Sword out of the stone

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The war in South Ossetia reminded me of the disputed Sarmatian connection to the King Arthur legends — a good story, whether or not it's true. (More on this here.) And the Wikipedia article on the Ossetians says that "Joseph Stalin's parents are believed to have been ethnic Ossetians albeit assimilated into Georgian culture". I first learned about this in Simon Sebag Montefiore's Young Stalin, which I read not long ago. According to Montefiore, Stalin's paternal great-grandfather "was an Ossetian from the village of Geri, north of Gori". In a footnote on p. 21, Montefiore expands on this:

When Stalin's dying father [Vissarion "Keke" Djugashvili] was admitted to hospital, significantly he was still registered as Ossetian. Stalin's enemies, from Trotsky to the poet Mandelstam in his famous poem, relished calling him an "Ossete" because Georgians regarded Ossetians as barbarous crude and, in the early nineteenth century, non-Christian.

This lecture by Bruce Thompson provides an English translation of Mandelstam's 1933 Stalin poem:

We live, deaf to the land beneath us,
Ten steps away no one hears our speeches,
But where there's so much as half a conversation
The Kremlin's mountaineer will get his mention.

[Original version: All we hear is the Kremlin mountaineer
The murderer and peasant-slayer]

His fingers are fat as grubs
And the words, like lead weights, fall from his lips,
His cockroach whiskers leer
And his boot tops gleam.
Around him a rabble of thin-necked leaders–
Fawning half-men for him to play with.
They whinny, purr or whine
As he prates and points a finger,
One by one forging his laws, to be flung
Like horseshoes at the head, the eye or the groin.
And every killing is a treat
For the broad-chested Ossete.

A translation by W.S. Merwin is here, with the Ossetian connection left implicit:

He rolls the executions on his tongue like berries.
He wishes he could hug them like big friends from home.

In the original Russian, the last couplet is

Что ни казнь у него – то малина
И широкая грудь осетина.

which rhymes малина "raspberry" with осетина "Ossetian".

The Wikipedia article on the Ossetic language asserts that

Ossetic preserves many archaic features of Old Iranian, such as eight cases and verbal prefixes. The eight cases are not, however, the original Indo-Iranian cases, which were eroded due to pronunciation changes. The modern cases, except the nominative, are derived from a single surviving oblique case that was reanalyzed into seven new cases by Ossetic speakers.

thought this assertion is flagged as "citation needed". This sounds like fun — does anyone know the details?

[Update: Thanks to the pointer supplied by Pekka below, you can read all about the Ossetic case system (and many other topics of interest) in Fredrik Thordarson, "Ossetic", in Rüdiger Schmitt, Ed., Compendium Linguarum Iranicarum, 1989. It seems that the description in the Wikipedia article is misleading — the current cases are basically clitics that appear at the end of the phrase, roughly like English 's (click on the images below for larger versions):

Apparently the case markers and the plural marker are more or less invariant, and retain their identity in combination:

And these clitic particles are appended to the "nominative" (i.e. uninflected) form:



  1. Pekka said,

    August 9, 2008 @ 10:23 am

    The PDFs available on this page probably can't settle Wikipedia's "citation needed" conclusively, but they might be interesting for some LL readers none the less.


  2. Rob Gunningham said,

    August 9, 2008 @ 12:55 pm

    You know, it's just plain weird that an announcement of war would lead some of us to begin a discussion of whether, in the Ossetic system, there are eight cases. I don't exclude myself from this weirdness, I don't say it's wholly inappropriate and I know others of us have actually fought wars, but it is worth noting.

    Interesting about Stalin and Mandelstam.

  3. J. said,

    August 9, 2008 @ 1:22 pm

    I feel a similar level of discomfort over blithely discussing tangents when there's shelling going on *as we speak*. Not that I'm immune either.

  4. Mark Liberman said,

    August 9, 2008 @ 2:12 pm

    @Rob & J.: It's worth thinking about who the Ossetians are, in what ways they're different from ethnic Georgians, why some of them might want to be independent, etc. One aspect of this is to remind (or inform) ourselves that Ossetic is an Iranian language; that the Romans brought their ancestors to the British Isles as soldiers; that Stalin was Ossetian; etc.

    As for the case system, that's just an incidental part of the package.

    It strikes me as odd to take the view that it's inappropriate to discuss the language of people involved in a war — but weirdness is certainly in the eye of the beholder.

  5. Rob Gunningham said,

    August 9, 2008 @ 3:03 pm

    Ok, quite good points, Mark.

    But it's still weird.

  6. dr pepper said,

    August 9, 2008 @ 4:32 pm

    Huh. If language and culture are of iranic origin, why are we hearing that "the ossetes" (the/they/those, always a sign to me of unfair generalization) want to join their land to russia? Is there a strong russified level to the language, as opposed to a geogianized one? Otherwise, why fight to change which slavic cimmunity you're going to be a minority in?

  7. Victor Mair said,

    August 9, 2008 @ 4:16 pm

    As someone who enjoys tracking Iranian languages, peoples, and cultures across the length and breadth of Eurasia, I am a great fan of the book by C. Scott Littleton and Linda A. Malcor entitled From Scythia to Camelot: A Radical Reassessment of the Legends of King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, and the Holy Grail (New York and London: Garland, 1994; rev. pb. 2000). In the British journal, Religion, 28.3 (July, 1998), 294-300, I wrote a review in which I pointed out that the celebrated motif of a mighty arm rising up out of the water holding aloft the hero's sword can also be found in a medieval Chinese tale from Dunhuang. That review is available electronically from ScienceDirect, if your library subscribes to it. Otherwise, I think this version on the Web is a fairly faithful copy:

    For those who wish to learn more about the Ossetes and their literary traditions, I can warmly recommend the following volume: Nart sagas from the Caucasus: myths and legends from the Circassians, Abazas, Abkhaz, and Ubykhs, assembled, translated, and annotated by John Colarusso with the assistance of B. George Hewitt … [et al.] (Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, 2002).

  8. Nathan said,

    August 9, 2008 @ 5:31 pm

    Georgia a Slavic community? What?!

  9. J. said,

    August 9, 2008 @ 7:24 pm

    ^ What Nathan said.

    Also, @ Dr. Liberman: To state that S. Ossetians want "independence" is too make a far too general statement and sounds eerily like the line that the Russian government/press has taken over the last few years – i.e. almost a guarantee of inaccuracy. Local opinion is, unsurprisingly, a great deal more diverse than that. Despite Russia's constant meddling. We should be reminded (or informed) of that fact, too – as long as we're on the subject.

    [(myl) An excellent point — I've revised my comment to read "why some of them might want to be independent", which is what I meant, anyhow, and should have said more clearly.]

    Politics aside, I didn't know about Stalin's non-Kartvelian heritage either. So, thanks for that.

  10. Ah what's in a name - World Literature Forum said,

    August 10, 2008 @ 12:56 am

    […] with осетина "Ossetian". Language Log Sword out of the stone __________________ blog: shigekuni […]

  11. Rob Gunningham said,

    August 12, 2008 @ 6:32 am

    Language Hat has a good discussion of Uh-seshya.

  12. Lithchat » Blog Archive » Why support Georgia? said,

    August 29, 2008 @ 6:04 pm

    […] was the popular appeal for the oppressed Georgians and not the oppressed Ossetians, who have been considered barbarians by the Georgians? Why is Lithuania siding with a man talking about reconstructing the borders […]

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