Ossetian or Ossetic is the most widely spoken Northeastern Iranian language, spoken by more than half a million people mainly in Russia’s “Republic of North Ossetia-Alania” and the disputed territory referred to as South Ossetia where a struggle for independence from Georgia has been under way since 1991. Ossetian is an official language in both territories, and is written using the Cyrillic alphabet.

In spite of its geographical location, Ossetian is typologically an Northeastern Iranian language along with Yaghnobi and Sogdian. Ossetian speaking regions are geographically isolated from the rest of the Iranian family, and Ossetian has therefore been beyond the sphere of influence of other Iranian languages, including Persian. Instead, it has been under the influence of the genetically diverse languages of the Caucasus, which is reflected in many aspects of its grammar. Bilingualism between Ossetian and the Caucasian and Turkic languages of the region is common, and in South Ossetia bilingualism between Ossetian and Georgian is the norm. In addition to these, the presence of Russian is strong in both regions.

Ossetian is known as “āsi” (آسی) in many Iranian languages. In Ossetian, using the name of the dialects is more common. The two major dialects of the language are Iron ævzag (Ирон æвзаг) and Digoron ævzag (Дигорон æвзаг), with Iron being the dominant one both culturally and demographically. The two dialects have low mutual intelligibility, and diverge from each other considerably in phonology, syntax, and vocabulary. The examples and grammatical notes in this article are based on the Iron dialect.

Ossetian is a descendent of the medieval Alanic language (spoken by the Iranian people known as Alans in late antiquity). It is the only surviving descendent of the ancient Eastern Iranian Scythian (سکایی) languages that are believed to have been in use in vast areas of Eastern Europe and Central Asia in ancient times.



Ossetian (the iron dialect) has 7 vowels, including two front vowels /i e/, two back vowels /u o/ and three central vowels /ɨ ə a/. Other vowels, such as /ɛ/ and /ɪ/, appear in borrowed Russian words. A vowel chart is included 

Vowel Inventory for Iron Ossetian

There is some debate between sources on whether /ə/ and /a/ are central vowels. Part of this problems stems from the fact that /ə/ frequently assimilates based on its environment (Hettich 2002). Most sources agree that /a/ is a low unrounded vowel, but it also features varied F2 values (Abaev 1964; Hettich 2002). Using data collected by the NSF grants, we created a preliminary bark chart to visualize the phonetic properties of the central vowels (presented below). There are no significant differences in F2 values between /ɨ ə a/, which supports the conclusion that Iron Ossetian features three central vowels. It is important to note that there is a wide variation in the production of the weak vowels /ɨ ə/. 

Preliminary bark chart for central vowels in Iron Ossetian

In Iron Ossetian, vowels can be strong /i e u o a/ or weak /ɨ ə/. This distinction is referred to in most grammars including Abaev (1964) and Hettich (2002). According to Abaev (1964), the weak vowels frequently reduce and delete (especially when adjacent to strong vowels) and appear epenthetically to resolve clusters. Strong and weak vowel distinctions also play a large role in stress assignment. The strong vowels /a/ and /o/ alternate with /ə/ in plural formation, past tense, and in compounds. 

The following chart presents some minimal pairs for the vowels of Ossetian: 

a, ɨ

mad ‘mother’

mɨd ‘honey’


a, ɨ

maʃt ‘bitter’

mɨʃt ‘mouse’


a, e, ɨ          

bal 'cherry' 

bel 'shovel'     

bɨɫ 'lip 

a, u 

zag ‘full’

zug ‘herd of sheep’


a  ə

ʒʁalɨn 'to pick pieces off'          

ʒʁəlɨn 'to have pieces fall off'          


u, ə

tuxɨn 'to fold' 

tʰəxɨn 'to fly'


i, ə  

ʃin 'lower back' 

ʃən 'wine' 


ə, ɨ

ləg ‘man’

lɨg 'cut' 


o,  ɨ bon 'day'  bɨn 'bottom'   



The main distinctive property of the Ossetian consonant system among Iranian languages is the active role of glottalization in its stops and affricates, which is thought to be an areal influence from the surrounding Caucasian languages. In Ossetian, stops and affricates (excluding the uvular sounds) have a three-way distinction: voiced, voiceless, and glottalized (ejective). Voiceless stops are released in all positions other than initial consonant clusters. To indicate this, they are marked with [ʰ]. As an example, the three bilabial stops in Ossetian are /pʰ/, /b/, and /p’/. Glottalization is more common in loanwords. According to Thordarson (1989), the functional load of glottalization is insignificant in Ossetian (in contrast with Caucasian languages). This means that simple minimal pairs distinguishing glottalized versus plain voiceless consonants are rare in Ossetian. The Ossetian consonant inventory is shown in the table below.


       bilabial             labiodental            alveolar           postalveolar           palatal           velar           uvular           Glottal     

     pʰ       b



    tʰ          d



    kʰ         g   





        f          v


    s           z


        ʃ           ʒ



    χ          ʁ






    t͡s         d͡z


       t͡ʃ          d͡ʒ


nasal                m                   n          
trill                     r           
approximant                 w                       j      
lateral approximant                     l          


Voiceless stops are here marked as aspirated. According to our own data collection as well as work done by Erschler (2018), voiceless stops are aspirated syllable initially and released word finally but are unaspirated in clusters (e.g compare /ʃtəg/ 'bone' and /tʰəχɨn/ 'to fly'). For velar and uvular consonants, Ossetian makes a distinction between plain and labialized phonemes. Velar and uvular consonants are labialized when they precede /ɨ/. All consonants can also be palatalized when they precede a front vowel /i/ or /e/. Labialized and palatalized consonants have been omitted from the consonant inventory above due to their allophonic distribution. Examples of both are presented below. 





'saw (2.sg.pst.PERF)'

nʲ ,  ʃʲ 




'with me' 














Gemination also occurs in Iron Ossetian, although its exact phonemic status is undecided. Most major grammars do not include geminates in the consonant inventory. Most consonants can be geminated within a word.  The orthography in Iron Ossetian marks gemination by doubling the consonants. Compared to singleton voiceless stops, gemination of voiceless stops results in minimally aspired consonants with double length closures. Some examples of words with geminates follow 



/tʰəkːə/ now


/bətːɨn/ to tie
/dətːɨn/ to give
/əpːəlɨn/ to boast
/ləpːu/ boy
/qaqːənɨn/ to protect
/fəlːad/ tired
/məlːəg/ thin
/k'opː/ box
/ʃːad/ flour

Gemination also occurs at morpheme boundaries in several cases. When the plural suffix [tʰə] is added to nouns that end in [t], [d], or a sonorant (nasals liquids and glides), it geminates and appears as [t:ə]. Additionally, some preverbs cause initial consonants in verb stems to geminate (Abaev 1964; Erschler 2018). 


Singular Plural
fɨd            'father' 

fɨtːə             'fathers' 

mad         'mother' 

mətːə          'mothers' 

artχord     'close friend'                 artχərtːə      'close friends' 
bon          'day' bontːə         'days' 


Syllable Structure

Minimal lexical words in Iron Ossetian are CVC. Some clitics, pronouns, deictics and other function words can be CV, but often form prosodic words with larger lexical units (Erschler 2018). A prosodic word is an expression that contains multiple lexical words that act as a single prosodic unit for the purposes of stress assignment and other purposes (such as word minima). Onset-less and coda-less syllables are permitted, but must contain a strong vowel unless they are able to cliticize or form a prosodic word with a nearby lexical unit. Consonant clusters in Iron are restricted. Initial clusters may contain no more than two consonants. Of these two consonants, either a coronal fricative (i.e. [ʃ ʒ] and rarely [s]) must occur in the first position or [w] must occur in second position. Examples of initial consonant clusters are given below. Word final clusters are not as restrictive but also generally contain 2 consonants (although three are possible).  Final clusters often contain a sonorant (nasal, liquid, or glide) or a fricative (not restricted by place of articulation). 

Coronal Fricative in Position 1         

[w] in Position 2 

ʃtavd 'thick'

bwar 'skin'

ʃkʷɨ 'hindquarters'

nwaʒɨn 'to drink'

ʃqiʃ 'splinter'

zwap 'answer'

ʃmudɨn 'to sniff'

swan 'hunt'

ʒnag 'enemy'


ʒməlɨn 'to move'


ʒʁorɨn 'to run'




Stress in Iron Ossetian falls within a two syllable window at the left edge of the prosodic word. Previous work has determined that stress in Iron is largely based on the quality of the vowel in the nucleus of the first two syllables of the prosodic word (Abaev 1964; Hayes 1995; Kim 2003; Kager 2012; Erschler 2018). According to these generalizations, when the first syllable contains a weak vowel /ɨ ə/, stress falls on the second syllable. If the first syllable contains a strong vowel /i e a u o/, stress falls on the first syllable. By all accounts, codas play no role in stress assignment. Examples of this pattern are shown below. 

Strong Vowel


Weak Vowel

ˈχar.bɨʒ 'watermelon'             əm.ˈbal 'friend'
ˈt͡ʃi.nɨg 'book'  kʰər.ˈdo 'pear'
ˈgo.gɨʒ 'turkey'  wɨ.ˈdon 'they'
ˈdu.sɨn 'to milk'   pʰɨ.ˈrɨnz 'rice'
ˈnʲe.ʃʲi 'melon' gə.ˈdɨ 'cat'

More recent work presented by Lubera & Smith (2020) argues that Iron features on onset sensitive system that interacts with the vowel quality pattern shown above. Notably, they argue that complex onsets in Iron are heavier than simplex onsets and that stress is assigned with this weight in mind. When complex onsets occur word initially, the first syllable is stressed regardless of the quality of the vowel. Examples of this are given below. 

ˈʒdə.xɨn        'to return' 
ˈʒmən.tɨn        'to agitate' 
ˈʃk'ə.rɨn 'to drive' 
ˈʃqɨ.wɨn 'to fly out / pop off' 
ˈʃt’əl.fɨ.tʰə 'dots'
ˈʒgə.tʰə 'rusts'

Finally, stress assignment is affected by the prosodic word. Abaev (1964) noted that stress shifts occur in when nouns are definite. While stress is sensitive to larger sentential contexts, this notion of prosodic word can account for such stress shifts caused by definite and indefinite distinctions. When possessive clitics such as /mə/ 'my' occur with a noun, the stress falls on the first syllable of the noun rather than the second syllable. Compare /fə.ˈrətʰ/ 'axe' to /mə ˈfə.rətʰ/ 'my axe'. With the notion of prosodic word, the possessive clitic becomes part of the word and the stress window shifts so that [ˈfə] is the second syllable. From there, stress is assigned as before. Since the first syllable [mə] contains a weak vowel, stress occurs on the second syllable [ˈfə]. This also occurs on complex predicates. The light verb /kʰə.ˈnɨn/ 'to do, to make' receives stress on the second syllable as expected. However, when nonverbal elements are included, the stress pattern accomodates them. If the non-verbal element contains a strong vowel (e.g. /ˈtʰaʁd kʰə.nɨn/) the nonverbal element is stressed. If the nonverbal element contains a weak vowel, the first syllable of the light verb is stressed (e.g. /wəj ˈkʰə.nɨn/). More examples are given below. 

/kʰə.ˈnɨn/    'to do, to make'
wəj kʰənɨn 'to sell' (lit. to do sale)    
lɨg kʰənɨn 'to cut' (lit. to do cut)
tʰaʁd kʰənɨn     'to rush' (lit. to do quick)




Ossetian has lost grammatical gender distinction, but has a rich case system which is in part inherited from Old Iranian. There are nine cases in Ossetian (nominative, genitive, dative, allative, ablative, incessive, adessive, equative, and comitative). Case morphology is agglutinative for the most part. As a result, the nine-case system is not particularly complex on the surface.


The nine Ossetian cases are described below:

1- Nominative: The nominative case does not have a marker in the singular (it has the suffix /æ/ as its marker for the plural). It must be noted that the use of the Ossetian “nominative” case is wider than the general use of the term “nominative” in most languages. It is used for subjects, direct objects (when the direct object is indefinite or impersonal), vocative constructions, time adverbs (in some cases), etc. Both the morphology and the semantics of the nominative case suggest that it is the default case in Ossetian.

2- Genitive: The suffix /ɨ/ (ы) marks the genitive case. The genitive case is used primarily for marking possessive constructions and some of the other constructions that can be thought of as an answer to the question “of what”. In addition, direct objects (when they are definite and personal) get the genitive case.

3- Dative: It is marked with the suffix /æn/ (æн), and is used primarily in constructions that can be thought of as an answer to the question “to what”.  It is also used for other purposes including indication of goal or purpose.

4- Allative: It is marked with the suffix /mæ/ (мæ) for the singular and the suffix /æm/ (æм) for the plural. It answers to the question “to what”, usually indicating direction.

5- Ablative: It is marked by the suffix /æj/ (æй) following consonants and /jæ/ (йæ) following vowels. It typically answer to the question “from what”.

6- Incessive: Marked with the suffix /ɨ/ (ы), this case typically answers to the questions “in what” and “where”. Only the third person personal pronouns have independent incessive forms.

7- Adessive: The adessive case is marked by the suffixes /ɨɫ/ and /wɨɫ/. It typically answers to the questions “on what” and “about what”.

8- Equative: It is marked by the suffix /ɑw/ (ау) and typically answers to the questions “how” and “like what”.

9- Comitative: It is marked by the suffix /imæ/ (имæ) and answers to the question “with what”.

Personal Pronouns

In the first person personal pronouns, the nominative (/æz/) and dative (/mæn/) forms are cognates of the typical first person pronouns in other Iranian languages with case distinction. In most other cases, the morphology of case marking is agglutinative; the case-marking suffix appears as a suffix attached to a main morpheme. The genitive form serves as the base for these agglutinative suffixes. The Ossetian personal pronouns are shown in the table below.


  Nominative Genitive Dative Allative Ablative Incessive Adessive Equative Comitative
I /æz/ /mæn/ /mænæn/ /mæn/, /mæm/ /mænæj/ /mænɨɫ/ /mænɑw/ /me/
(fr. /mæne/)
you (sg.) /dɨ/ /dæw/ /dæwæn/ /dæw/ /dæwæj/ /dæwɨɫ/ /dæwɑw/ /dæ/
(fr. /dæwe/)
he/she/it /wɨj/ /wɨj/ /wɨmæn/ /wɨ/ /wɨmæj/ /wɨm/ /wuɨɫ/ /wɨjɑw/ /wɨi/
we /mɑχ/ /mɑχ/ /mɑχæn/ /mɑχ/ /mɑχæj/ /mɑχɨɫ/ /mɑχɑw/ /mɑχi/
you (pl.) /sɨmɑχ/ /sɨmɑχ/ /sɨmɑχæn/ /sɨmɑχ/ /sɨmɑχæj/ /sɨmɑχɨɫ/ /sɨmɑχɑw/ /sɨmɑχi/
they /wɨdon/ /wɨdon/ /wɨdonæn/ /wɨdon/ /wɨdonæj/ /wɨdonɨ/ /wɨdonɨɫ/ /wɨdonɑw/ /wɨdoni/

Ossetian also has a set of enclitic personal pronouns. The nominative case does not have enclitic forms. Note that possession can be marked using the genitive form of either the full pronouns or the enclitic pronouns.


As is typical of Iranian languages, each Ossetian verb has a past stem and a present stem. Past stems generally end with a /t/ (т) or /d/ (д). In the simplest cases, the past stem is formed by adding a /t/ (0r a /d/, if the preceding sound is not a voiceless consonant or a /z/) to the end of the present stem. A few examples are shown in the table below.


Present stem Past stem Gloss
mɑr (мар) mɑrd (мард) to kill
dɑr (дар) dɑrd (дард) to hold, to keep
wɑr (уар) wɑrd (уард) to rain
k'ɑχ (къах) k'ɑχt (къахт) to dig
dæs (дæс) dæst (дæст) to shave
wɨn (уын) wɨnd (уынд) to see
dom (дoм) domd (дoмд) to demand

The formation of verbs from the stems is also similar to most other Iranian languages. Verbs are conjugated for the six person-number combinations by changing the personal suffix, which agrees with the subject in both present and the past (no ergativity). The paradigm is shown in the example below for the verb “to pour”, /kɑɫɨn/ (калын).


English Ossetian
I pour. kɑɫɨn. (калын)
You (sg.) pour. kɑɫɨs. (калыс)
She/He/It pours. kɑɫɨ. (калы)
We pour. kɑɫæm. (калæм)
You (pl.) pour. kɑɫut. (калут)
They pour. kɑɫɨnt͡s. (калынц)

In the past tense, transitive and intransitive verbs are conjugated differently. The table below shows the conjugation for the transitive version of “to pour” in the past tense.


English Ossetian
I poured. kɑɫdton. (калдтон)
You (sg.) poured. kɑɫdtæj. (калдтæй)
She/He/It poured. kɑɫd. (калдта)
We poured. kɑɫdtɑm. (калдтам)
You (pl.) poured. kɑɫdtɑt. (калдтат)
They poured. kɑɫdtoj. (калдтoй)

The intransitive conjugation of the same verb (“to pour”) for the past tense is shown below:


English Ossetian
I poured. kɑɫdtæn. (калдтæн)
You (sg.) poured. kɑɫd. (калдтæ)
She/He/It poured. kɑɫd(is). (калдис)
We poured. kɑɫdɨstæm. (калдыстам)
You (pl.) poured. kɑɫdɨstut. (калдыстут)
They poured. kɑɫdɨstɨ. (калдысты)


Sample text

The following sample text and most of the commentary are taken from Oranskij (1963).

æртæ      барæдж-ы       фæдæргæвст        æркæн-ынц=йæ                         фæндаг.ærtæ      bɑræd͡ʒ-ɨ         fædærgævst       ærkæn-ɨnt͡s=jæ                          fændæg.
three       rider-GEN        intersection            cut-3PL.PRS=3SG.GEN               way.
“Three riders block his/her way.” (lit. “Three riders cross his/her way”)

ærtæ: “three”. From Old Iranian “θraya”, related to Old Persian “θri”, Greek “treīs”, and Latin “ters”.

bɑræd͡ʒ-ɨ: from /bɑræɡ/ “rider” + the genitive case marker. Compare /bɑræg/ with Old Persian “asa-bāra” (lit. “taken with horse”) and Modern Persian “savār”. The noun follows the number “three” and has to take the genitive case. The final consonant /ɡ/ of /bɑræg/ changes to /d͡ʒ/ before the vowel /ɨ/.

fædærgævst: “intersection”. From /fæd/ “following, after” (cf. Modern Persian “pey”, Latin “peda”) and /ærgævst/ past participle of /ærgævdɨn/ “to cut”.

ærkæn-ɨnt͡s: “they cut (present)”. Infinitive: /ærkænɨn/. The combination /fædærgævst ærkænɨn/ is a complex predicate meaning “to cross”, “to come from a different direction and block someone’s way”.

: The enclitic genitive third person singular pronoun used in a possessive construction (“his way”).

fændæg: “way”, “path”. Related to Modern Persian “pand” (“advice”; undergone semantic shift from “path” to “right path” to “advice”).



Abaev, Vasiliĭ Ivanovich. “A grammatical sketch of Ossetic.” (1964).

Oranskij, Iosif Mikhailovich. “Zabānhā ye irani [Iranian languages]”. Translated by Ali Ashraf Sadeghi. Sokhan publication (2007).

Thordarson, Fridrik. “Ossetic.” Compendium Linguarum Iranicarum, Wiesbaden (1989): 456-479.

Thordarson, Fridrik. “OSSETIC LANGUAGE i. History and description” Encyclopaedia Iranica, Online Edition, 2009, available at http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/ossetic