OSSETIC LANGUAGE i. History and description

According to the 1989 Soviet census, Ossetic is spoken by about 500,000 people; of these, about 330,000 live in North Ossetia and 125,000 in Georgia. These figures should, however, be regarded with some caution as a large part of the Ossetic population is bilingual, also speaking Kabardian, Ingush, or Karachay-Balkar.


OSSETIC LANGUAGE, an Iranian language spoken in the Central Caucasus, mainly in the North Ossetic Republic (Alaniya) of the Russian Federation and in the South Ossetic (until 1990, autonomous) area of Georgia. In addition, minor Ossetic settlements exist at various places in the North Caucasus. An Ossetic-speaking population is also found in a few villages in central and eastern Anatolia (Turkey), the descendants of refugees who left their native country in the North Caucasus in the 1860s.

i. History and description.

ii. Ossetic Loanwords.



According to the 1989 Soviet census, Ossetic is spoken by about 500,000 people; of these, about 330,000 live in North Ossetia and 125,000 in Georgia (ca. 64,000 in South Ossetia). These figures should, however, be regarded with some caution as a large part of the Ossetic population is bilingual, speaking at least one of the neighboring languages—Kabardian (Cherkes), Ingush (a Nakh, NE Caucasus language), or Karachay-Balkar (Turkic languages). Knowledge of Russian is also widespread, especially in towns, for Russian serves as a medium of administration and instruction and as a lingua franca for communication with the various neighboring peoples. Bilingualism goes far back and must have characterized the normal social situation from time immemorial all over the North Caucasus. Language shifts and the change of linguistic and tribal borders must therefore have been common.

Ossetic belongs to the eastern branch of the Iranian family of languages. The linguistic ancestors of the present-day Ossetes were Alan tribes who, according to Greek and Roman sources, emigrated from Central Asia to the lands north and east of the Black Sea about the beginning of the Christian era (see ALANS, ASII). The Alans were, in their heyday in the early Middle Ages, a predominant people in the Northwest Caucasus, and their dialects were widespread in the area. The language was gradually ousted by Turkic and Cherkes immigrants from the west and north, and it is now limited to a relatively small region. There is some evidence that the present Ossetic-speaking area was formerly inhabited by Nakh-speaking (Ingush-Chechen, NE Caucasus) tribes. The previous presence of the Alans in the Northwest Caucasus is borne out by a number of place names of Iranian origin in modern Turkish and Cherkes areas.

Ossetic, like its Alanic predecessor, has for millennia been separated from the sister languages of Central Asia, being spoken in non-Iranian surroundings. It has developed certain characteristic peculiarities, in part due to the influence of adjacent languages (Turkic, Caucasic). This applies to vocabulary as well as phonetic and grammatical structure. As regards lexical borrowing, the influence of Turkic languages seems to have been particularly strong.

Among the phonetic and grammatical features that may be ascribed to Caucasus or Turkish interference are the voiceless unaspirated glottalic stops, that is, stops accompanied by a closure of the vocal cords: p’, t’, c’, č’, k’ (q’). The glottalics are mainly found in Caucasic loanwords, but also in a few indigenous words, especially after s: xuịsk’/xusk’ “dry” (< OIr. *huška-). Unlike the Caucasic languages, the functional load of the glottalization is inessential in Ossetic; minimal pairs opposing t’ and t, d, etc. are rare. In loanwords, the Russian voiceless stops and affricates are usually rendered by their glottalic counterparts, even if this practice is not shown by the orthography.

Grammatical features that may be ascribed to North Caucasic (or Turkic?) influence are: the extensive use of a gerundial form (converb) to mark syntactic subordination, the system of orientational preverbs, the development of an intricate case system, the compound verbs consisting of a noun plus an auxiliary that jointly behave as a syntactic unit, the loss of gender, the use of enclitic pronouns and adverbs for anticipating noun phrases. Some of these features are, of course, found in other Iranian languages. Vigesimal (base 20) counting (e.g., fondz-ịssädz- ị “100,” i.e., 5 x 20) is also to all appearances due to Caucasic influence.

In general, however, the Ossetic grammatical structure has been resistant to foreign influence. Especially the verb has roughly retained the character of Old Aryan. The verb is unipersonal, showing concord with only one actant of the clause. Ergativity (see ERGATIVE CONSTRUCTION), which is traditionally considered as common to the Caucasic languages, has not penetrated Ossetic, either syntactically or morphologically. The subject of the verb is almost invariably put in the nominative. Actually, Ossetic has gone through a stage of ergativity: the genitive continues to be used as the subject of the past tense of transitive verbs. This historical stage is also still reflected in the use of the genitive case of the personal pronoun of the 1st and 2nd plural as the subject case. Like most other modern Iranian languages, Ossetic has abandoned the ergative system.

The basic core of the lexicon, words signifying elementary human experience, are mostly of Iranian origin. Turkish and Caucasic loanwords are, as a rule, denotations of social and natural phenomena peculiar to the Caucasus. It is noteworthy that quite a large number of plant names seem to be of Turkish origin.

Preliterary evidence. So far three medieval Alanic texts have been identified and published: (1) an inscription found on the Zelenchuk River in the Northwest Caucasus, dating from the 11th-12th century (see Zgusta); (2) a couple of verses in a manuscript of the Theogony of the Byzantine writer Ioannes Tzetzes (late 12th cent.; see Hunger, 1953); (3) the Yassic word list in a Hungarian document dating from 1422, containing some 40 words with Latin translations from the language of the Yass, descendants of Alan immigrants who together with Turkish Cumans fled from the Mongols about the middle of the 13th century (Németh, 1958; Bielmeier, 1989b; see CODEX CUMANICUS). In addition there exist two short lists of words from the 17th-18th centuries (Bielmeier, 1989a) and a few texts with a list of words and a short grammatical sketch in Julius von Klaproth’s travelogue (II, appendix, pp. 176-224).

Literary language. The first Ossetic book to appear in print was a short catechism by the Archimandrite Gai, printed in Moscow in 1798; it was written in the Cyrillic script with some modifications (see Thordarson, 1989, pp. 457-58). At the beginning of the 19th century Ivane Ialğuzidze (1775-1830) published three Ossetic religious texts, translated from Georgian, and an abecedary; he used the Georgian (xucuri “ecclesiastical”) script, with some adaptations and additional letters. His language was South Ossetic (Akhvlediani, 1960, pp. 80 ff.). About the middle of the 19th century, a writing system was created by the Russian scholar Andreas Johann Sjögren on the basis of the Russian script. This was in general use until the 1920s. In 1923 the Latin script was introduced; it was replaced in North Ossetia in 1938 by a new variant of the Russian alphabet. In 1939 the Georgian (mxedruli “secular”) script, with a few additions, was adopted in South Ossetia. It was abandoned in 1954 in favor of the North Ossetic Cyrillic script (TABLE 1).

Khetägkatị K’osta (1859-1906), the national poet of Ossetia, is traditionally regarded as the “father” of Ossetic literature. His collection of poems, Iron fändịr (Ossetic lyre), was written in the Iron dialect. In the 20th century, especially after the Revolution of 1917, an abundant literature evolved, almost entirely in Iron. The Ossetes also possess a rich folklore; of special importance is the oral Nart epic cycle, known all over the North Caucasus, but no doubt rooted in ancient Iranian epic poetry and mythology.


Ossetic falls into two distinct dialects which are barely mutually intelligible: Iron (Iron ävzag, East Oss.) and Digor (Dịguron ävzag, West Oss.; see DIGOR and IRON). There is some variation within each dialect; the idiom of the South Ossetes is a variant of Iron. The literary and administrative language is based on Iron. In all essentials Digor represents a more archaic stage of development; the relationship of the dialects can be described in the terms of a focal versus a marginal dialect. Innovations have arisen in the eastern areas around Vladikavkaz (Oss. Dzävdžịqäu), from there radiating to the west and south. Both dialects go back to a fairly homogeneous Alanic proto-dialect. One can only make a guess about previous dialectal differences. The language of the medieval documents, as far as their evidence goes, is closer to Digor than Iron, but this is no doubt due to the more archaic character of that dialect. In vocabulary the dialects differ to a considerable extent, but in the main the basic core vocabulary is the same. In their phonological and grammatical structure they are closely related, although the morphological material used in the inflections differs in some instances. These differences may reflect prehistoric dialectal divergences. The inflection of the verb “to be” (uịn/un), some personal endings of the verbs, and the demonstrative pronouns can be mentioned as examples. Case inflection has developed more slowly in Digor than in Iron. In the creation of a symmetric bi-dimensional system of orientational preverbs, Digor is less consistent than Iron. Unlike Iron, Digor retains vestiges of tmesis of the preverb and the verb. The exclusive use of the present optative to express repeated action in the past is another archaic feature of Digor, whereas in Iron the past optative is also used with this meaning. In a variant of Digor, the old decimal system of counting was in use until recently, while Ossetic has in general adopted the Caucasic vigesimal counting.


1. The Iron dialect has the following vowel phonemes: i, , e, ä, a, o, u, a (or a), o, u. The vowels i, e, a, o, u are long (strong Russ. sil’ye), ä short (weak, Russ. slabye); is a high, central vowel, but with a considerable latitude according to the surroundings, having a back variant (IPA in the neighborhood of the velars).

The Digor vowel phonemes are as follows: ī (the long i), i, e, ä, a, o, u. In writing ī and i are not kept distinct (both written i).

Iron i corresponds to Digor e, and u corresponds to Digor o (e.g., iu/ieu “one,” urs/uors “white”). The Digor short vowels i and u have in Iron merged in . In Digor e is found as a sandhi vowel: ä + ä and ä + i, in which case it corresponds to Iron e. In indigenous Iron words, e is normal only as the result of vowel contraction: me’mbal (< mä + ämbal) “my comrade,” festịn (Digor: festun) “arise” < fä + istun. The semivowels j and w are here treated as allophones of i and u respectively.

Diphthongs are: ai, au, äi, iä, iu, ua uä, uị (Iron only), ui.

The historical background of the vowels will be sketched in broad outlines in the following.

OIr. *ai, *au result in Digor e, o and Iron i, u respectively. Digor initial e is preceded by a prethetic i [j] [y?], initial o by u [w]: iu/ieu (< *aiwa-) “one,” urs/uors (< *aurša-) “white”

2. In principle Old Iranian final , short and long i and u have been lost. Initial and medial () becomes ä in both dialects, unless there follow two consonants, when it becomes a: däs (< *dasa-) “ten,” but avd (< *hafta) “seven.” If there is a morpheme boundary between the two consonants,() becomes ä: käs-tär (< *kasu-tara-) “junior”; *ă () also becomes ä if it is followed by another syllable: fäzdäg (< *pazdaka-) “smoke.” In words that had become monosyllabic in old (i.e., pre-dialectal) Ossetic, initial and medial *ă () become o if followed by a consonant cluster starting with n: fondz (< *panča-) “five,” but fändzäm (< *pančama-) “fifth.”

Old Iranian non-final a frequently becomes Digor u, Iron: Digor mud, Iron mịd (< *madu-) “honey,” Digor cuppar, Iron cịppar (< *čaθwāra-) “four” in the neighborhood of u (*w): u-umlaut. OIr. ă > Digor ī, Iron i in the neighborhood of i (*y): innä (beside annä) (< *anya-) “another,” Digor suğzärinä, Iron sịğzärin (gold) (< *suxta- “burnt” + zaranyā- “gold”). OIr. a > Digor i, Iron in the neighborhood of n: Digor find-däs, Iron fịnd-däs (< *panča-dasa-) “fifteen.” (following the author’s article in Compendium, p. 460)

Old Iranian initial and medial *ā > a: Digor and Iron max (< *a(h)māxam-) “we, us,” art (< *āθr-) “fire,” except when a nasal follows, in which case *ā- > on, om: Digor and Iron nom (< *nāman-) “name,” don (< *dānu-) “water.” This narrowing of OIr. *ām/n, which is common to both dialects, is evidently recent, dating from late medieval times (cf. dan “water,” ban “day” in the Yassic list of words). OIr. *ā seems to be shortened before i (*y) in a number of words: Digor mäiä, Iron mäi (< *mā(h)yā-) “moon, month,” but Digor naiun, Iron naiịn “to bathe”; cf. Old Ind. snāyate, but Av. snaiia-. However, *āw > au; cf. the equative suffix -au (<*-āwa-).

3. Before certain suffixes and in compounds, a is shortened to ä. Thus before the plural ending -t(ä): marğ “bird,” pl. märğ-tä, don “water, river,” pl. Digor dänttä-, Iron dättä, ävd-säron (< avd “seven” + sär “head” + the adjectival suffix –on) “seven-headed.” Also occasionally before case endings: Iron färs-ịl “on the side,” adessive of fars “side.” This applies to both dialects. As this vowel shift cannot be explained within the framework of modern Ossetic phonology, it is tempting to assume that it was caused by a dynamic stress on the following syllable at some earlier phase in the development of the language. The syncope of medial vowels is also indicative of a previous prosodic system of free dynamic accent affecting the quantity of the vowel in a preceding syllable, which has been abandoned in the modern language, for instance avg/avgä (< *āpakā´-) “glass,” čịzg/kizgä “girl” (< *kizakā, Turk. qïz) “girl,” the gerund in -äg, if from an oxytone instrumental of a verbal noun in -aka-: *-akā.

4. While Old Iranian * ạ and ā have in principle been kept as distinct phonemes ä, a, Old Iranian short and long i and u have merged in short i and u respectively—a stage that has been retained in Digor. In Iron medial i and u have further merged in : Digor cirğ, Iron cịrğ (< *tigra-) “sharp,” Digor furt, Iron fịrt (< *puθra-) “son.” Initial Digor u- > Iron uị (diphthong): Digor urdug, Iron uịrdịg “upright” (cf. OInd. ūrdhva-, Av. ərədwa-; AirWb., col. 350). In Iron initial is lost: Digor i bälas, Iron bälas “the tree” (i is the definite article, see below).

The Old Iranian diphthong *ai results in Digor e and Iron i, and OIr. *au in Digor o and Iron u: iu/ieu (< *aiwa-) “one,” urs/uors (< *aurća-) “white” (cf. Av. auruša-; AirWb., col. 190); Old Iranian initial and medial * becomes är if there follows another syllable: Iron and Digor ärzät (< *ṛzaqa-) “ore,” (cf. Av. ərəzata-; AirWb., col. 352); if no syllable follows, *ṛ > ar: mard (< *mṛta)dead.” Final * > -är: Digor nauär, Iron nuar (with contraction) < *snāwṛ- “vein, sinew.”

5. The relative chronology of the sound changes sketched above needs elucidation, as does the influence of a prehistoric accentuation on the vowel quantity and quality.

6. The consonant phonemes of Iron can be set forth as follows:

Stops: voiced: b d dz dž, g gu

voiceless, aspirated: p t c č k ku q qu

voiceless, glottalized: p’ t’ c’ č’ k’ k’u

Spirants: voiced: v z ğ ğu (h often before initial vowels)

voiceless: f s x xu

Nasals: m

Liquids: l r

Digor has the following consonant phonemes:

Stops: voiced: b d dz g gu

voiceless, aspirated: p t c k ku q qu

voiceless, glottalized: p’ t’ c’ k’ k’u

Spirants: voiced: v z ğ ğu

voiceless: f s x xu

Nasals: m n

Liquids: l r

7. The phonological status of the labiovelars is questionable. They have here (hesitantly) been interpreted as consonant velars (k, x, etc.), followed by u [w], although a monophonemic interpretation may be preferable (,, etc.).

OIr. *xwai becomes Digor xe, Iron xi: xid/xed (<*xwaida-) “sweat.” In Digor ancient *xw is retained before a, ä, while in Iron the labialization is (virtually) lost: Digor xuärun, Iron xärịn “to eat,” but > -o- before a consonant cluster: past participle Digor xuard, Iron xord, Digor xuarz, Iron xorz “good.”

The uvular stops q and qu have penetrated both dialects from neighboring languages. Old Iranian initial *g- has become ğ- in common Ossetic, which is retained in Digor; in Iron it has become q-: Digor ğarm, Iron qarm (< *garma-) “hot.” This development is recent (late 19th-early 20th century) in South Ossetic.

The phonological interpretation of the geminate stops raises problems; some scholars treat them as a fourth series of non-aspirated, non-glottalic, voiceless stops, variously written bb, pp, pb, bp, etc., but it seems most economical to interpret them as clusters on a par with other geminates.

8. OIr. *s and *š, and *z and *ž, have merged into one phoneme: s and z respectively; but the phonetic realization varies considerably in the local idioms. In South Ossetic a dental-alveolar pronunciation prevails, while in North Iron, and at least in Digor variants, a more palatal pronunciation is usual.

The Old Iranian affricates are represented as c and dz. In addition, c derives from *ti/y, *θi/y and *čy (IE. *kʷy): Iron -ịnc, Digor -uncä, (< *-anti) 3rd plural ending (e.g., cärịnc/cäruncä “they live”); Iron, Digor äcäg (< *haθyaka-) “true”; cäuịn/cäuun (< IE. *kʷyew-)to go, come” (cf. Av. š(ii)auu-; AirWb., col. 1714). Digor has only one affricate and one sibilant series, thus retaining the structure of common Old Ossetic. In Iron a secondary affricate series has arisen through the palatalization and later affricatization of the velar stops before front vowels: č, dž (č’), originally were allophones of the velar stops k, k’, g. This development is recent (18th century). Through paradigmatic pressure, the older pronunciation is retained as a variant: lägị beside lädžị, gen. sg. of läg “man.” There is considerable local variation in the phonetic realization of both the sibilants and the affricates (dental-alveolar, alveolo-palatal pronunciation). In South Ossetic the old affricates were realized as č and until the 19th century (probably an archaism). In the modern pronunciation they have become palatal sibilants: šärịn = cärịn “to live,” except after n and when geminated, in which case the palatal affricate is retained: žurịnč “they talk.” The secondary affricates are realized as c, dz (c’). In North Iron a palatal pronunciation of the sibilants predominates: žonịn “I know” = zonịn; the old affricates are here realized as dental sibilants. Thus the main variants of Iron tend towards a system of two sibilant and one affricate series, the same system as in Digor and the Alan proto-dialect.

9. OIr. *t, k, č are retained as voiceless, aspirated stops/affricates. In intervocalic position and after voiced consonants, sonorization is the rule: Iron, Digor zärond (< *zarānt-) “old,” sudzịn/sodzun (< *sauəa-) “to burn” (trans., intr.).

Old Iranian initial *p becomes f- (attested in Sarmatian documents from late antiquity): Iron, Digor fad (< *pāda-) “foot.” In intervocalic position p >b > v: äxsäv/äxsävä (< *xšapan-) “night,” but b is retained after m: ämbịd/ämbud (< *ham-pūta-) “rotten,” and also in words where a preceding vowel has been lost: Digor -bäl, the adessive suffix (Iron -i) (< *upári-) into”; Iron, Digor preverb ba- (< *upá-) in badịn/badun (< *upa-had-) “to sit.” A secondary p (pp) has developed through the assimilation of a labial consonant (semi-vowel) and a preceding stop or spirant: cịppar/cuppar (< *čaθwāra-) “four.” Owing to lexical borrowing, p (p’) has become a common phoneme in the modern language.

Old Iranian initial *b- is represented by b-: Iron, Digor bon (< *bānu-) “day.” In intervocalic position and after voiced consonants (except m) *b > v: davịn/davun (< *dāb-) “to steal,” ävzär “bad” (cf. Av. zbar- “to walk crookedly”; AirWb., col. 1699), but ämbarịn (< *ham-bār-) “to understand.”

OIr. *d is represented by d:darğ (< *darga-) “long,” and -g by ğ except after n, when it remains as g: marğ (< *mṛga-) “bird,” cong (< *čanga-) “arm.” For the development of initial g-, see above.

OIr. *θ > t: Iron, Digor ärtä (< *θrayah-) “three,” art (< *āθr-) “fire,” but ard (< *ṛta- [*arta-?]) “oath.”

OIr. *ri/y results in l: näl (< *narya-) “male.”In a few words l seems to represent IE. *l:läsäg “salmon” (uncertain documentation, but hardly a Russian loanword losos’; cf. Tokh.B. laks, Ger. Lachs, etc. — a Eurasian migratory word?).

10. Consonant clusters, as a rule, consist of two consonants only; clusters of three consonants are found where there is a morpheme boundary within the group. Clusters normally follow the pattern: spirant, nasal, liquid + stop, spirant, liquid. Clusters consisting of two stops seem to occur in loanwords only: fätk’uị/fätk’u “apple”; note, however, what was said above about geminate stops. As in other East Iranian languages, ancient *xt and *ft have been sonorized: avd (< *hafta-) “seven” lịğd/liğd, past participle of lidzin/ledzun “to run away”; cf. Av. irinaxti- (•raēk-, l < *ri- generalized; AirWb., col. 1479; for details of the historical phonology, see Bielmeier, 1977, pp. 18-45; Thordarson, 1989, pp. 459-66, with bibliographical references).

11. Prosody. The accent is a weak expiratory stress. Word accent is subordinate to phrase accent. The flow of speech is divided into prosodic groups, where a single syllable carries the main accent; a secondary accent may fall on other syllables in the group. As a rule, the first syllable of the group is stressed if the vowel is long; if it is short, the second syllable is stressed. In Iron, where an initial is lost, the first syllable of the group is stressed, although the vowel is short. This happens when the definite article, still preserved in Digor, has been elided. Thus we get in Iron minimal pairs: sịrx xädzar “a red house,” the second syllable stressed, = Digor surx xädzarä, but Iron sịrx xädzar “a red house,” the first syllable stressed = Digor i súrx xädzarä. These prosodic features can hardly be old, and are probably to be ascribed to the influence of some Caucasic (East, South?) languages. Possible traces of a previous prosodic type, with a distinctive (free?) accent at the word level have been treated above (Phonology, 3).


1. Noun phrase. We distinguish between three basic parts of speech: nouns, verbs, and indeclinables.

There is no clear-cut distinction between substantives, adjectives, and adverbs. Pronouns and cardinal numerals can be singled out as separate subclasses on the basis of certain morphological and syntactic peculiarities. Lexical items that are classified as adverbs in other languages possess, to some extent, the inflectional properties of nouns: niṛ “now,” niṛ-mä (all.) “until now,” nịr-ị (gen) cardäi mälät xuịzdär u “death is better than the present life.”

Some nominal bases tend to be used primarily or exclusively in one particular capacity; this has to be indicated in the lexicon. Thus, for instance, the suffix -on (<-*āna-) is frequent in the formation of adjectives corresponding to Russ. -sk-: proletaron = Russ. proletarskiĭ.

As a rule, noun phrases are continuous. In most complex noun phrase types, the modifier precedes the noun it modifies. The suffixes that mark the syntactic function of the noun phrase occur only once, in most cases at the end of the phrase. A derivative affix can be added to a complex noun phrase (e.g., the possessive -on: cịppar-k’ax-on “having four feet”). Concord in case and number between the members of the noun phrase is not morphologically marked. The modifier is as a rule put in the nominative (absolute case) or genitive. In the following clause: mäguịr zärond xäxxon lädžịk’ux-äi amad mäsịg u “this is a tower built with hands of a poor old man from the mountains” (lit.: poor old mountaineer man’s [gen.] with-hands [abl.] built tower is).

2. Modifiers. Cases other than the nominative (though hardly the Iron comitative) may occur as modifiers—for instance, the material or partitive ablative; also the case-like prefixes äd- “with,” änä- “without.” In these instances the position of the modifier can be freer than that of the nominative or genitive: birätị kadžịn lägt-äi ämä iäxi ärvadält-äi amardta “he killed many of the worthy men and of his own brothers” (lit.: many [gen. pl.] worthy of-men [abl. pl.] and his [gen. sg.] and of-brothers [abl. pl.] he-killed).

In association with the genitive of enclitic pronoun, the dative can be used as a modifier, expressing possession: män-än mä xo “my sister,” adäm-än sä ku’ist “the work of the people.” The word order can also here be comparatively free. Similar constructions are found in the neighboring Northwest Caucasic languages: Kabardian ḥa-m yə-pa-r “the dog its nose” (dog-obl. 3rd poss. nose-absol.), that is, “the dog’s nose.”

3. Word order. The usual order of the noun phrase (i.e., modifier and head) occurs inverted as a stylistic device; thus traditional surnames follow the proper name, as do epithets: Beduxa räsuğd “Beduxa the beautiful.” Compare also inverted bahuvrīhis: zärdä-ruxs “joyous” (“whose heart is bright”) beside ruxs-zärdä. This type of phrase is especially found in traditional epic style, and is evidently indicative of a previously more flexible word order.

4. Inversion. The head can be put in the genitive followed by the modifier: mä fịdi zärond “my old father.” This type of phrase has been explained as originating from the ancient relative (eżāfa) noun phrase structure (head + *ya- + modifier), the relative *ya- having been identified with the genitive ending by a syntactic re-interpretation (Bailey, 1946, pp. 205-6). In Digor a preclitic i- may precede the noun phrase as a marker of definiteness: i duuä mugkag-än “for the two families (clans).” In Iron, where unstressed initial is lost, definiteness is marked by the shift of accent (cf. Phonology, 11, above).

The article derives from the old relative pronoun *ya- (*ya(h) > i). Ossetic has thus two types of noun phrases, where OIr. *ya- is found: as a definite article and as a link connecting a head with a following modifier, an archaic feature that Ossetic shares with Avestan and Chorasmian.

5. Numerals in the phrase. Cardinal numbers higher than “one” and some quantifying nouns take the genitive singular of the head: däs bäxị “ten horses.” If the noun phrase is used in an oblique case, the case marker is added to the last member in the singular: k’ord läppu-imä “with a group of boys” (com.). This construction probably reflects an old nominative plural in *-ah that has been identified with the homonymous genitive -(< *ah).

6. Comparison. An intensifying or comparative suffix –där (< *-tara-) can be added to a noun; the standard of comparison is put in the ablative: mä xo lägdär u m’efsịmär-äi “my sister is more manly than my brother.” A superlative can be expressed lexically, for instance, äppä-t-äi stịrdär “the greatest of all” (lit. greater than all).

7. Gender. There is no grammatical expression of gender, but natural sex can be expressed lexically: näl “male,” sịl/silä “female” (cf. Av. nar- “man,” strī- “woman;” AirWb., cols. 1047, 1609). The old declensional classes have also disappeared. Digor possesses two declensions, characterized by (1) and (2) zero in the nominative singular. In Iron there is only one declension. The membership of either declension is without a semantic function: Digor fidä “father,” madä “mother” = Iron fịd, mad. The final of the first declension is lost before the endings of oblique cases, except the allative and the adessive, and before the pluralizer -t-. The two declensions of Digor are presumably the result of a transfer of most (all?) nouns to the two thematic classes in *-a(h), and *-ā. A vestige of this division is apparently preserved in Digor, while in Iron the two declensions have been conflated.

8. Plurality. The plural of nouns is expressed by the suffix -t-, nom. –tä. In Iron the -ä is lost before the oblique case endings, while in Digor the case inflection is treated according to the same rules as the of the ä-declension. The pluralizer derives from an Indo-European suffix *tā-, denoting collectivity, plurality, approximation. The same suffix is used as a pluralizer in Sogdian and modern Yaghnobi (Sims–Williams, p. 183; Bielmeier, 1989, p. 483). It is also attested in the Greek rendering of Scythian and Sarmatian ethnic names as early as the 5th century BCE (Massagétai, etc.; see Herodotus 1.201, 1.204). The original collective or amplifying meaning is still reflected in the use of -tä, -tị/ti with adverbs: kuịd-tä “how, in which manners,” amị-tị, uịmị-tị “here, there, in these, those parts,” dälä-tị “below.” It is also noteworthy that number agreement between a plural noun phrase as the subject and the verb is not mandatory. Therefore, we regard the pluralizer as a derivational rather than an inflectional morpheme, which is in agreement with its origin.

9. Case system. Modern grammarians assume nine morphological cases in Iron, namely the nominative (nom.), genitive (gen.), dative (dat.), inessive (iness.), allative (all.), ablative-instrumental (abl.), adessive (add.), equative (equ.), and comitative (com.). In Digor the comitative is lacking. In addition to these primary cases, Ossetic has a number of postpositions, the majority of which are nouns used metaphorically to express local and temporal meanings (secondary cases). Most postpositions are added to the genitive. There are also a few prepositions. Prepositions and postpositions can take markers of number and case: bälas-ị sär-äi “from the top of the tree” (sär “head”). Prepositions with case-like functions are, e.g., äd- “with” (< *hada-), änä- (< *ana), däl- “below” (< *adari-), uäl “above” (< *awari-? or *upari-?), fäs “behind” (< *pasā, cf. Av. pasča-; AirWb., col. 882): fäs-qus-t-äi (abl.) “(from) behind the ears,” änä-sịmax-ba-fars-gä (gerund) “without asking you,” (lit.: without-you-asking).

The nominative (indefinite case, absolute) is as a rule derived from the Old Iranian nominative; nouns like zärond (< *zarānt-) “old,” bärzond (< *bṛzānt-) “high,” and art (< *āθr-) “fire” are most likely based on a thematization of an old oblique case form. Note Digor xuärä (< *xwahar-, obl.-) “sister,” but Iron xo (< *xwahā, nom.). The nominative functions as the subject of both transitive and intransitive verbs as a modifier in complex noun phrases. In competition with the ablative, it is used as a predicative complement. It can express local and temporal meanings; in isolation it can have a naming and a vocative function. In the latter function a few nouns may add the particle -ai (e.g., us-ai “oh woman”).

The genitive functions as a nominal modifier: mä fịdị xädzar “my father’s house,” Dzugatị Iosif “Joseph of the Dzugatä clan.” If the direct object and the subject of a transitive verb both refer to animate things, the object can be put in the genitive, especially if it refers to a definite thing; personal pronouns and proper names always stand in the genitive when they are used as direct objects. With a few affective verbs the genitive marks the experiencer; the verb appears in the 3rd singular: fändị mä, uịrnị mä “I want, I believe.” The ending -ị/i seems to go back to the old athematic genitive suffix *-ah (< -*as; *-ahya would probably have become -*äi).

The dative signifies the abstract notion towards somebody or something, the purpose or result of a process. With three-place verbs it marks the indirect object: acị činịg dịn dädton “I shall give you this book;” nä bäzzịn čịzg-än “I am no good as a girl” (bäzzịn “I am fit for”); ämä mịn us-än cäuị “and she will become my wife, is coming to me as a wife” (predicative use). The ending -än is homonymous with the suffix -än of a verbal noun that signifies purpose, suitability: bad-än “a seat” (bad-ịn “to sit,” ba-cäu-än “entrance,” ba-cäu-ịn “go into”). Historically, the dative ending and the verbal noun in -än are probably identical, going back to Old Iranian nouns in *-ana-.

Ossetic possesses three local cases: inessive, allative, and adessive, all indicating both “where” and “whither,” contrasting with the ablative in the meaning “from where.” The inessive stands as the unmarked locative case, expressing in general a point in time or place: uịcị xädzar-ị “in that house,” acị rästädž-ị “at this time.” The ending -ị/-i goes no doubt back to the OIr. loc. *-.

The allative (locativus exterior) signifies direction towards, and rest at, or by, a place: xädzar-mä acịdi “he went home, to the house.” With three-place verbs it is commutable with the dative: ämä sịn zağta cuanon-t-äm “and he said to them the hunters.” In Iron the allative suffix is -mä in the singular, -m in the plural, Digor -mä in both singular and plural.

The adessive expresses the notion on, along the surface of, according to: däs saxat-ịl “at ten o’clock,” arast is sä fäd-ịl “he set out after them (on their footsteps).” The ending is Iron -ị and Digor –bäl. In Iron a final velar is not affricatized before this case ending (but gen. lädž-ị, “the man’s,” com. lädž-imä “with the man”); at the time when the palatalization/affricatization took place, the Iron ending was still pronounced as -uị (diphthong), still recorded in the texts of Ialğuzidze (see Akhvlediani, 1960).

Unlike the inessive, which derives, as already mentioned, from the Old Iranian locative, the allative and adessive are relatively late additions to the case system. Their
endings go back to old postpositions that were originally added to the nominative. This is borne out by the Digor ä-declension, where -mä, -bäl is added to the nominative, not to the stem, as occurs with the other case endings. Adessive -ịl/bäl goes no doubt back to *upári-. The origin of allative - is not quite clear, but a derivation from *hama- (instr. *hamā?) is a plausible suggestion.

As a local case, the ablative expresses the starting point of an action in place and time: kalak-äi xädzar-mä är-cịdi “he came home from the town.” Its function as the standard of comparison also expresses the ablative notion, as well as its partitive use: avd ärvad-äi kästär “the youngest of the seven brothers.” In its instrumental meaning, it expresses the circumstances accompanying the verbal process or action. Here belongs its use as a predicative complement: am badịnc ast-äi “they sit here eight (in number).” This undoubtedly reflects a similar use of the Old Iranian instrumental. The ending is -äi in both dialects, in Iron -iä after vowels. It seems to go back to either the genitive-ablative of the ā-stems (*āyāh-) or an instrumental in *-ayā or a conflation of both.

The equative expresses how an action proceeds: fatau ataxti “he flew like an arrow,” Iron-au xorz nä dzurịn “I do not speak Ossetic well.” The ending -au goes back to the nominative singular masculine of an adjective in *-āwan-, which also functions as an adverb in Sogdian and Khototanese.

The Iron comitative denotes the second participant in the action: Iron us-imä cärịn “I live with an Ossetic woman.” The ending goes back to *-iu-mä, the allative of iu “one.” Its recent character is evident, as it is absent in Digor, where the comitative meaning is expressed by the postposition xäccä (cf. Av. hamča- “united”[?]; Air.Wb., col. 1778): mä furtt-i xäccä “with my sons,” or by the preposition äd- (< *hada-): äd-don xädzarä-mä ra-cudi “she went home with (the) water.” The formation of the Iron comitative is typologically reminiscent of the Georgian expression mas-tan ert-ad “with him” (dat. + the adess. -tan + adverbial case of erti “one”).

We can thus reconstruct a previous stage of development with four morphological cases, namely nominative, genitive, locative, and ablative-instrumental. With the exception of the comitative, the system is identical in both dialects and must therefore be presumed for the proto-dialect. To this system secondary cases have been added at various stages. In all instances the morphological material used is of Iron origin.

When two or more noun phrases stand paratactically, the syntactic marker appears after the last one: mä mad ämä mä fịd-ị xädzar “the house of my mother and father.”

10. Numerals. Vigesimal counting (i.e., base 20) prevails in both dialects: ịssädz/insäi “twenty,” fondz-ịssädz-ị “one hundred,” cịppar ämä ärt-issädz-ị “sixty-four” (lit. 4 + 3 x 20). The old decimal counting was in use in local Digor idioms until recently, and has in modern times been introduced into the official language. The Caucasian background of the vigesimal counting is probable, although similar systems are found in other East Iranian languages (e.g., Pamir). Ordinal numerals are formed by the ending -äm (Iron) and -äimag (Digor): avdäm/avd-äimag “seventh,” or by -ag:fịccag/ficcag “first” (fịndz/findzä “nose”). This numeral has evidently replaced an older *(f)ratama-, which seems to be attested in Hellenized Scythian-Sarmatian proper names (e.g., Radamophourtos “the first son”). The modern word is typologically reminiscent of Georgian p’irveli “first” (p’iri “mouth”); parallels are also found in other Caucasian languages.

11. Pronouns. The personal pronouns of the first and second person singular are based on the opposition between the nominative and the genitive: nom. äz (Iron, Digor), dị/du “I,” “you” (sg.), gen. män, däu (Iron, Digor). The endings of the other cases are added to the genitive: dat. män-än, däu-än; abl. män-äi, däu-äi. The inflection of the plural is based on the old genitive that serves both as a nominative and genitive: max (< *a(h)māxam), sịmax/sumax (< *yušmāxam- or *šmāxam-). When the pronoun is used as the direct object, the genitive ending of the nominal declension is added: max-ị etc. As a third person pronoun, the demonstrative pronoun uịi/ie (ieiä) “that” is used. Three series of enclitic personal pronouns refer to the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd person singular and plural: gen. sg. mä,, äi, iä/äi, ä, pl. nä,, (Iron, Digor). They are placed after the first prosodic unit of the clause, except the genitive when it is used as a possessive pronoun. Both the enclitic pronoun and enclitic adverb can anticipate a following noun phrase: nä näm (us, encl.) cäuịmaxmä (us) “he is not coming to us.”

Emphatic-reflexive pronouns are derived from the genitive of the enclitic pronoun by adding -xädäg/xuädäg (< *hwataka-), nom., -xi(c)/xe(c) (< *xwai, *xwahya, gen.), the obl. cases: mä-xädäg, nom., mä-xic, gen., mä-xic-äi, abl.“I myself,” etc.

The demonstrative pronouns distinguish between two degrees of proximity. In both dialects a- “this” refers to a near object; in Iron u- (< *awa- or *hau-, or a conflation of both?) “that” is used in reference to a distant object, and in Digor nom. ie, obl. cases uo- (< *ayam-, gen. *awahya?) is used for the same purpose.When used as modifiers, the demonstrative pronouns are followed by the particle cị/ci: ac-ị läg “this man.” In fixed phrases the particle is lacking: a-bon “today.” It is worth noting that in the neighboring languages a system of three-term demonstrative pronoun is the rule. As triple deixis is common in East Iranian languages, it is reasonable to assume that the different lexical elements used by the dialects to express the remote deixis reflect an older three-term system.

The interrogative-relative pronoun distinguishes between animates and inanimate objects: či/ka “who,” cị/ci “what” (< *čid-). Digor ka may go back to * (*ā > a, instead of ä in a monosyllable; cf. ma < *mā- “not”); Iron či seems to be identical with Digor gen. ke (< *kai < *kahya?), in which case Iron gen. käi is an innovation. The inflection is based on the stem kä-/cä-. It is remarkable that the order of the case and plural endings is inverted, the case ending preceding the pluralizer: Digor dat. pl. käm-än-ti, cäm- än-ti. In the Iron comitative, the order is optional: kä-imä-tị = kä-t-imä “with whom? (pl.).” In the dat., iness. abl. -m- (< *-hm- < *-sm-) is inserted before the case ending (cf. Av. loc. kahmi, abl. kahmaṯ). This -m- is partly found in the demonstrative pronoun in the same cases, in Iron only in the sg. am/am-i “here,” uịm/uomi “there,” but Iron adon-ị, Digor anä-mi “in these places.” The interrogative-relative pronoun can be made indefinite by the addition of suffixes or prefixes: či-där “somebody,” či-där-ittär “whoever,” is-či/ies-ke “anybody.” A number of adverbs are derived from the interrogative-relative pronoun (kuịd/ kud “how,” etc.).

12. Verbs. The structure of the verbal inflection is in principle the same in both dialects, but the morphological material used, and its historical background, partly differs.

The verb possesses morphological markers of person and number, tense, mood, and transitivity versus intransitivity. Aspect is mainly expressed by pre-verbs, but also in part by the lexical meaning of the verb. The inflection is based on two stems: the present and the past. From the present stem are formed the present indicative (ind.), subjunctive (subj.), optative (opt.), imperative (imper.), future (fut.), besides verbal nouns, pres. participle (part.) -äg (< *-aka-), future participle -inäg/uinäg (< ?), and the infinitive -ịn/un (< *-una-). The verbal nouns can be inflected for number and case but share properties of the finite verb, for instance, transitivity. A gerund in -gä (> *-akā, OIr. instr.?) is formed from the present stem, which marks the circumstances concomitant with the action expressed by the finite verb. A verbal noun in -än (homonymous with the dative ending; see above, Morphology, 9) denotes fitness, destination: zịn zon-än uịdi “it was hard to understand.” A verbal noun in -ag/agä (< *ākā-) denotes a permanent quality: nuaz-ag “drunkard,” but part. nuaz-äg “drinking” (nuazin “to drink”).

From the past stem in -t (< *-ta-) are formed the past indicative, the optative, and the past participle; as a rule the participle is identical with the past stem. In the past tense transitivity is expressed morphologically, while in the present there is no morphological distinction between transitive and intransitive verbs. A pair of verbs, one transitive and the other intransitive, can be derived from the same root, in which case the intransitive verb is characterized by a short vowel and the transitive verb by a long vowel: quịsịn/iğusun (< *wi-guš-) “to be rumored, audible,” but qusịn/iğosun (< *wi-gauš-) “to hear.” The latter verbs reflect Old Iranian causative in *-aya-.

Intransitive verbs can be formed by the suffix -s- (< *-sa- < IE. *-sk’e/o-). As a rule the stem vowel is short: täf-s-ịn “to become warm,” tav-ịn “to make warm.” Intransitivity (passive) can be expressed by the past participle and the verb cäuịn “to go” (e.g., arazịn “to make,” aräst cäuị “to be made”). The agent is either absent or expressed lexically: xädzar amad cäuị kusdžịtị kuxäi “the house was built by (the hands of) the workers.” An impersonal form can be formed by the past participle, in part by adding a final : nä räğau nịn fä-tard-ä u “our herd (horses) are being driven away.”

Causative verbs are formed by the verb känịn/känun “to do” and the infinitive of the main verb. The verb gets a perfective aspect by the addition of a preverb to the infinitive. The agent of the main verb appears as the object of the verb phrase: avd äfsịmärị är-badịn kodtoi Äxsärtädžị “the seven brothers made Äxsärtäg sit down.” The auxiliary and the main verb appear as a lexical unity.

Verbal composition is a productive way of creating new verbs. A verbal compound consists of a noun and an auxiliary verb, mainly känịn (trans.) and uịn (intr.). Such compounds behave as lexical and syntactic units. The noun can be inflected for number and case. The preverb can be placed either before the auxiliary or the compound as a whole: ra-arfä iịn kodta “he thanked him” or arfä-tä iịl ba-kodta “he thanked for that” (arfäkänịn “to thank”).

The structure of the verbal inflection, unlike that of the noun (which has developed some original features), is highly archaic. The verb has retained the Old Iranian unipersonal inflection, showing grammatical agreement with one nominal argument only (the subject). The distinction between past and present stems and between the past intransitive and transitive inflection is inherited from early Middle Iranian. The modal system (ind., subj., opt., imper.) is archaic. The formatives of the moods are tranformations of the Old Iranian suffixes, although their history is only partly clear. An Ossetic innovation is the formation of the future by means of *čanah- “to wish” and the verb “to be”: Iron -dzịn-, -dzän-, Digor -dzän-, -dzin-: cär-dzịn-än/cär-dzän-än (< *čar-čanah-ah-) “I will live.” The use of periphrases containing lexical elements denoting “wish” to express futurity is a common Iron phenomenon.

The conjugational plethora of Old Iranian has been eliminated. In the present day, all verbs are inflected in the same way except the verb “to be.” The expression of person and number is of the fusional type, much in the same way as in Old Iranian. The historical background of the personal endings raises problems. The comparatively great difference between the dialects is especially noteworthy.

The forms of the verb “to be” derive from various sources: (1) ancient ah- < *as-, (2) bū- < *bhū-, (3) st- < *stā- “to stand,” (4) demonstrative pronoun (3rd sg.): pres. ind. Iron sg. dän,, u, is, pl. stäm, stut, stị, Digor sg. dän,, äi, ie(s), pl. an, aitä, äncä. The d- of the 1st and 2nd sg. (common to both dialects) is enigmatic. The old forms -än, -ä- (< *ahmi-, *ahi-) are found in the future and the intransitive past (cardt-än, cardt-ä from cärịn “to live”). The inflection of the past—Iron uịdtän, uịdtä, uịd(i), uịdịstäm, uịdịstut, uịdịstị—is based on ud- (< *būta-). The same root seems also to be represented in the subj. uon, etc., and the opt. uain, etc. (or uin, etc.), in the imper. u, uäd, etc., in the pres. part. uaväg, fut. –uinag; these forms, however, need historical elucidation. In Digor the past is based on the stem ad (< *hāta-, *ah-): adtän “was,” etc.; but ad- is also found in Iron past opt. fä-c-ad-ain (beside fä-uịd-ain; -c- is inserted to prevent hiatus).

The intransitive past is derived from the past participle and the present stem of the verb “to be”: cịdtän/cudtän “I was going.” The transitive past is also based on the past participle, but otherwise its forms require explanation: sg. kodton, kodtai, kodta (Iron, Digor), pl. kodtam,kodtat, kodtoi/kodtan, kodtaitä, kodtoncä. The personal endings coincide with subjunctive endings, except in the 1st pl. -am/an, vs. subj. -äm/än; but, for both semantic and formal reasons, a derivation of the past from the subjunctive is hardly thinkable.

The present subjunctive Iron, Digor känon, etc. seems to go back to the Old Iranian thematic (?) subjunctive, but the transformations that have taken place are obscure.

An optative is derived from both the present and the past. The optative is formed in the same way by both transitive and intransitive verbs. The optative forms contain an -i- that probably goes back to the old optative suffix *-ī-, but otherwise the formation is obscure. An infix -kk- that appears in the Iron plural forms (pres. käni-kk-am, past kodta-i-kkam) but has no counterpart in Digor is enigmatic.

The present indicative is semantically the unmarked tense and mood. The subjunctive has a prospective meaning, with or without the notion of will. The optative denotes desirability and possibility or supposition. In conditional clauses the optative has a dissociative meaning, being used for hypothetical conditions, while the subjunctive denotes real conditions. To some extent the two moods are interchangeable, particularly in expressions of doubt. An archaism is the use in Digor of the optative present to signify recurrent action in the past; in Iron the optative past is used to express this meaning.

The Iranian derivation of the imperative second and third person (sg. kän/känä, Iron., Digor känäd, pl. känut/kän(e)tä, känänt/känäntä) is clear enough.

A final -ä that is added in some Digor verbal forms (e.g., pres. ind. 2nd and 3rd pl.: kän-et-ä, kän-unc-ä) has not been satisfactorily explained.

The preverbs have a double function. Primarily they mark a local-directional meaning; through metaphorical uses they may change the meaning of the simple verb. They also function as perfectivizers, giving the verb a perfective aspect, more or less losing their concrete semantic content. In their local-directional meaning, the preverbs express the orientation of the action or movement from the speaker’s or observer’s point of view. Thus the preverb a- or ra- marks the notion “out, away” according to the location of the speaker (observer).

In Iron the following preverbs are used, exemplified by cäuịn “to go, come”: a-cịdi “he went out” (the speaker is inside), ra-cịdi “he came out” (the speaker in outside); ba-cịdi “he entered,” ärba-cịdi “he came in;” är-cịdi “he came down, arrived;” nị-ccịdi (gemination of c- after a short vowel) “he went down.” The preverb s- “up” covers both dimensions: s-cịdi “he went, came up.” In Digor, ra- also expresses both dimensions: ra-cud “he went, came out.” The preverb fä- mostly denotes perfectivity (fequịston “I heard”), but as a marker of motion it expresses movement away from the speaker, without informing about the direction.

The Iranian etymologies of the preverbs are clear: a- (< *ā-), ra- (< *frā-), ba- (< *upá-), är- (< *awar-), nị/ni- (< *ni-), (i)s/s- (<*us-), fä-(<*pa- [rather than *pati-]). In Digor an enclitic pronoun can be inserted between the preverb and the verb: ra-iä-marä “kill him!”

A particle -cäi- (probably from the gen. of the inanim. interrog.-rel. pron.) can be inserted between the preverb and verb as a deperfectivizer: ra-cäi-cịdi “he was on the way out.”

The bi-dimensional, orientational function of the preverb is no doubt a recent innovation. This appears clearly from the gaps in the dimensional system that are particularly conspicuous in Digor, indicating that it has been carried through only imperfectly. The orientational meaning of the preverb has its typological counterparts in both the Northwest and, especially, South Caucasian languages (cf. the Georg. mo-/mi opposition: Oss. [Iron] ba-cịdi = Georg. še-vida, ärba-cịdi = šemo-vida “he entered/he came in,” respectively).


The order of the members in complex noun phrases, as stated above (Morphology, 1, 3-4) is primarily of the pre-modifying type. The order of the verb and its nominal arguments is flexible, but the sequence subject-object-verb may be regarded the unmarked order. Adverbials normally precede the verb.

Clause subordination is primarily carried out by relative pronouns or conjunctive adverbs in association with finite verbs. As a rule, the subordinate clause precedes the main clause. In most subordinate clauses the relatives are placed immediately before the verb, with which they constitute a prosodic unit. A demonstrative adverb or pronoun in the main clause corresponds with the relative of the subordinate clause: cästịtäi nịrmä kuịd uịdton, aftä sä nal uịnịn “as I saw them previously with my eyes, thus I do not see them any more”—lit. “my with-eyes (abl.) until-now (all.) as I-saw, thus them no-more I-see.”

The gerund in -gä, is frequently used in the ablative: Iron -gä-iä, Digor -gä-i (with vowel apocope due to dissimilation) denotes an action or event concomitant with the action expressed by the finite verb of the clause. The implied agent of the gerund can be co-referent with the subject or some other noun phrase of the clause, or it may be used absolutely (gerundium pendens).

Examples: kaf-gä-iä Äxsarbeg fästä-mä ra-kast “Äxsarbeg looked back while dancing” (the agent of the ger. is co-referent with the subj. of the finite verb); c’iu, am dälä-mä čịzg ämä läppu lidz-gä nä fedtai? “bird, did not you see a girl and a boy running here downwards?” (lit. bird here downwards [all.] girl and boy [nom.] running [ger.] not you-saw? [here the agent is co-referent with the obj.]); uälä-bäl k’umäl cäğd-gä-i k’umäl-gor, ba-cäu-gä-i k’umäl nä lävardta “in the upper-world, while filtering small-beer, and somebody coming to ask for small-beer, she did not give (him) small-beer” (lit. in-upper-world [adess.] small-beer [nom.] beating [ger.-abl.] small-beer-seeker, coming [ger.-abl.] small-beer not she-gave); in this example, the gerund cäğd-gä-i refers to the subject inherent in the finite verb lävardta, while k’umäl-gor ba-cäu-gä-i stands as an absolute construction (from a Bäx fäldisịn “Horse consecration” sermon, traditionally delivered at the funeral of chieftains; text in Digor).

The gerund of the verb zäğn/zäğun “to say” (zäğ-gä [-gä-iä/i]) functions as a citation particle, embedding reported speech or thought, for instance, in narrative texts, when a proper name occurs for the first time: cardis ämä uịdisiu läg Toredze zäğ-gä iä nom “once there lived a man called Toredze.” The ger. zäğ-gä is also used to mark cause or purpose: läppu, midä-mä ba-xiz-on zäğ-gä, kuịd zağta, aftä iu zdäxt, fä-kodta Satana-mä “when the boy was about to enter (lit.: saying I shall enter), he turned round to Satana” (lit.: boy to-inside [all.] I-shall-enter [subj.] saying [ger.], as he-said, thus one turn he-did to-Satana [all.]; from a Nart epic text).


As already mentioned, the Ossetic core vocabulary derives in large measure from Iranian sources. Loanwords such as k’ax “foot,” k’ux/k’ox “hand,” dzịx/dzux, c’ux “mouth,” were probably borrowed as expressive words that have ousted the Iranian words fad, arm, kom respectively; the latter group of words is used in compounds, in metaphoric expressions, and in fixed idioms. There exist numerous lexical and idiomatic calques, due to a long-standing influence of neighbor languages.

Kinship terms are mostly Iranian. The noun ärvad/ärvadä (< Ir. *brātar-) means “brother, cousin, kinsman,” no doubt an archaism. A new noun has been formed to signify a consanguineous brother: ävsịmär/änsuvär (< *(h)äm- suvär) “co-uterinus, of the same womb” (sịvär/suvär).

Patronymics in -on (< *āna-) seem to have been in use previously, and have in modern times been re-introduced individually. Today family affiliation is signified by adding the genitive plural of the clan’s name to the personal name, for instance, AbaitịVaso, “Vaso of the Abaitä clan” (Abaev, 1962).

Most proper names in modern usage belong to the onomasticon of the Caucasian peoples. Some of the heroic names of the Nart epic cycle are of Iranian origin (e.g., Äxsärtäg < *xšaθraka-; cf. Av. xšaθra- “power,” AirWb., col. 542). There are also many names that are of uncertain derivation. Nart, the name of the mythological race of the Narts, derives most likely from *narθra- “manhood” (*nar- “man, warrior;” cf. Av. nar- “man,” AirWb., col. 1047).

The great number of Iranian words referring to traditional culture testifies to social continuity and coherence in the Alan-Ossetic tribes. A number of Christian terms have been borrowed from Georgian, but there exist apparently traces of old pagan terms that have been used to express Christian notions. Muslim terms have been introduced from Arabic-Persian through the medium of Caucasic neighbor languages. Azeri Turkish (see AZERBAIJAN viii), which previously functioned widely as a lingua franca in the Northeast Caucasus, has been a link connecting the Ossetes with the other North Caucasian peoples, as well as with the Islamic nations of the south. Moreover, a great number of cultural words have entered Ossetic through Azeri as a direct or indirect source. Numerous Russian words, mainly technical and political terms, have been borrowed in modern times.


A. Iron

“Dzerassä the Beautiful”

Äxsärtäg dendžịz-ị bịn Donbettịrị xädzar-mä b-aftịd.
Äxsärtäg sea’s (gen.) bottom (nom.) Donbettịr’s house (all.) he-arrived.

Xädzar ta axäm xädzar uịd, ämä iä k’ul-tä - ärğäu, iä bịn –
House but such house it-was and its walls mother-of-pearl, its floor

c’äx avg, iä sär - säuuon st’alị. Xädzar-ị badịnc avd äfsịmär-ị,
blue glass, its roof morning-star. In-house (iness.) they-sit seven brother’s (gen.sg.)

sä uäle - sä dịuuä xoi-ị, am-äi ai räsuğd-där-tä.
their above their two sister’s (gen.sg), from-this (abl.sg.) this more beautiful (pl.).

Sä särị xil sịğzärin-au ärttiv.
Their head’s hair like-gold (equ.) shines

Farn uä xädzar-ị ämä uä raisom xorz! – zağta Äxsärtäg,
Peace your in-house (iness.) and morning good, he-said Äxsärtäg,

xädzar-mä kuị ba-xịzti, uäd.
to-house (all.) when he-came in, then.

Xorz dä xai uäd! Zäğgä, in zağtoi uịdon där ämä
Good your share shall-be (imper.) saying (ger.) to-him (dat.) they-said they too an

s-ịstad-ịstị, avd äfsịmär-ị ämä sä dịuuä xoi-ị, ämä
they-arose seven brother’s (gen. sg.) and their two sister’s (gen. sg.), and

badịn kodtoi Äxsärtädž-ị: är-badt-ịstị sä-xuịdtäg där avd
to-sit-down (inf.) they-made Äxsärtäg (gen.): they sat.down they-themselves too seven

äfsịmär-ị, ärtä-iä Äxsärtägän iä uällag fars, cịppar-äi ta
brother’s (gen.sg.) as-3 (abl.) for-Äxsärtäg (dat.) his upper side, as-four (abl.) but

dällag fars. Čịsịl kuị a-badt-ịstị, uäd äfsịmär-tä ba-kast-ịstị
lower side. Little when they-sat, then the-brothers (nom. pl.) looked

Äxsärtäg-mä ämä iịn zağtoi:
to-Äxsärtäg (all.) and to-him (dat.) they-said:

Dä xuịzän uazäg näm nä cäu-gä ’r-kodta, nä där näm

Your similar guest to-us (all.) not coming he-did, not either to-us

cäu-gä ’kändzän ämä dịl ba-cin känịn qäu-ị, fälä
coming (ger.) will-do, and on-you (adess.) joy to-do it-must (3rd sg.), but

mast-ịl stäm.
on-trouble (adess.) we-are.


Äxsärtäg came to Donbettịr’s house at the bottom of the sea. The house was such a house that its walls were nacreous, its floor blue glass, its ceiling the morning star. In the house sat seven brothers, above them their two sisters, the one more beautiful than the other. The hair on their head shone like gold.

“Peace in your house and good morning,” said Äxsärtäg when he came into the house.

“Good be your fate,” they said to him and stood up, the seven brothers; and the seven brothers and their two sisters made Äxsärtäg sit down, and the seven brothers sat down apart, three above Äxsärtäg four below him. When they had sat for a while, they looked to Äxsärtäg and said to him:

“No guest like you has come to us, nor will ever come to us, and indeed we should welcome you, but we are in trouble.” (Nartị kaddžịtä, Dzäudžịqäu, 1946, p. 8)

B. Digor

Uruzmäg äma ie ’nänom läquän
“Uruzmäg and his Nameless Son”

Nart adtäncä, äma sä-bäl xucau ästong anz is-kodta.
Narts they-were, and on-them (adess.) God famine year he-made.

Nart-i muggag-äi Äxsärtäggati Uruzmäg balc-i randä ’i äma fä-
The Narts’ of-clan (abl.) of-Äxsärtäggatä (gen.) Uruzmäg on-journey went-away and was

c-äi ärtä-duuä anz-i, uädta är-cud-äi ä xädzarä-mä. Ärba-
three-two year’s (gen.sg.), then he-went his-to-home (all.).

cud-äi nixas-mä är-festäg äi ’ma zağta:
He-went to the assembly-place (all.), pedestrian he-became, and said:

Uä bon xuarz! - äma iimä Nart-i adam-äi ba ä sär där ne-ke
Your day good! and to-him (all.) Narts’s (gen.) of-people (abl.) but his head nobody

ra-qel kodta, uoi tuxx-än äma sä tog nä kusta, sä zärdä roxs nä
standing he-made, their hardly and their blood not worked, their heart glad not

adt-äi, istong anz sä-bäl is-kodta. Uruzmäg där fästä-mä ä
was, famine year on-them (adess.) became. Uruzmäg too again (all.) his

bäx-bäl ra-badt-äi äma ä xädzarä-mä är-cud-äi. Medä-mä ba-
on-horse (adess.) he-sat-down and his to-house (all.) went. To-inside (all.)

cud-äi äma k’ela-bäl äxe zust gälst är-kodta, ’ma k’ela ä
he-went and on-chair (adess.) himself angry thrown he-made, and chair his

bun-i ra-sast-äi. Satana ii-mä dzorui:
below (iness.) it-broke-down. Satana she-speaks to-him (all.):

- Ci kän-is.? Me ’rcäun-i bon-äi aci bon-i ualängä dä uotä
What you-do? My-arrival’s from-day (abl.) this day’s (gen.) till so

mästgun-äi ku ne-käd fä-uuidton.
angry (abl.) yet never I-saw.


There were the Narts (in the days of the Narts), and God caused a famine among them. Uruzmäg of the Äxsärtäggatä clan of the Narts set out on a journey abroad and was away for two-three years, then he came home. He went to the assembly place, dismounted and said: “Good morning,” but none of the Nart men stood up for him, because their blood was almost frozen (did hardly work), their heart was not joyous, they had suffered a famine. Uruzmäg mounted his horse again and went home. He entered and threw himself angry on a chair, and the chair broke down under him.

Satana said to him: “What is wrong? Since the day when I came to you till this day I never saw you so angry.” (Nartä, Iron gerioikon epos I: činịg, Moscow, 1990, p. 128)




I. = Iron dialect
D. = Digor. When the oblique stroke is used between two dialect forms, the Iron form is placed before, the Digor form after the stroke. When nothing else is said, Iron is meant.
Turk. = Turkic

Grammatical surveys.

Vasiliĭ Ivanovich Abaev, Grammaticheskiĭ ocherk osetinskogo yazyka, in idem, Osetinsko-russkiĭ slovar’, 2nd ed., Ordzhonikidze, 1962; tr. Steven P. Hill as AGrammatical Sketch of Ossetic, ed. Herbert H. Paper, The Hague, 1964.

Giorgii Saridanovich Akhvlediani, ed., Grammatika osetinskogo yazyka (Grammar of the Ossetic language), 2 vols., I: Fonetika i morpholigiya II: Sintaksis, Ordzhonikidze, 1963-69.

Julius von Klaproth,: Reise in den Kaukasus und Georgien, Halle and Berlin, 1812-14, “Kaukasische Sprachen,” appendix at the end of vol. 2; tr. F. Shoberl as Travels in the Caucasus and Georgia, London, 1814.

Vsevolod Fedorovich Miller, “Die Sprache der Osseten,” in Grundriss der iranischen Philologie I, Strassburg, 1903, appendix, pp. 1-111.

Idem, Ossetica, Moscow, 1904.

Andreas Johann Sjögren, Ossetische Sprachlehre, St. Petersburg, 1842.

Fridrik Thordarson, “Preverbs in Ossetic,” in Monumentum Georg Morgenstierne II, Acta Iranica 22, Leiden, 1982, pp. 251-61.

Idem, “Ossetic,” in Rüdiger Schmitt, ed., Compendium linguarum Iranicarum, Wiesbaden, 1989, pp. 456-79.

D. Weber, “Beiträge zur historischen Grammatik des Ossetischen,” Indogermanische Forschungen, Zeitschrift für Indogermanistik und allgemeine Sprachwissenschaft 85, 1980, pp. 126-37; 88, 1983, pp. 84-91.


Vasiliĭ Ivanovich Abaev, “Ocherk raskhozdeniĭ ironskogo digoroskogo dialektov” (A sketch of the differences between the Iron and Digor dialects), in Ostinskiĭ yazyk i fol’klor (Ossetic language and folklore) I, Moscow and Leningrad, 1949, pp. 357-493.

Idem, “O dialektakh osetinskogo yazyka” (On the dialects of the Ossetic language), in Indo-Iranica: Mélanges présentés à Georg Mogenstierne à l’occasion de son soixante-dixième anniversaire, Wiesbaden, 1964, pp. 1-7.

D. G. Bekoev, Ironskiĭ dialekt osetinskogo yazyka (Iron dialect of the Ossetic language), Tskhinvali, 1985 (survey of the local variants of Iron). E. J. A. Henderson, “A Phonetic Study of Western Ossetic (Digoron),” BSOAS 13, 1949, pp. 36-79.

Magomet Izmailovich Isaev, Digorskiĭ dialekt osetinskogo yazyka: fonetika, morfolgiya (The Digor dialect of Ossetic: Phonetic, morphology), Moscow, 1966 (includes texts with Russ. tr.).


Vasiliĭ Ivanovich Abaev, Istoriko-etimologicheskiĭ slovar’ osetinskogo yazyka (A Historical-etymological dictionary of Ossetic language), 4 vols., Moscow and Leningrad, 1958-89; repr, with index, Moscow, 1995.

Zoia Georgievna Isaeva and Aanastasiya Dzabolaevna Tsagaeva, Kratkiĭ russko-osetinskiĭ slovar’ (Russian-Ossetic) Moscow, 1978.

Vsevolod Fedorovich Miller, Osetinsko-russko-nemetskiĭ slovar’ (Ossetic-Russian-German), 3 vols., Leningrad, 1927-34; repr., The Hague and Paris, 1972.

Idem, Osetinsko-russkiĭ slovar’ (Ossetic-Russian), 2nd ed., Ordzhonikidze, 1962.


N. K. Bagaev, Sovremeniĭ osetinskiĭ yazyk (Contemporary Ossetic), Ordzhonikidze, 1965.

Harold W. Bailey, “Asica,” Transactions of the Philological Society, 1945, pp. 1-38, and “Supplementary Notes to Asica,” ibid., 1946, pp. 202-6; repr. in idem, Opera Minora, ed. M. Nawabi, 2 vols., Shiraz, 1981, II, pp. 223-65.

Emile Benveniste, Études sur langue ossète, Paris, 1959.

Roland Bielmeier, Historische Untersuchunngen zum Erb- und Lehnwortschatzanteil im ossetischen Grundwortschatz, Frankfort am Main, Bern, and Las Vegas, 1977.

Idem, “Zur Entwicklung der ossetischen Deklination,” Indogermanische Forschungen 87, 1982, pp. 58-69.

Idem, “Sarmatisch, Alanisch, Jassisch und Altossetisch,” in Rüdiger Schmitt, ed., Compendium linguarum Iranicarum, Wiesbaden, 1989a, pp. 236-45.

Idem, “Yaghnōbī,” ibid., 1989b, pp. 480-88.

Johnny Cheung,
Studies in the Historical Development of the Ossetic Vocalism, Wiesbaden, 2002.

N. J. Gabaraev: Morfologicheskaya struktura slova i slovoobrazovanie v sovremennom osetinskom yazyke (The morphological word-structure and word-formation in contemporary Ossetic), Tbilisi, 1977.

K. E. Gagkaev, Sintaksis osetinskogo yazyka (Syntax of the Ossetic language), Ordzhonikidze, 1956.

Sonja Gippert-Fritz, “Die ossetischen Personennamen,” Ph.D. diss., University of Vienna, 1983; printed ed. forthcoming.

Die ossetischen Personennamen (The Ossetic personal names). = Iranisches Personennamenbuch, vol. III, fasc. 3, Vienna, 2006.

Heinrich Hübschmann: Etymologie und Lautlehre der ossetischen Sprache, Strassburg, 1887; repr., Amsterdam, 1969.

Nicholas Sims-Williams, “Sogdian,” in Rüdiger Schmitt, ed., Compendium linguarum Iranicarum, Wiesbaden, 1989, pp. 173-92.

Reinhold von Stackelberg, Beiträge zurSyntax des Ossetischen, Strassburg, 1886. O. Tedeevi: Nark’vevebi kartul-osuri enobrivi urtiertobidan (Studies in Kartvelian-Ossetic linguistic contacts), Tbilisi, 1970 (in Georgian).

F. D. Tekhov, Vyrazhenie modal’nosti v osetinskom yazyke (The expression of modality in Ossetic), Tbilisi, 1970.

Idem, Nazvaniya rasteniĭ v osetinskom yazyke (The names of plants in Ossetic), Tskhinvali, 1970.

H. Vogt, “Le système des cas en ossète,” Acta Linguistica 4, 1944 (1948), pp. 17-41.

Alanic, preliterary documents.

Vasiliĭ Ivanovich Abaev, “Skifo-sarmatskie narechiya” (Scythian-Sarmatian dialects), Osnovy iranskogo yazykoznaniya: Drevneiranskie yazyki, Moscow, 1979, pp. 272-380.

Roland Bielmeier, “Sarmatisch, Alanisch, Jassisch und Altosetisch,” in Rüdiger Schmitt, ed., Compendium linguarum Iranicarum, Wiesbaden, 1989, pp. 236-45.

H. Hunger, “Zum Epilog der Theogonie des Johannes Tzetzez,” Byzntinische Zeitschrift 46, 1953, pp. 302-7.

J. Németh, Die Jassen in Ungarn, Abh. der deutschen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1958. no. 4.

Ladislav Zgusta, Die Personnamen griechischer Städte der nördlichen Schwarzmeeküste: Die ethnischen Verhältnisse, namentlich das Verhältnis der Skythen und Samaten, im Lichte der Namenforschung, Prague, 1955.

Idem, The Old Ossetic Inscription from the River Zelenchuk, Sitzungsberichte Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, Veröffentlichungen der Iranischen Kommission 21, Vienna, 1987.

Collected papers.

Vasiliĭ Ivanovich Abaev, Osetinskiĭ yazyk i fol’klor I, Moscow and Leningrad, 1949 (articles on Oss. linguistics, cultural history, and the Alanic language).

Idem, Izbrannye trudy, 2 vols., Vladikavkaz, 1990-95.

G. S. Akhvlediani, Sbornik izbrannykh rabot po osetinskom yazyku (Collection of selected articles on Ossetic), Tbilisi, 1960 (studies in Ialğuzidze’s texts).

For the bibliography of Abaev’s studies, see Magomet Izmailovich Isaev, Vaso Abaev: K 80-letiyu so dnya rozhdeniya (Vaso Abaev: On his 80th birthday), Ordzhonikidze, 1980.

(Fridrik Thordarson)

Originally Published: July 20, 2009

Last Updated: July 20, 2009