Monthly Archives: August 2011

Alanic or Pre-Ossetic glosses in a Byzantine manuscript

Sysse Engberg, while studying Byzantine liturgical manuscripts in the library of the Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg in 1992, discovered about thirty glosses, written in an obscure language, in the margins of a thirteenth-century Byzantine manuscript preserving an Old Testament Lectionary (προφητολογίον )[1]. Professor Alexander Lubotsky from Leiden University was the first to identify the language in which the majority of the glosses were written as a prestage of Ossetic (henceforth I shall refer to the language as Alanic), a possibility that was first erroneously dismissed by Russian scholars. In 2003 Engberg and Lubotsky published an article[2] with some preliminary findings of their initial research on the glosses. I’d like to present some glosses Lubotsky identified and explained and give my own explanations for two additional glosses that were not yet examined in a scholarly publication. 

The manuscript was copied in 1275 by a deacon called Ioannes for a priest named Chrysos somewhere within the Byzantine influence sphere. On paleographical grounds it is argued that the glossator who introduced the glosses to the manuscript must have lived in the fourteenth or fifteenth century, presumably he was the owner of the manuscript back then. Historically the activity of a Alanic glossator in presumably late medieval Russia is quite significant because the Alans largely disappear from Russian chronicles in the late 13th century [3] (last time mentioned in 1277-1278) only to come in contact with Russia again in early modern times. The glossator was presumably a non-Greek who wrote glosses in his own language in the margins of the manuscript to easily identify the readings for specific liturgical feasts. The manuscript is written in Byzantine Greek and also the Alanic words are transcribed in Greek alphabet. The correspondences between the Greek transcription and the Alanic language which the Glossator intended to render are not unambiguous as can be illustrated as follows.

Greek <α> = Alanic /a/

Greek <ι> = Alanic /æ/

Greek <ε> = Alanic /æj/
(raising of /æ/ in front of following glide?)

Greek <η> = Alanic /æ/ (lengthening of /æ/ in front of final
resonant?)

Greek <η> = Alanic /i/?

Greek <ου> = Alanic /u/

Greek <υ> = Alanic /w/

Greek <π> = Alanic /#b-/

Greek <κ> = Alanic /-g#/

For those of you who are not acquainted with the background of the Alanic language and its successor, modern Ossetic, I will give a short overview. Most IE linguists will be aware of the fact that the modern Ossetic language as spoken in the North Ossetic Republic, an autonomous region in the Russian state, by some 500,000 speakers, continues an array of Iranian dialects spoken on the South Russian steppes for most of antiquity and the early Middle Ages. The speakers of these dialects are to be equated with the Alans of classical and early medieval sources, a confederation of Iranian tribes that played a large part in the Age of Migrations and the defeat of the Huns on the Catalaunian fields in 451. The area where Alanic was spoken was in historical times much larger than where nowadays Ossetic is spoken. Toponymic and hydronymic evidence indicates that the Alanic speaking area extended far westwards. The area where nowadays Ossetic is spoken was probably historically a Nakh speaking area. Quite recent (17th, 18th century) historical migrations moved the Ossetians to their present geographical location.

The following three Alanic glosses have been identified by professor Alexander Lubotsky. In their article Lubotksy draws attention to the fact that some soundlaws which have taken place in modern Ossetic[4] have not yet been active in this stage of the language. The most evident soundlaw is the following:

PIr. /a/ > Ossetic /o/ before –NC#, e.g.

Iron fonɀ < PIr *panča “five” < PIE *penkwe

Iron ɀærond < PIr *ɀaranta “old” < PIE *geronto

This soundchange has been dated to the thirteenth century by Abaev but Lubotsky rightly argues that the attestations in the προφητολογίον together with a fifteenth century Yassic wordlist containing the gloss daban hworz (Digor dæ bonxwarɀ “to you a good day”) prove that the change atleast postdates the Middle Ages.

τῇἁγίᾳμ(ε)γ(ά)λ() β´ πρωΐ (the great and holy Monday)

ἄυτεσήρ στούρ=Alanic *avdisær stur > Digor avdisær (æ)stur “great Monday”

The word Monday is composed of the elements *avd– “seven” (Iron avd– < PIr *hafta < PIE *septm “seven”) and *sær “head” (Iron sær < PIr *sāra- “head” < PIE *krh2os “horn”) literally meaning “the head of seven”. The Alanic word for “great”, stur, also has a solid IE etymology (Iron styr < PIr *stūra– “thick, large”) and is cognate to OI stórr “great”.

Μη(νὶ) σεπτ(εμβρίω) ηἐιςτήνγέννησιντῆςὑπ(εραγίας) θ(εοτό)κου

(September 8, the birth(day) of the most holy mother of God)

ἀστέμακ παν =Alanic *æstæjmag ban > Iron æstæjmag bon “the eighth day”

The interpretation of this gloss is also quite solid. The Alanic word *æstæjmag containes the element *ast– “eight” (Iron ast < PIr *ašta “eight” < PIE *okto) followed by the suffix –æm to make it an ordinal and the suffix –æg to make it an adjective. The Alanic word *ban (Iron bon < * PIr *banú– “light, beam”), meaning “day”, derives from a well established PIE root *bheh2– meaning to “shine”.

Μη(νὶ) νοεμβρίω ιγ’ τοῦ χρ(υσοςτόμου ) (november 13th, Eve of (st.) Chrysostomos)

ζιρήν κὰμ πάν=Alanic *zæræn(æ) kam ban > Iron zærīn kom bon “day of Golden Mouth”

The name of the specific saint that is to revered on november 13th is etymologically translated, since Chrysostomos means “Golden Mouth”. Also in Old Church Slavonic we find the same tendency to translate the name since the saint is called zlatoustъ there, a compositum of zlatъ “gold” and ousta “mouth”.The Alanic “translation” consists of *zæræn (Iron zærīn < PIr *ɀaranya “made of gold” < PIE *gholh3onyo-) and *kam (Iron kom < PIr *kahma- “ palate”?). This last word does not have a secure etymology but comparative data shows that the word must be reconstructed for Proto-Iranian, as evidenced by Persian kām, Pastho kūmai¸ Khotanese kamma, Sogdian k´m. Abaev suggested a pairing with German gaumen and Old English gōma (cf. ModE gums) but since these words must be derivatives to a root *g’heH2u– “to yawn” the connection with the Iranian word is lost. A pairing with the root PIE *k’es– “to cut” might be considered if one takes into account the semantic proximity of words meaning “cut” “gorge” “ravine” ‘ditch” and “mouth” (cf. ModE gorge < Old French gorges “throat, mouth” and German verkehlung the other way around) although a depalatalization of the initial velar consonant has to be assumed.

I took the following glosses from the request for assistence that Engberg published on the web (linguist-list[5]). Unfortunately the words are translitterated from Greek script and not the full Greek sentence that is pertinent to the glossing is given. I have retranslitterated the two words back to what I think was the Greek gloss when one takes the correspondances of Engberg’s translitteration compared to her 2003 article into account. Lubotsky and Engberg are presently working on a publication discussing all the Alanic glosses but since this publication is still forthcoming we have to wait for their expert opinions. I hope that my two identifications will agree with what they have to say on the subject.

(The exaltation of the holy cross) Tzu var urnag : τζουβαρ

Alanic *ɀuar > Iron ɀuar “cross, sanctuary”

The Alanic word for “cross”,*ɀuar,  is easily identified and is probably an early loan from Georgian (Iron ɀwar < Georgian ǰvari “cross” ) The date of borrowing must evidently predate the fourteenth century.

(the day before midpentecoste) 

pi pinlachu tzau pan : χουτζαυ Alanic *xucaw > Digor xucaw “god”

The spaces between the words are not completely consistent with an
isolation of an Alanic word *xucaw, but a quick look on the photograps of
the manuscript that are included in Engberg’s and Lubotsky’s 2003 article shows
that the spacing between the words is quite dependent on the amount of space
left in the margin. Presumed χουτζαυ in my opinion must be identified as
corresponding to Iron
xwycaw, which is also a loan from Georgian. (Iron < * xwycaw Georgian xuci, xucesi “old man, priest”). It is very conceivable
that an Alanic sentence rendering “pentecoste” includes the word for  “god”.


[1] A προφητολογίον is a liturgical book containing readings from the Old Testament to be read during vespers before the Great Liturgical Feasts.

[2] Engberg, S. & Lubotsky, A.M. Alanic marginal notes in a Byzantine manuscript: a preliminary reportNartamongae: the Journal of Alano-Ossetic Studies, II (1-2) (2003), pp. 41-46.

[3] probably due to the Mongol invasions led by Jäbä and Sübä’ätäi in 1222
and the subsequent deportation of part of the Alanic population.

[4] When speaking of modern Ossetic I mean the standard Ossetic language which is based on the Iron dialect. The Digor dialect form which will sometimes be quoted in this article usually is more conservative.