Ossetian Genealogy.

Richard Foltz, a professor in the Department of Religions and Cultures of Concordia University, is living in Ossetia researching and writing a book on the place, and he has a blog A Canadian in Ossetia that has lots of information and gorgeous photos. I want to focus here on his post Ossetian Genealogy: From Arya to Alan to Ir, because at the end of this passage he makes a perfectly understandable error I want to correct:

Given centuries of shared existence it is only natural that the Ossetes would have much in common with Georgians, Circassians and Chechens, despite their very different origins. Trying to untangle their mutual connections is hardly a straightforward project, and it has led to much bitterness and even bloodshed. It is one thing to take pride in the glories of one’s ancestors, but too often this leads to exaggeration, exclusivism, and counter-productive hostilities. I will attempt here to briefly characterize the validity of prevalent Ossetian notions regarding their own past in relation to that of their neighbours.

The Ossetes speak an Iranic language which is directly descended from that of the Scythians, diverse tribes of often warlike pastoral nomads who occupied the steppes from eastern Europe all the way to Mongolia during the first century BCE. They were known to the Greeks, the Persian and the Chinese, who all feared their military might as mounted archers. They were also known for producing magnificent gold jewelry, which was especially prized by the Greeks with whom they traded in settlements around the Black Sea.

The Sarmatians were a Scythian group who interacted with the Romans, often fighting them but sometimes being coopted as cavalry into the Roman army. A Sarmatian contingent was settled by the Romans in Britain during the first century, and the Arthurian legends have been connected with them. A century later the Sarmatians come to be referred to in Latin sources as Alans, which is a phonetic transformation of the ethnonym “Aryan”, meaning “noble”, by which the diverse Iranic tribes referred to themselves. The Ossetes today call themselves “Ir” (adjectival form iron), and their country Iryston, which is etymologically identical with “Iran”: both mean “Land of the Aryans”.

That is the traditional etymology of ir, and you will still find it in a lot of sources, but as I say in my 2008 post on Ossetia:

[…] it used to be thought that Ir was derived from *arya- ‘Aryan’ and thus related to Iran, but Ronald Kim denies this in “On the Historical Phonology of Ossetic: The Origin of the Oblique Case Suffix,” Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 123 (Jan.– Mar. 2003), pp. 43-72 (JSTOR); the relevant discussion is on p. 60, fn. 42. Kim says it may be from a Caucasian language, or it may be descended from PIE *wiro- ‘man.’

Wiktionary says “From Proto-Iranian *wiHráh (“man”), from Proto-Indo-Iranian *wiHrás, from Proto-Indo-European *wiHrós. The traditional etymology from Proto-Indo-Iranian *áryas, the self-denominator of speakers of Indo-Iranian languages, is erroneous”; I don’t know if they’re not mentioning the Caucasian possibility to keep it simple or whether they reject it for some reason. At any rate, there it is; remember, kiddies, Ossetians may be virile, but they’re not Aryan!

Comments

  1. Huh, I never realized that Alan < Aryan. Is this generally accepted? I'm guessing we don't know enough about the language to posit regular sound changes.

  2. David Eddyshaw says:

    I knew there was an Ossetic dialect called Iron, but hadn’t made the obvious connection with Iran, arya etc; and now that I have, it’s wrong!

  3. Jasz tribe of Medieval Hungary is thought to be another branch, and a cognate name, of the Ossetians, but what is the etymology of these two? And of the Digor, who, while Ossetian, are decidedly not Iron. And among the several tribes of Iron, aren’t the Tagaur equated with the Armenians.

    These names are complicated and even romantic. The use of Russian “bashnya” to describe Ossetian war towers is at best cringeworthy, though…

  4. David Marjanović says:

    Huh, I never realized that Alan < Aryan. Is this generally accepted? I’m guessing we don’t know enough about the language to posit regular sound changes.

    We do, and *ry > l (filling the gap created by the Indo-Iranian *l > *r change) is completely regular; therefore it is generally accepted.

  5. Christopher Culver says:

    The ethnonymn Alan (in Ossetic preserved only in some fossilized constructions as allon) is believed to be the Ossetic reflection of the “Aryan” word. Yuri Dzitstsoity (wonderful name) has a recent paper “К этимологии этнонимов Alan и Allon” where he traces the sound changes and lays out all the argumentation.

  6. David Marjanović says:

    Google Scholar can’t find that paper. When I search without quotation marks, it still doesn’t find it, but it brings up “К этимологии этнонимов «савромат»,«сармат» и «алан»” by, speaking of wonderful names, “Р Джатцаев – Вайнах. Грозный, 2009”.

  7. David Marjanović says:

    Neat, thanks!

  8. I seem to recall that “ir” in “Ireland” means the same thing

  9. xyzt: That’s one theory.

  10. David Eddyshaw says:

    No: Éire is cognate with Welsh Iwerddon (and the same etymon underlies the Latin borrowing Hibernia.)

    Old Irish aire “noble” looks cognate with arya, but apparently even that is dubious.

    We discussed this somewhere not long ago.

  11. We discussed this somewhere not long ago.

    September 13, 2019 at 12:48 pm

  12. Richard Foltz says:

    “Jasz tribe of Medieval Hungary is thought to be another branch, and a cognate name, of the Ossetians, but what is the etymology of these two? And of the Digor, who, while Ossetian, are decidedly not Iron. And among the several tribes of Iron, aren’t the Tagaur equated with the Armenians.”

    Jasz, Os(-eti), and Mong. As(-ud) all derive from As, an ancient Scythian tribal name.

    “The use of Russian “bashnya” to describe Ossetian war towers is at best cringeworthy, though…”

    In that case you will cringe when traveling through Ossetia, since you will see signs all along the highways (put up by the tourist office) indicating the way to important “bashnyas”! In fact Ossetian distinguishes between different kinds of towers by using different terms (e.g., mæsig, gænakh, galuan); Russian just uses an umbrella term for all of them.

  13. J.W. Brewer says:

    Just as an indicator of long-standing popular interest in Those Exotic Caucasian Ethnicities: I had lunch today with my wife at an old-timey Manhattan restaurant whose walls are covered with ephemera from the 19th-century theatrical world, and our table was right next to an antique handbill giving the line-up of acts playing at a vaudeville-and-variety establishment (right off Broadway a bit below 20th St., I believe). one particular week in April of 1876. And the very last act on the bill was a “TROUPE OF CIRCASSIAN FEMALE MODELS.”

  14. I’m not sure how closely Circassians were associated with the Caucasus in the Western imagination, though, since they were familiar from Turkey and Egypt. (In fact, Egypt was run by them for a while; an official name of the country was دولة الجراكسة Dawlat al-Jarākisa ‘State of the Circassians.’)

  15. And the very last act on the bill was a “TROUPE OF CIRCASSIAN FEMALE MODELS.”

    A common phenomenon at the time. There’s a section about them in Charles King’s The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus (2008).

    The ultimate expression of Circassian eroticism, however, was to appear in a rather unexpected place—in the circus midways and dime museums of Victorian-era America. …
    In the late nineteenth century no circus sideshow or museum of “freaks” was complete without such “Circassian beauties,” as they were called. Like the dwarfs, albinos, and bearded ladies who populated these public exhibitions of the odd and the grotesque, they were just the kind of rarity that anyone would pay to see: a voluptuous woman, perhaps descended from the Amazons, who was once fierce and untamed, then sold into sexual bondage and now, following her rescue and journey to America, an emblem of vicarious adventure and erotic possibility.

    The great showman Phineas T. Barnum was probably responsible for introducing the Circassians into American popular culture—or at least took credit for doing so. In 1841 he purchased a collection of human oddities in New York City from a less able businessman. Barnum immediately saw the entertainment value of the collection, which he renamed simply the “American Museum.” Soon his museum of “freaks”—including exceedingly tall and short men, hirsute girls, and eczema sufferers—was charging twenty-five cents (rather than the standard ten cents) for admission.

    Exactly how the Circassians joined this cast of characters is uncertain. … According to his own version of events, he dispatched one of his agents, John Greenwood, to the Mediterranean in 1864 in order to collect interesting human specimens for the museum. While on Cyprus, Greenwood heard stories about the ethereal beauty of Circassian women, who might be purchased in the slave markets of Turkey. … Barnum instructed Greenwood to see what could be done to secure “one or more Circassian women for exhibition in my Museum.”

    Once in Constantinople, Greenwood adopted a technique known to many male travelers intent on experiencing the wonders of the Orient. He disguised himself as a “Turk” and managed to gain admission to a slave market. (Given the considerable number of men who reported such activities in the nineteenth century, there must have been a thriving business providing “disguise tours” to gullible Westerners.) Greenwood reported that he “saw a large number of Circassian girls and women, some of them the most beautiful beings he had ever seen”—which would have been difficult, given the fact that the largest slave markets were no longer in operation. …

    … Not long afterward the American Museum began exhibiting women who, given their supposed origins in the Caucasus highlands, were said to be exceptionally pure examples of the “Caucasian race.”

    Any museum proprietor or midway hawker who advertised a Circassian beauty for inspection by the paying public had to clothe and present her in the style established by America’s master showman. First was the hair. The iconic Circassian beauty had hair like a briar patch: Dark and unkempt, it fanned out in all directions from her head. Her skin, by contrast, was light and smooth, like fine porcelain. She was dressed in Eastern garb, in flowing garments of rich fabrics, and often revealed a hint of shoulder, forearm, and décolletage to convince the public that her alabaster skin was not the result of talc.

    We know what these women looked like because the most famous became minor celebrities and appeared in photographic portraits that could be traded like baseball cards. … Their stage names—uniformly suggestive of the women’s otherworldliness—were often penciled onto the backs of the photographs, such as the famous Zalumma Agra, the “Star of the East,” or Zoe Meleke and Zoberdie Luti.

    The truth is that these women had no connection to the Caucasus at all. Most were probably local talent—Irish girls from lower Manhattan—who were hired by Barnum and outfitted in bizarre costumes. …

    This prototype of the Circassian woman reached its zenith in the 1880s, but in time popular interest waned. Barnum’s American Museum burned down already in 1868, and he soon turned his attention to other pursuits. With the arrival of the First World War, Circassian beauties had all but disappeared, although some shed their vaguely foreign names and simply billed themselves as women with bizarre hairdos.

  16. J.W. Brewer says:

    Thanks to Tim May for that great block quote. I’m thinking it would make a good set-up for the 19th century equivalent of a noir detective novel: “The Curious Case of the Pseudo-Circassians of the Five Points.”

  17. Trond Engen says:

    The truth is that these women had no connection to the Caucasus at all

    Circassians, not preciselissians.

  18. @Tim May: That quote makes it sound the American Museum only burned down once. In fact, it was destroyed by fire twice before Barnum took his kind of show on the road. It was set alight one additional time as well—in 1864, by an arsonist from the Confederate Army of Manhattan*—but that fire was extinguished with relatively minor damage.

    * A formation just eight men strong, apparently.

  19. Trond Engen says:

    Circassians, not preciselissians.

    I was trying to construct an antonym of circa based on caucus, but that got too strained even for me.

    I was surprised to find that it may not even be Latin. Wiktionary and EtymOnline agree that one possible etymology is from a Medieval Latin caucus “cup”, from Ancient Greek καῦκος, but eventually a Celtic(!) loanword, another from an Algonquin word for “elder, adviser”.

  20. “Yuri Dzitstsoity (wonderful name) has a recent paper “К этимологии этнонимов Alan и Allon” where he traces the sound changes and lays out all the argumentation.”
    I am sitting in a restaurant right now in Tskhinval, South Ossetia having lunch with Yura Dzitstsoity. I showed him your comment and he was very happy! 😉

  21. Stu Clayton says:

    Folks, have a look at the website of Richard Foltz (klick on his name in the comment) ! The high quality of the photos would be reason enough. In fact the posts are so clearly written that even I could follow them with understanding and interest, I who bring up the rear in the army of those with historical knowledge.

  22. xyzt: That’s one theory.

    I prefer to derive it from the Hungarian “country of writers” Írország.

    😀

  23. Stu Clayton says:

    Well, I hadn’t even noticed that this post is about that website. I now join David Eddyshaw in the ranks of those with challenged reading skills.

  24. But I’m glad you renewed my call to visit his site! It really is very well done.

  25. Russian just uses an umbrella term (bashnya) for all of them
    but also for a lot more of historically and structurally unrelated things, like tank turrets, TV masts, water towers, towers of Kremlin, Babel Tower, Eiffel tower, all in all as broad and sometimes wider than plain English “tower”. According to Vasmer, it is a Western Medieval borrowing, cognate with “bastion”.

  26. My wife was preparing an assignment for her Russian students with a text on, as chance may have it, the towers of Kremlin. From which I learned that the “teeth” of the Kremlin walls (usually described as зубец) are actually properly called merlons and that this word, as bashnya itself, came with the Italian architects who constructed the Moscow Kremlin (most of whom are only known by their first names plus a surname-like label Fryazin meaning “of the Franks”)

  27. @Dmitry Pruss: Merlon is the word in English also, for a crenelation along a castle’s parapet. The OED has this note on its etymology:

    “The image suggested in the derivation of post-classical Latin merulus merlon < classical Latin merulus blackbird is of a row of birds sitting on a wall.”

    The gap between two merlons is an embrasure—a significantly more common word, although it has other related meanings as well.

  28. January First-of-May says:

    The gap between two merlons is an embrasure—a significantly more common word, although it has other related meanings as well.

    In Russian as well – I definitely have at least a vague idea of what an амбразура is, but can’t recall having ever heard of a мерлон before.

  29. John Cowan says:

    The term I am familiar with for the lesser height between merlons is crenel (pl. crenels or creneaux) < L crenella < crena ‘notch’. A run of the two together are called crenellations. (The l can be single or double between vowels.) . The idea was to hide behind a merlon and shoot through an adjacent crenel. Crenel is a doublet of cranny.

    English kernel is native, the diminutive of corn, but for whatever reason the spelling kernel was sometimes used in Anglonormand for crenel. ModF spells it créneau, créneaux and uses it for ‘time slot; niche; parallel parking’ as well as the architectural meaning.

  30. Russian dictionaries translate crenel as embrasure, and define merlon as a separation between embrasures. So far so good.
    Other Kremlin fortification etymology wonders include портомойные ворота (port-washing portal? 🙂 ), a special passage through the wall leading to портомойный плот (pant-rinsing raft in Moscow river) with an attached портомойная изба. Dahl describes these rafts in some details, explaining that плотовые is a use fee collected by a rinsing raft manager.

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