An overview of languages of the Caucasus

Johanna Nichols
Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures
University of California, Berkeley


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.

Survey of languages

The indigenous language families of the Caucasus are:

  • Kartvelian or South Caucasian, a family about 4500 years old comprising Georgian and its three sister languages. It probably dispersed in the vicinity of central to eastern Georgia, in the foothills or southern plains. Georgian has a written history going back to the creation of a special alphabet after Georgia became Christianized in the fourth century; the same alphabet is still used. Most Georgians and other Kartvelians are Christians, but some of those in the south are Muslim.

  • Northwest Caucasian or Abkhaz-Adyghe (or Abkhaz-Circassian), a family of uncertain age (evidently older than the Romance or Slavic families and younger than Indo-European, which is about 6000 years old) with three or four daughter languages. The structural type of this family is exotic in Eurasia. It may have dispersed near the Black Sea coast. Speakers of Northwest Caucasian languages are mostly Muslims. There are sizable diasporic communities in Turkey and elsewhere in the Near East, descendants of emigrants from the Russian conquest of the Caucasus in the 19th century; they retain the languages to varying extents.

  • Northeast Caucasian or Nakh-Daghestanian, a much-diversified family about 6000 years of age, with some 30 daughter languages spoken in the central and eastern Caucasus. It probably dispersed in the southeastern foothills of the Caucasus, near the Caspian Sea and in present-day Azerbaijan. Islam spread into Azerbaijan early and from there to the northern Caucasus, reaching the Chechen and Ingush in the 17th-18th centuries. Though most speakers of Northeast Caucasian languages are Muslims, the Udi (who now inhabit three villages in Azerbaijan and Georgia and are remnants of a larger pre-Georgian population) are monophysite Christians. There are sizable Chechen-Ingush diasporic communities in Turkey and Jordan, descendants of emigrants and deportees from the Russian conquest of the Caucasus in the 19th century; they retain the language, generally quite well.
    
    
    Languages not indigenous to the Caucasus but long resident there include:

  • Ossetic, a member of the northeastern branch of the Iranian subfamily of Indo-European. A descendant of the Alanic division of Sarmatian, which was part of the Scythian state of the Iron Age steppe, it straddles the Caucasus across the central pass and must have entered during the first millennium BCE.

  • Karachay-Balkar, two closely related dialects of northwestern Turkic. Now spoken in the western central highlands of the northern slope, they must have come into the Caucasus after the spread of Kipchak Turkic to the western steppe in the early middle ages.

  • Kumyk, another Turkic language of the northeastern lowlands which also entered the area in the early middle ages. The Kumyk people may well descend from the Khazars, Turkic speakers whose empire extended from the Volga to the Daghestan foothills, but the Kumyk language itself goes back to the Kipchak Turkic that began spreading into the North Caucasian steppe in the middle ages.

  • Azerbaijani (Azeri), a Southwest Turkic language that spread from Central Asia to formerly Iranian-speaking Azerbaijan in about the ninth century. Azerbaijan has been culturally important since the time of the ancient Persian empire, and Islam spread here early. Thelanguage has been written since the 14th century, originally in the Arabic script.

  • Tat, a southwestern Iranian language spoken in Azerbaijan and along the Caspian littoral. It is a survivor of the Iranian-speaking population that was dominant in Azerbaijan before the spread of Turkic, and is spoken now by Jewish, Muslim, and Christian enclaves.

  • Talysh, a northwestern Iranian language spoken in Azerbaijan and also a survivor of a pre-Turkic language.

  • Armenian, an independent branch of Indo-European. The Armenian language spread into the former kingdom of Urartu in the seventh century BCE. Armenia converted to Christianity in 300 AD, and an Armenian alphabet was created not long thereafter, originally as a vehicle for disseminating Christianity. The oldest surviving documents in classical Armenian date to the ninth and tenth centuries. The language has been written more or less continuously since then, and the original alphabet has been retained.

  • The ancient Urartean language and its still earlier ancestor Hurrian, attested in cuneiform inscriptions. The range of Urartean was approximately the territory of medieval Armenia.

    For the ranges of these languages and families see the map below.

    
    
    Structural types of languages

    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.

    
    

    
    
    Language contact, bilingualism, and verticality

    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
    
    
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