The topic of Iranian loans into Slavonic has become a common place in Slavistics reflecting, to a considerable extent, the stereotype view on Slavonic mainly as a target language for borrowing. In reality, the number of truly attested Iranian loans is confined to a rather short list of words. Strictly speaking, the term ‘iranism (иранизм)’, widely used in Russian linguistic literature, stands for a direct borrowing from one of the attested Iranian languages.  However, according to the academician of the Russian Academy of Sciences Oleg Nikolajevič Trubačev, such loans are limited to a few cultural terms such as *kotъ ‘stall, small cattle shed’, *čьrtogъ ‘inner part of a house’, *gun’a ‘shabby clothes, rags’, *kordъ ‘short sward’, *toporъ ‘axe’ etc., plus a separately standing group of religious terms and names of gods. However, even if any of these words are indeed borrowings they may not  necessarily be ‘iranisms’ in the true sense (i. e. direct borrowings from one of the attested Iranian languages).

Slavonic dialects, being direct continuators of archaic Indo-European dialects [1], share a considerable part of their word stock with Indo-Iranian. For example, *kotъ `small barn for lambs, goats, chicken coop’ (cp. also Russ. (dial.) кута kuta ‘warm place, hut’) can be easily linked to Vedic कुत kuta ‘house, family’. The word гуня gunja ‘shabby clothes, rags’ does not necessarily have to come from Iranian gaunyā- ‘coloured’ or Avestan gaōna- ‘hair, colour’ via Ossetic ɣun ‘wool’ [2] but could well be an inherited word cognate with Sanskrit गोण goṇa ‘torn or ragged clothes’ and गुण guṇa ‘a single thread or strand of a cord or twine; string or thread, rope’. Most of the presumed ‘iranisms’ can similarly be  explained from Indo-Aryan.

Taking religious terms, Svarog cannot be an ‘iranism’ because of the Initial /s/, as will be explained below. However, it organically correlates with Vedic स्वर्ग svarga ‘going or leading to or being in light or heaven, heavenly, celestial; heaven, the abode of light and of the gods’. The other ‘classic’ example бог bog ‘god’ has a clear relation both to Avestan baga– ‘distributor’ and Vedic भग bhaga ‘gracious lord, patron (lit. ‘dispenser’); good fortune, happiness, welfare, prosperity; the Sun’. After a lengthy and meticulous treatment of this word Trubačev had to admit that “we do not have so far the data for a positive reply to the question whether the Slav. bogъ is a loan from Iranian” [3]. Similarly, the next prominent religious word рай rai ‘paradise’ may also be an ancient inherited word and not an iranism but, if one chooses to  treat it as a loan,  it may equally be related to  Vedic रै rai ‘property, possessions, goods, wealth, riches’  and not necessarily to Avesatan raē- ‘wealth’.

Trubačev is also known for the discovery  of a residual layer of pra-Indo-Aryan language in the Crimea and along the northern shores of the Black Sea in the area which has been traditionally considered as the domain of Iranian speaking Scythians [4] . The ethno-linguistic identity of Scythians still remains a controversial issue but it is generally believed that they spoke Eastern-Iranian dialects which presupposes that they arrived to the Pontic-Caspian steppes from the region of today’s Central Asia and Iran. They represented, therefore, a back wave of an earlier eastward migration of pra-Indo-Aryans which probably originated in the Pit-grave culture on the northern shore of the Black Sea, supposedly, around the end of the 3rd and the beginning of the 2nd millennia BC [5]. If so, the language of the bearers of the Pit-Grave culture could well be considered as ‘proto-Indo-Aryan’ or even ‘proto-Sanskrit’ in terms of Vittore Pisani who used ‘proto-Sanskrit’ in the meaning ‘Indo-European’ as he believed that Sanskrit was the immediate continuation of the ‘lingua pilota’ representing the original Indo-European dialects [6].

It is generally accepted that the Pit-Grave culture was an organic Eastern continuation of the earlier Tripolye (Cucuteni) culture (4th millennium BC) and that it did not cease after the hypothetical departure of the proto-Indo-Aryans first to southern Siberia (Andronovo culture?) and then to today’s Iran and Hindustan.  Therefore, we can reasonably presuppose that in the Circum-Pontic area there always remained an ethnos directly continuing the ‘proto-Sanskrit’ (non-Iranian) dialects. According to Trubačev, it was represented by the so-called ‘old Scythians’ while the newer returning wave of Iranians constituted the ‘young Scythians’.

The earliest attested form of Indo-Iranian, directly related to this ‘proto-Sanskrit’, would be the language of the Vedas which is commonly referred to as ‘Vedic Sanskrit’. The Eastern (Iranian) branch of Indo-Aryan is represented by Avestan. Sanskrit and Avestan are largely inter-comprehensible but have some significant differences in phonetics. One of the most salient features is the change of the original IE /s/, well preserved in Sanskrit, into /x, h/ in Iranian due to a process known as ‘debuccalisation’. Following this process such words as Skr. स्वर् svar ‘the sun, sunshine, light, lustre; heaven (as a paradise and as the abode of the gods)’ became hvarə-, automatically excluding any chance of explaining the prominent Eastern Slavonic supreme deity Svarog as an Iranian loan. Due to the remarkable phono-semantic affinity it would be most natural to connect it with the Sanskrit  स्वर्ग svarga ‘heaven, the abode of light and of the gods’ the only obstacle being the extreme spacial gap excluding any chance of any recent direct contact. However, this problem could be resolved if we postulate the existence of non-Iranian Indo-Aryans on the linguistic periphery of the Slavonic world:

 At least in the 1st millennium BC the right-bank Ukraine was already a part (periphery) of the Slavonic linguo-enthic space. Since the complexity of  the ancient ethno-georgraphy of Scythia is now revealing itself more and more insistently and we are arriving at the constatation of the actual preservation in its part (parts) along with the Iranian (Scythian) also of the Indo-Aryan (pra-Indian) component or its relicts, there arises the rightful question about the reality of also Slavo-Indo-Aryan contacts approximately in the Scythian time [7].

The important implication, directly flowing out of this discovery, is that we should not necessarily seek the origin of presumed iranisms in Slavonic only in Avestan or middle and late Iranian dialects because, at least, some of them may also derive directly from (or continue) the residual proto-Indo-Aryan (proto-Sanskrit) dialects.

After comparing the numerous Slavonic  and Indo-Iranian cognates Thomas Burrow arrived to this conclusion:

 This absence of Iranian influence on Slavonic is surprising in view of the repeated incursions of Scythian tribes into Europe, and the prolonged occupation by them of extensive territories reaching to the Danube. Clearly at this later period the Slavs must have remained almost completely uninfluenced politically and culturally by the Iranians. On the other hand at a much earlier period (c. 2000 B.C.) before the primitive Aryans left their European homeland, Indo-Iranian and the prototypes of Baltic and Slavonic must have existed as close neighbours for a considerable period of time. [8]

This effectively means that that the widespread  assertions about the specific influence of “Iranians” on Slavonic is greatly exaggerated. It could also testify that the Scythians and Sarmatians with whom the Slavonic peoples were in contact were not as much “Iranian” as it is usually imagined.

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[1] “B настоящее время отмечается объективная тенденция углубления датировок истории древних индоевропейских диалектов, и это касается славянского как одного из индоевропейских диалектов. Однако вопрос сейчас не в том, что древняя история праславянского может измеряться масштабами II и III тыс. до н.э., a в том, что мы в принципе затрудняемся даже условно датировать “появление” или “выделение” праславянского или праславянских диалектов из индоевропейского именно ввиду собственных непрерывных индоевропейских истоков славянского. [Presently, there is an objective tendency to push back the dating of the history of ancient Indo-European dialects. This also applies to Slavonic as one of the Indo-European dialects. However, the question now is not that the history of Slavonic may be measured by the scale of the II to III millenniums B.C. but that we can hardly date the ‘emergence’ or ‘separation’ of pra-Slavonic or pra-Slavonic dialects from Indo-European dialects because of the proper uninterrupted Indo-European origin of Slavonic].” (Trubačev, O. N.  Ėtnogenez i kul’tura drevnejšix slavjan: Lingvističeskie issledovanija [Ethogenesis and culture of most ancient Slavs: Linguistic studies]. Moskva: “Nauka”, 2003, p.25).

[2] Vasmer, М. Ėtimologočeskij slovar’ russkogo jazyka [Russian Etymological dictionary]. Moskva: “Progress”, 1964 -1973, vol. 1, pp. 475-476.

[3] Trubačev, O. N.  Ėtnogenez i kul’tura drevnejšix slavjan: Lingvističeskie issledovanija [Ethogenesis and culture of most ancient Slavs: Linguistic studies]. Moskva: “Nauka”, 2003, pp. 49-51. Russian text: “мы не располагаем пока данными для утвердительного ответа на вопрос, заимствовано ли слав. bogъ из иранского“.

[4] Trubačev, O. N.  INDOARICA v Severnom Pričernomor’e: Rekonstrukcija reliktov jazyka  [INDOARICA in the Northern Circum-Pontic: Reconstruction of linguistic relics]. Москва: Наука, 1999).

[5] Kuz’mina, E. E. Aryas – Southward Path. Sankt-Perterburg: Letnij Sad, 2008. (also the English  edition: Kuz’mina, E. E. (ed. Mallory, J.) The origin of the Indo-Iranians.  Leiden, The Netherlands; Boston: Brill, 2007 .)

[6] Pisani, V.  “K  indo-evropeiskoij probleme [To the problem of Indo-European]”. Voprosy Jazykoznanija, 1966, 4, 3-21. p. 19.

[7] Trubačev, O. N.  Ėtnogenez i kul’tura drevnejšix slavjan: Lingvističeskie issledovanija [Ethogenesis and culture of most ancient Slavs: Linguistic studies]. Moskva: “Nauka”, 2003, p. 51. Russian text: “Правобережная Украина по крайней мере в I тыс. до нашей эры уже была частью (переферией) праславянского лингвоэтнического пространства. Поскольку сейчас сложность древней этногеографии Скифии вырисовывается все более настойчиво и мы приходим к констатации реального сохранения на части (частях) ее территории наряду с иранским (скифским), индоарийского (праиндийского) ее компонента или его реликтов, встает уместный вопрос о реальности также славяно-индоарийских контактов приблизительно в скифское время.

[8] Burrow, T. The Sanskrit LanguageFaber & Faber, 1955, p.23.