Caucasian languages

Caucasian languages,

family of languages spoken by about 7 million people in the CaucasusCaucasus
, Rus. Kavkaz, region and mountain system, SE European Russia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. Armenia is not crossed by the Caucasus range but is considered part of the greater region. The mountain system extends c.
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 region of SE European Russia. The Caucasian languages take their name from the Caucasus Mountains, on the slopes of which their original homeland is believed to have been located. This linguistic family was once considerably more extensive; however, only about 25 of its tongues have survived into modern times. There are two major subdivisions of the Caucasian family of languages, northern and southern. Whether or not these two branches are related linguistically is still disputed, but Georgian scholars since the 1930s have regarded as proved the kinship of all the Caucasian tongues. The northern group consists of about 20 languages native to 2 million people. Its most important members are Chechen, Abkhaz, and Adyghe, which with its two dialects of Kabardin and Circassian, is also spoken to some extent in Turkey and Syria. The southern group of Caucasian languages includes four tongues.

Georgian, the leading member of the northern group, is the mother tongue of about 4 million people in Georgia and in neighboring areas of Turkey and Azerbaijan in Iran. It is a modern representative of the language of the ancient Colchians, of whom the celebrated mythological figure Medea was one. A literature in Georgian goes back to the 5th cent. A.D., and the language has two alphabets of its own, one of which is still in use, although increasingly the Cyrillic alphabet is being adopted. In general, the Caucasian languages have inflection and tend to be agglutinative in that different linguistic elements, each of which exists separately and has a fixed meaning, are often joined to form one word. Phonetically, the Caucasian tongues are distinctive, combining simplicity of vowels with abundant richness of consonants. Many of the Caucasian languages are spoken by comparatively few people (that is, fewer than 100,000), and they are gradually giving ground to Russian. An exception is Georgian, which has a comparatively large number of speakers.


See B. Geiger et al., Peoples and Languages of the Caucasus (1959).

Caucasian Languages


(Ibero-Caucasian languages), the indigenous languages of the Caucasus, which are represented by three groups: Kartvelian, Abkhazo-Adyg and Nakho-Dagestan. Although there is no doubt concerning the genetic relationship of the Nakh and Dagestan languages, they are sometimes regarded as two different groups. The Abkhazo-Adyg and Nakho-Dagestan groups are often conventionally referred to as the Mountain Caucasian or North Caucasian languages. There are approximately 40 Caucasian languages, which are spoken by more than 4.5 million persons. Only Georgian has an ancient literary tradition (dating back to the fifth century). The Udi also apparently had a writing system between the fifth and eighth centuries. The Abkhaz, Abaza, Adygei, Kabardin-Cherkess, Chechen, Ingush, Avar, Lak, Darghin, Lezgin, and Tabasaran languages have only recently been put into writing, although individual records in some of them date as far back as the Middle Ages.

The Caucasian languages are characterized by substantial divergences, in addition to the existence of structural parallelisms. Phonetically, they share complex consonant systems, which include stops (voiced and voiceless aspirates, glottalized stops, and voiceless unaspirated stops) and uvular and pharyngeal consonants. Harmonic consonant clusters (complexes) are frequent, although poorly represented in the Nakho-Dagestan languages. There are sharp differences in the vowel systems of the Caucasian languages, which include from two or three phonemes in the Abkhazo-Adyg languages to 15 to 20 or more phonemes in a number of Nakho-Dagestan languages (in which long and short, pharyngealized, nasalized, and umlauted vowels occur). There is also considerable variation in the phonological structure of roots. Stress in the Caucasian languages is dynamic and, in general, weakly expressed.

Morphologically, the Caucasian languages tend to be agglutinative, although elements of fusion and, in particular, ablaut are to be found in them. The Abkhazo-Adyg languages have very complex conjugations and rather elementary declensions, whereas the reverse is true for the Nakho-Dagestan languages. Subject-object prefixation is typical for the verb. Syntactically, the Caucasian languages distinguish absolute (usually with intransitive verbs), ergative (with transitive verbs), and affective (with verbs of perception) sentence constructions. Sentences have free word order.

The vocabulary of the Caucasian languages is rich in onomatopoetic words. There are many common lexical borrowings from the Arabic, Persian, and Turkic languages.

The Kartvelian linguistic group is intermediate between the Abkhazo-Adyg and Nakho-Dagestan languages with respect to a whole range of features. The Abkhazo-Adyg and Kartvelian languages display more features in common, such as the following interesting lexical parallelisms: Kartvelian *mz1e “sun” ˜ Abkhazo-Adyg *maza “moon”; Kartvelian *gwl “heart” ˜ Abkhazo-Adyg *gwd “heart”; and Kartvelian *pxa “framework” ˜ Abkhazo-Adyg *pqa “framework.”

There is no unanimity among linguists on the question of Caucasian linguistic interrelationships. Their genetic unity is often postulated on the basis of the presence of a number of structural and typological parallelisms and a certain number of common material features. This supposition, however, cannot be regarded as proved, which allows some linguists to maintain that a linguistic union exists here. The problem of external Caucasian linguistic relationships is even less clear.


Klimov, G. A. Kavkazskie iazyki. Moscow, 1965.
Dirr, A. Einfuhrung in das Studium der kaukasischen Sprachen. Leipzig, 1928.
Deeters, G. “Die kaukasischen Sprachen.” In Handbuch der Orientalistik, vol. 7. Leiden-Cologne, 1963.
Javaxishvili, I. V. K’art’uli da kavkasiuri enebis t’avdapirveli buneba da nat’esaoba. Tiflis, 1937.
Ch’ik’obava, A. R. N. Iberiulkavkasiur enat’a shescavlis istoria. Tbilisi, 1965.


References in periodicals archive ?
An ideal supplement to the catalogue is a chapter "Short biographies of collectors" as some of them are hardly known today, like Adolf Dirr (1867-1930), a major expert on Caucasian languages, who earned his living as a teacher in the Caucasus and later worked as an interpreter and staff member of the Munich Ethnological Museum, and Marie Du Bois-Reymond (1864-?
Long-time colleague Sonja Fritz, who edited the manuscript for publication, calls it the first Ossetic grammar that systematically takes into account the results of modern research by specialists of Indo-European and Caucasian languages.
Volume two includes articles on Asian Indo-European, Turkic, and Caucasian languages, and various unrelated languages.
By the same token, Circassian, Laz, and other Caucasian languages as well as Arabic, Syriac, and Assyrian would have cross-fertilized and enriched not only each other but also Turkish and Kurdish.