The Northwest Caucasian languages
, also called Pontic
, or Abkhaz-Adyghe
, are a group of languages spoken in the Caucasus
region, chiefly in Russia
), and Turkey
, with smaller communities scattered throughout the Middle East
The entire family is characterised by a paucity of phonemic
vowels (two or three, depending upon the analysis) coupled with rich consonantal systems that include many forms of secondary articulation
. Ubykh (Ubyx)
, for example, had both the minimal number of vowels (two), and probably the largest inventory of consonants outside Southern Africa.
Linguistic reconstructions suggest that both the richness of the consonantal systems and the poverty of the vocalic systems may be the result of a historical process, whereby vowel features such as labialisation and palatalisation were reassigned to adjacent consonants. For example, ancestral */ki/ may have become /kʲə/ and */kuː/ may have become /kːʷə/, losing the old vowels */i/ and */u/ and vowel length but gaining the new consonants /kʷ/, /kʲ/, and the "strong" consonants. The linguist John Colarusso has further postulated that some instances of this may also be due to the levelling of an old grammatical class prefix system (so */w-ka/ may have become /kʷa/), on the basis of pairs like Ubykh /gʲə/ vs Kabardian and Abkhaz /gʷə/ heart.
Northwest Caucasian languages have rather simple noun systems, manifesting only a handful of cases at the most, coupled with highly agglutinative
verbal systems so complex that virtually the entire syntactic structure of the sentence is contained within the verb. They do not generally permit more than one finite verb in a sentence, which precludes the existence of subordinate clauses
in the Indo-European
sense; equivalent functions are performed by extensive arrays of nominal
non-finite verb forms (although Abkhaz appears to be developing limited subordinate clauses, perhaps under the influence of Russian).
There are five recognized languages in the Northwest Caucasian family: Abkhaz
or East Circassian, Adyghe
or West Circassian, and Ubykh
. They are classified as follows:
- Abkhaz-Abaza dialects
- Circassian dialects (Cherkess)
- Ubykh (Ubyx) (extinct)
Circassian dialect continuum
(or Cherkess) is a cover term for the series of dialects that include the literary languages of Adyghe and Kabardian.
The Adyghe (Adyge, Adyg) language
is one of the more widely spoken Northwest Caucasian languages. It has 500,000 speakers spread throughout Russia
and the Middle East
: 280,000 in Turkey
; 125,000 in Russia, where it is official in the Republic of Adygea
; 45,000 in Jordan
, 25,000 in Syria
, and 20,000 in Iraq
. There is even a small community in the United States
. Four main dialects are recognised: Temirgoy
, as well as many minor ones such as the Turkish dialect Hakuchi
spoken by the last speakers of Ubykh. Adyghe has three phonemic vowels, and its consonants and consonant clusters are less complex than the Abkhaz-Abaza dialects.
has just over one million speakers: 550,000 in Turkey
and 450,000 in Russia
, where it is an official language of the republics of Kabardino-Balkaria
. Kabardian has the least number of consonants of any North-Western Caucasian language, with 48, including some rather unusual ejective fricatives
and a small number of vowels. It has two major dialects, called Kabardian and Cherkess (Circassian); Kabardian itself has several dialects, including Terek, the literary standard, and Besleney, which is intelligible with both Terek and Adyghe
Abkhaz-Abaza dialect continuum
Abkhaz (Abxaz) language
The Abkhaz (Abxaz) language
has 100,000 speakers in Abkhazia
(a de facto
independent republic, but a de jure
autonomous entity within Georgia
), where it is the official language, and an unknown number of speakers in Turkey
. It has been a literary language from the beginning of the 20th century. Abkhaz and Abaza may be said to be dialects of the same language, but each preserves phonemes which the other has lost. Abkhaz is characterised by unusual consonant clusters and one of the world's smallest vowel inventories: It has only two distinctive vowels, an open vowel /a/ and a mid vowel /ə/. Next to palatalized
consonants, /a/ is realized as [e] or [o], and /ə/ as [i] or [u]. There are three major dialects
The Abaza language
has some 45,000 speakers, 35,000 in Russia
and 10,000 in Turkey
. It is a literary language, but nowhere official. It shares with Abkhaz the distinction of having just two phonemic vowels. Abaza is phonologically more complex than Abkhaz, and is characterised by large consonant clusters, similar to those that can be found in Georgian
. There are three major dialects, T’ap’anta
, and Bezshagh
. Some are partially intelligible with Abkhaz.
Ubykh (Ubyx) language
The Ubykh (Ubyx) language
is more closely related to Abkhaz and Abaza than to Adyghe and Kabardian. The population switched to speaking Adyghe, and Ubykh became extinct on October 7
, with the death of Tevfik Esenç
. A dialectal division within Ubykh was suspected by Georges Dumézil
, but the divergent form he described in 1965 was never investigated further. With eighty-one consonants, Ubykh has one of the largest inventories in the world, and probably the largest outside the Khoisan languages
. There are pharyngealised consonants
and a four-way place contrast among sibilants
. It was the only Northwest Caucasian language never to have a literary form.
Relationship to other language families
A number of factors make the reconstruction of the Northwest Caucasian proto-language problematic:
- most roots in Northwest Caucasian languages are monosyllabic, and many are single consonants;
- the sound changes are often intricate, and a large number of consonants and sibilant contrasts provides further complexity;
- ablaut was extensive and still plays some part in the modern languages;
- borrowings between languages of the family were frequent;
- extensive homophony occurs in the modern languages.
For these reasons, Proto-Northwest Caucasian is widely accepted as being one of the most difficult proto-languages to deal with, and it is therefore more difficult than most to relate to other families.
Connections to Hattic
Until about 1800 BC, the region of Anatolia
around ancient Hattusa
) that was later occupied by the Hittites
had been the home of an earlier people, conventionally called Hattians
, who spoke a poorly known non-Indo-European
language unrelated to Hittite
. This extinct Hattic isolate
appears to have some affinity with the Northwest Caucasian languages. The name Hetto-Iberian
has been proposed for a superfamily comprising Northwest Caucasian and Hattic.
Connections to Indo-European
It has been conjectured that the North-West Caucasian languages may be genetically related to the Indo-European
family, at a time depth of perhaps 12,000 years before the present. The hypothesised proto-language is called Proto-Pontic
, but is not widely accepted.
There does at least appear to have been extensive contact between the two proto-languages, and the resemblances may be due to this influence.
North Caucasian family
Many linguists join the Northwest and Northeast Caucasian languages
into a North Caucasian
family, sometimes simply called Caucasic
(in opposition to Kartvelian (South Caucasian)
, which is thought to be unrelated, albeit heavily influenced by their northern neighbours). This hypothesis has perhaps been best illustrated by Sergei A. Starostin and Sergei Nikolayev, who present a set of phonological correspondences and shared morphological structure. However, there is no consensus that the relationship has been demonstrated, and many consider the correspondences to be spurious for the reasons mentioned above. See the article on North Caucasian languages
for details, as well as the external links below.
A few linguists have proposed even broader relationships, of which the Dene-Caucasian
hypothesis is perhaps the most popular. Dene-Caucasian
links the North Caucasian
(including Northwest Caucasian), Basque
, and Na-Dene
families. However, this is an even more tentative hypothesis than Nostratic
, which attempts to relate Indo-European
and which is widely considered to be undemonstrated.