The Scythian languages form a North Eastern branch of the Iranian language family and comprise the distinctive languages
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, 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 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.
- 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.
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.
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
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:
|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.
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.
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-.
The river names Don, Donets, Dnieper, Danube and Dniester may also belong with the same word-group.
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 . Various explanations account for pata "kill":
Alternatively, Herodotus has got it all wrong; one scholar suggests Iranian aiwa- "one" + warah- "breast", the Amazons having a single breast according to ancient folk-lore as reflected in Greek folk-etymology: a- (privative) + mazos, "without breast".
- Avestan paiti- "lord", Sanskrit pati-, PIE (i.e. "man-ruler");
- Ossetic maryn "kill", Sanskrit mārayati, PIE "die" (confusion of Greek Μ and Π);
- Ossetic fædyn "cleave", Sanskrit pātayati "fell", PIE "fall".
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 ?, and spu "eye" with Avestic spas- "foretell", Sanskrit spaś-, PIE "see".
- 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.
- Or the first part of the name may reflect something like Iranian arjat- "rich", cf. Arəjatāspa (later Arjasp, a nomad king in Zoroastrian mythology;.
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)".
- Papaios = Zeus. Either "father" (Herodotus) or "protector", Avestan, Sanskrit pā- "protect", PIE .
- Api = Gaia. Either "mother or "water", Avestan, Sanskrit āp-, PIE
- Goitosyros or Oitosyros = Apollo. Perhaps Avestan gaēθa- "animal" + sūra- "rich".
- Argimpasa or Artimpasa = Aphrodite Urania. To Ossetic art "fire", Avestan āθra-.
- 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.
Alternate nationalist theories
Divergent views fueled by ethnic nationalism, have proposed affiliation with Turkic, Ugric or Proto-Slavic. A more moderate proposal by Boris Rybakov suggests a Proto-Slavic substrate.
- 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.