Amongst modern Iranian languages, Ossetic is of very special interest, being the sole surviving representative of the ancient Iranian Scytho-Sarmatian language group, spoken over large regions of South Russia in antiquity. Today only a half-million or so in number, the Ossetes live in the central Caucasus, and though surrounded since at least the Middle Ages by non-Iranian languages, indeed non-Indo-EuroPcan-speaking peoples, Caucasian and Turkic, as well as the development of extensive bi- or multilingualism, the language is not in danger. Oss is spoken in two rather divergent dialects, Iron and Digoron (the latter rather more archaic) which are hardly mutually intelligible, and one of them, Iron, dominates the scene with ca. 85 percent of speakers and almost all printed material, and is the officially recognised form of the language.
The great of the Ossetes is the ancient orally-preserved Nart sagas, now collected and literary glory written down, in a lively literary culture, even if the age of the written culture is not great: the first printed book to appear in Oss was, as far as is known, printed in Moscow only in 1798, a Church Slavonic text with an Oss translation written in an ad hoc Cyrillic script. About the middle of the nineteenth century a real script was devised by the father of Oss studies, the Russian scholar A. ry Sjögren, based on the Russian alphabet. Since, then, a number of different scripts and writing styles have been adopted (and given up), including a Latin script used sporadically from 1923 into the 1930s. But in 1954 an official script was promulgated, a modified Cyrillic script, which is now in universal use. It is a good script. Western Iranianists have however tended to use their own systems, and e.g. Cheung differs in his somewhat from that used by Thordarson in Compendium Linguarum Iranicarum, as well as from the official script, but he gives a clear table of the system he has adopted on pp. 9-10, unfortunately split-printed between the two pages.
Though living entirely isolated from other Iranian languages, probably for millennia, the Ossetes — almost all (orthodox) Christians since their conversion in the Middle Ages by missionaries from Georgia, the few Muslims converted under Muslim Kabardin domination in the eighteenth century having fled to Ottoman Turkey in the nineteenth century after the Russian conquest — have been able to shield their language to a large extent from the massive incursions of the Arabic/Persian vocabulary characteristic of other modern Iranian languages. But this is not to say that Oss has been impervious to other, non-Iranian influences. Particularly noticeable are, for example, the six ejective consonants imported from Caucasian languages, voiceless stops and affricates as well as a system neighbouring Cauc of eight (or nine) non-Iranian nominal cases of the agglutinative type (it is not true that ejectives occur only in LWs ; on p. 37 Cheung gives an interesting short list of inherited Oss words containing ejectives).
Oss has been fortunate in its students, and possesses outstanding dictionaries and grammatical descriptions, e.g. that of Wsewolod Miller in the GrIrPh of 1903, and many others since then, and a comprehensive etymological dictionary, that of the Ossete scholar V. I. Abaev, the 4-volume Istoriko-etimologiceskij i’ Slovâr’ Osetinskogo Jazyka (Moskva-Leningrad, 1958-89). Abaev, along with many others, has also written extensively on folkloristic and literary matters.
Oss has also attracted the attention of many other outstanding Iranianists, foremost amongst them H. W. Bailey, I. Gershevitch, E. Benveniste and H. Hübschmann. A good bibliography of Oss studies is provided by Cheung on 10 pages, containing some 250 items which include other Ir language materials as well, up to Zoo i .
The book begins with an introduction setting out briefly the historical background of Oss, in which Caucasian and Turkic languages played a role, but which is necessarily sketchy and contains no new material as well as a short description of various ancient Iranian tribes who played an important part at the pre-Oss stage. But very useful is a good summary of Oss historical phonology in tables, treating both dialects.
The main part of the book comprises chapters on vowel phonology, followed by short chapters on accent, suffixes, various types of umlaut etc. There follows an extensive etymological index of more suffixes, various than zoo pages, essentially an extended commentary on Abaev, and in which the details of the results ry of the previous chapters are given. Most of the items in this index occur also in Abaev — but not all.
There are also comprehensive lists of words cited from various Iranian languages, as well as a list Of There 700 Iranian reconstructions plus the usual lists of words from Sanskrit, other IE languages, Caucasian, Uralic, Altaic, etc. A common fault with all these lists is that each word given is followed by a page number only, and it is very often a lengthy task to find the word sought on the page given. Finding the word in Abaev, on the other hand, is not difficult since the spellings used are not very different.
The main chapters on historical vowel phonology are titled “apocope”, the loss of final vowels, “syncope”, the loss of internal vowels which involves the treatment of the newly-developed consonant clusters and “I aphaeresis”, the deletion of initial vowels. These matters are treated rather more thoroughly than to any study up to now.
As an example, I shall discuss some details of Cheung’s study of apocope. Everyone knows that Digoron, the more archaic of the two dialects often shows a final Ta , where Iron has none, thus lengthening Digoron forms by a syllable. Ever since Miller examined it, it has been assumed that the forms in Digoron in -a?, which in Iron lack language. Cheun comprehensively examines many forms, and shows that the situation is not so simple.
1. Both dialects drop short vowels of old final syllables, as well as old final -i, -ir , and -am, that neither dialect keeps an old final syllable containing these vowels. This is very thoroughly circumented and convincing.
2. The cases where both dialects show a final –æ comprise old diphthongs in -m, and in -ai, and, -aγa, and some adverbs and higher numerals.
3. Some cases where pigoron -æ corresponds to Iron -æ can also result from secondarily developed ped consonant clusters in final position.
There follows a concluding table of results, which include remarks on leveling and analogy, always important in such cases. Cheung even dares an attempt to date the process: some time after the seventh century, as shown by some LWs in Abkhaz.
The chapters on syncope and aphaeresis are equally detailed and convincing, as is the chapter on i-epenthesis and palatalisation.
The accent in Oss is also examined, and additional material adduced to show how the stirs-accent developed in the two dialects. Stress-accent in Oss is much milder than in Russian, for exemple. The variable pitch-accent of Old Iranian became fixed in Oss at an early date on the first syllable, but the two dialects began to diverge at an early date in accent, with Iron developing a stronger stress accent on the first or second syllable, whilst Digoron kept the stress much milder and tended t, vary it in both strength and pitch, and generally fixed it on the second syllable, and consonant i clusters teaded not to develop. Parallels with the Sogdian rhythmic law have been suggested, but the m,oie1c wife representation of short vowels in Sogdian scripts has made convincing argument very difti, tilt.
The real core of the book is the Etymological Index which concludes it can pp. 149-255 where all Oss words mentioned previously are discussed in detail. I conclude with a detailed commentary on some of the lemmas. Main attention is focussed on Pashto citations, and the abbreviations are those usual in Iranian studies.
p. 155 s.v. Oss az “year”-T -’ (Ab I, g5), < aznâm; Cheunf, cites Ps p, parun “yesterday” <urn-,min- not ( p as given, para-. The long discussion does not explain how a word for “day” in other Iranian ian guages came to mean "year" in Oss.
p. 174 s.v. Oss ca gar “slave”. Ab 1, 286 connects Prs câkar (already in the , Sâhnâma with cognates in Phl (!agar “id.”). Neither Abaev nor Cheun mentions Bal n. r. jlfir (Câkur Cakor. Ahaev’s discussion is useless; Cheung’s is longer but no better: he cites Ps câkar and ’MP Cakar, So Td `Yr. cg only to point out (correctly) that neither exists. In fact nothing is certain about this word except ept the meaning “slave” and the P9 s is a LW < Prs.
p. 179 s.v. Oss -don (not in Abaev), “receptacle, location”. It is well known that the two meanings are to be separated: l. -dāna- “container” in most Iranian langs.; 2. in O Prs daiva-dāna- “daēva-temple” dāna <* dmāna –house,locality” (Av damǎna-) also in Bact Arm; Sogd βγδ’n’k “temple”.
p. 182 s.v. Oss ƒarn (Ab I, 421) “blessing, etc.”; not <*Parnah- (with Lubotsky SKIdg, 479ff., 1998); there is no conn. with the“full” words Av 1parəna - etc.): the word is rather from Ir *fârnah- (Av x aranah-, etc.), v. Elfenbein, Festschr. Humbach, 2001, 485ff.
p. 190 s.v. Oss fyn “sleep” (Ab I, 496). Thef- is certainly due to assimilation: Ir *xuaƒna > *ƒaƒna- (with Thordarson, Compendium Ling. Iranicarum, 184.108.40.206.1.3;) Abaev’s notion that Iranian* hw- >ƒ-in Oss is false, adopted by Cheung also; it was invented only in order to connect Ir *ƒǎrnah- with Av xV aranah-, also false (V Elfenbein, ibid.).
p. 191 s.v. Oss ƒynddœs “15” (Ab I, 496), cited is Pš pincəlas, wrong for pinjəlas, “id”.
p. 196 s.v. Oss kard (Ab I, 571) “knife”, is said to be < Iranian* karta-, and Cheung cites Pš čaŗa, an error for čaŗa; the etym. (taken from Morgenstierne’s Etym. Voc. of Pashto) (EVP) is said to be <* kārtyā-. But better is a derivation < kārti° , with Av karəta-, etc. Cheung also cites Bal karč, wrong for kārč (he has misread Barker-Mengal, A Course in Baluchi, 1969, Vol. II); the Bal word comes from *kārtya-.
p. 198 s.v. Oss Ikorn (Ab I, 598) “mouth, etc.” Ch. cites Pš kūmai (i.e. kumay) “palate”: the derivation < kāh-man- taken from Henning, Sogdica, and is entirely speculative. The whole lemma is pure speculation.
p. 202 s.v. Oss mœldzig (Ab II, 87) “ant”: the cited Bal marčōi does not exist.
pp. 207-8 s.v. Oss naræg (Ab II, 156) “thin” , etc. Oss naræg does indeed come from nārake-, but the cited Pš naráy “narrow” etc. <*naraka-. The original root vowel must have been nā°(cf. Khwar n’rk, but Skt naraka- “Hell”, nāraka- “hellish”).
p. 213 s.v. Oss qæjyn: qad “copulate” (not in Ab.) Cheung derives it from *gaia-; and he cites Pš γō “copulation”, with ō taken from EVP (better γo). The EVP also cites γōwul “to copulate”, with pres. γāγ-; this is nothing to do with *iab- (Skt yabh-), but rather a caus. gāwaya- (or simply an-aya- extension). Cheung does not cite Bal gāy-: gāta ““id.”. The long discussion which follows is very unclear.
p. 214 s.v. Oss qæz “reed” (Ab. II, 302). Cheung cites Bal gaz, as wrong for gāz “id”, which may be conn. w. Pš γōzá “cocoon” (but the meaning “firewood”, taken from Bailey, Dict. Of Khotan Saka, 80 (?) is wrong). Neither word has anything to do with Prs gaz, Bal gazz “tamarisk”, or the “reed” words.
p. 215 s.v. Oss rajyn : rad “enjoy” (omitted in Ab.) There might indeed be a root *raia_ “to cry”, but the cognates cited by Cheung, N rayal etc. mean “to bray, bark” and the like (e.g. Kurd reyin) and belong rāther to Skt rayati “barks”.
p. 223 Cheung does not understand that in Pš accented ə’ is a phoneme distinct from á. So Oss sædæ “100” <*Satā, but Pš sə! “id” < sáta. (Cf. Ah III, 52).
p. 223 s.v. Oss sær “head” etc. Ah HI, 73 after a long discussion takes the word to be genuine, as does Cheung, and not a LW < Prs. But Pš sar, cited by Cheung, is certainly a LW < Prs, and not, as in EVP, genuine.
p. 223 s.v. Oss sœnykk “kid”, etc. (Ah III, 71f.) The Pš word cited, hanik “kid” cannot be right; there is only the word hanák “grin, ridicule” given in dictionaries, which cannot be connected.
p. 242 s.v. Oss widon “bridle”, etc. The Wan word cited as aulān is wrong for awlūn (cf. Ab IV, 106).
p. 252 s.v. Oss yssœdz etc. “20”, Ah IV, 216f., <*ujnsati, Av visaiti, etc., but the cited Pš šil (taken from EVP) exists only as (w)šəl.
p. 254 s.v. Oss zæly “silk”, Ab IV, 295. I should not connect this word with Pš sālū “id.” either: both words are of unknown etym.
A count of the words in the lists given for Bal and Ps reveals 70 Bal words, of which 26 are either wrongor misleading, mistakes which could have been avoided by reference to the Glossary of my Anthology of Classical and Modern Bal. Lit., i 990 Vol. II. The Pashto word list is better, with more than ioo words, of which only about a dozen are wrong or misleading.
The style of listing, for a given lemma, all possible Iranian cognates should have been avoided, as a waste of space; many of the words cited are not directly germane to the Oss word in question, mostly posing problems of their own, as is evident from the above list. In any case a reader can always refer to Abaev, or to Bailey (op. tit.).
But these remarks cannot detract seriously from the great merits of this study, which deserves a place on every Iranianist’s bookshelf.