cases, depending on the dialect and analysis. Here’s a couple of examples of what this plethora of locative cases may be used for, both from Dido. Where English marks the ‘in’ relation with the same preposition regardless of whether something is ‘in’ a substance or ‘in’ an empty container, Dido uses two distinct case markers in its translations of ‘There’s a fly in my soup’ and ‘There’s a fly in my bowl’. Similarly, where English uses the same preposition for ‘on’ regardless of whether a horizontal or a vertical surface is involved, as in The picture is on the table and The picture is on the wall, Dido once again marks this distinction via different locative cases. Ossetian, as mentioned above, have some of these locative cases, though not as many as the Dagestanian languages.
The presence of such Caucasian influences on deep grammatical patterns of an otherwise typical Iranian/Indo-European language suggests a certain degree of intermarriage between Iranian-speaking ancestors of the Ossetians – the Alans – and their Caucasian neighbors. When people (usually, women) marry into another linguistic group, they typically pick up the language of their new community, but speak it with the “home accent”, introducing sounds and structures of their native tongue into their adoptive one. Children who grow up in such bilingual families and communities are not able to distinguish the “accented” structures from the native ones and thus mix them even more freely. A few generations down the line such originally “foreign” structures become fully incorporated into the language of the wider community. If so, we should look for both Iranian and Caucasian “genes” among the Ossetians, and indeed we find both (more on this in the next Geocurrents post).
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