Ossetes - Orientation



Identification. The Ossetes mainly inhabit both sides of the central Caucasian mountain chain. To the north are the North Ossetian Autonomous Republic and its capital, Vladikavkaz (former names: Dzæwjyqæw, Ordzhonikidze). The North Ossetian Republic belongs to the Russian Federation. The South Ossetian Autonomous Region on the southern side of the Caucasus, occupied by the Tual branch, is a part of the Georgian Republic; the capital of South Ossetia is Tskhinvali. Besides Ossetia proper there are also Ossetic communities in Kabardino-Balkaria and the environs of Stavropol, both in the northern Caucasus region; in the south Caucasus, the Ossetes are found in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, as well as in numerous places in eastern Georgia.

Beyond this, there also exist some Ossetic villages in central and eastern Anatolia that were founded by Ossetic Muslims in the previous century, when several Caucasian tribes who had been converted to Islam fled to Turkey and settled there. In recent years many Ossetes have left their traditional territories in the Caucasus and established themselves in various places in the former Soviet Union, especially in the Russian metropolitan areas.

There is no common ethnonym in Ossetic for the people as a whole. They call themselves by two primary tribal names: "Ir" or "Iron" is the proper designation used by the Ossetes living in the eastern part of the area, a subset of whom, in the south, term themselves "Tual" or "Tuallæg." The Ossetes who inhabit the northwestern territory call themselves "Digor." The terms "Ossetes" and "Ossetia" are based on Russian "Osetiny" and "Osetiia," which are derived from the Georgian name for the area, "O(v)seti" (Georgian-Os, "Ossete").

Location. North Ossetia borders Kabardino-Balkaria to the west, Russia to the north, and Chechen-Ingushia to the east; the southern frontier with the South Ossetian Autonomous Region within Georgia is a natural one: the main ridge of the Caucasus itself divides Ossetia into two parts. This geographic division is also responsible for a generally independent development in historical, administrative-political, economic, and cultural terms. The territory of northern Ossetia (about 8,000 square kilometers) includes the basin of the Terek River and its affluents, whereas southern Ossetia (about 3,800 square kilometers) covers the whole southern side of the main Caucasus chain and its promontories. The variety of geographical relief corresponds to a wide diversity of climatic conditions. The plains of northern Ossetia have the typical south-Russian-steppe climate, which can be characterized as comparatively warm and dry. In the low foothills adjoining the steppe to the south a milder and more humid climate prevails. In the mountains, the climate varies from zone to zone depending on elevation; in the high mountainous regions, especially all of central Ossetia, the weather is usually raw and cold with long and severe winters. In the wooded mountain range of southern Ossetia the climate is more temperate, and in the adjoining foothills the weather is pleasant and warm. The beginning of the growing season differs in the various climatic zones and agricultural conditions vary accordingly.

Demography. According to the 1970 census, some 430,000 people within the Soviet Union declared themselves Ossetes. (There is no information available on the number of Anatolian Ossetes.) During recent decades the official number of the Ossetic population has not changed significantly; the main reason for this may be that, since the middle of the nineteenth century, there has been a continuing trend toward smaller families, especially in the plains. At the present time, the typical Ossetic urban family consists of only three to four members, whereas in some out-of-the-way mountain villages families with eight to twelve members can still be found, although this is exceptional. Another reason for these population patterns is that a considerable number of Ossetes who have been living for more than one generation in areas dominated by other languages and cultures (i.e., mostly in Russia and Georgia) have assimilated and lost their Ossetic ethnic identity.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Ossetes are the only descendants of the medieval Alans, themselves descended from the Scytho-Sarmatian tribes who in antiquity lived in the vast steppes of southern Russia. Together with Yaghnobi (spoken in the Pamir region of Central Asia) and Pashto (spoken in Afghanistan), Ossetic is classified as a language of the North-East Iranian Branch of Iranian. Modern Ossetic has two distinct major dialects, which from the phonological and morphological points of view can be regarded as two successive stages in historical linguistic development. The Digoron or West Ossetic dialect is spoken in the western part of North Ossetia (it is relatively archaic and has many Circassian borrowings). Iron or East Ossetic is the dialect of the entire remaining Ossetic area; the Tual variety of Iron has absorbed many Georgian elements. Iron was the mother tongue and the linguistic medium of the national poet Khetægkaty K'osta (1859-1906; in Russian, Kosta Khetagurov), who is considered the creator of the literary language; the Iron dialect was consequently chosen to serve as the literary language for all Ossetes. From the period preceding this we have only some sporadic documents. The oldest one, a text from the Alanic period, is a short grave inscription (the Zelenchuk inscription) written in Greek characters, which has been dated to 941; it was discovered in 1888. The very few remaining early Ossetic texts consist of verses and glosses indirectly transmitted in Byzantine and Hungarian sources.

The first larger documents, which appeared 200 years ago, were religious books and gospels. The script used for the first book (Moscow, 1798), a bilingual Slavonic-Ossetic church catechism, was in an adapted form of Cyrillic. The earliest South Ossetic texts, however, were written in the Georgian script ( khutsuri ), with some additional letters. In 1844 a new variant of the Cyrillic alphabet came into use; this was replaced by a Latin script in 1923. Since 1938 another expanded form of Cyrillic has been used in North Ossetia, whereas in South Ossetia the mkhedruli variant of Georgian was customary until 1954, at which time the North Ossetic variant of Cyrillic was introduced as well. According to the linguistic data, all the remaining Iranian languages show a relatively clear continuity in their historical and areal development, whereas Ossetic contrasts with them in many respects. The reason is that Ossetic (as well as its predecessors, Scytho-Sarmatian and Alanic) has been isolated from the rest of the Iranian world for some 2,000 years and has at the same time been deeply influenced by the surrounding non-Indo-European languages. In the northwest, Ossetic borders the North-West Caucasian Circassian and Kabardian and the Turkic languages of the Nogays and the Karachay-Balkars; in the east are the North-East Caucasian Nakh (Veinakhian) languages Ingush and Chechen; in the southern regions there is a gradual linguistic transition to Georgian. In all these contact spheres bilingualism has long been common. Recently, Russian has become the new lingua franca, especially in the northern Caucasus. In North Ossetia Russian is the official language used in all spheres (education, administration, etc.), whereas in South Ossetia Georgian serves the same purpose. All these situations of linguistic contact have left numerous traces in the phonology, morphology, syntax, and lexicon of Ossetic.


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