Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Northwest Caucasian languages
The Northwest Caucasian languages, also called Pontic or Abkhaz-Adyg/Circassian, are a group of languages spoken in Caucasian Russia, Turkey, Jordan, Kabardino-Balkaria (an autonomous republic in Russia) and Abkhazia (an autonomous republic in Georgia). The entire group is characterised by paucity of phonemic vowels, rich consonantal systems with many forms of secondary articulation , and high levels of agglutinativity.
Current theory holds that the richness of consonantal phoneme systems in the Northwest Caucasian languages is the result of a process which removes vowel features such as labialisation and palatalisation from the vowels in a root and reassigns them instead to the consonants which surround them. This theory also explains why there are so few vowels in Northwest Caucasian languages.
Northwest Caucasian languages have rather simple noun systems coupled with a verbal system so complex that virtually the entire syntactic structure of the sentence is repeated in the verb. They do not permit more than one finite verb in a sentence, which precludes the existence of subordinate clauses; to get around this, they have impressive arrays of nominal and participial non-finite verb forms.
There are five languages in the Northwest Caucasian family: Abkhaz, Abaza, Kabardian or East Circassian, Adyghe or West Circassian, and Ubykh. The languages in the Northwest Caucasian family are related as follows:
Adyghe or Adyg
The Adyghe language, also called Circassian, is one of the more widely spoken North-West Caucasian languages. It can be found everywhere from Russia to Turkey. There is even a small community in the United States. Four main dialects are recognised: Kemirgoy , Abdzakh , Bzhedugh and Shapsugh , as well as many minor ones (for instance, the Turkish dialect Hakuchi spoken by the last speakers of Ubykh). Adyghe has three phonemic vowels, and is less consonantally complex than the Abkhaz-Abaza group.
Kabardian is split into two dialects, Kabardian and Cherkess (Circassian). Furthermore, Kabardian proper has several dialects, including Terek, the literary standard, and Besney, which occupies a position intermediate between Terek Kabardian and the Adyghe. It has the least number of consonants of any North-Western Caucasian language, with 48. Kabardian is characterised by ejective fricatives and a small number of acoustic vowels.
The Abkhaz language has approximately 100,000 speakers in Abkhazia, with possibly up to 500,000 speakers in Turkey. It has been a literary language from the beginning of the 20th century. Abkhaz is often claimed to be simply a divergent dialect of a larger language, Abkhaz-Abaza. It makes better linguistic sense, however, to separate Abkhaz and Abaza into two separate languages, since Abaza preserves phonemes which Abkhaz lacks, and vice-versa. Abkhaz is generally viewed as having three major dialects, Abzhuy , Bzyp (both spoken in Georgia) and Sadz (spoken in Turkey). Abkhaz is characterised by unusual consonant clusters and a small vowel inventory. It has only two distinctive vowels: an open vowel /a/ and a closed vowel /ı, ǝ/. Depending on the environment the vowels can be realized as [e,i,o,u]. See also Abkhaz alphabet.
The Abaza language shares with Abkhaz the distinction of having just two phonemic vowels in its sound inventory. Abaza is phonologically more complex than Abkhaz, but the two share a great number of linguistic ties. Abaza has two major dialects, Akhchepse and T'ap'anta . Abaza is characterised by large consonant clusters, similar to those that can be found in Georgian.
Ubykh or Ubyx Group
The Ubykh language is more closely related to Abkhaz and Abaza than to Adyghe and Kabardian. It became extinct on October 7, 1992, with the death of Tevfik Esenc, the language's last native speaker. Ubykh has the largest number of consonants of any North-West Caucasian language, with 80. Ubykh is characterised by pharyngealised consonants and a four-way contrast between sibilants.
This ancient religious language used by the Hittites in some of their liturgy was totally unrelated to their secular Nesili, i.e. the Indo-European language known as Hittite. The term Hattic is used by modern linguists to designate this pre-Indo-European language , although no one knows what the speakers of this language called themselves. The language has been shown to demonstrate some affinity with the Abkhaz-Adyg languages.
Relationship to other language families
Links to Indo-European
The North-West Caucasian languages are currently undergoing some study as to whether they may share a phyletic link with the Indo-European family, at a time depth of about 12,000 years before the present. The hypothesised protolanguage of this link is called Proto-Pontic.
However, a number of factors mean that the reconstruction of the Northwest Caucasian protolanguage is quite complicated:
- many Northwest Caucasian roots are monosyllabic;
- phoneme changes are complex, and a large number of consonants and sibilant contrasts provides further difficulty;
- ablaut was extensively used prehistorically and plays some part in the modern languages;
- borrowings and loans between the languages of the family were frequent;
- widespread homophony occurs in the modern languages.
Proto-Northwest Caucasian is widely accepted as being one of the most difficult protolanguages to deal with.
The Ibero-Caucasian family
Traditionally, the language families spoken only in the Caucasus (Kartvelian, Northwest Caucasian, Dagestanian, and Nakh languages) into a single Ibero-Caucasian or Caucasian family. However, there is no significant evidence that those four families have a common origin, so "Ibero-Caucasian" is basically a geographic label.
The North Caucasian (Caucasic) family
Most linguists today accept that Kartvelian is unrelated to the other families. However, many believe the other three to form a North Caucasian family, sometimes called "Caucasic". Within Caucasic, Dagestanian and Nakh form a particularly well supported Northeast Caucasian (NEC) node.
- The Circassian Genocide
- Tower of Babel etymological project by Sergei Starostin, includes an Northwest Caucasian etymological database.
- CIA linguistic map of the Caucasus
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