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Spoken in Scythia
Language extinction mostly extinct by AD 1000, remnants evolved into Ossetic
Language family Indo-European
Language codes
ISO 639-1 None
ISO 639-2 ine
ISO 639-3 xsc

The Scythian languages (pronounced /ˈsɪθiən/ or /ˈsɪðiən/) form a North Eastern branch of the Iranian language family and comprise the distinctive languages[1] spoken by the Scythian (Sarmatian and Saka) tribes of nomadic pastoralists in Scythia (Central Asia, Pontic-Caspian steppe) between the 8th century BC and the 5th century AD. Up to the 4th century AD we have only a few words from any of these languages[2], substantial evidence of Sogdian and Saka dating from a later period.

The Scythian languages may have formed a dialect continuum:

  • Scytho-Sarmatian languages were spoken by people originally of Iranian stock[3] from the 8th and 7th century BC onwards in the area of Ukraine, Southern Russia and Kazakhstan. Modern Ossetic survives as a continuation of the language family possibly represented by Scytho-Sarmatian inscriptions, although the Scytho-Sarmatian language family "does not simply represent the same [Ossetic] language" at an earlier date.[4]
  • Saka language or Scytho-Khotanese in the east: spoken in the Kingdom of Khotan (located in present-day Xinjiang, China), and including the Khotanese of Khotan and Tumshuqese of Tumshuq. Scholars classify these languages as part of the North-Eastern branch of Iranian languages.[5]



The approximate distribution of Eastern Iranian languages in 100 BC appears in orange.

The Scythians migrated from Central Asia toward Eastern Europe, occupying today's Southern Russia and Ukraine and the Carpathian Basin and parts of Moldova and Dobruja. They disappeared from history after the Hunnish invasion of Europe in the 5th century AD, and Turkic (Avar, Batsange, etc.) and Slavic peoples probably assimilated most people speaking Scythian. However, in the Caucasus, a dialect belonging to the Scythian-Sarmatian linguistic continuum remains in use today, namely Ossetic.


The vast majority of Scythological scholars agree that the Scythian-Sarmatian languages (and Ossetic) belong to the North Eastern branch of the Iranian language family — like the once widespread but now extinct Sogdian language. This Iranian hypothesis relies principally on the fact that the Greek inscriptions of the Northern Black Sea Coast contain several hundreds of Sarmatian names showing a close affinity to the Ossetic language. [6]


Historians normally divide the Scytho-Sarmatian group chronologically rather than geographically:

  • Scythian (ca. 800 - 300 BC), mainly evidenced in Classical Greek authors
  • Sarmatian (ca. 300 BC - AD 400), mainly evidenced in Hellenistic and Roman inscriptions
  • Alanic (ca. AD 400 - 1000), mainly evidenced in Byzantine Greek authors

Some scholars [7] detect a division of Scytho-Sarmatian into two dialects: a western, more conservative dialect, and an eastern, more innovative one. The innovative dialect may correspond to Sarmatian, whereas the conservative dialect may continue the dialect spoken by the old Scythians before the invasion of the Sarmatians.

The Scytho-Khotanese group sub-divides into:

Sources of the Scythian language



Some scholars ascribe certain inscribed objects found in the Carpathian Basin and in Central Asia to the Scythians, but the interpretation of these inscriptions remains disputed (given that nobody has definitively identified the alphabet or translated the content).

An inscription from Saqqez written in the Hieroglyphic Hittite script may represent Scythian: [8]

Transliteration: pa-tì-na-sa-nà tà-pá wa-s₆-na-m₅ XL was-was-ki XXX ár-s-tí-m₅ ś₃-kar-kar (HA) har-s₆-ta₅ LUGAL | par-tì-ta₅-wa₅ ki-ś₃-a₄-á KUR-u-pa-ti QU-wa-a₅ | i₅-pa-ś₂-a-m₂
Transcription: patinasana tapa. vasnam: 40 vasaka 30 arzatam šikar. UTA harsta XŠAYAL. | Partitava xšaya DAHYUupati xva|ipašyam
Translation: "Delivered dish. Value: 40 calves 30 silver šiqlu. And it was presented to the king. | King Partitavas, the masters of the land property."

King Partitava equates to the Scythian king called Prototyēs in Herodotus (1.103) and known as Par-ta-tu-a in the Assyrian sources. ("Partatua of Sakasene" married the daughter of Esarhaddon c. 675 BC)

The Issyk inscription, found in a Scythian kurgan dating approximately to the 4th century BC, remains undeciphered, but some authorities assume that it represents Scythian.

Personal names

The primary sources for Scythian words remain the Scythian toponyms, tribal names, and numerous personal names in the ancient Greek texts and in the Greek inscriptions found in the Greek colonies on the Northern Black Sea Coast. These names suggest that the Scythian-Sarmatian language had close similarities to modern Ossetian.

Some scholars believe that many toponyms and hydronyms of the Russian and Ukrainian steppe have Scythian links. For example, Vasmer associates the name of the river Don with an assumed/reconstructed unattested Scythian word *dānu "water, river", and with Ossetic don and Avestan dānu-. [9] The river names Don, Donets, Dnieper, Danube and Dniester may also belong with the same word-group. [10]

Herodotus' Scythian etymologies

The Greek historian Herodotus provides another source of Scythian; he reports that the Scythians called the Amazons Oiorpata, and explains the name as a compound of oior, meaning "man", and pata, meaning "to kill" (Hist. 4,110).

  • Most scholars associate oior "man" with Avestan vīra- "man, hero", Sanskrit vīra-, PIE *u̯iHro-. Various explanations account for pata "kill":
    1. Avestan paiti- "lord", Sanskrit pati-, PIE *poti- (i.e. "man-ruler");[11]
    2. Ossetic maryn "kill", Sanskrit mārayati, PIE *mer- "die" (confusion of Greek Μ and Π);[12]
    3. Ossetic fædyn "cleave", Sanskrit pātayati "fell", PIE *peth₂- "fall".[13]
  • Alternatively, one scholar suggests Iranian aiwa- "one" + warah- "breast",[14] the Amazons believed to have removed a breast to aid drawing a bow, according to some ancient folklorists, and as reflected in Greek folk-etymology: a- (privative) + mazos, "without breast".

Elsewhere Herodotus explains the name of the mythical one-eyed tribe Arimaspoi as a compound of the Scythian words arima, meaning "one", and spu, meaning "eye" (Hist. 4,27).

  • Some scholars connect arima "one" with Ossetic ærmæst "only", Avestic airime "quiet", Greek erēmos "empty", PIE *h₁(e)rh₁mo-?, and spu "eye" with Avestic spas- "foretell", Sanskrit spaś-, PIE *speḱ- "see".[15]
  • However, Iranian usually expresses "one" and "eye" with words like aiwa- and čašman- (Ossetic īw and cæst).
  • Other scholars reject Herodotus' etymology and derive the ethnonym Arimaspoi from Iranian aspa- "horse" instead.[16]
  • Or the first part of the name may reflect something like Iranian arjat- "rich", cf. Arəjatāspa (later Arjasp, a nomad king in Zoroastrian mythology;.[17]

Herodotus' Scythian theonyms

Herodotus also gives a list of Scythian theonyms (Hist. 4.59):

  • Tabiti = Hestia. Perhaps related to Sanskrit Tapatī, a heroine in the Mahābhārata, literally "the burning (one)".[18]
  • Papaios = Zeus. Either "father" (Herodotus) or "protector", Avestan, Sanskrit pā- "protect", PIE *peh₃-.[19]
  • Api = Gaia. Either "mother"[20] or "water", Avestan, Sanskrit āp-, PIE Hep-[21]
  • Goitosyros or Oitosyros = Apollo. Perhaps Avestan gaēθa- "animal" + sūra- "rich".[22]
  • Argimpasa or Artimpasa = Aphrodite Urania. To Ossetic art "fire", Avestan āθra-.[23]
  • Thagimasadas = Poseidon.


The Alanic language as spoken by the Alans from about the 5th to the 11th centuries AD formed a dialect directly descended from the earlier Scytho-Sarmatian languages, and forming in its turn the ancestor of the Ossetic language. Byzantine Greek authors recorded only a few fragments of this language.[24]

Substratum theories

Divergent views, fueled by ethnic nationalism, have proposed that the Scythian languages may have become a substratum to the Turkic[25], Ugric or Proto-Slavic languages.[26] A more moderate proposal by Boris Rybakov suggests a Proto-Slavic substrate. [27]


  1. ^ "The languages of the eastern group, moreover, cannot have been themselves mutually intelligible. The main known languages of this group are Chorasmian, Sogdian and Saka. Less well-known are Old Ossetic (Scytho-Sarmatian) and Bactrian, but from what is known it would seem likely that these languages were equally distinctive" - Encyclopedia Britannica 15th edition - Macropedia on Languages of the World
  2. ^ Encyclopedia Britannica 15th edition - Macropedia on Languages of the World, "The Iranian Languages"
  3. ^ Scythian, member of a normadic people originally of Iranian stock who migrated from Central Asia to southern Russia in the 8th and 7th centuries BC - Encyclopedia Britannica 15th edition - Micropaedia on "Scythian"
  4. ^ The languages of the Scytho-Sarmatian inscription may represent dialects of a language family of which Modern Ossetic is a continuation, but does not simply represent the same language at an earlier time - Encyclopedia Britannica 15th edition - Macropedia on Languages of the World
  5. ^ Schmitt, Rüdiger (ed.), Compendium Linguarum Iranicarum, Reichert, 1989.
  6. ^ Compare L. Zgusta, Die griechischen Personennamen griechischer Städte der nördlichen Schwarzmeerküste [The Greek personal names of the Greek cities of the northern Black Sea coast], 1955.
  7. ^ E.g. Harmatta 1970.
  8. ^ Text and translation in J. Harmatta, "Herodotus, historian of the Cimmerians and the Scythians", in: Hérodote et les peuples non grecs, Vandœuvres-Genève 1990, pp. 115-130.
  9. ^ M. Vasmer, Untersuchungen über die ältesten Wohnsitze der Slaven. Die Iranier in Südrußland, Leipzig 1923, 74.
  10. ^ P. Kretschmer, "Zum Balkan-Skythischen", Glotta 24 (1935), 1-56, here: 7ff.
  11. ^ Vasmer, Die Iranier in Südrußland, 1923, 15.
  12. ^ V.I. Abaev, Osetinskij jazyk i fol’klor, Moscow / Leningrad 1949, vol. 1, 172, 176, 188.
  13. ^ L. Zgusta, "Skythisch οἰόρπατα «ἀνδροκτόνοι»", Annali dell’Istituto Universario Orientale di Napoli 1 (1959) pp. 151-156.
  14. ^ Hinge, Glotta 81 (2005) 94-98.
  15. ^ J. Marquart, Untersuchungen zur Geschichte von Eran, Göttingen 1905, 90-92; Vasmer, Die Iranier in Südrußland, 1923, 12; H.H. Schaeder, Iranica. I: Das Auge des Königs, Berlin 1934, 16-19.
  16. ^ W. Tomaschek, "Kritik der ältesten Nachrichten über den skythischen Norden", Sitzungsberichte der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften 116 (1888), 715-780, here: 761; K. Müllenhoff, Deutsche Altertumskunde, Berlin 1893, vol. 3, 305-306; R. Grousset, L’empire des steppes, Paris 1941, 37 n. 3; I. Lebedensky, Les Scythes. La civilisation des steppes (VIIe-IIIe siècles av. J.-C.), Paris 2001, 93.
  17. ^ Hinge, Glotta 81 (2005) 89-94.
  18. ^ W. Brandenstein, "Die Abstammungssagen der Skythen", Wiener Zeitschrift für die Kunde des Morgenlandes 52 (1953) 183-211, here: 191; Ė.A. Grantovskij & D.S. Raevskij, "Ob iranojazyčnom i «indoarijskom» naselenii Severnogo Pričernomor’ja v antičnuju ėpochu", in: Ėtnogenez narodov Balkan i Severnogo Pričernomor’ja. Lingvistika, istorija, archeologija, Moscow 1984, 47-66, here: 53-55; G. Dumézil, Romans de Scythie et d’alentour, Paris 1978, 125-145; Dumézil offers a different interpretation in La courtisane et les seigneurs colorés. Esquisses de mythologie, Paris 1983, 124-125.
  19. ^ Vasmer, Die Iranier in Südrußland, 1923, 15; L. Zgusta, "Zwei skythische Götternamen", Archiv orientální 21 (1953), pp. 270-271; Grantovskij and Raevskij, in: Ėtnogenez narodov Balkan i Severnogo Pričernomor’ja, 1984, 54.
  20. ^ L. Zgusta, "Zwei skythische Götternamen", Archiv orientální 21 (1953), pp. 270-271.
  21. ^ Vasmer, Die Iranier in Südrußland, 1923, 11; Brandenstein, Wiener Zeitschrift für die Kunde des Morgenlandes 52 (1953) 190-191; Grantovskij and Raevskij, in: Ėtnogenez narodov Balkan i Severnogo Pričernomor’ja, 1984, 54.
  22. ^ Vasmer, Die Iranier in Südrußland, 1923, 13; other interpretations in Dumézil, La courtisane et les seigneurs colorés, 1983, 121-122; Grantovskij and Raevskij, in: Ėtnogenez narodov Balkan i Severnogo Pričernomor’ja, 1984, 54-55.
  23. ^ Dumézil, La courtisane et les seigneurs colorés, 1983.
  24. ^ Ladislav Zgusta, "The old Ossetic Inscription from the River Zelenčuk" (Veröffentlichungen der Iranischen Kommission = Sitzungsberichte der österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften. Philosophisch-historische Klasse 486) Wien: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1987. ISBN 3-7001-0994-6 in Kim, op.cit., 54.
  25. ^ Zakiev, Mirfatykh Z. 1995. Ethnic roots of the Tatar people. A chapter from "Tatars: problems of the history and language", Kazan, 1995.
  26. ^ S.V. Rjabčikov, Drevnie texty slavjan i adygov [Ancient texts of the Slavs and the Adyghe], Krasnodar 1998; Skifo-sarmatskie istoki slavjanskoj kul’tury: Materialy Južnorossijskoj fol’klorno-ėtnografičeskoj ekspedicii [Scytho-Sarmatian sources of Slavic culture: Materials of the South-Russian folkloric-ethnographic expedition], Krasnodar 2002; see also the homepage of Rjabčikov on the Slavonic Antiquity.
  27. ^ B.A. Rybakov, Gerodotova Skifija. Istoriko-geografičeskij analiz [Herodotian Scythia:a historical-geographic analysis], Moscow 1979.


  • Harmatta, J.: Studies in the History and Language of the Sarmatians, Szeged 1970.
  • Mayrhofer, M.: Einiges zu den Skythen, ihrer Sprache, ihrem Nachleben. Vienna 2006.
  • Zgusta, L.: Die griechischen Personennamen griechischer Städte der nördlichen Schwarzmeerküste. Die ethnischen Verhältnisse, namentlich das Verhältnis der Skythen und Sarmaten, im Lichte der Namenforschung, Prague 1955.



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