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Caucasian languages

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Subject: Cyrillic script, Ergative case, Evliya Çelebi, Demographics of Russia, Caucasus, Kurdish languages, Abessive case, List of linguists, Pontus, Schwa
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Caucasian languages

The languages of the Caucasus are a large and extremely varied array of languages spoken by more than ten million people in and around the Caucasus Mountains, which lie between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea.

Linguistic comparison allows these languages to be classified into several language families, with little or no discernible affinity to each other.

Families indigenous to the Caucasus

Three of these families have no current members outside the Caucasus, and are considered indigenous to the area. The term Caucasian languages is generally restricted to these families, which are spoken by about 11.2 million people.

  • Northwest Caucasian, also called the Abkhaz–Adyghe, Circassian, or Pontic family, with a total of about 2.5 million speakers. Includes the Kabardian language, with one million speakers.

It is commonly believed that all Caucasian languages have a large number of consonants. While this is certainly true for most members of the Northwest and Northeast Caucasian families (inventories range up to the 80–84 consonants of Ubykh), the consonant inventories of the South Caucasian languages are not nearly as extensive, ranging from 28 (Georgian) to 30 (Laz) – comparable to languages like Arabic (28 consonants), Western European languages (20–21), and Russian (35–37 consonants).

The autochthonous languages of the Caucasus share some areal features, such as the presence of ejective consonants and a highly agglutinative structure, and, with the sole exception of Mingrelian, all of them exhibit a greater or lesser degree of ergativity. Many of these features are shared with other languages that have been in the Caucasus for a long time, such as Ossetian.

External relations

Since the birth of comparative linguistics in the 19th century, the riddle of the apparently isolated Caucasian language families has attracted the attention of many scholars, who have endeavored to relate them to each other or to languages outside the Caucasus region. The most promising proposals are connections between the Northwest and Northeast Caucasian families and each other or with languages formerly spoken in Anatolia and northern Mesopotamia.

North Caucasian languages

Linguists such as Sergei Starostin see the Northwest (Abkhaz–Adyghe) and Northeast (Nakh-Dagestanian) families as related and propose uniting them in a single North Caucasian family, sometimes called Caucasic or simply Caucasian. This theory excludes the South Caucasian languages, thereby proposing two indigenous language families. While these two families share many similarities, their morphological structure, with many morphemes consisting of a single consonant, make comparison between them unusually difficult, and it has not been possible to establish a genetic relationship with any certainty.

Ibero-Caucasian languages

There are no known affinities between the South Caucasian and North Caucasian families. Nevertheless, some scholars have proposed the single name Ibero-Caucasian for all the Caucasian language families, North and South, in an attempt to unify the Caucasian languages under one family.


Some linguists have claimed affinities between the Northwest Caucasian (Circassian) family and the extinct Hattic language of central Anatolia. See the article on Northwest Caucasian languages for details.


Alarodian is a proposed connection between Northeast Caucasian and the extinct Hurro-Urartian languages of Anatolia.

Dené–Caucasian macrofamily

Linguists such as Sergei Starostin have proposed a Dené–Caucasian macrofamily, which includes the North Caucasian languages together with Basque, Burushaski, Na-Dené, Sino-Tibetan, and Yeniseian. This proposal is rejected by most linguists.

Families with wider distribution

Other languages historically and currently spoken in the Caucasus area can be placed into families with a much wider geographical distribution.


The predominant Indo-European language in the Caucasus is Armenian, spoken by the Armenians (circa 4 million speakers). The Ossetians, speaking the Ossetian language, form another group of around 700,000 speakers. Other Indo-European languages spoken in the Caucasus include Pontic Greek, Persian, Kurdish, Talysh, Judeo-Tat, Bukhori and the Slavic languages, such as Russian and Ukrainian, whose speakers number over a third of the total population of the Caucasus.


The Kalmyk language, spoken by descendants of Oirat-speakers from East Asia, is a Mongolic language.


Two dialects of Neo-Aramaic are spoken in the Caucasus: Assyrian Neo-Aramaic, with around 30,000 speakers, and Bohtan Neo-Aramaic, with around 1,000 speakers. These were brought to the Caucasus by people fleeing Ottoman persecution during World War One.

A dialect of Arabic known as Shirvani Arabic was spoken natively in parts of Azerbaijan and Dagestan throughout medieval times until the early 20th century.[1][2] In the nineteenth century, it was considered that the best literary Arabic was spoken in the mountains of Dagestan.[3]

North Caucasian resentment of the Russians for robbing them of their national history is doubled for the Daghestanis by the forced loss of their Arabic patrimony. In the nineteenth century, it was considered that the best literary Arabic was spoken in the mountains of Daghestan. Daghestani Arabist scholars were famous, attracting students from the whole Muslim world. The lingua franca in Daghestan before the Revolution was Arabic. Then, in the 1920s and 1930s, the main thrust of the anti-religious campaign, was to eradicate Arabic, a religious language, and replace it with Russian. The finest flower of Arabist scholarship disappeared in Stalin's purges.[3]


Several Turkic languages are spoken in the Caucasus. Of these, Azerbaijani is predominant, with around 9 million speakers in Azerbaijan. Other Turkic languages spoken include Karachay-Balkar, Kumyk, Nogai, Turkish, and Turkmen.


External links

  • Caucasian Languages (North and South) Academic Mailing List, run by the Ravenscraig Press
  • Map of the Languages of the Caucasus
  • TITUS: Caucasian languages Ecling
  • CIA ethnolinguistic map
  • language-family map by Matthew Dryer
  • Caucausian section of the Red Book of the Peoples of the Russian Empire
  • The Iberian-Caucasian Connection in a Typological Perspective – An in-depth linguistic study of Basque, Georgian, and other ergative languages, concluding that the similarities are not strong enough to prove a genetic link.
  • Atlas of the Caucasian Languages with very detailed Language Guide (by Yuri B. Koryakov)
  • V. V. Ivanov
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