Caucasian languages

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The term Caucasian languages covers the languages ​​of the Caucasus that were spoken there by Indo-European , Turkic and Semitic population groups before the immigration . There are around 40 Caucasian languages ​​from three language families with around 9 million speakers.

The teaching of the Caucasian languages ​​is referred to as Caucasian studies , Caucasology or Caucasiology , its specialist representatives are called Caucasologists or Caucasiologists .

Ethnolinguistic Groups in the Caucasus

Alternative names

Alternative names for the Caucasian languages ​​are Ibero-Caucasian , Paleocaucasian, or Old Caucasian ; The first name is explained by the Greek term "Iberian" for the inhabitants of the South Caucasus, but because of its apparent reference to the Iberian Peninsula, it is misleading and unusual today.

Linguistic overview

Autochthonous Caucasian languages

There is no archaeological or historical evidence of the immigration of speakers of Caucasian languages ​​into the Caucasus region. It must have taken place a very long time ago, so that the “ autochthonous ” population groups could assert their linguistic identity against later historically verifiable immigrants of Indo-European, Turkish and Semitic origin.

Extinct languages ​​of the Caucasus

Native Caucasian peoples have been recorded in Near Eastern sources since the 12th century BC. Mentioned. Finds of inscriptions show that east of the former Greek port cities on the Black Sea in the proto-Georgian kingdoms of Colchis and Iberia , the Aramaic language and the Aramaic script were used as lingua franca in addition to the early form of Cartelian languages . Further south with the center around Lake Van and with a southern extension to northern Syria was from approx. 1270 to 612 BC. The kingdom of Urartu . In this the was the Hurrian related Urartian spoken most Urartian texts are in a variant of the Mesopotamian cuneiform survived.

The linguistic diversity of the Caucasus

The Caucasus was already known in antiquity for its linguistic and ethnic diversity (evidence from Herodotus , Strabo , Pliny and others). The information varies between 70 and 360 languages ​​and dialects. The reason for the diversity in such a small space is certainly the strong fissure of the Caucasus region into many small, inaccessible valleys with peaks over 5000 m high ( Elbrus ), into which the most diverse groups could retreat and thus retain their ancestral languages. In addition, the geographical situation contributes to the separation of dialects, from which independent languages ​​developed after some time - aided by difficult communication.

Today's linguistic situation in the Caucasus

The Caucasus belonged entirely to the Soviet Union until 1991 and, after its disintegration, to the states of Russia , Georgia , Armenia and Azerbaijan . In addition to the actual Caucasian, languages ​​from three language families are spoken in the Caucasus today: Indo-European , Turkish and Semitic .

Indo-European is represented by Armenian , the Iranian languages Ossetian , Kurdish ( Kurmanji ), Zazaisch , Tatisch and Talysh , the Slavic languages Russian and Ukrainian and Greek . The Turkic languages ​​in the Caucasus area are Azerbaijani , Kumyk , Karachay-Balkar , Nogai and the Urum language (see Urum people ). The only Semitic languages are the neuostaramäische Aisor (Assyrian Neuaramäisch) and the neuostaramäische Bohtan-Neuaramäisch that are spoken by about 13,000 people in Georgia and Armenia.

What remains are the 40 or so autochthonous Caucasian languages ​​with a total of almost 9 million speakers, which this article is all about. These languages ​​are divided into over a hundred dialects, although the dialects of some Caucasian languages ​​are barely mutually understandable, although only a few kilometers as the crow flies between their villages, which are difficult to reach by land. The ancient estimates with 300 languages, which at first appear exaggerated, could therefore have been close to the truth.

Classification of the Caucasian languages

Main distribution areas of the South Caucasian or Cartelian languages
Today's main distribution areas of the Northwest Caucasian or Abkhaz-Adygian languages ​​in Caucasus.
In the 19th century most speakers of Abkhazian-Adygian fled to the Ottoman Empire, in whose successor states they still live today. Here the distribution areas of the largest diaspora group in Turkey.
Main distribution areas of Northeast Caucasian or Post-Dagestan languages ​​in Caucasus. A minority also lives in the successor states of the Ottoman Empire.

According to current research, it is extremely unlikely that the Caucasian languages ​​form a genetic unit (a language family). The majority of researchers today assume three independent genetic units or Caucasian language families, which are designated as follows:

  • Kartvelian or South Caucasian
  • Abkhaz Adygian or Northwest Caucasian
  • Nakh-Dagestani or Northeast Caucasian

The South Caucasian languages are spoken south of the north-west and north-east Caucasian languages ​​mainly north of the main north-west to south-east Caucasus ridge.

Some researchers combine the Northwest and Northeast Caucasus into a genetic unit called "North Caucasian". The hypothesis of a unity of all Caucasian languages, which was often held in the past, is hardly followed today. Recently, some scholars have even questioned the unity of the Northeast Caucasian languages ​​and split them up into a Nakh and a Dagestani family. This is followed by the classification of the Caucasian languages ​​according to the current state of research in the three language families South Caucasian , Northwest Caucasian and Northeast Caucasian .

The South Caucasian or Cartelian languages

The Northwest Caucasian or Abkhazian-Adygian languages

The Northeast Caucasian or Post-Dagestan languages

External relations of the Caucasian languages

If one assumes the existence of several genetically independent Caucasian language families, all hypotheses relating to a relationship between another language family and 'the Caucasian' as a whole can be ruled out from the outset. This means that 90% of all hypotheses and speculations about external genetic relationships in the Caucasian languages ​​could be rejected without further discussion. Nevertheless, at least some of the more important suggestions should be listed here in the form of a table to highlight the creativity that has been devoted to this subject over the past 150 years:

Researcher year Hypothesis - comparison of languages
F. Bopp 1847 Kartwelisch is Indo-European
F. Lenormant 1871 Urartian - Caucasian
H. Sayce 1882 Urartian - Caucasian
F. Hommel 1884 Alarodic - Caucasian
V. Thomsen 1899 Etruscan - Caucasian
A. Trombetti 1902 Afro-Asian - Caucasian
H. Winkler 1907 Elamish - Caucasian
NJ Marr 1908 Semitic - Kartvelian
H. Winkler 1909 Basque - Old Mediterranean - Caucasian
F. Bork 1924 Sumerian - Caucasian
R. Bleichsteiner 1930 Burushaski - Caucasian
E. Forrer et al. a. 1934 Hattisch - West Caucasian
R. Lafon 1934 Old Mediterranean - Caucasian
A. Pajazat 1936 Urartian - Sinotibetic - East Caucasian
K. Bouda 1949 Basque - Caucasian
K. Bouda 1950 Tibetan - Caucasian
A. Tovar 1950 Basque - Caucasian
R. Lafon 1951/52 Basque - Caucasian
K. Bouda 1952/54 Burushaski - Caucasian
J. Braun 1954 Urartian - Caucasian
OG Tailleur 1958 Basque - Yenisei - Caucasian
V. Illich-Svitych 1964ff Kartwelisch is nostratic
M. Cereteli 1966 Sumerian - Kartvelian
S. Mufti 1978 Indo-European - West Caucasian
IM Djakonov 1978 Hurricane-Urartian - East Caucasian
J. Braun 1981 Basque - Kartvelian
SA Starostin 1982 Yenisei - North Caucasian
SA Starostin 1984 Sino-Tibetan - Yenisei - North Caucasian
S. Nikolayev 1989 North Caucasian belongs to Dene-Caucasian

Klimov comments on most of these hypotheses: Characteristic features of the work mentioned are insufficient knowledge of the special literature, inaccurate recording of the material used, arbitrary structure of the lexemes, incorrect reconstruction of preforms, not infrequently also operating with non-Caucasian language material ... ( Lit .: Klimov, 1994).

The Basque-Caucasian hypothesis is also clearly rejected in the serious Caucasian (Vogt, Dumezil, Deeters) and Basque literature (Lacombe, Etxaide, Mitxelena), the Basque etymological lexicon by Löpelmann completely dispenses with Basque-Caucasian equations ( lit .: Löpelmann , 1968).

Hurrian and Urartian Northeast Caucasian?

Hurrian and Urartian were spoken in a wide area from Iraq to Syria to Turkey and Armenia. Their mutual kinship is now believed to have been confirmed, with both emerging from a common source. In 1978, IM Djakonov presented a paper on the relationship between Hurrian-Urartian (the genetic unit of which he had decisively proven) and the Northeast Caucasian languages. Some Hurrian-Northeast Caucasian equations by Djakonov (phonetically simplified, Cheet. = Chechen):

Hurrian meaning Northeast Caucasian meaning
it go id (chet.) to run
al-ay mistress Äla (chet.) Prince
ker long * q'är big old
xil speak * χil say
saw-ala year * šaw-n year
seri Day, evening seri (chet.) Eve

Today this hypothesis is not considered improbable, but also not yet confirmed. The approach seems promising, however, especially since the question should be clarified by further work on the Proto-Northeast Caucasian and the evaluation of inscription finds of the Urartian and Hurrian that have not been considered so far. This is especially true because in the Mitanni capital Washukanni, with the hoped-for rich inscription finds, it is only now beginning to investigate it in more depth and not just superficially as before.

Hattish Northwest Caucasian?

Hattic ( called hattili by the Hittites ) is the oldest documented language in Anatolia . Before the penetration of the Indo-European Hittites , Palaer and Luwians, their distribution area covered all of central and northern Anatolia to the Black Sea coast and parts of Cappadocia ; it is around 1500 BC Chr. Extinct as a spoken language.

Hattic is possibly related to the Northwest Caucasian languages ​​(Forrer 1934). However, the secured lexical knowledge of Hattic is so poor that no far-reaching conclusions can be drawn from it. Oguz Soysal comes to the conclusion in his investigation of the Hattischen that the put forward Hattisch-Caucasian word equations are "premature and wrong", since they had to be based mostly on incorrect readings, uncertain determination of the Hattic word stems, wrong or far-fetched semantic interpretations and miscommunications.

Hypothesis of the Nostratic and Dene-Caucasian macro families

Since 1964, Illich-Svitych and Dolgopolsky have been the main representatives of a so-called nostratic macro family, which is supposed to unite the language families Indo-European , Ural , Altaic , Kartvelian , Dravidian (and earlier also Afro-Asian ). A current representation is Dolgopolsky 1998 . This thesis is relevant for the Caucasian languages ​​insofar as the Kartwelic language should be part of this macro family . Dolgopolsky brings a total of 124 nostratic equations, of which only 32 contain Cartelian material, many of which are questionable for himself. As a rule, no reconstructed, Ur-Kartwelic forms are cited, but material from today's individual languages. It is therefore very understandable that most Caucasologists are skeptical or even negative about the nostratic hypothesis.

  • Dene-Caucasian macro family
  • Nostratic macro family
  • The majority of the rejection of the Sino-Caucasian macro family, which Starostin founded in 1984, is even tighter and clearer . He assumes a genetic relationship between the North Caucasian - understood as a unit - with the Siberian Yenisian and the Sinotibetic , based on his reconstructions of the respective proto-languages. This macro family was later expanded to include some ancient oriental components (Hurrian-Urartian, Hattish, etc.), Basque and Nikolajev in 1988 to add the North American Na-Dené languages to the Dene-Caucus macro family.

    The future will show whether and to what extent there is still potential for external relations between the Caucasian languages ​​in the Nostratic and Dene-Caucasian hypotheses.

    Common typological features

    Although a genetic association of all three language families is generally denied today, there are typological features that are common to all three families: The presence of ejective and uvular consonants and the grammatical phenomenon of ergativity . However, these common features can also be found in many other language groups and in the Caucasian languages ​​may be due to long-term language contact (see also area typology ).

    Alphabets for Caucasian languages

    Georgian alphabet

    With the Christianization of the Caucasus region in the 4th to 5th centuries, the native languages ​​of Armenia, Georgia and Caucasian Albania were recorded in specially developed scripts for the first time. For Georgian - by far the most important written Caucasian language - three scripts were developed in the following order: mrglovani (rounded) or asomtavruli (capital letters), nusxa-xucuri (church letters) and mxedruli (warlike). The former is no longer used today and the latter is only used in the liturgical area. Today Georgian is written in the youngest of the three scripts ( Mchedruli alphabet ). In addition, the Georgian script was also used for Avar until it was replaced by Arabic script in the 15th century .

    Alwan alphabet

    Based on written finds ( palimpsests ) of Christian texts in St. Catherine's Monastery on Sinai in the 1990s and less known remains of inscriptions (e.g. from Mingetschaur ) from the 3rd to 9th centuries in the area of ​​the former Christian Caucasus Kingdom of Albania , which was temporarily subject to Armenia (also called Alwan, Aluan or Aghwan), however, the oldest written Caucasian language is probably Alwan . It is very likely an early form of Udic and belongs to the Northeast Caucasian languages. The Alwan script was created on the basis of (problematic) Armenian traditions by Mesrop Maschtoz (362–440) and is believed to have been used until around the 11th century. The complete deciphering of this alphabet, which has not yet been fully completed, will certainly make an important contribution in the coming years to shedding light on the development of the Northeast Caucasian language and its relationships with other language families in the Caucasus and beyond.

    In June 2014, the font was included in the Unicode 7.0 standard as the Alvanic Unicode block (U + 10530 – U + 1056F).

    Abkhazian alphabets

    Abkhazian has a particularly complicated relationship between language and the script used for rendering . From 1862 a script developed especially for Abkhazian by the Russian Peter von Uslar was used. From 1909, another 55-character font was used, which was then replaced in 1926 by the more complex 75-character alphabet of the Georgian and Scotsman Nikolai Marr . Two years later, the Latin alphabet was introduced, followed by the Georgian alphabet in 1936–1938. Abkhazian has been written in Cyrillic script since 1954. The reintroduction of the Latin alphabet is currently being considered because of the obvious deficiencies in the reproduction of all Abkhazian sounds.

    More literacy

    In addition to these languages, ten more Caucasian languages ​​were developed into written languages, but all of them only in the 19th or 20th century. The Georgian alphabet as well as the Arabic , Hebrew (for Judeo-Georgian ), Latin and Cyrillic alphabet were used to write these languages .


    • Gerhard Deeters : Armenian and Caucasian languages. Handbook of Oriental Studies. Vol 7.1. Brill, Leiden 1963.
    • Adolf Dirr: Introduction to the study of the Caucasian languages. Asia Major, Leipzig 1928, 1978 (repr.).
    • Aharon Dolgopolsky: The Nostratic Macrofamily and Linguistic Palaeontology. The McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, Cambridge 1998. ISBN 0-9519420-7-7
    • Aharon Dolgopolsky, Vitaly Shevoroshkin (Ed.): Languages ​​and their speakers in ancient Eurasia. Dedicated to Professor Aharon Dolgopolsky on his 70th birthday. Canberra 2002. ISBN 0-9577251-3-2
    • George Hewitt: Introduction to the study of the languages ​​of the Caucasus . LINCOM EUROPA, Munich 2004. ISBN 3-89586-734-9
    • Ernst Kausen: The language families of the world. Part 1: Europe and Asia . Buske, Hamburg 2013, ISBN 3-87548-655-2 .
    • Georgij A. Klimov: Introduction to Caucasian Linguistics. Buske, Hamburg 1994. ISBN 3-87548-060-0
    • Martin Löpelmann: Etymological dictionary of the Basque language. Dialects of Labourd, Lower Navarre and La Soule. 2 vols. Berlin 1968.
    • Vitaly Shevoroshkin: Nostratic, Dene-Caucasian, Austric, and Amerind. First International Interdisciplinary Symposium on Language and Prehistory. Ann Arbor Me. 1988. Brockmeyer, Bochum 1992. ISBN 3-8196-0032-9

    Standard works with descriptions of individual languages in the series The Indigenous Languages ​​of the Caucasus :

    • Alice C. Harris: The Kartvelian Languages. Volume 1. Caravan Books, Delmar NY 1991. ISBN 0-88206-068-6
    • BGHewitt: The North West Caucasian Languages. Volume 2. Caravan Books, Delmar NY 1989. ISBN 0-88206-069-4
    • Michael Job: The North East Caucasian Languages. Volume 3. Part 1. Caravan Books, Ann Arbor MI 2004. ISBN 0-88206-070-8
    • Rieks Smeets: The North East Caucasian Languages. Volume 4. Part 2. Caravan Books, Delmar NY 1994. ISBN 0-88206-081-3

    Web links

    Individual evidence

    1. Indo-European languages ​​| Definition, map, characteristics, & facts. Accessed August 26, 2020 (English).
    2. ^ Oguz Soysal: Hattic vocabulary in Hittite textual tradition . Suffering u. a. 2004, p. 30
    3. Unicode 7.0.0. Unicode Consortium, June 16, 2014, accessed June 17, 2014 .