is a language
of the Northwestern Caucasian group
, spoken by the Ubykh people
up until the early 1990s.
The word is derived from /wəbəx/, its name in the Abdzakh Adyghe (Circassian) language. It is known in linguistic literature by many names: variants of Ubykh, such as Ubikh, Ubıh (Turkish) and Oubykh (French); and Pekhi (from Ubykh /tʷaχə/) and its Germanicised variant Päkhy.
Ubykh is distinguished by the following features, some of which are shared with other Northwest Caucasian languages:
- It is ergative, making no syntactic distinction between the subject of an intransitive sentence and the direct object of a transitive sentence. Split ergativity plays only a small part, if at all.
- It is highly agglutinative, using mainly monosyllabic or bisyllabic roots, but with single morphological words sometimes reaching nine or more syllables in length: /aχʲazbatɕʾaʁawdətʷaajlafaqʾajtʾmadaχ/ if only you had not been able to make him take (it) all out from under me again for them. Affixes rarely fuse in any way.
- It has a simple nominal system, contrasting just four noun cases, and not always marking grammatical number in the direct case.
- Its system of verbal agreement is quite complex. English verbs must agree only with the subject; Ubykh verbs must agree with the subject, the direct object and the indirect object, and benefactive objects must also be marked in the verb.
- It is phonologically complex as well, with 84 distinct consonants (four of which, however, appear only in loan words). According to some linguistic analyses, it only has two phonological vowels, but these vowels have a large range of allophones because the range of consonants which surround them is so large.
See Ubykh phonology for information on the phonetics of Ubykh.
Ubykh is agglutinative and polysynthetic: /ʃəkʲʼaajəfanamət/ we shall not be able to go back, /awqʼaqʼajtʼba/ if you had said it. Ubykh is often extremely concise in its word forms.
The boundaries between nouns and verbs in Ubykh is somewhat blurred. Any noun can be used as the root of a stative verb (/məzə/ child, /səməzəjtʼ/ I was a child), and many verb roots can become nouns simply by the use of noun affixes (/qʼa/ to say, /səqʼa/ my speech, what I say).
The noun system in Ubykh is quite simple. Ubykh has three noun cases (the oblique-ergative case may be two homophonous cases with differing function, thus presenting four cases in total):
The instrumental (- by means of, by using) was also treated as a case in Dumézil (1975). Another pair of postpositions, -/laaq/ to(wards) and -/ʁaafa/ for, have been noted as synthetic datives (I will send it to the prince), but their status as cases is also best discounted.
Nouns do not distinguish grammatical gender. The definite article is /a/- the: /atət/ the man. There is no indefinite article directly equivalent to the English a or an, but /za/-(root)-/gʷara/ (literally one-(root)-certain) translates French un and Turkish bir: /zanaynʃʷgʷara/ a certain young man.
Number is only marked on the noun in the ergative case, with -/na/. The number marking of the absolutive argument is either by suppletive verb roots (e.g. he is in the car vs they are in the car) or by verb suffixes: /akʲʼan/ he goes, /akʲʼaan/ they go. Interestingly, the second person plural prefix /ɕʷ/- triggers this plural suffix regardless of whether that prefix represents the ergative, the absolutive or the oblique argument:
- /ɕʷastʷaan/ I give you all to him (abs.)
- /səɕʷəntʷaan/ he gives me to you all (obl.)
- /asəɕʷtʷaan/ you all give it/them to me (erg.)
Note that in this last sentence, the plurality of it (/a/-) is obscured; the meaning can be either I give it to you all or I give them to you all.
Adjectives, in most cases, are simply suffixed to the noun: /tʃəbʒəja/ pepper with /pɬə/ red becomes /tʃəbʒəjapɬə/ red pepper. Adjectives do not decline.
Postpositions are rare; most locative semantic functions, as well as some non-local ones, are provided with preverbal elements: /asχʲawtxqʼa/ you wrote it for me. However, there are a few postpositions: like me; /aχʲəlaaq/ near the prince.
(Dumézil 1975 passim
distinction of verb tense
exists (the suffixes -/qʼa/ and -/awt/ represent past and future) and an imperfective aspect
suffix is also found (-/jtʼ/, which can combine with tense suffixes). Dynamic and stative verbs are contrasted, as in Arabic
, and verbs have several nominal
forms. Morphological causatives
are not uncommon. The conjunctions and
are usually given with verb suffixes, but there is also a free particle for each:
- -/gʲə/ and (free particle /ve/, borrowed from Turkish);
- -/gʲəla/ but, nevertheless, even so, however, although (free particle /aʁʷa/)
Pronominal benefactives are also part of the verbal complex, marked with the preverb /χʲa/-, but a benefactive cannot normally appear on a verb that has three agreement prefixes already.
Gender only appears as part of the second person paradigm, and then only at the speaker's discretion. The feminine second person index is /χa/-, which behaves like other pronominal prefixes: /wəsχʲantʷən/ he gives (it) to you (normal; gender-neutral) for me, but compare /χasχʲantʷən/ he gives (it) to you (feminine) for me.
A few meanings covered in English
or auxiliary verbs
are given in Ubykh by verb suffixes:
- /asfəpχa/ I need to eat it
- /asfəfan/ I can eat it
- /asfəgʲan/ I eat it all the time
- /asfəlan/ I am eating it all up
- /asfətɕʷan/ I eat it too much
- /asfaajən/ I eat it again
may be marked grammatically, using verb suffixes or prefixes:
- Yes-no questions with -/ɕ/: ? did you see that?
- Complex questions with -/j/: ? what is your name?
Other types of questions, involving the pronouns where and what, may also be marked only in the verbal complex: /maawkʲʼanəj/ where are you going?, /saawqʼaqʼajtʼəj/ what had you said?
Preverbs and determinants
Many local, prepositional, and other functions are provided by preverbal
elements providing a large series of applicatives
, and it is in this that Ubykh is hideously complex. Two main types of preverbal elements exist in Ubykh: determinants
. The number of preverbs is limited, and mainly show location
. The number of determinants is also limited, but the class is more open
; some determinant prefixes include /tʃa/- with regard to a horse
and /ɬa/- with regard to the foot or base of an object
For simple locations, there are a number of possibilities that can be encoded with preverbs, including (but not limited to):
- above and touching
- above and not touching
- below and touching
- below and not touching
- at the side of
- through a space
- through solid matter
- on a flat horizontal surface
- on a non-horizontal or vertical surface
- in a homogeneous mass
- in an upward direction
- in a downward direction
- into a tubular space
- into an enclosed space
There is also a separate directional preverb meaning towards the speaker: j-, which occupies a separate slot in the verbal complex. However, preverbs can have meanings that would take up entire phrases in English. The preverb /jtɕʷʼaa/- signifies on the earth or in the earth, for instance: they buried his body (lit. they put his body in the earth). Even more narrowly, the preverb /faa/- signifies that an action is done out of, into or with regard to a fire: I take a brand out of the fire.
have a strong tendency to be CV, although VC and CVC also exist. Consonant clusters
are not as large as in Abzhui Abkhaz
or in Georgian
, rarely being larger than two terms. Three-term clusters exist in two words - /ndʁa/ sun
and /psta/ to swell up
, but the latter is a loan from Adyghe, and the former more often pronounced /nədʁa/ when it appears alone.
plays a large part in Ubykh and, indeed, in all Northwest Caucasian semantics
. There is no verb to love
, for instance; one says I love you
as I see you well
Reduplication occurs in some roots, often those with onomatopoeic values (/χˁaχˁa/ to curry(comb) from /χˁa/ to scrape; /kʼərkʼər/, to cluck like a chicken (a loan from Adyghe); /warqwarq/, to croak like a frog).
Roots and affixes can be as small as one phoneme. The word /wantʷaan/ they give you to him, for instance, contains six phonemes, and each is a separate morpheme:
- /w/ - 2nd singular absolutive
- /a/ - 3rd singular dative
- /n/ - 3rd ergative
- /tʷ/ - to give
- /aa/ - ergative plural
- /n/ - present tense
However, some words may be as long as seven syllables (although these are usually compounds): /ʂəqʷʼawəɕaɬaadətʃa/ staircase.
Slang and idioms
As with all other languages, Ubykh is replete with idioms
. The word /ntʷa/ door
, for instance, is an idiom meaning either magistrate
. However, idiomatic constructions are even more common in Ubykh than in most other languages; the representation of abstract ideas with series of concrete elements is a characteristic of the Northwest Caucasian family. I love you
translates literally as I see you well
; you please me
is literally you cut my heart
. The term /wərəs/ Russian
, a Turkish loan, has come to be a slang term meaning infidel
(see section History
The majority of loanwords in Ubykh are derived from either Adyghe or Turkish, with smaller numbers from Persian
and the South Caucasian languages
. Towards the end of Ubykh's life, a large influx of Adyghe words was noted; Vogt (1963) notes a few hundred examples. The phonemes were borrowed from Turkish and Adyghe. /ɬʼ/ also appears to be an Adyghe loan, although at a greater time depth. It is possible, too, that /ɣ/ is a loan from Adyghe, since most of the few words with this phoneme are obvious Adyghe loans: /paaɣa/ proud
, /ɣa/ testis
Many loanwords have Ubykh equivalents, but were dwindling in usage under the influence of Turkish, Circassian and Russian equivalents:
- /bərwə/ to make a hole in, to perforate (Turkish) = /pɕaatχʷ/
- /tʃaaj/ tea (Turkish) = /bzəpʂə/
- /wərəs/ enemy (Turkish) = /bˁaqˁʼa/
Some words, usually much older ones, are borrowed from less influential stock: Colarusso (1994) sees /χˁʷa/ pig as a borrowing from a proto-Semitic *huka, and /agʲarə/ slave from an Iranian root.
In the scheme of Northwest Caucasian evolution, despite its parallels with Abkhaz, Ubykh forms a separate third branch of the family. It has fossilised palatal class markers where all other Northwest Caucasian languages preserve traces of an original labial class: the Ubykh word for heart, /gʲə/, corresponds to the reflex /gʷə/ in Abkhaz, Abaza, Kabardian and Adyghe. Ubykh also possesses groups of pharyngealised consonants otherwise found in the Northwest Caucasian family only in some dialects of Abkhaz and Abaza. All other NWC languages possess true pharyngeal consonants, but Ubykh is the only language to use pharyngealisation as a feature of secondary articulation.
With regard to the other languages of the family, Ubykh is closer to Abkhaz than to any other member, but shares many features with Adyghe due to geographic and cultural influence; many Ubykh speakers were bilingual in Ubykh and Adyghe.
While not many dialects of Ubykh existed, one divergent dialect
of Ubykh has been noted (in Dumézil 1965:266-269). Grammatically, it is similar to standard Ubykh, but has a very different sound system, which had collapsed into just 62-odd phonemes:
- have collapsed into .
- are indistinguishable from .
- /ɣ/ seems to have disappeared.
- Pharyngealisation is no longer distinctive, having been replaced in many cases by geminate consonants.
- Palatalisation of the uvular consonants is no longer phonemic.
Ubykh was spoken in the eastern coast of the Black Sea around Sochi until 1864, when the Ubykhs were driven out of the region by the Russians. They eventually came to settle in Turkey, founding the villages of Hacı Osman, Kırkpınar, Masukiye and Hacı Yakup. Turkish and Circassian eventually became the preferred languages for everyday communication, and many words from these languages entered Ubykh in that period.
The Ubykh language died out on October 7 1992, when its last fluent speaker (Tevfik Esenç) died in his sleep. Fortunately, before that time thousands of pages of material and many audio recordings had been collected and collated by a number of linguists, including Georges Charachidzé, Georges Dumézil, Hans Vogt and George Hewitt, with the help of some of its last speakers, particularly Tevfik Esenç and Huseyin Kozan. Ubykh was never written by its speech community, but a few phrases were transcribed by Evliya Celebi in his Seyahatname, and a substantial portion of the oral literature, along with some cycles of the Nart saga, was transcribed. Tevfik Esenç also eventually learned to write Ubykh in the transcription that Dumézil devised.
Julius von Mészáros, a Hungarian linguist, visited Turkey in 1930 and took down some notes on Ubykh. His work Die Päkhy-Sprache was extensive and accurate to the extent allowed by his transcription system (which could not represent all the phonemes of Ubykh), and marked the foundation of Ubykh linguistics.
The Frenchman Georges Dumézil also visited Turkey in 1930 to record some Ubykh, and would eventually become the most celebrated Ubykh linguist of all time. He published a collection of Ubykh folktales in the late 1950s, and the language soon attracted the attention of linguists for its small number (two) of phonemic vowels. Hans Vogt, a Norwegian, produced a monumental dictionary that, in spite of its many errors (later corrected by Dumézil), is still one of the masterpieces and essential tools of Ubykh linguistics.
Later in the 1960s and into the early 1970s, Dumézil published a series of papers on Ubykh etymology in particular and Northwest Caucasian etymology in general. Dumézil's book Le Verbe Oubykh (1975), a comprehensive account of the verbal and nominal morphology of the language, is another cornerstone of Ubykh linguistics.
Since the 1980s, Ubykh linguistics has slowed drastically. No other major treatises have been published; however, the Dutch linguist Rieks Smeets is currently trying to compile a new Ubykh dictionary based on Vogt's 1963 book, and a similar project is also underway in Australia. The Ubykh themselves have shown interest in relearning their language.
People who have published literature on Ubykh include
- Brian George Hewitt
- Catherine Paris
- Christine Leroy
- Georg Bossong
- Georges Dumézil
- Hans Vogt
- John Colarusso
- Julius von Mészáros
- Rieks Smeets
- Tevfik Esenç
- Wim Lucassen
- Ubykh has been cited in the Guinness Book of Records (1996 ed.) as the language with the most consonants, although it may have been overtaken by some of the Khoisan languages.
- Ubykh has 20 uvular and 27 pure fricative phonemes, more than any other known language.
- Ubykh may be related to Hattic, a language spoken in Anatolia before 2000 BC and written in a cuneiform script.
Samples of Ubykh
All examples from Dumézil 1968. See external link below for audio.
once two.man friend.ADV
Once, two men set out together on the road.
.ADV provisions they.buy.FUT.ADV they.enter(PL).PL.ADV the.one.ERG
cheese.and bread.and buy.PAST
They went to buy some provisions for the journey; the one bought cheese and bread,
other.of.ERG.and bread.and fish.and buy.ADV it.hither.he.bring.past
and the other bought bread and fish.
While they were on the road,
.GER his.friend.towards you-all fish much you-all.eat.PL.PRES
the one who had bought the cheese asked the other, "You people eat a lot of fish;"
why that.OBL.as-much-as fish you-all.eat.PL.PRES.QU
"why do you eat fish as much as that?"
fish you.eat.if your.knowledge much become.FUT
"If you eat fish, you get smarter,"
that.for we fish much we.eat.PRES say.PAST
"so we eat a lot of fish," he answered.
- Colarusso, J. 1994 Proto-Northwest Caucasian, or, How to Crack a Very Hard Nut. Journal of Indo-European Studies 22: 1-17.
- Dumézil, G. 1961 Etudes oubykhs. Librairie A. Maisonneuve: Paris.
- Dumézil, G. 1965 Documents anatoliens sur les langues et les traditions du Caucase, III: Nouvelles études oubykhs. Librairie A. Maisonneuve: Paris.
- Dumézil, G. 1968 Eating fish makes you clever. Annotated recording available via
- Dumézil, G. 1975 Le verbe oubykh: études descriptives et comparatives. Imprimerie Nationale: Paris.
- Hewitt, B. G. 2005 North-West Caucasian. Lingua 115: 91-145.
- Mészáros, J. von. 1930 Die Päkhy-Sprache. University of Chicago Press: Chicago.
- Vogt, H. 1963 Dictionnaire de la langue oubykh. Universitetsforlaget: Oslo.