OSSETIC LANGUAGE i. History and description

According to the 1989 Soviet census, the latest available official source, 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 descendents 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, the latest available official source, 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, descendents 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

(Fridrik Thordarson)

Originally Published: July 20, 2009

Last Updated: July 20, 2009