Caucasian Language Families
The Ibero-Caucasian language family is one of the several language families spoken in the Caucasus Mountains, a narrow land bridge between the Black and the Caspian seas, home to one of the highest concentrations of languages in the world. Besides languages from other language families (Armenian, Azerbaijani, Russian) brought by settlers and invaders over the past three millennia, there are 39 indigenous languages recognized as belonging to a single Caucasian family. Most of them have no relatives outside the Caucasus. All are believed to have been in the area for many thousands of years. The puzzle of the isolated Caucasian language families has been attracting the attention of scholars since the 19th century. They have tried in vain to relate Caucasian languages to languages spoken outside the Caucasus area. They did succeed, however, in establishing links between the Northern Caucasian languages and extinct languages that were spoken in Anatolia, in present-day Turkey, and Mesopotamia, in present-day Iraq.Caucasian languages can be divided into two typologically and areally defined language families: North Caucasian and Kartvelian. The former is comprised of 34 languages, while the latter includes five. Some of the largest languages are listed below (Ethnologue). The North Caucasian language family is comprised of 34 languages. Languages with over 10,000 speakers are listed below. With fewer than 10,000 speakers, the rest are endangered or on the brink of extinction (The Red Book).
North Caucasian language family (34 languages)
|Language||Number of speakers||Where primarily spoken||Useful links|
|Chechen||about 1 million||Chechnya||The Chechen language|
|Dargwa||370,000||Dagestan||University of Graz|
|Ingush||230,000||Ingushetia||The Ingush language|
|Lak||112,000||Dagestan||Minority languages of Russia|
Kartvelian language family
|40,000-50,000||Israel||Judaeo-Georgian language (Wikipedia)|
Caucasian languages are spoken by a total of about 8.5 million people. Most of them are minority languages with no official recognition. There are a few exceptions.
- Georgian is the official language of the Republic of Georgia (spoken by 90% of the population of this country), and the main language for literary and business use.
- Chechen and Ingush are official languages of Chechnya, Ingushetia and Georgia.
Even though many of the Caucasian languages have sizable populations of fluent speakers, the combination of bilingualism in Russian, restrictions imposed by former Soviet government policies, and lack of educational and employment opportunities in these languages may lead to their eventual decline.
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North Caucasian language family
Below are some notable features of the sound systems of North Caucasian languages.
- Most languages have few vowel phonemes, i.e., sounds that differentiate word meaning. For instance, Abkhaz has only two vowel phonemes. Vowels tend to have a large number of positional variants.
- Most languages have large consonant inventories with as many as 81 consonants reported for the now extinct Ubykh, and 76 consonants in Archi.
- Consonants include velar, uvular, pharyngeal, glottal and ejective sounds. Ejective sounds are voiceless consonants pronounced with a simultaneous closure of the vocal cords. They sound as though they are being spat out.
- Some languages, such as Abkhaz, have many unusual consonant clusters.
- Some languages, e.g., Abkhaz, also have retroflex consonants which are produced with the tip of the tongue curled so that its underside touches the roof of the mouth.
Kartvelian language family
Below are some notable features of the sound systems of Kartvelian languages.
- They typically have five vowels /a, e, i, o, u/. In Svan vowel length distinguishes word meaning.
- Stops and affricates have voiced, voiceless, and glottalized varieties.
- Long consonant clusters in word-initial position occur quite frequently, e.g., Georgian msxverpli ‘sacrifice.’
North Caucasian languages
- Nouns belong to different classes, e.g., things, human beings, etc. The number of classes varies from language to language. These classes are marked with special affixes attached to the verb, e.g., Avar w-ac̣ana ‘the boy has come,’ jas j-ac̣ana ‘the girl has come.’
- Some North Caucasian languages have only a few cases, while others have very extensive case systems. For instance, in Tabassaran, a series oflocative cases designate motion with regard to its location, resulting in some 48 locative suffixes.
- Many languages have an ergative case which marks the agent of transitive verbs.
- They have highly agglutinative verbal systems. The subject, direct object, the indirect object, benefactive objects and most locative functions are incorporated into the verb. This can result in very long verbal constructions that correspond to entire clauses or even to whole sentences in European languages.
- The languages differentiate between an inclusive and exclusive first person plural, i.e., we (speaker and hearer) and we (speaker only).
Kartvelian language family
- Kartvelian languages are agglutinative. They use postpositions rather than prepositions to mark grammatical functions.
- The noun system is relatively simple. There are no articles. There are two numbers (singular and plural) and three to seven cases, depending on the language. .
- The verbal systems are highly complex. Verbs tend to be long due to agglutination. They can include reference to the subject and the direct and indirect objects, e.g.,’ I gave it to him’ is one word in Georgian, a phenomenon known as polypersonalism.
- They tend to have many irregular verbs.
- There are classes of verbs, each with its own set of conjugation rules representing tense, aspect and mood.
The normal word order in Caucasian languages is Subject – Object – Verb. However, it can vary depending on contextual factors.
Caucasian languages have preserved their original native lexicon. However, there is abundant evidence of borrowing from neighboring languages such as Arabic and Persian. The most recent lexical influence has been that of Russian. In addition, the languages have borrowed extensively from each other.
- Georgian has an ancient literary tradition, which dates back to the 5th century AD, when the oldest datable monuments were inscribed in an original and distinctive alphabet. It is written with the Georgian alphabet.
- Mingrelian has been written (with the Georgian alphabet) since 1864, especially in the period from 1930 to 1938, when the Megrelians enjoyed some cultural autonomy, and after 1989.
- Laz was written chiefly between 1927 and 1937, and now again in Turkey, with the Latin alphabet. Laz, however, is disappearing as its speakers are integrating into mainstream Turkish society.
- Gruzinic was the language of the ancient community of Georgian Jews. It is often written using the Hebrew alphabet.
- Several of the northern Caucasian languages have scripts based on the Cyrillic alphabet. Typical of some Caucasian languages is Adyghe first written in 1918 with an alphabet based on the Arabic script. Since 1938, however, the language has been written with the Cyrillic script, as part of the russification campaign.
Georgian is considered to be more difficult than other Category II languages in terms of difficulty for speakers of English. No information is available for other Caucasian languages.