The Ossetian language, sometimes also called Ossetic, is spoken by over half a million ethnic Ossetes, who live in two neighboring political entities in the central region of the Caucasus mountains. North Ossetia, where most Ossetian speakers reside, refers to the Republic of North Ossetia–Alania, an autonomous region within Russia. The political status of South Ossetia has been in dispute since the territorial conflict with Georgia during 2008.
The Ossetians are the descendants of the Alans, nomadic warriors and pastoralists first attested historically during the first millennium AD. Through nomadism and conquest they spread throughout Europe, reaching as far as China and North Africa. The Alans experienced a sharp decline in numbers and power when they were overrun by the Huns in 376 AD. Their descendants have existed since then as a smaller population with a highly distinct culture in the Caucasus.
There is evidence of Ossetian writing with Greek characters and later with an Arabic script dating back centuries, but the first modern attempts to devise a systematic orthography for Ossetian date to the efforts of Andreas Sj᷄oegren in 1844. The resulting Cyrillic alphabet has been in more or less constant, if sometimes limited, use since then, although at times Ossetian has also been written with Latin and Georgian alphabets.
Ossetian is a Northeastern Iranian language, its closest living relative being Yaghnobi, spoken in Tajikistan. Ossetian appears to have descended directly from the historical Alan language (AD 400-1000), a daughter of Sarmatian (300 BC – 400 AD), which in turn relates to Scythian (800-300 BC), as evidenced by Classical Greek authors. Among living languages, Ossetian groups together with Yaghnobi, Pashto, the Pamir languages and Wakhi within the Eastern Iranian branch. The relations of languages within the Eastern Iranian branch is still poorly understood at this time. An obvious difficulty in this area is separating out features that have been introduced through contact versus inheritance and identifying unique innovations which provide evidence for subgrouping on a more detailed level.
Two present-day dialects of Ossetian are usually identified: Iron, the widely-spoken variety on which the language’s written form is based, and Digor. Jassic, an Ossetian variety once spoken in Hungary, is considered extinct today. A sub-dialect of Iron, called Kudar, is spoken in South Ossetia, but has not been investigated thoroughly. Kudar is the dialect of our primary collaborator, Konstantin Slante.
Ossetian continues to be a vital language today among certain segments of the Ossetian population but it is under heavy pressure from Russian, a lingua franca throughout the region. Recent geopolitical conflict has highlighted the degree to which the cross-border Ossetian community lives in the shadow of powerful neighbors.
The Russian Constitution is generally supportive of multilingualism and distinct state languages as official languages. Article 68 states:
1. The Russian language shall be a state language on the whole territory of the Russian Federation.
2. The Republics shall have the right to establish their own state languages. In the bodies of state authority and local self-government, state institutions of the Republics they shall be used together with the state language of the Russian Federation.
3. The Russian Federation shall guarantee to all of its peoples the right to preserve their native language and to create conditions for its study and development.
In practice, however, there is little space given to Ossetian within official domains, both within the Russian republic of North Ossetia as well as in South Ossetia. In South Ossetian public schools, Ossetian is a subject of two classes (literature and grammar) but the medium of instruction is always Russian. In North Ossetia, Ossetian is not even a subject in the public school system and children are not exposed to Ossetian in any official capacity. Due to a mix of factors, younger people from North Ossetia increasingly use Russian between themselves. Most maintain some grasp of the language but there appears to be a growing number of ethnic Ossetians in North Ossetia who are monolingual Russian speakers.
In both North and South Ossetia there exist local print media and radio in Ossetian, although these outlets compete with larger Russian newspapers, radio and television programs that have far wider circulation.
In sum, Ossetian presents an interesting case of an official state language that nonetheless must be considered threatened given the current trends. There is much to be learned from the Ossetian situation about the relative weight of factors in language endangerment. Official status, while potentially a powerful tool, can be dwarfed in significance by educational policy and the force of popular media.
Vasily Abaev’s work on the Ossetic language in the mid-20th century remains a point of departure for later studies: Abaev published a grammatical sketch, a dictionary, studies on folklore and historical linguistics, as well as some discussions of the famous Nart sagas, oral epics that tell the history of the region’s different tribes. His student M. Isaev, among other Soviet linguists, continued this work. Most material on Ossetian is only available in Russian and there is very little in the way of audio-visual documentation that is publicly available.
More recently, a team of Moscow based researchers (Arseniy Vydrin, Oleg Belyaev, Julia Mazurova and Natalia Serdobolskaya) have produced new documentation, description and theoretical studies of the literary Iron and Digor dialects which can be found here.
Finally, an excellent Russian language website, Ossetian Online, contains much of what has been previously published on the language in addition to texts collected from users and other resources.
Below is a partial bibliography of academic work on the Ossetic:
Abaev, Vasilij I. 1959. Osetinskij Yazyk. Ordžonikdze.
Abaev, Vasilij I. 1964. A Grammatical Sketch of Ossetic. Publication of the Indiana University Research Center in Anthropology, Folklore, and Linguistics, 35. 35. 133. Bloomington: Indiana University.
Bagaev, N.K. 1965. Sovremennyj osetinskij jazyk. Volume 1: Fonetika i morfologija. Ordzonikidze: Severo-Osetinskoe Kniznoe Izd.
Bagaev, Georgij Samsonovic. 2002. Russko – Osetinskij terminologiceskij slovar’: 14000 slov. 199. Vladikavkaz: Proekt Press.
Belyaev, Oleg and Arseniy Vydrin. 2011. Participle-Converbs in Iron Ossetic:Syntactic and Semantic Properties. In Agnes Korn, Geoffrey Haig, Simin Karimi and Pollet Samvelian (eds.) Topics in Iranian Linguistics Weisbaden: Dr. Ludwig Reichert Verlag.
Cheung, Johnny. 1999. Some remarks on the history of the Ossetic accent. In Helma van den Berg (ed.), Studies in Caucasian linguistics: Selected papers of the 8th Caucasian Colloquium, 286-292.
Cheung, Johnny. 2002. Studies in the Historical Development of the Ossetic Vocalism. Weisbaden: Reichert
Christol, Alain. 1990. Introduction à l’ossète. In Jean Lallot (ed.), Lexicographie et linguistique, 7-50. Editions Rude d’Ulm.
Dzanaev, R. G. 1999. ratkij Russko – Osetinskij slovar’: (okolo 8000 slov i vyrazenij). 271. Vladikavkaz: RIPP im. V. A. Gassieva.
Hettich, Bela G. 2002. Ossetian: revisiting inflectional morphology. University of Grand Forks. x+99. Grand Forks: Univ.
Hübschmann, Heinrich. 1969. Etymologie und Lautlehre der ossetischen Sprache. Sammlung indogermanischer Wörterbücher, 1. 1. 151. Amsterdam: Oriental Press. (Includes bibliographical references and index).
Isaev, M.I. 1966. Osetinskij jazyk. In V.V. Vinogradov (ed.), Jazyki narodov SSSR, vol. 1: Indoevropejskie jazyki, 237-56. Moskva: Nauka.
Isaev, M. I. . 1966. Digorskij Dialekt Osetinskogo Jazyka. Moscow: Akademia Nauk SSSR.
Isaev, M.I. 1987. Osetinskij, osnovy iranskogo jazykoznanija, novoiranskije jazyki. Moscow: Vostochnaja Gruppa, Nauka.
Kambolov, T. 2007. Language situation and language policy in North Ossetia: History, Present and Prospects. M. I. Isayev (ed.). Vladikavkaz: SOGU Publishing. (Available in Russian here.)
Rosen, Georg. 1846. Ossetische Sprachlehre: nebst einer Abhandlung über das Mingrelische, Suanische und Abchasische. 84. Lemgo: Meyer.
Testen, David. 1997. Ossetic Phonology. In Alan S. Kaye (ed.), Phonologies of Asia and Africa, part 2, 707-731. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns.
Thordarson, Fridrik. 1989. Ossetic. In Rüdiger Schmitt (ed.), Compendium Linguarum Iranicarum, 456-479. Wiesbaden: Dr. Ludwig Reichert.
Thordarson, Fridrik. 1971. Some Notes on Anatolian Ossetian. c. Acta Orientalia XXXIII. 145-167.
Thordarson, Fridrik. 2009. Ossetic Grammatical Studies. Vienna: Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften.
ELA has been working with Konstantin Slante (Slanov), a New York-based speaker from South Ossetia, to record texts and explore certain aspects of the highly under-described Kudar dialect. We have also begun to gloss and translate stories from a published version of the Ossetian Nart saga. Some of the recordings and grammatical notes that have come out of this collaboration will be posted here shortly.
One long term goal of Konstantin’s is to produce a literary English translation of the Ossetian Nart sagas to bring more attention to this unique epic. We aim to collaborate with him towards this end.
More broadly, ELA board member, Habib Borjian, authored a 2001 article on the Ossetian people and their history in Persian (Iriston), which was the first detailed introduction to the Ossetians for the Persian reading public.