Monthly Archives: October 2011

On the Northern slopes of the Caucasus

Language contact between speakers of
pre-Ossetic and the Nakh languages

The Alanic tribes that were to become the present-day Ossetes have lived
side by side with Nakh tribes for over a millennium. Various Soviet scholars
have argued that the Proto-Ossetic ethnic elements entered the region of Alpine
Central Ossetia only in the eigth century, presumably partly displacing partly
assimmilating the local Nakh population. However, we may assume that language
contact between Pre-Ossetic speakers and Proto-Nakh speakers had been ongoing
for many centuries before that. The similarities between the material and
spiritual culture of the Ossetes and the cultures of the Chechen-Ingush point
to long term cohabition and cooperation, an assumption which is corroborated by
linguistic data. Abaev, a welknown authority in Iranology and the linguistic
history of Ossetic, lists 216 Ingush or Chechen lexical items that may have
been borrowed into Ossetic. Fridrik Thordarson pointed out that not all his comparisons
are convincing and singles out eight items for closer examination in his
publication “Ossetic Grammatical Studies”. I want to present you these items
and discuss what they tell us about Alano-Nakh cultural and linguistic

                The Nakh peoples,
represented nowadays by the nations of the Ingush, the Chechens and the Bats,
have remained a cultural and political confederation far into historical times.
It is assumed that the Ingush left the Nakh collective only in the early eighteenth
century, a process which lasted presumably around a century. What were untill
then mere dialectal differences between Ingush and Chechen only then developed
into different languages, although there is still ample mutual intelligibility
between speakers of Chechen and Ingush. The Proto-Nakh forms that I reconstruct
are simple reversions of the umlaut-processes that seperate Chechen from
Ingush. What concerns the consonantism of the protolanguage I have assumed that
when the Chechen and Ingush consonatism agree with eachother and there is no
Batsbi comparison, the common Nakh form from which the Pre-Ossetes loaned the
word must have been closer to Chechen-Ingush than to Batsbi, although Batsbi is
in many respects the more archaic of the three languages. 



Nakh languages




< Nakh *baqhi

Ing. baqh, Chech. beqhi




< Nakh *kulg

Ing. kulg, Chech. kujg




< Nakh *ʒok

Chech.Ing. zʔok, Bats. ʒok




< Nakh

Chech.Ing. laj Bats. lag




< Nakh *fons

Ing. fos Chech. hons

cattle, property



< Nakh *kog

Chech.Ing. kog





 Most loans, according to Thordarson, pertain to the semantic fields of
economy and material culture, agriculture, cattle breeding, implements and
plant names. The fact that some Proto-Iranian words for body parts were
substituted for Nakh words testify to the the intensity of linguistic and
cultural contacts between the two peoples. The Ossetic words
арм, фад and ком meaning “arm”
“foot” and “mouth” respectively have been replaced by Nakh words as listed
above.  It is not surprising that the
Nakh word for cattle was loaned into Ossetic, for far into the nineteenth
century cattle raids between neighbouring villages and tribes were a highly
ritualized way of feuding. That a Nakh word for horse was loaned into Ossetic
is quite ironic since the Alans were highly praised for their cavalry and
horsemanship, even going so far as that several Germanic tribes loaned the
Alanic word for horse as their regular word for that animal (ModE horse, Dutch
ros < *ṷršna– “horse”). We may assume that historically it
must have been a specialised term associated with horse rearing, a
specialization presumably predating the fifteenth century Yassic wordlist
glossing ecus (equus) as bah.  

Linguistically, it is
interesting to see that Nakh *lag, meaning “man, human being” was loaned
in a stage that Pre-Ossetic /a/ was not yet fronted to /
ӕ/, a development that had taken place quite recently as
suggested by the name of an 11th century Alanic mercenary with the
name Ἀραβάτης (which must go back to Pre-Ossetic *arvad < *brātā
“relative, brother”) and even by the glosses in the Yassic wordlist, e.g. dabanhworz
(Dig. d
ӕ bon xwarʒ “to you a good day”
) and the above mentioned bah for Latin equus. It stands to
reason that the word was loaned before the fifteenth century. I therefore
believe that Cheung is wrong in his book “Studies in the historical development
of the Ossetic vocalism” in reconstructing */
ӕ/ for Proto-Ossetic, since the breakup of the Ossetic dialectal unity will
not have taken place before the fifteenth century and at that time the fronting
had not yet taken place.





Ing. ford Chech. hord

< Alan. *furd



sea, large river

Ing. äla Chech. ēla Bats. ālě

< Alan. *allan







The other way around the Ossetic word фурд shows us that some borrowing
must have taken place really early, since the present day Ossetic word for
“sea”, денджыз, is a loan from Turkic. The word фурд now only occurs in the
meaning “large river” and since the Nakh word does not have this meaning the
word must have been borrowed before the Ossetes specialized the semantics.
Intriguing is the Nakh vocalism of the Ossetic loanword, which itself must go
back to Proto-Iranian *pa(u)ruta-. Cheung assumes that Proto-Iranian
*/au/ first became Proto-Ossetic /u/ and subsequently got lowered to Digor /o/
but the Nakh word argues for the opposite development in which the Digor
vocalism was original and the /u/ of Iron secondary, which is also suggested by
Thordarson. The second word is iconic for the prestige that the the
Proto-Ossetic conquerors of former Nakh territory held, for Ossetic
аллон < *
Proto-Iranian āryanā provided the Nakh word for prince and chieftain. In
the cultural encounters between Proto-Ossetes and Nakh tribes the former were
obviously the dominant part.


Fridrik Thordarson, Ossetic Grammatical Studies, Veröffentlichungen
zur Iranistik, herausgegeben von Bert G. Fragner und Velizar Sadovski 48
(Vienna 2009).

Agustí Alemany, Sources on the Alans; a Critical compilation,
Handbook of Oriental studies, section 8, volume 5 (Leiden 2000).

Johnny Cheung, Studies in the Historical Development of the Ossetic
, Beiträge zur Iranistik 21 (Wiesbaden 2002).