The Great Caucasus mountain range extends from the Black Sea to the Caspian. To the north of it is the western portion of the Eurasian steppe; to the south, the hill country of northern Mesopotamia. Both the steppe and northern Mesopotamia have been centers of economic and political power since approximately the Neolithic, and both have long been avenues through which peoples and languages have moved between Asia and Europe. The Caucasus itself has been a major conduit through which the Neolithic revolution, agriculture and stockbreeding, and subsequent technological innovations have spread from Mesopotamia to eastern Europe. The Caucasus is a biological refuge zone in which species found nowhere else are native, and it is known for its ecological and biological diversity. It has also been known since ancient times for its linguistic diversity, and it can be called a linguistic refuge zone in the sense that three entire separate language families are indigenous to the Caucasus and have no kin elsewhere.
The indigenous language families of the Caucasus are:
Languages not indigenous to the Caucasus but long resident there include:
For the ranges of these languages and families see the map below.
The indigenous languages of the Caucasus are known for their complex consonant systems (including ejectives and pharyngeals), complex morphology, and ergativity (identical case or other coding on subjects of intransitive verbs and direct objects of transitives; distinct coding on subjects of transitives). However, the structural differences between these families are considerable. The following examples give some sense of the structural complexity and diversity among the indigenous families. An Ossetic example is also given for comparison. In three millennia of residence in the Caucasus, Ossetic has acquired loan vocabulary, an ejective consonant series, and aspects of central and western Caucasian vowel centralization from its neighbors but shows no trace of pharyngeals, pharyngealization, or ergativity.
In the following examples, all three indigenous languages have ergative constructions but use very different morphology: Georgian signals its syntactic relations by a combination of cases and verbal agreement, chiefly prefixal; Chechen mostly by cases; and Abkhaz entirely by elaborate verbal prefixation. Abkhaz also inflects its postpositions and possessed nouns, while Georgian and Chechen use a genitive case for possession.
Abbreviations: ERGative case, DATive case, Plural, NOMinative case, PERFective, REFLexive pronoun, ADESSive case, TRANSitive; 3sg = third person singular, 3pl = third person plural. - marks morpheme boundary; = marks boundary following a proclitic. In Chehen, /aa/, /ie/, etc. = long vowels and diphthongs.
Traditionally in the Caucasus there was no single lingua franca. Rather, there was considerable bilingualism and multilingualism between adjacent communities. In recent times, up to the Russian conquest of the Caucasus in the mid-19th century, the standing pattern of bilingualism was vertical: in highland villages many people knew the language(s) of lower villages, but not vice versa. This was because markets and winter pasture were to be found in the lowlands, while the highlands afforded few economic advantages. The male population of highland villages was largely transhumant and spent perhaps half of its working life in the lowlands. Naturally, under these conditions, lowlands languages tended to gradually spread uphill, reducing highlands languages to islands and eventually replacing them entirely. At present and for all known history and known prehistory, languages with large numbers of speakers have both lowland and highland ranges and a generally elongate vertical distribution; these are economically advantageous and/or culturally prestigious languages that have spread uphill. Languages with small numbers of speakers, including several one-village languages, are mostly found in the highlands. This pattern apparently predominated during the Little Ice Age (late middle ages to mid-19th century), a period of global cooling in which highland farms and pastures were economically precarious and the lowlands more prosperous. Prior to that, there is evidence that highland communities were larger and more prosperous and their languages spread downhill, and that highland communities formed and maintained lowland colonies. Chechen-Ingush isoglosses, and the discontinuous distribution of language families like Chechen-Ingush, Avar, and Lak all point in this direction. Overall, then, geography and size of speech community are correlated, and this is explained by verticality, economy, and climate change.
© 1998 by Johanna Nichols