Now, I guess, I can pray for peace with the proper pronunciation.

a languagehat.com post, 10 August 2008

I’m not going to get into the politics of the mess in the north Caucasus except to say that there are no good guys, but I have to get a minor linguistic gripe off my chest: all the news broadcasts are talking about “ah-SET-ee-ə” and the “ah-SET-ee-ənz.”  What’s next, cro-AT-ee-ə? ve-NET-ee-ən art?  I realize none of the broadcasters and reporters have ever heard of Ossetia before, but you’d think the patterns of English spelling would clue them in to its proper pronunciation, ah-SEE-shə.  I suppose it’s another case of hyperforeignification, like “bei-ZHING.”

Incidentally, Ossetian (as every schoolboy knows) is an Iranian language, and the Ossetian name for Ossetia is Iryston, based on Ir, the self-designation meaning ‘an Ossetian’ (well, actually it specifically refers to the majority group of Ossetians, and the minority Digors resent the use of that name for the whole people, causing some Ossetes to identify with the medieval Alans and call Ossetia “Alania,” but let’s set that aside—if you’re interested in the messy politics of Caucasian ethnic nomenclature and the Alans, read “The Politics of a Name: Between Consolidation and Separation in the Northern Caucasus” [pdf, html] by Victor Shnirelman); it used to be thought that Ir was derived from *arya- ‘Aryan’ and thus related to Iran, but Ronald Kim denies this in “On the Historical Phonology of Ossetic: The Origin of the Oblique Case Suffix,” Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 123 (Jan. – Mar. 2003), pp. 43-72 (2.0.CO;2-5”>JSTOR); the relevant discussion is on p. 60, fn. 42.  Kim says it may be from a Caucasian language, or it may be descended from PIE *wiro- ‘man.’  (The word Ossetian is based on a Russian borrowing of the Georgian term Oseti.)

Originally published at culture-making.com.

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