Ossetian, also known as Ossete and Ossetic (ирон æвзаг), is an Eastern Iranian language spoken in Ossetia, a region on the northern slopes of the Caucasus Mountains. It is a relative and possibly a descendant of the extinct Scythian, Sarmatian, and Alanic languages.
The Ossete area in Russia is known as North Ossetia-Alania, while the area south of the border is referred to as South Ossetia, recognised by Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Nauru as an independent state but by most of the rest of the international community as part of Georgia. Ossetian speakers number about 614,350, with 451,000 speakers in the Russian Federation recorded in the 2010 census.
Ossetian is the spoken and literary language of the Ossetes, a people living in the central part of the Caucasus and constituting the basic population of the republic of North Ossetia–Alania, which belongs to the Russian Federation, and of South Ossetia, which is de facto independent (but is de jure part of the Georgian Republic according to most other states). Ossetian belongs to the Iranian group of the Indo-European family of languages (as hinted by its endonym, ирон). Within Iranian it is placed in an Eastern subgroup and further to a Northeastern sub-subgroup, but these are areal rather than genetic groups. The other Eastern Iranian languages such as Pashto and Yaghnobi show certain commonalities but also deep-reaching divergences from Ossetic.
From deep Antiquity (since the 7th–8th centuries BCE), the languages of the Iranian group were distributed in a vast territory including present-day Iran (Persia), Central Asia, Eastern Europe and the Caucasus. Ossetian is the sole survivor of the branch of Iranian languages known as Scythian. The Scythian group included numerous tribes, known in ancient sources as the Scythians, Massagetae, Saka, Sarmatians, Alans and Roxolans. The more easterly Khorezmians and the Sogdians were also closely affiliated, in linguistic terms.
Ossetian, together with Kurdish, Tati and Talyshi, is one of the main Iranian languages with a sizable community of speakers in the Caucasus. It is descended from Alanic, the language of the Alans, medieval tribes emerging from the earlier Sarmatians. It is believed to be the only surviving descendant of a Sarmatian language. The closest genetically related language may be the Yaghnobi language of Tajikistan, the only other living Northeastern Iranian language. Ossetian has a plural formed by the suffix -ta, a feature it shares with Yaghnobi, Sarmatian and the now-extinct Sogdian; this is taken as evidence of a formerly wide-ranging Iranian-language dialect continuum on the Central Asian steppe. The names of ancient Iranian tribes (as transmitted through Ancient Greek) in fact reflect this pluralization, e.g. Saromatae (Σαρομάται) and Masagetae (Μασαγέται).