Start page

Valentyn Stetsyuk (Lviv, Ukraine)

Personal web site


Scythian Language

Most experts agree that during the Scythian-Sarmatian time not only the Scythians but the entire population of the Northern Pontic Region spoke some Iranian language. For many decades attempts to restore the "Scythian language" and to determine its place among the Iranian were continuing (ABAYEV V.I. 1979, KAMBOLOV T.T. 2006 a.o.). Moreover, on the assumption of the existence of individual Scythian and Sarmatian languages, attempts are made to establish certain phonological regularities between them. While neither the Scythian nor the Sarmatian languages, as unified for the entire population of the Northern Black Sea region, have ever been, such "studies" of non-existent languages can not be otherwise characterized as scholasticism (WITCZAK K.T. 1992, KULLANDA S.V. 2007). Scythology has reached a dead-end path, however, its development was not predetermined from the very beginning. In the 19th century, the relation of the Scythian language to some language family was heatedly debated, and the possibility of its Mongolian or Turkic origin was not excluded. Only in time, the thought prevailed that the Scythian spoke some Iranian language (GASSANOV ZAUR. 2002: 62). This error is due to the fact that initially for various reasons, it was not assumed that the Scythian and the Sarmatian languages could be completely different. Meanwhile, facts about the mixed composition of the population of Sarmatia were known for a long time, but they were left without attention:

Not all anthroponymic material, associated by ancient authors with the Scythians have an Iranian character. Accordingly (pointing to the non-Iranian origin of some names), V.F. Miller concluded that "the barbarous element of the population of the Olbia region was not limited to Iranians alone". In particular, V.F. Miller does not consider the Iranian etymologies of certain convincing names of Scythian kings mentioned by Herodotus: Σαύλιος (Saul), Σκύλης (Scythian), Γνουρος, Ιδάνθυρσος, Σκώπασις, as well as the names of the gods Οιτόσυρος/Οιτόσκυρος, Θαγιμασάδας, the goddess of the earth Απί, Αρτίμπασα/ Αργίμπασα, Παπαῖος, as well as the ethnonym Amazons Οἰόρπατα (according to Herodotus οἰόρ means "man" in Scythian, and πατα – "to kill"), place name ξαμπαῖος (which, according to Herodotus, had the sense "sacred ways" in Scythian), the ethnonym Αριμασποι (according to Herodotus "one-eyed" in Scythian)… (KAMBOLOV T.T. 2006: 74).

Nevertheless, the apologists of the Iranian origin of the Scythians persistently tried to seek Iranian etymologies for the "dark" words of the Scythian-Sarmatian times. But scientific conscientiousness of some scholars limits these efforts and answers the complex questions were left by them for descendants. For example, the Ossetian language has the word fændyr by which different musical instruments may be called. Abayev writes about it in this way:

Cultural word of considerable historical interest. Evidenced by the Greek authors from the II century. BC: πανδουροσ "three-stringed musical instrument lute"… they believe that the word came from the Lydian language… Then it came in several European languages through Greek: Latin. pandura, It. pandora, mandora, Fr. mandore, (where from later It. mandolina, Fr. mandoline). To the north of Asia Minor region, the spread of the word covers the Caucasus and southern Russia. In addition to Osset. fændyr cf. Arm. pandir, Georg. (dial.) panduri, Svan. pandvir, Tush. (Batsbian – V.S.) pandur, Chech. pondur, Ing. pondær. Here also Ukr and Pol bandura. Dating the existence of the word in the Ossetian is essentially determined by initial f. The law of transition pf has ceased to operate in the Ossetian long; such the old words as padcax "a king", pyl "an elephant", paida "use", included in the Ossetian language through the Caucasian languages, retain p. Therefore, it is unlikely that fændyr was borrowed from the Caucasian languages. Likely it has to be referred more to the pre-Caucasusian, ie Scythian-Sarmatian period in the history of Ossetians, when it was in full force the law pf. Presupposed existence of the word in the Scythian language would cast light also on the Ukr. and Pol. bandura. (ABAYEV V.I. 1958: 448).

Despite the fact that findings of musical instruments in sites of the Scythian period are very rare, yet found of remains of string instruments are enough to differentiate among three options: pizzicato type of harp, pizzicato stringed type of domra and fiddle instrument, the only copy of which is found in Pazyryk mound, dating back to the V cen. BC. (FIALKO O.Ye. 2012: 19-21).

Ar right: Scythian stringed instrument from the mound Pazyrik. Reconstruction of the appearance of O.G. Oliynyk.(FIALKO O.Ye. 2012: 23. Fig. 5)

So here, besides various stringed instruments, the Scythians had a word mentioned by V. Abayev and its existence is one of the evidence that the language of the Scythians was not Iranian but Bulgarish.

The Chuvash language has words păntăr-păntăr –imitation of strumming strings, păntărtat – 1. to strum, give jangling, cracking sounds (about stringed instruments), 2. to pop, rattle (about a drum). Since the Chuvash words do not mean a stringed instrument but only playing different instruments, ie, have a more general meaning, it is they to be taken as the origin for calling different musical instruments. This is logical, but, of course, a single fact is few for skeptics, so we continue to consider the language of the Scythians.

It has to be told that some researchers have tried to consider objectively the issue of the Scythian language without the prevailing doctrine but did not find support in the scientific community:

The concept of the Iranian-lingual Scythians is unequivocally dominated in the literature devoted to the study of the remnants of the Scythian language. Anything that does not relate to the prevalent position, is being excluded from the field of Scythological research in advance (PETROV V.P. 1968: 12).

This view began to emerge since the first studies of the Scythian language and was finally approved by the researches of M. Vasmer and V. Abayev (ABAYEV V.I., 1965). Moreover, the implication of Scythian to the Iranian languages was even narrowed to only Ossetian by the efforts of V. Miller and V. Abayev. Unreasonable attempts of K. Neumann and G. Nagy to consider the Scythian language as Mongolian only strengthened the position of the adherents of Iranian-lingual Scythians. Under such conditions, V. Petrov, continuing a creative approach to deciding this issue of Professor at Novorossiisk University A. Biletsky, could only cautiously criticize an outdated method of research. A. Biletsky himself, according to V. Petrov gave a number of the convincing discrepancy of the Scythian and Iranian languages and noticed that Hesychius’ glosses "least of all give the facts to determine the Scythian language as Iranian" (PETROV V.P., 1968: 24). However V. Petrov didn’t express clearly his final views on the linguistic affiliation of the Scythians, but he urged not to limit the research of Scythian on Iranian basis and quoted as an example, some pretty convincing matches of the Scythian and Thracian languages. Investigating the relationship of the Scythian and Thracian languages, the scholar compiled the Scythian-Thracian Onomasticon, where each gloss was provided by the previously proposed by other linguists Indo-Iranian (mostly Persian and Ossetian), as well as their own and Deychev's the Thracian, and sometimes other matches (Ibid: 118-143). According to Petrov, "not in all cases, we can say with certainty that the actual name is just Thracian but not Iranian," and sometimes it is impossible to separate the Scythian and Thracian glosses as linguistic material of both languages are adjacent having the same qualitative related source base and associated chronologically (Ibid: 115-117). It should be noted that for the first time North Pontic epigraphy was collected and published by the Russian scientist V. Latyshev. Clearly, his data in some way were used by V. Petrov and V. Abayev, and already their lists were taken for this study.

Thus, the Scythian Onomasticon was composed in such a way, and an attempt was made to find new matches for each of the presented glosses from the Indo-European, Turkic, Finno-Ugric, and Caucasian languages which could confirm or refute our assumptions about the linguistic origin of the Scythians. This approach is due to the fact that ancient authors (Ancient Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Arabian, Persian) never mentioned that the language of the Scythians was similar to Persian (LAYPANOV K.T., MIZIEV I.M. 2010: 33).

The Onomasticon is under constant updating and verification. Some names refer to the later Sarmatian period, but their separating is not easy. Many of the etymologies are revised in accordance with the new data, dubious names are checked on correspondence to words of many different languages. Therefore, quantitative estimation is being something changed from time to time, although the results of the initial analysis remain nevertheless quite valid. It is shown from the list that about eight dozen out of more than 170 names can be satisfactorily explained only by the Chuvash language and another 30 may have as the Chuvash and Kurdish (sometimes Afghan) interpretation. Near 50 names have quite acceptable for anthroponymic sense with good phonetic correspondence. About 30 names can be explained by means of the Kurdish language, but only seven of them are quite convincing. Quite a few words (about 40) may have a different interpretation on the basis of the Chuvash, Iranian, Baltic, and other languages. More than twenty names can be explained by various Iranian languages and half of them have a reasonable sense, six of which may have Ossetian, four or five – Afghan roots, and the rest are explained on the basis of common Iranian words. Originally conclusion, that one may sure say only about two components of the Scythian community (Bulgar and Kurdish), is confirmed. Some names, which have expressed Ossetian origin, belongs to the later times. Several names have distinct Baltic origin (see the section Ancient Balts Outside Ethnic Territories).

The fact that the majority of names of North Pontic Region material has not Iranian origin explains the fact that some of its phonetic phenomena can not be explained by the historical phonetics of the Iranian languages​​. In addition, when working with Onomasticon, my eye caught that some names have Germanic sound. Upon closer examination, it turned out that they have a clear interpretation on the basis of Old English. These names were excluded from Petrov's onomasticon and formed the basis for Alan-Anglo-Saxon Onomasticon.

Scythians called themselves Skolots (Σκολοτουσ. The word has no relation to the Indo-Iranian languages (SHAPOSHNIKOV A.K., 2005, 41), it is difficult to find it also in other languages. Closest in meaning and sounding is Chuv. salat "to scatter, to dissipate". Small phonetic discrepancy can be easily explained by the insertion epenthetic k, and the value of "scattered, diffuse" for the name of the people fit very well. Recall that the Slavs called themselves similar:

In ancient times, these two tribes (Slavs and Antes – V.S.) were called spores [scatted], I think because they lived, populating the country "scattered", by individual villages (PROCOPIUS of CAESAREA. III, 14 ).

Some place names of Scythia, mentioned by historians, are well deciphered by means of the Chuvash language. Here are some examples:

Oium, the name of a place, area in Scythia – Chuv. uçam „place, area”.

Panticapes River – Chuv păntăh "mould" and kap "look".

Tanais, Greek name of the Don River – Chuv. tănăç "calm, quiet".

Exampaios, area between Borysthenes and Hypanis Rivers – Chuv. uksăm "wild garlic" and pay "a part (of weight, space, time, and so on)".

A significant part of the Scythian place names remained on the territory of Ukraine to the present time. This topic is covered apart, but here we can consider most convincing examples. In general, evidence of the reliability of the decoding of toponyms may be their compliance with the environment or the location in a particular pattern – clusters or chains

To the west of the city of Cherkasy, two rivers flow out of one swamp. The Irdyn' River flows into the Tiasmin River, the right tributary (rt) of the Dnieper and the Irdyn'ka River flows into the Dnieper above the city. Having carefully considered the map, one can understand that once it was a channel that separated from the Dnieper so that an island was formed on which the city of Cherkasy was built. Chuv. irtěn “to separate” very well suited to this situation. And the name of the city itself may be of Bulgarian origin. There are at least a dozen localities with an ending -kassy in Chuvashia. Chuv. kassă means “village, street” [YEGOROV GENNADIY. 1993: 38], and for the first part of the word there is also a wide choice in the Chuvash language – Chuv. chĕr 1. "lively", 2. "to tear", 3. "to scrape". 4. "knee".

In the Cherkasy Region there are several more toponyms, which are deciphered using the Chuvash language:

Boyarka, a village in Lysianka district – Chuv. payăr "own". There are settlements with the same name in Kiev and Odessa Region.

Zhashkiv, a town – Chuv. shashkă "mink".

Zhurzhintsi, a village north of the town of Zvenihorodka and the village of Zhurzhevychi north of the town of Olevsk in Zhytomyr Region – Chuv. shărshă “smell”.

Uman', a city – Chuv. yuman “oak”. It is significant that there was a natural oak forest in Uman' called Dubinka (Ukr. dub "oak"). From the forest only one oak of 300 years of age was preserved (see photo on the left).

Khalaidovo, a village in Monastyryshche district – Chuv. khăla “red”, yit “a dog”.

In Kirovograd Region there is a village Kandaurovo, located on the bank of the Kandaurovski vody River, the left tributary (lp) of the Ingul, lp of the Southern Bug. These names are explained with the help of Chuv. kăn “potash” and tăvar “salt”. The ancient Bulgars-Scythians knew how to extract salt by evaporation and sold it to their neighbors [STETSYUK VALNTYN. 1998: 57). But here we are not talking about common, table salt, because then there would be no need for a special attributive for the word tăvar. Therefore, potash (potassium carbonate) may be implied. The deposits of this salt are found in nature and it is known to people from ancient times. Potash tastes bitter, and just Herodotus mentioned the river with bitter water in Scythia. Describing the Gipanis River (Gipany), he noted that the water is fresh in this river, and within four days of its journey from the sea the water becomes very bitter. Hypanis is usually associated with the Southern Bug, but it is possible that the sources of the Ingul were taken from its sources, the water of which became bitter just after the confluence of the Kandaurov waters.

In the same region there are several more toponyms that can be decoded by means of the Chuvash language. Among them:

Kamburliivka, a village in Onufriiv district – Chuv. kampăр "mushroom", purlă "rich".

Odaya, a village in Golovaniv district – Chuv. utăр 1. "hay", 2. "valley", ay "low". There are six or seven villages with similar names (Odai, Odaev, etc.) in Ukraine.

Spaso-Mazharivka, avillage in Znamianka district – Chuv. mushar "lasting, strong".

In the more southern regions there are clusters of toponyms that can be decoded not only by means of Chuvash, but also by other Turkic languages. It is difficult to distinguish Scythian-Bulgarian names among them, but some of them can be deciphered only by means of Chuvash:

Birzula, the old name of the urban-type settlement of Podolsk, Odessa region. – Chuv. pyr 1. "to go" and çul "way".

Kalantyrivka, a locality in the city of Zaporizhzha – Chuv. khulăn "thick" tyră "sowing".

Katrazhka, a village in Sinelnykove district of Dnepropetrovsk Region – Chuv. katrashka "hummocky".

Kasayeve, a village in Vasylkov district of Dnepropetrovsk Region. – Chv. kăsăya "tomtit".

Kashkarivka, a village in Solone district of Dnepropetrovsk Region, Kashkarne, a village in Troitsk district of Luhansk Region – Chuv. kashkaăr "wolf".

Kostromka, a village in Velyka Oleksandrivka of Kherson Region – Chuv.. kăstărma "whirligig".

Mayaky, villages in Bilyaivka and Okny districtы of Odesa Region and Slaviansk district of Donetsk Region – Chuv. măyak "goose-foot, quinoa".

Scythian place names of Bulgarish origin in the forest-steppe and steppes.

On the map of Bulgaro-Scythian toponymy, two or even three chains of place names stretch along the right and left banks of the Dnieper. Probably ancient settlements were located along trade routes and led to the Crimea. In the Tauride steppe, the chains are cut off due to the lack of a permanent population there in turbulent times. In the north of Crimea and on the coast of the Perekop Bay, there are large deposits of salt. For a long time, people went to the Crimea for salt and it had to be transported over long distances. Back in the Early Bronze Age, Corded Ware bearers traded their wares for salt. Archaeologists know that the earliest and most important trade routes were the salt roads. (BOLTRYK Yu.V. 2014, 71).

If the chains of place names coincide with the chains of the Scythian kurgans, then their Bulgar origin cannot raise doubts. Here the word is for Ukrainian archaeologists, although they are very skeptical about the possibility of the Bulgarish origin of the Scythians. So far, they have not been able to interest them in this issue.

The fact that the settlements of ancient people depended on the economy is also confirmed by the location of the Scythian-Bulgar toponyms in the eastern part of Ukraine. On the map below, place names are especially densely located in the Donbas, where there are also deposits of salt in the Torsk lakes and copper ore in the Bakhmut depression. The Kartamysh copper mine has been in operation since the Bronze Age (HAYKO H., BILETSKIY V., MIKOS T., KHMURA Ya.. 2009, 102 and farther).

Scytho-Bulgarish place names in Eastern Ukraine.
Place names of Bulgarish origin are marked in red, and Ossetian in green.

Among all the supposed Scytho-Bulgarish place names of Donbas, the following can be noted:

Bakhmut, a city in Donetsk Rrgion – Chuv. pakhmat "daredevil".

Brazol', railway station in the city of Lutugino, Luhansk Region – Chuv. pĕr 1. "one", 2. "full", çăl "draw-well".

Izium, a city in Kharkiv Region – Chuv. 1. ĕç "work", um "plot, site"; 2. uçăm "place, area". See Oium.

Lomuvatma, a town, a pert of the city Brianka, Luhansk Region and a river, rt of the Luhan' – Chuv. lăm "dampness, moisture" and avăt "to dig, hammer".

Nyrkove, railway station in Popasnyanskiy district of Luhansk Region – Chuv. nĕr "beauty" -ka adjective affix. There are several other villages in Ukraine with similar names.

Pakhalivka, a village in Slovianoserbsk district of Luhansk Region – Chuv. pakhal “appreciate”.

Perkhivka, a village in Artemovsk district of Donetsk Region – Chuv. pĕkhĕm "spray".

Toshkivka, a town in Popasnyanskiy district of Luhansk Region – Chuv. dial. tăshla "to mix, stir".

Yampil', a town in Lyman district of Donetsk Region – Chuv. yam "tar distillation" păl "chimney".

In the Odessa Кegion there is a cluster of Scythian-Bulgar places, which sometimes repeat the names discussed above: Birzula, Boyarka, Kodyma, Odai, Mayaki, Sakhanske. These may be traces of the Little Scythia, which the Scythians formed migrating under the pressure of the Sarmatians.

Paying attention to the views on the Iranian-speaking of the Scythians, we made an attempt to find traces of the ancestors of the Ossetians not only in the steppes of Ukraine but also in the neighboring territories. The results of these searches are presented in the section Ossetian Place Names. This is just a summary of this topic.

Ossetian place names are found in sufficient numbers, what may increase the likelihood of their origin, in the strip that stretches from Bryansk to Rostov-on-Don and further along the coast of the Azov and Black Seas. In this strip, there is a cluster of Ossetian place names in the Belgorod Region and in the neighboring regions of Ukraine and Russia. Numerous lexical correspondences of the Hungarian and Ossetian languages indicate that in these places, in the vicinity of the ancestral home of the Magyars, the Ossetians remained for a long time even in the pre-Scythian time. A small part of the Ossetian toponyms seems to be separated from this cluster and goes along the Vorskla River to the Dnieper. They can be Akhtyrka, Kotelva, Kobelyaki, and Tsarichanka. Two possible Ossetian names Sentyanivka and Tsarivka were found in Donbas. Nothing else similar to the Ossetian names in the steppes of Ukraine has yet been found, while a large number of place names in the Northern Black Sea region are explained using the Chuvash, Old English, Greek and Kurdish languages. This gives grounds to assume that the bulk of the Ossetians in the Scythian-Sarmatian time was among the population of the steppes of Ciscaucasia. However, their traces in place names appear weakly here. Obviously, new migration waves pushed the Ossetians back to the Caucasus mountains, and their names of settlements and geographical objects were replaced by the newly arrived population with their own. Deciphering by means of the Ossetian language of place names, which stretch in a narrow strip from the mouth of the Don along the coast of the Azov and Black Seas, is largely probabilistic due to the lack of reliable linking of toponyms to the features of the area. True, the very name of the Sea of Azov is quite well translated from the Ossetian as "Big Water", and the complex name Gelendzhik can be deciphered using the Ossetian language due to its good sound correspondence, taking into account quite permissible assimilation.

The names of many characters of Scythian mythology can also be deciphered by means of the Chuvash language. For example, the names of the main Scythian gods Papay and Api can be understood as "grandfather" and "grandmother", that is, in understanding them as "progenitors", according to Chuv. papay "grandfather" and Chuv. epi "midwife". Scythian mythology is considered in more detail separately.

The neighbors of the ancient Bulgars on the right bank of the Dnieper were the founders of the Trypillian culture, whose ethnicity we define as Semitic (see Semitic Tribes in Eastern Europe at Prehistoric Time. The Bulgars had lively trade relations with the Trypillians and in the process of such contacts the language of the Trypillians had a great influence on the language of the Bulgars, the traces of which have been preserved in the modern Chuvash language. Such traces can be numerous lexical correspondences between, on the one hand, Arabic and Hebrew, and on the other hand, the Chuvash languages. Here are some examples:

Tryp *aruz “rye” [Hebr אוֹרֶז (orez) “rice”, Ar. أرز arz “rice”] – Chuv. yraš, Kaz. arys and other similar Turkic “rye”.

Tryp *farah “to fly” [Hebr. פֶּרַח (farah) “to flutter, fly about”, Ar. "to scattar"] – Chuv părakh “to throw”.

Tryp *gavr, kaur “embers” [Ar جمر (ǰamr) “embers”, Hebr. כּוּר (kur) “furnace, melting pot, forge”] – Chuv kăvar “embers”.

Tryp *hom “father-in-law” [Hebr חָם (xham) “father-in-law”, Ar. حمو (хаму) "father-in-law"] – Chuv hun’ “father-in-law”.

Tryp *hota “to seek in marriage” [Ar xatan, Hebr חוֹתֵן (khoten) “father-in-law”] – Chuv xăta “father of son-, daughter-in-law”.

Tryp. *kemel “reward” [Hebr. גְמוּל (gemul) “reward”, Ar. كمال (kamal) “perfection”] – Chuv. kěměl “silver”, silver is called in other Turkic languages called kümüš in full compliance with the phonology of these languages. More detailed about change of the meaning in the section Sketch on the Development of Merchandise in Eastern Europe at Prehistoric Times.

Tryp *keser “carrot” [Ar جزر (ǰazar), Hebr גֶזֶר (gezer) “carrot”]. This word was borrowed only by Western Türkic tribes which had more close contacts with Trypillians: Chuv, Tat kišer, Turkm kešer “carrot”.

Tryp *lavh “board, plank” [Ar لوح (lavh) “board”, Hebr לוּחַ (luxa) “board, table”] – Slav lava, lavka “bench” (Ukr, Blr lavka, Pol ławka, Rus lava, Cz lava etc). Chuv lapka “shelf”, lav “cart”, (first carts were ordinary board on wheels).

Tryp *nur „light, fire, red” [Ar. نور (nur) „light”, Hebr. נור (nur "fire"] – Chuv. nar “ruddiness, roses”, "nice".

Tryp *seret “strip, strap” [Ar شريط (šarit), סֶרֶט (seret) "ribbon, strip, belt"] – Chuv serete “plank”, Rom., Ukr “Seret” (names of several rivers in Ukraine and Romania).

Tryp *taham “taste” [Hebr טַעַם (taam) “taste”, Ar ta’am “taste”] – Chuv těhěm “taste”.

Tryp *tavar “thing, object of exchange” (Hebr דָבָר (davar) “word”, “thing”, “something”) – Chuv tăvar "salt", Ukr, Rus tovar “goods” and “cattle”, Arm tavar “sheep”, “flock”, Kum tuuar “flock”, Tur tavar “property”, “cattle”, Balk, Crim-Tat tu’ar “cattle” etc.

Tryp *tiše “grass” [Hebr דֶשֶׁא (deše) “grass, sward, herbage”] – Chuv těšě “grain”.

Tryp *vaita “cabin, house” [Ar بيت (beyt), Hebr בַּיִת (bait) “house”] – Chuv vite “cow-house”.

Tryp *vakar “bull” or “cow” [Ar بقرة (bakara) “cow”, Hebr בָּקָר (bakar) “cattle”] – Chuv văkăr, Tur öküz, Tat ögüz etc “bull”, Lat vacca “cow”. The name of copper baqyr in the Turkic languages comes from the same Trypillian word.

Thus, we have enough direct and indirect evidence that the language of the Scythians should be attributed to the Turkic, and not to the Iranian languages. The work of V. Abaeyv "Scythian-Sarmatian dialects" (ABAYEV V.I.1979), in which he tries to restore the Scythian language by contrived etymologies of proper names, and other realities of Scythian-Sarmatian only by means of the Iranian languages, should have only historical value now. Most of his etymologies are refuted in our Onomastikon, and some of them are not paid attention to because of their obvious absurdity. And if the name of the Scythians may hide different people, those Scythians, about whom Herodotus wrote, were the ancient Bulgars. While this view is not accepted, the whole scythology will stagnate.