Ossetian and grammatical gender

Friday, September 24, 2010

I was skimming through my copy of The Languages of the World just now, a book from 2002 that is now nothing compared to Wikipedia, but still fun to skim randomly through when you have a few minutes to spare. Today I took a closer look at Ossetian and the sample it has for the language. It's not available on the Google Books preview but I found the full version of the poem here, and the part the book includes is as follows. Note the suspicious parts, which I've put in bold:

ФÆЗЗÆГ - Autumn

Æхсæлы ызгъæлы, -- The juniper sheds its foliage,
Лæджирттæг фæбур... -- The buckwheat has turned yellow...
Мигъ бады цæгаты, -- The fog has settled on the northern slope,
Нæ йæ тавы хур... -- Which is not warmed by the sun...

Æркарстам, æрластам -- We have mown and carted away
Нæ хортæ, нæ хос... -- Our grain, our hay...
Чи кусы йæ мусы, -- Some work at threshing,
Чи 'лвыны йæ фос... -- While others shear their sheep...

Хор бирæ, фос бирæ -- There is much grain and cattle
Хуыцауы фæрцы... -- With the help of God...
Нæ хохбæсты бæркад, -- The abundance of our mountain land,
Цы диссаг дæ, цы!.. -- What a wonder you are!

ЗЫМÆГ -- Winter

Хъызт зымæг, тыхст зымæг -- Cruel winter, oppressive winter,
Нæ катай, нæ мæт! -- Our despair, our sorrow!
Йæ бонтæ - фыдбонтæ, -- Its days are bitter,
Йæ бахсæв - мæлæт. -- Its nights like death.

Нæ хъæутæ - лæгæттæ, -- Our villages are caves,
Нæ фезмæлд - зæйуат. -- Our homes are scenes of avalanches.
Фыдæлтæй нын баззад -- Our ancestors have ordained that we
Зæйы сæфтæн рад. -- Perish in turn under an avalanche.

Нæ мæгуыр, нæ сидзæр, -- Our poor ones, our orphans,
Æнæхай куыстæй, -- Without a drop of work,
Хуыцаумæ дзыназынц -- To God cry out
Ыстонгæй, сыдæй... -- Hungry, frozen...

That's eight instances of the word our (нæ), all written in exactly the same way, for both singular and plural nouns. That looks like a language without grammatical gender as there's no declination there at all. And sure enough, if you check the Wikipedia page it has no grammatical gender. Wonderful. I'm particularly interested in Indo-European languages without grammatical gender as they are in the minority, as well as the fact that they almost always end up being particularly pleasant to learn. The exception to this are languages that have grammatical gender but in a mostly systematic way, like Spanish and Bulgarian. German gets by just by being particularly interesting and widespread.

The Wikipedia page on grammatical gender gives the following as Indo-European languages besides English that lack grammatical gender:
Persian, Armenian, Bangla (Bengali), Assamese, Oriya, Khowar, and Kalasha, among others.
And of course Afrikaans can be added to the list as well.

For a quick sample of Ossetian (and just about any other rare language) the first result to turn up on YouTube is almost always the worldlanguagesmovies short videos of what seems to be a simple explanation of Protestant Christianity. The voice for this one is particularly good, and if Ossetian all sounds like this then it's a great sounding language.

Besides that, pretty much every other search result for Ossetian turns up something on Russian/Georgian/Caucasian politics, and so mostly geopolitical and almost no linguistic info.

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