George Hewitt on alphabet imposition in Russia and on dying
language dies every fortnight
OF WORLD LANGUAGES WILL BE EXTINCT IN THIS CENTURY
are about 6,000 languages. Between 30 and 50 per cent will
be gone by the end of the current century. This still means
that one language will die every 2 weeks during the coming
CAUCASIAN LANGUAGES WILL DIE?
Bats will go very soon and some of the very small Daghestanian
languages like Udi, Kryts, Khinalug, Budukh, Hinukh, Archi,
Hunzib. Abkhaz, Abaza, West Adyghe are not really in a healthy
North Caucasian languages
The Avar-Andi-Dido languages
genetic relationship of the Caucasian languages to any languages
outside the Caucasus is highly speculative and as yet unproven.
Several linguists have proposed an "Ibero-Caucasian"
family comprising all of the Caucasian languages and Basque. Others
have sought to link these languages with the as yet unaffiliated
languages of the ancient Middle East (e.g., Sumerian and Hurrian-Urartian).
Within the Caucasian languages, most scholars accept the following
grouping: South Caucasian (Kartvelian), Northwest Caucasian (Abkhazo-Adyghian),
and Northeast Caucasian (Nakho-Dagestanian).
The Kartvelian (South Caucasian) language family includes Georgian,
Mingrelian, Laz, and Svan. Georgian, the national language of
Georgia, is the only Caucasian language with an ancient literary
tradition. Monuments were inscribed in an Old Georgian script
derived from the Greek alphabet; the modern Georgian writing system,
a round-form cursive written from left to right, is an indirect
descendant of the old script. Mingrelian, Laz, and Svan are unwritten
languages, with Mingrelian and Laz sometimes seen as dialects
of a single language. Mingrelian and Laz are spoken along the
Black Sea coast; Svan is spoken in the high mountain valleys south
of Mount Elbrus. The Kartvelian languages are considered to be
closely related and descended from a common language. The sound
system in these languages is relatively uniform, and they have
a highly developed system of word inflection, that is, of word
endings and derivation.
The Abkhazo-Adyghian (Northwest Caucasian) group consists of the
Abkhaz, Abaza, Adyghian, Kabardian, and Ubykh languages. Abkhaz
is spoken in Abkhazia, Georgia, and the others of this group in
the northwestern Caucasus region of Russia. The Ubykh language,
however, is virtually extinct. The Abkhazo-Adyghian languages
are not widely differentiated into dialects. Phonologically, they
have a limited number of distinctive vowels but up to 80 distinctive
Nakho-Dagestanian (Northeast Caucasian) group consists of the
Nakh and Dagestanian languages. Two Nakh languages-Chechen and
Ingush-are spoken mainly in Chechnia and Ingushetia republics
of Russia. A third, Bats, is spoken in Georgia. The Dagestanian
languages can be divided into the following groups: (1) the Avar-Andi-Dido
languages of central and western Dagestan, Russia, and part of
Azerbaijan, (2) the Lak-Dargin (Lak-Dargwa) languages of central
Dagestan, and (3) the Lezgian languages, principally of southern
Compared with the other two Caucasian families, the Nakho-Dagestanian
is less clearly unified from a genetic standpoint. While some
linguists join Nakho-Dagestanian with Abkhazo-Adyghian into a
single North Caucasian family, others separate the Nakh languages
(Central Caucasian) and the Dagestanian languages (East Caucasian)
into two distinct families.
The original vocabulary of the North Caucasian languages has been
fairly well preserved in the modern languages, though there are
many loanwords. The written languages of the area are the state
languages. Newspapers, radio, and television use the local languages;
and children in primary schools are taught in their mother tongue.
The North Caucasian alphabets are based on the Cyrillic alphabet,
which was adopted in 1936-38.
North Caucasian languages are divided into two groups: Abkhazo-Adyghian,
or the Northwest Caucasian, languages, and Nakho-Dagestanian,
or the Northeast Caucasian, languages.
languages The Abkhazo-Adyghian group consists of the Abkhaz, Abaza,
Adyghian, Kabardian, and Ubykh languages. Adyghians and Kabardians
are often considered members of a larger, Circassian group. Abkhaz,
with about 90,000 speakers, is spoken in Abkhazia (the southern
slopes of the western Greater Caucasus, Georgia). The other languages
are spread over the northern slopes of the western Greater Caucasus.
Abazians, who numbered some 20,000 in the Soviet census of 1989,
live in Karachay-Cherkessia; Adyghians (120,000), in Adygea; Kabardians
(380,000) dwell mainly in Kabardino-Balkaria. Both Adyghians and
Kabardians call themselves adge. The Ubykh language, now extinct,
was formerly found to the north of the area where Abkhaz is spoken,
in the vicinity of Tuapse, Russia. In 1864 Ubykhians as well as
a substantial part of the Abkhaz- and Adyghe-speaking population
migrated to Turkey, where before long they lost their native tongue.
The total number of people speaking Abkhazo-Adyghian languages
is about 610,000. Many speakers of Abkhazo-Adyghian languages
live in the countries of the Middle East--Turkey, Syria, Jordan,
All Abkhazo-Adyghian languages, with the exception of Ubykh, are
written. From the dialectological point of view, the Abkhazo-Adyghian
languages are not widely differentiated, the differences being
mainly of phonetic character. In Abkhaz two dialects are distinguished;
Adyghian and Kabardian differentiate four dialects each. Abkhaz
and Abaza are very close to each other and are considered by some
scholars to be dialects of the same language. The same kind of
affinity exists between Adyghian and Kabardian. Ubykh occupies
an intermediate position between the Abkhaz-Abaza and Adyghe-Kabardian
characteristic feature of the sound system of the Abkhazo-Adyghian
languages is a rather limited number of distinctive vowels-a and
(pronounced as the a in English "sofa"). Some scholars
consider it possible to posit only one vowel, which, depending
on the position, can be realized in different ways: a, i, o, e.
On the other hand, the languages are notable for a great diversity
in their consonant systems. The number of consonants distinguished
reaches about 70 (in the Abkhaz and Adyghian languages) or even
80 (Ubykh). Along with the consonants that occur in all the Caucasian
languages, the Abkhazo-Adyghian languages are characterized by
different sets of labialized consonants (formed by rounding the
lips), strong (hard or tense) consonants, half-hushing consonants,
and velarized consonants (formed with the back of the tongue approaching
the soft palate).
grammatical characteristics of the Abkhazo-Adyghian languages
include an extremely simple noun system and a relatively complicated
system of verb conjugation. There are no grammatical cases in
Abkhaz and Abaza, and in the other languages only two principal
cases occur: a direct case (nominative) and an oblique case, combining
the functions of several cases--ergative, genitive, dative, and
instrumental. In nouns, possession is expressed by means of pronominal
prefixes--e.g., Abkhaz sarra s-c: "my horse" (literally:
"I my-horse"), wara u-c: "your horse" (pertaining
to a man), bara b-c: "your horse" (pertaining to a woman),
and so forth. (The colon [:] indicates that the preceding consonant
is a strong consonant.)
The Abkhaz and Abaza languages distinguish the grammatical classes
of person and thing (the latter class includes all nouns denoting
nonhuman objects). The class of person also differentiates between
the subclasses of masculine and feminine.
The verb in the Abkhazo-Adyghian languages has a pronounced polysynthetic
character; that is, various words combine to form a composite
word that expresses a complete statement or sentence. The most
important verbal categories are expressed by prefixes, although
suffixes also form tenses and moods. The principal verb categories
are dynamic versus static, transitivity, person, number, class,
tense, mood, negation, causative, version, and potentiality. "Dynamic
versus static" is a verb form expressing action versus state
of being; "version" is a verb category denoting for
whom the action is intended (compare Georgian v-cer "I write,"
but v-u-cer "I write for him"); "potentiality"
is a category expressing the possibility of an action (e.g., Abkhaz
s-z-uam "I cannot write"). The verb is multipersonal
and can denote up to four persons.
Adverbial relationships (such as "where," "when,"
"how") are expressed by prefixes following the personal
markers. On the whole, the verb forms appear as a long string
of word elements expressing the above-mentioned categories--e.g.,
Abkhaz i-u-z-d-aa-s-r-g-an "that (thing)-you (masculine)-for-them-hither-I
shall-make-bring" (i.e., "I shall make them bring that
for you"). In a sequence of prefixes, up to nine morphemes
The simple sentence has three constructions: indefinite, nominative,
and ergative (in Abkhaz and Abaza only indefinite). An indefinite
construction has the subject in the indefinite case (i.e., not
marked with a special suffix); a nominative construction has the
subject in the nominative case. The same personal markers, depending
on their arrangement, can denote both the subject and various
objects--e.g., Abkhaz, wara sara u-s-swejt "I kill you (masculine),"
sara wara s-u-sweit "you (masculine) kill me."
Nakho-Dagestanian group consists of the Nakh and Dagestanian languages.
Some investigators subdivide the Nakho-Dagestanian languages into
two independent groups: Central Caucasian languages (Nakh) and
East Caucasian languages (Dagestan), although the great proximity
of these groups, and their equal remoteness from the Abkhazo-Adyghian
languages, may justify regarding them as a common group of languages.
The Nakh languages consist of Chechen (890,000 speakers), Ingush
(210,000), and Bats (or Tsova-Tushian, about 3,000 speakers).
The Chechens and Ingush live in Chechenia and Ingushetia; the
Bats dwell in the village Zemo-Alvani in the Akhmeta district
of northeastern Georgia. Both Chechen and Ingush, which are fairly
similar to one another, are written. Bats speakers, whose language
is not written, use Georgian as their literary language.
The Dagestan languages are numerous. The following groups can
occupy the central and western part of Dagestan and part of the
Zakataly region in northwestern Azerbaijan. The member languages
are the Avar language; the Andi subgroup of languages, including
Andi, Botlikh, Godoberi, Chamalal, Bagvalal, Tindi, Karata, and
Akhvakh; and the Dido subgroup, including Dido (Tsez), Khvarshi,
Hinukh, Bezhta, and Hunzib.
Of these tongues, the language with the most speakers (about 530,000)
is Avar, which has literary status. None of the Andi-Dido languages
are written; Avar is used as the literary language. Most of them
are spoken by fewer than 10,000 people. From ancient times the
Andi-Dido nationalities have used the Avar language for intertribal
communication. Avar is still widely known and spoken among them.
The Andi languages are phonetically and grammatically very close
to each other. The same affinity is observed among the Dido languages.
In respect to dialectology, the majority of Avar-Andi-Dido languages
are widely differentiated.
(also spelled Lakk, with some 100,000 speakers) and Dargin (or
Dargwa, with 350,000) are spoken in the central part of Dagestan.
Both are written languages. The Lak language is quite homogeneous
with regard to its dialects; Dargin, however, possesses several
diversified dialects--sometimes considered as separate languages
(e.g., Kubachi). Some view Lak and Dargin as independent language
language group includes Lezgi (with 240,000 speakers in Dagestan
and about 170,000 in Azerbaijan); Tabasaran (about 90,000); Agul
(about 12,000); Rutul (about 15,000); Tsakhur (about 11,000);
Archi (fewer than 1,000); Kryz (about 6,000); Budukh (about 2,000);
Khinalug (about 1,500); and Udi (about 3,700). The majority of
Lezgi languages are spoken in southern Dagestan, but some of them
(Kryz, Budukh, Khinalug, Udi) are spoken chiefly in Azerbaijan;
and one village of Udi speakers is located in Georgia. It is important
to note that in Azerbaijan, as well as earlier in Russia, all
Dagestanians--including Avars--referred to themselves as Lezginians.
Among the Lezgian languages, only Lezgi and Tabasaran are written.
Archi, Khinalug, and Udi are the most divergent languages of the
Lezgian division. The Udi language is believed to be one of the
languages of ancient Caucasian Albania.
sound systems of the Nakho-Dagestanian languages are diverse.
There are up to five vowels (a, e, i, o, u); in some languages
o is only now becoming an independent distinctive unit. Along
with these cardinal vowels, in a number of languages there are
also long and nasalized vowels (the Andi languages), pharyngealized
vowels (in Udi), and labialized vowels (in Dido). In the Nakh
languages (such as Chechen) the vowel system is fairly intricate,
the number of distinctive vowels amounting to 30 (including diphthongs
The consonant systems of the Nakh languages are relatively simple,
coinciding, on the whole, with those of the South Caucasian languages
(apart from a number of pharyngeal consonants characteristic of
all the Nakh languages and a lateral sound peculiar to Bats).
The opposition of strong and weak voiceless consonants is typical
of the majority of the Dagestanian languages. This contrast has
been lost in a number of languages and dialects--for example,
in the Dido languages and in some dialects of Avar. The labialized
clusters kw, qw, sw, and so on, are widespread. In the Avar-Andi-Dido
languages and in Archi there are fricative and affricate lateral
sounds (i.e., different types of l), with the maximum possible
number being six (in Akhvakh).
All the Caucasian languages have a series of stops of three types--voiced,
voiceless aspirated, and glottalized (i.e., pronounced, respectively,
with vibrating vocal cords; with vocal cords not vibrating but
with an accompanying audible puff of breath; and with accompanying
closure of the glottis [space between the vocal cords]). In some
languages strong and weak consonants also contrast. Usually, in
the languages with a strongly developed vowel system, the system
of consonants is comparatively simple (e.g., Chechen, Ingush,
Dido), and vice versa (e.g., Avar, Lak, and Dargin have complicated
consonantisms and relatively simple vowel systems).
There are several common structural features in morphology (word
structure), the most characteristic being the existence of the
grammatical category of classes (eight classes in Bats; six in
Chechen and Andi; five in Chamalal; four in Lak; three in Avar;
two in Tabasaran).
In a number of languages (Lezgi, Udi) noun differentiation by
classes has disappeared. The class of "thing" is distinguished
from the "person" class, which can be differentiated
into the subclasses of masculine and feminine. Compare, for example,
Avar emen w-acana hani-w-e "father has come here" (in
which w is equivalent to the marker of the class of masculine
person), ebel j-acana hani-j-e "mother has come here"
(in which j is equivalent to the marker of the class of feminine
person), and cu b-acana hani-b-e "a horse (a letter) has
come here" (in which b is equivalent to the marker of the
class of thing). In the plural there are usually fewer grammatical
Nouns have many cases, both in singular and in plural; there are
cardinal cases (nominative, ergative, genitive, dative) and local
cases that denote the location of a thing ("on," "in,"
"near," "under"), with a specification of
movement ("where," "which way," "from
where," "over what"). The ergative case, the case
of the real subject of transitive verbs, is present in all the
Nakho-Dagestanian languages. Nouns have different stem forms in
the nominative and the oblique (non-nominative) cases--e.g., Avar
gamac "a stone" (nominative), ganc-i-c:a (ergative),
and ganc-i-da "on the stone." In pronouns the category
of inclusive-exclusive is distinguished--e.g., Avar nil "we
with you," niz "we without you."
The class of the noun in the nominative case (i.e., in the case
of the subject of intransitive verbs and of the direct object
of transitive verbs) is reflected in the verb--e.g., Avar: was
(nominative, class I) w-acana "the boy has come," jas
(nominative, class II) j-acana "the girl has come."
In the Lezgi language, a characteristic structural feature is
agglutination, the combination of various elements of distinct
meaning into a single word. A typical feature of Nakho-Dagestanian
syntax is the presence of the ergative construction of the sentence
(the subject of transitive verbs is put in the ergative case and
the real object in the nominative case). Complex sentences are
usually formed with participial and adverbial-participial construction;
e.g., Avar haniwe wacaraw ci dir wac: wugo "the man who arrived
here is my brother" (literally, "the here arrived man
my brother is").
original vocabulary of the North Caucasian languages has been
fairly well preserved in the modern languages, although many words
have been borrowed from Arabic (through Islam), the Turkic languages,
and Persian. There are also loanwords that have been taken from
the neighbouring languages (Georgian, Ossetic). Russian, which
was a major influence from the late 19th century, was for decades
the main source for new words, especially technical terminology.