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Linguistic Clues to the Ossetian Past

Submitted by on January 17, 2012 – 6:22 pm 8 Comments |  
Ossetians are a unique group in the North Caucasus, in two ways. First, they are the only ethnic group actually found on both the northern and southern slopes of the Caucasus mountain range; North Ossetia-Alania and South Ossetia are connected merely by the Roki Tunnel. Second, apart from such relative newcomers as the Russians, Ossetians are the only group in the North Caucasus to speak an Indo-European language rather than a Caucasian one. Their language, as well as their genetic make-up (to be considered in more detail in the next GeoCurrents post), tells an interesting story, confirming their historical connection to such ancient Iranian-speaking groups as the Scythians, the Sarmatians, and their descendants the Alans. But, as we shall see below, the story of the Ossetians, as revealed by their language, is more complex as it involves close relations with, and heavy influences from, the Caucasian neighbors.

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’ ‘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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  • John Cowan

    I think “t’Qpp” above must be mojibake.  What’s the vowel?

    Non-phonemic ejectives in prepausal positions are becoming common in the English of England: see John Wells’s blog at  

    An interesting borrowing from Proto-Iranian into Proto-Germanic is path, which cannot be an inherited word, as the initial /p/ shows.  Quoth the OED (which is cautious, as befits the dictionary of record):

    The word is apparently restricted to West Germanic; there is no evidence in Gothic or the early Scandinavian languages (but perhaps compare Finnish pade valley, probably < a Germanic language). The forms show that the word must have been in West Germanic before the Christian era. The form of the consonants is problematic. While the final fricative suggests the regular operation of the First Germanic Consonant Shift (Grimm's Law), the origin of the initial p- is debated: according to Grimm's Law, an underlying Indo-European p- should have shifted to f- ; alternatively, Germanic p- could derive from Indo-European *b- , the existence of which is uncertain. The most widely accepted theory sees the word as a borrowing from Iranian, in which Indo-European p- is preserved, and there is alternation between forms with -t- and forms with -θ-; compare Avestan pantā (nominative), paθō (genitive) way, Old Persian pathi- , ultimately < the same Indo-European base as find v. (compare found v.1). This explanation does however pose historical problems, given the limited distribution of the Germanic word. 

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      Thank you for sharing these great points, John! I’ve never heard of the ejectives in British dialects, but it’s worth looking into. And of course, the issue of etymology is a bit of a minefield, as always.

      I will correct that vowel.

  • Andrew Zolnai

    Thanks for the lesson, professor, and for the comments it engenders. Having travelled to Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, and having Armenian ancestry and some friends of Circassian stock, I’m always curious tho woefully uninformed about these regions.

    My great great uncle Zolnai Béla would say “shame on you”, as he worked out the Finno-Ugric link ‘way back when’ I believe… What I think I remember is that words relating to migration / raising had common roots, but not words to do with fishing /sea on Finn side and agriculture / growing on Ugor side – of course Magyars cannot understand Finns today, tho my daughter looked distinctly Sami when she turned three, that was weird!

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Andrew!

  • David Erschler

    Thanks for the nice post. I have a few remarks, however.

    First, it does not seem very likely that Avestan was particularly close to Ossetic. Old Avestan is very archaic, and in that sense might be closer to ancestors of Modern Iranian languages than these languages are to each other. In all likelihood, Scythian was a much closer relative, but it is very meagerly attested: only from Scythian personal names mentioned by Greeks.

    Second, branches of Eastern Iranian languages that are shown on the tree are rather doubtful. Eastern Iranian languages as a whole, as well as some of their subgroups, do not form a genetic unity. In all likelihood, they are remnants of an intra-family Sprachbund (as argued by Sims-Williams 1996 In particular, Pamiri languages form a Sprachbund and not a genetic group, although there are several real genetic groups within the Pamiri.

    Third, the SOV pattern in Ossetic is not indicative of its Iranian origins — this pattern is prevalent in much of Eurasia (except Europe and South East Asia).

    Fourth, it is not very clear whether the extant Ossetic case system is a result of Caucasian influences. Daghestanian languages with their extreme  profusion of cases could not influence Ossetic for geographic reasons — they are too far to the East. On the other hand, the immediate neighbors of Ossetic, Nakh and South Caucasian languages, have relatively modest case systems, whereas in West Caucasian languages they are fairly small: from about 5 in Circassian languages to none in Abkhaz and Abaza.

    Before settling in the Caucasus, ancestors of Ossetians roamed North Eurasian steppes for a millennium or so, and could have interacted with many different populations. In general, Ossetic case system is quite unremarkable by North Eurasian standards, and it is rather hard to trace the sources of influence. The first author to realize this fact was late Fridrik Thordarson, something to this effect is written in his posthumously published “Ossetic grammatical studies”.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      David, thank you for your excellent comments!

      The points that you make about the classification and affinity of Iranian languages are probably valid, and is often the case especially with ancient languages, there’s some disagreement among the sources…

      The point about SOV is also correct. The SOV order is not only the most prevalent, but according to some (, also the oldest word order. So Iranian languages might have gotten it from other languages in Eurasia, or maybe they just never changed from the original SOV order in the first place. The point I was trying to make is that *among Indo-European languages*, Iranian (and Indo-Aryan) ones stand out by being SOV.

      And as for the non-likelihood of Ossetian picking up the rich case system from Dagestanian languages, you are probably right there too. Good point! The ancestor of the Ossetians might have picked those locative cases from some Finno-Ugric groups in western Eurasia, who knows?

  • Dave Hayton

    Wow. These posts (and the discussions which follow) are as wonderful and illuminating as they are rare. Thank you so much for providing such helpful online resources! 

    Without diminishing the true uniqueness of the Ossetians, my own regional fieldwork compels me to ‘speak up’ after reading your opening two paragraphs. You briefly acknowledge – but quickly dismiss – the Tat and the Talysh at the end of your second paragraph. I don’t think that’s fair to your argument.  They are valid Indo-European languages, indigenous to the Caucasus. Accordingly, despite the fact that they belong to a different branch of Iranian languages, your first point for the Ossetians’ uniqueness does seem to soften. 

    I also think that future research in southern Dagestan may reveal an additional handful of living, distinct, ancient Persian ethnicities and languages, heretofore unclassified (e.g. the ‘Jalgan’ of the mountains immediately south of Derbent), which are currently and inadequately grouped with either the Tat or the Azerbaijani. Much more research is needed, but evidence is mounting.

    As far as your second, geographical criterion of uniqueness is concerned, what about the Tat? Or the Lezghi or Tsakhur or Avar – all of whom straddle both sides of the slopes (not just coastal plains) between Dagestan and Azerbaijan? Am I wrong in positing the Dagestani/Azerbaijani border as roughly coterminous with the northern/southern slopes of the Greater Caucasus? If so, please let me know.  I’m trying to learn as much as I can. 

    Forgive me for making a mountain out of a molehill, if that’s what it seems. But with all due respect for Ossetian treasures, the longer I live here, the more I’m becoming a loyal lover and defender of Dagestan’s kaleidoscopic cultural wonder. 

    • Asya Pereltsvaig


      Thank you for your comments!

      Perhaps, I should have phrased it better but I am by no means denying that Tat and Talysh are Indo-European languages. Or that they are interesting and significant. As for Jalgan, I’ve not seen any evidence of any such groups in any demographic data I’ve looked at. So as you say, more research is needed. Your point that Lezgians, Tsakhurs and Avars live on both sides of the mountain range is also well-taken. We are hoping to map the correlation between some of these ethnic groups and the terrain…

      And by no means do I wish to demean “Dagestan’s kaleidoscopic cultural wonder”, as you put it. In fact, the GeoCurrents team is currently working on a map that would represent some of that cultural, ethnic and linguistic diversity in a novel way, so stay tuned!

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