The Ossetian language, also known as Ossetic, is spoken by an estimated 600,000 native speakers around the world today, the majority of them located in the Georgian region of South Ossetia and Russian republic of North Ossetia-Alania.
The history of the Ossetian language can be traced back to ancient times, and the Ossetian people have a distinct history firmly rooted in the present-day regions of Ossetia. A consequent strong sense of Ossetian identity has often resulted in conflict in Georgia, home to the separatist region of South Ossetia. Conflict regarding South Ossetia’s desire for independence has continued for decades, resulting in periods of violence as recently as 2008.
Classification and Early History of the Ossetian Language
There are two primary dialects within the Ossetian language, Iron and Digor. Iron is the most widely used.
Ossetian is classified as a member of the eastern group of Iranian languages of the Indo-Iranian language family. The Ossetian people trace their roots back to the Alans or Alani, a group of people descended from the Scytho-Sarmatian tribes that inhabited the Russian plains in ancient times.
In the 9th century, the Alans established a state in what is now Alania. Due to Mongol invasion, the Alans migrated southward toward the Caucasus Mountains in the 13th century, coming to inhabit areas of modern Georgia. Modern Ossetian developed from the ancient language spoken by the Alans.
Russian Influence on Ossetia
In the late 18th century, the Russian Empire took control of Ossetia, inspiring a number of revolts by the Ossetian people. After the Russian Civil War (1918 - 1921), Ossetia was divided into north and south. The northern part was incorporated into the Russian Soviet Federated Republic while the southern part was declared the South Ossetian Autonomous Region within the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic, which became part of the USSR in 1922.
Written Ossetian Language
Early evidence of a literary Ossetian language is scant. The first known example of a transcribed Ossetian dates to circa the 10th to 12th century and exists in the form of an inscription written using a modified Greek alphabet. Another early record of the early Proto-Ossetian language exists in two Alanic lines found in the works of a 12th century Byzantine scholar.
The Ossetian language did not adopt an official writing system until the 18th century. After Russian conquest, the language adopted a Cyrillic script like that used in the Russian language. Many southern Ossetian-speaking areas, however, adopted a script like that used in the Georgian language. North and south used separate scripts until 1951, when actions were taken to unify the Ossetian language under a single written form. Today, the Ossetian language is written using a Cyrillic alphabet.
Ossetian Language in South Ossetia and North Ossetia-Alania
The Ossetes in both North and South Ossetia are native speakers of the Ossetian language. The region of South Ossetia is located along the southern slopes of the Greater Caucasus mountain range in northern Georgia. Approximately two-thirds of South Ossetia’s population (an estimated 98,527 people) consist of ethnic Ossetes, while the remainder of the inhabitants is comprised of Georgians.
A significant number of native Ossete people can also be found in the republic of North Ossetia-Alania, a part of Russia that borders South Ossetia along the northern slopes of the Caucasus Mountains. With a population of an estimated 678,200 people, North Ossetia-Alania is home to both indigenous Ossetians and Russians.
Conflict in Georgia: 1980s South Ossetian Separatist Movements
The region of South Ossetia has for many years sought independence from the country of Georgia. A separatist movement in the late 1980s that advocated for South Ossetian independence from Georgia and unification with Russia’s North Ossetia-Alania resulted in violence, and eventually Soviet troops had to be sent into the region to help maintain peace.
After Georgia gained independence and broke free of the Soviet Union in 1991, South Ossetian calls for independence were renewed and violence again erupted between Ossetian and Georgian troops. Russia helped negotiate a cease-fire between the two sides in 1992 and directed the entry of peacekeeping troops from Russia, Georgia, South Ossetia and North Ossetia-Alania. In 1993 the Georgian government agreed to the establishment of South Ossetia as a republic within Georgia. Despite efforts to maintain peace, the South Ossetian conflict remained unresolved, and violence in the region continued into the 21st century.
Recent Violence in South Ossetia: Entry of Russian Troops in 2008
South Ossetia’s repeated calls for independence have remained unrecognized by the international community. In 1996, for example, South Ossetians elected a president even though the international community refused to recognize a South Ossetian president. The conflict concerning South Ossetia’s status was renewed in 2006, when South Ossetia again called for independence in an unofficial referendum. This act went unrecognized by the international community and South Ossetia legally remained a part of the country of Georgia.
In August 2008, tensions escalated between South Ossetia and Georgia when Georgian troops engaged in fighting with South Ossetian separatist fighters. The conflict reached new heights when violence erupted between Georgian and Russian troops that had entered South Ossetia with the supposed intent to keep safe those Russian citizens and peacekeeping troops already living in South Ossetia at the time.
International Interference in the 2008 South Ossetian Conflict
Russian troops soon took control of the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali, while fighting spread to other areas of Georgia, including Abkhazia, another Georgian region making separatist claims. Soon after, the international community took steps to address the escalating violence. A peace agreement negotiated by French President Nicolas Sarkozy resulted in the withdrawal of Russian troops from Georgia.
Despite the withdrawal of Russian troops from Georgian territory, tensions in South Ossetia and between Georgia and Russia persisted. Russia’s recognition of the independence of the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia resulted in criticism from both the Georgian government and international leaders. Although extreme violence in the region has come to a standstill, tensions concerning the status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia continue to mar Georgian unity.
Ossetian Quick Facts
Alternate Names & Spellings: Ossete, Osetin
Language Family: Indo-European, Indo-Iranian, Iranian, Eastern, Northeastern
Spoken by Approximately 526,000 people
Spoken In: United States
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