Northwest Caucasian Languages

Modern linguistic mapping of Western Caucasus tribal composition 1774-1780

The Northwest Caucasian languages comprise five languages: Abkhaz, Abaza, Adyghe, Kabardian, and the extinct language Ubykh. Within the language family Abkhaz and Abaza form the Abkhaz-Abazin subgroup, Adyghe and Kabardian constitute the Circassian subgroup. Ubykh is in various aspects specific and stands apart from these two subgroups.

The Northwest Caucasian Languages are spoken by more than 1.000.000 people. The vast majority of the speakers live in south-western Russia, Georgia, and Turkey.

After the October revolution the Northwest Caucasian languages in the Soviet Union became written languages. First a Latin alphabet was used. In the late 30's of the 20th century Abaza, Adyghe, and Kabardian adopted the Cyrillic script.The Abkhaz language however was written with Georgian Mkhedruli at that time. About 20 years later - in the 50's - Abkhaz, too began to employ a Cyrillic based writing system.

Northwest Caucasian Languages Map

Ubykh has never been a written language.

Kabardian and Adyghe have a very long oral literary tradition, an example of which are the well known 'Nart' sagas.

All Northwest Caucasian languages share a special 'hunter language', that preserves an archaic word stock and ancient religious ideas of the Northwest Caucasian tribes. This language was commonly in use until quite recently and might be still in use in some remote areas.

The sound system is characterised by a rich consonatism. The basic set-up of the system is the phonological opposition between voiced vs. voiceless aspirate vs. voiceless ejective obstruents. The widespread use of secondary articulatory features multiplies the number of consonant phonemes. Ubykh - the language with the most abundant consonantism - has more than 80 consonant phonemes. Abkhaz and Abaza have around 60 or more, Adyghe and Kabardian have 50 or less consonant phonemes. In contrast, the vowel inventory is very poor. All Northwest Caucasian languages distinguish only two vowel phonemes: an open and a closed vowel. By means of allophonic variation there are yet numerous phonetic realisations of these two phonemes, a fact that is reflected by the alphabets.

Some scholars even tried to prove that the Circassian languages don't have phonemic vowels. More recent analyses, however, have shown that there are at least two vowel phonemes.

The Circassian languages and Ubykh have two cases: The ergative case is used with the subject of transitive ('agentive') verbs. The absolutive case is used with subjects of intransitive ('factitive') verbs and with objects of transitive ('agentive') verbs.

Abkhaz and Abaza have virtually no case system, only an 'adverbial case' is formally marked.

The Northeast Caucasian verb is polysynthetic and has an intricate morphology. The verb is the absolute centre of the sentence and mirrors the syntactic structure of the sentence by means of incorporation. The conjugation is characterised by a split into transitive ('agentive') and intransitive ('factitive') verbs. The grammatical categories person, number, tense, mood, version, potentiality, comitativity, sociativity, reciprocity, and inferenciality are expressed on the verb. Agreement is marked by crossreferencing pronominal affixes. The verb can agree with subject, direct object, and indirect object at the same time.

The Northeast Caucasian languages are ergative languages. Intransitive subjects and direct objects are marked in the same way. Transitive subjects, however, are treated differently. The Circassian languages and Ubykh pattern ergatively both in case marking and in the order of the agreement affixes on the verb.
Abkhaz and Abaza - due to the lack of morphological cases - exhibit the ergative pattern only by means of agreement affixes.

Word-order is predominantly SOV, the possessor precedes the possessed, the adjective usually follows the head noun, relative sentences precede the head and the language has postpositions rather than prepositions.

Possession is marked by prefixed pronouns on the possessed noun. The prefix pronouns agree with the possessor in person.

Source: LLOW Languages Of The World