Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
The Ossetians are an
Iranian ethnic group from Ossetia, a region in the northern Caucasus Mountains in Europe. Ossetians populate North Ossetia-Alania in Russia, and the South Ossetia that is de facto independent but internationally recognised as part of Georgia. They speak Ossetic, an Iranian language.
The Russian geographic name "Ossetia" and the corresponding ethnic designation "Ossetians" comes from a Georgian root. The Russians originally called the Ossetians Jas, but in the late 14th century adopted the Georgian name of the Ossetians and their nation. In the Georgian language, Alania and the Alans are known as
"Oseti" and "Osebi" respectively. From the Russian language the names Ossetia and Ossetians came to other languages. The Ossetians themselves refer to their nation as irættæ.
Century Ossetic Women
Ossetian (19th century)
The Ossetians descend from the Alans, a Sarmatian
tribe of IRnaian stock. They became Christians during the early Middle Ages under Georgian and Byzantine influence. In the 8th century a consolidated Alan kingdom, referred to in sources of the period as Alania, emerged in the northern Caucasus Mountains, roughly in the location of modern Circassia and North Ossetia-Alania. At its height Alania was a regional power with a strong military and vast wealth from the Silk Road. Forced out of their medieval homeland (south of the River Don in present-day Russia) during Mongol rule, they migrated towards and over the Caucasus mountains, where they formed three distinct territorial entities:
Digor in the west came under the influence of the neighbouring Kabard people who introduced Islam. Today the two main Digor districts in North Ossetia are Digora district or Digorskiy rayon (with Digora as its centre) and Irafskiy rayon or Iraf district (with Chikola as its centre). Digora district is Christian while some parts of Iraf district are Muslim. The dialect spoken in Digor part of North Osetia is Digor, the most archaic form of Osetian language.
Kudar in the south, in the Georgian central region of Shida Kartli. In 1924 this part became known as South Ossetia
Iron and Digor in the north became what is now North Ossetia/Alania, under Russian rule from 1767. Iron language is a younger version of Ossetian language and is the literary and written language of Ossetians.
In recent history the Ossetians participated in Ossetian-Ingush conflict (1991-1992) and Georgian-Ossetian conflicts (1918-1920 and early 1990s).
The Ossetic language is divided into two main dialect groups: Ironian
in North and South Ossetia and Digorian of North Ossetia. There are some sub-dialects
in those two: like Tualian, Alagirian, Ksanian, etc. Ironian dialect is the most widely spoken.
Ossetic is classified as Northeastern Iranian, the only other surviving member of the subgroup being Yaghnobi, spoken more than 2,000 km to the east in Tajikistan. Both are remnants of the
Avestan and Scytho-Sarmatian language groups which was once spoken across Central Asia. It also should be noted that Ossetic has substantial genetic similarities with Pashto, another Eastern Iranian language.
History and classification
Ossetic is the spoken and literary language of the Ossetes, a people living in the central part of the Caucasus and constituting the basic population of the North-Ossetic ASSR, which belongs to the Russian Federation, and of the South-Ossetic Autonomous Oblast which belongs to the Georgian Republic. Ossetic belongs to the Northern subgroup of the Eastern-Iranian group of the Indo-European family of languages. Thus, it is genetically related to the other Eastern-Iranian languages, e. g. Pashto and Yagnobi.
From deep antiquity (since the 7th-8th centuries B. C), the languages of the Iranian group were distributed in a vast territory including present-day Iran (Persia), Central Asia, and Southern Russia. Ossetic is the sole survivor of the northeastern branch of Iranian languages known as Scythian. The Scythian group included numerous tribes in Central Asia and Southern Russia, known in ancient sources as the Scythians, Massagetae, Saka, Sarmatians, Alans and Roxolans. The more easterly Khorezmians and the Sogdians were also closely affiliated, in linguistic terms.
Ossetian, together with Kurdish, Tati and Talyshi, is one of the main Iranian languages with a sizeable community of speakers in the Caucasus. It is descended from Alanic, the language of the Alans, medieval tribes emerging from the earlier Sarmatians. It is believed to be the only surviving descendant of a Sarmatian language. The closest genetically related language is the Yaghnobi language of Tajikistan, the only other living member of the Northeastern Iranian
branch. Ossetic has a plural formed by the suffix -ta, a feature it shares with Yaghnobi, Sarmatian and the now-extinct Sogdian; this is taken as evidence of a formerly wide-ranging Iranian-language dialect continuum on the Central Asian steppe. The Greek-derived names of ancient Iranian tribes in fact reflect this pluralization, e.g. Saromatae (Σαρομάται) and Masagetae (Μασαγέται).
There are two important dialects: Iron and Digor—the former being the more widely spoken. Written Ossetian may be immediately recognized by its use of the æ, a letter to be found in no other language using the Cyrillic alphabet. A third dialect of Ossetic, Jassic, was formerly spoken in Hungary. The overwhelming majority of Ossetes speak the Iron dialect, and the literary language is based on it. The creator of the Ossetic literary language is the national poet Kosta Xetagurov
According to Ossetic researcher V.I. Abaev:
“ In the course of centuries-long propinquity to and intercourse with Caucasian languages, Ossetic became similar to them in some features, particularly in phonetics and lexicon. However, it retained its grammatical structure and basic lexical stock; its relationship with the Iranian family, despite considerable individual traits, does not arouse any
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica
2006 Ossetic preserves many archaic features of Old Iranian, such as eight cases and verbal prefixes. The eight cases are not, however, the original Indo-Iranian cases, which were eroded due to pronunciation changes. The modern cases, except the nominative, are derived from a single surviving oblique case that was reanalyzed into seven new cases by Ossetic
Today the majority of Ossetians, from both North and South Ossetia, follow Eastern Orthodoxy. As the time went by, Digor in the west came under Kabard and Islamic influence. It was through the Kabardians (an East Circassian tribe) that Islam was introduced into the region in the 17th century. Today, a large minority profess Sunni Islam). Tuallag in the southernmost region became part of what is now Georgia, and Iron, the northernmost group, came under Russian rule after 1767, which strengthened Orthodox Christianity considerably. Most of the Ossetes today are Eastern Orthodox Christians.
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British Institute of Persian Studies