Ossetin is spoken by less than 600.000 people. Most of the speakers live in South Ossetia (Georgia) and North Ossetia (Russia).
The language is a member of the Iranian branch of the Indo-European language family. Together with Yaghnobi it constitutes the Northeastern Iranian subbranch.
Ossetin has two main dialects: Digor or West Ossetin, which is spoken in North Ossetia (Russia), and Iron or East Ossetin, which is spoken by the majority of the speakers. There is little mutual intelligibility between the two dialects. Digor is more archaic than Iron in every respect. The literary language of the Ossetin Nation is chiefly based on Iron.
Present day Ossetin descends from the Alanic branch of Sarmatian, a Middle Iranian language that was spoken by people migrating in the area between Central Asia and southern Ukraine.
First samples of the Old Ossetin language were collected by European travellers in the 18th century. The first book in Ossetin was a Church Slavonic catechism with an Ossetin translation written by the archimandrite Gai in Moscow at the end of the 18th century.
Arabic characters were used to write Ossetin up to the middle of the 19th century when a Russian scholar developed a script for Ossetin on the basis of the Russian alphabet. This was in use until a few years after the October Revolution. In the 20th century Ossetin used various alphabets: in the 1920's and 1930's Latin characters were used. In North Ossetia a new Cyrillic alpabet for Ossetin was introduced in 1939. In the same year the Georgian Mkhedruli script was adopted in South Ossetia. In 1954 it was replaced by the Cyrillic writing system of North Ossetia.
Ossetin underwent significant influence by languages of other linguistic groups: Slavic, Baltic, Germanic, and most of all the Caucasian languages.
Ossetin has ejective consonants due to the influence of the adjacent Caucasian languages.
The Ossetin nominal system is predominantly agglutinative. Ossetin has no grammatical gender. The noun is inflected for number and case. There are two numbers: singular and plural. Iron has nine cases: nominative, genitive, dative, allative, ablative, inessive, adessive, equative, and comitative. Digor lacks the comitative case. Alongside morphological case there are postpositional and prepositional elements with case-like functions.
As a result of Caucasian influence the numerals of Ossetic are prevalently vigesimal. The archaic decimal system has survived in some local varieties of western Ossetia. It is reported that the decimal system has been reintroduced in the official language.
The verbal system is fusional and reflects Old Iranian features. The conjugation of the verb is based on two stems: the present stem and the preterite stem. The verb has unipersonal inflection and agrees only with the subject. In the tenses and moods formed with the present stem intransitive and transitive verbs are inflected alike, in the tenses and moods formed with the preterite stem, however, intransitive and transitive verbs are inflected differently. As a rule each verb is either intransitive or transitive. The distinction between perfective and imperfective aspect is expressed by preverbs.
The unmarked word order in Ossetin is SOV.