In praise of human variety

Xenophilia opening page remarks


Publications by Guy Ottewell



Caucasia: the Mountain of Tongues

Caucasia is a thick band of country, an isthmus five hundred miles wide, set on a slant between the Black and Caspian Seas and between Europe and Asia. It is a sandwich of mountain and valley. On the north is the towering range called Caucasus or, in Russian, Kavkaz (whose crest is conventionally regarded as the Europe-Asia boundary); in the middle, the deep trench of Transcaucasia; on the south, the Armenian mountains (sometimes called the Little Caucasus).

In Caucasia, and especially in the Caucasus range itself, most of all along its northern side, is an amazing mosaic of amazing languages.

There are around fifty of them. Three are "large" languages, spoken by several million people: these are Georgian, Armenian, and Azeri. Azeri, or Azerbaijani, came into the area relatively recently, around the ninth century A.D., with the waves of Turkic people who migrated from the east; it is a Turkic language, like the Osmanli Turkish of Turkey and like Turkmen, Uzbek, Kirgiz, Uygur, and other languages of central Asia. Armenian is an Indo-European language; that is, it belongs to the huge family that includes English, German, French, Spanish, Latin, Greek, Russian, Persian, Sanskrit, and many more; it has been in the region from around the seventh century B.C., though until recent times its area stretched farther south, into what is now Turkey. And there are in Caucasia other languages of the Turkic family (Kumyk, Karachai, Nogai, Balkar) and of the Indo-European family (Ossetic, Tat or "Mountain Jewish", and the language of the colonizing Russians).

We'll leave all these aside. When we talk about the Caucasian languages (some say "Paleocaucasian", that is, "ancient Caucasian"), we mean Georgian together with the many others that were apparently born there, the little languages spoken along the flanks of the high Caucasus.

It was a protracted struggle for scholars to puzzle out the relationships of these languages—because they are so many; because they have been in place from such remote prehistoric times that their differences have grown deep; and because they were hard of access in their mountain fastnesses. Also because their speakers are tough independent people who in some cases (such as the Chechens) are famous for non-cooperation—to say the least—with intruders. (Russia annexed Georgia and Azerbaijan before managing to subdue the mountain people behind them.) Finally, because these languages are so damn difficult.

In this rugged country, some languages are confined to a single valley, high among the glaciers, or a single village. The consensus is that the languages can be sorted into two families. There have been efforts to reduce them to a single family by finding a deep connection between them, but it has remained unproven. A possible classification of them looks something like this. (I don't know whether you enjoy classifications; I'm addicted to them.)

North Caucasian or Ibero-Caucasian
— West Caucasian
— — Abkhazan
— — — Abkhaz
— — — Abaza or Abazin
— — Adygean or Circassian
— — — Adyge or Cherkess
— — — — Shapsug
— — — — Cherkess
— — — — Adyge or Adgei
— — — Kabard or Kebertei or Upper Cherkess
— — Ubykh (now spoken only by a few families in Turkey)
— East Caucasian
— — Nakh
— — — Veinakh
— — — — Chechen or Noxcijn, including Akki and Kist
— — — — Ingush or Ghalghai
— — — Bats or Batsbiy or Ts'ova-Tush (one village)
— — Avaro-Ando-Dido or Avar-Andi-Tsez branch
— — — Avar or Maarulal
— — — Andi group
— — — — Andi
— — — — Botlikh, Godoberi
— — — — Karata
— — — — Bagulal
— — — — Tindi
— — — — Chamalal
— — — — Akhvakh
— — — Dido or Tsez group
— — — — Khvarshi
— — — — Dido
— — — — Kapucha, Khunzal, Ginukh
— — — — Bezheta or Bezhta
— — Lakk
— — — Lakk or Lak or Kasi-Kumuk or Ghazi-Qumuq
— — — Dargwa
— — — — Dargin or Dargwa or Khjurkili
— — — — Kaitak or Kaidak
— — — — Kubachi
— — Dargi
— — Lezgian
— — — Archi (one village)
— — — Samurian
— — — — Lezgin or Kuri or Kyurin
— — — — Agul
— — — — Rutul
— — — — Tsakhur
— — — — Tabasaran
— — — — Budukh
— — — — Dzhek
— — — Shah Dagh
— — — — 3 languages, including Hinalug
— — — Udi (two villages
South Caucasian or Kartvelian
— Svan or Svanetian
— Georgian-Zan
— — Zan
— — — Laz or Ch'an
— — — Mingrelian
— — Georgian or Gruzin, with its dialects:
— — — Kartlian, Kakhetian, Ingilo, Imeretian, Gurian,
— — — Adzhar, Pshav, Tush, Khevsur, Racha, Lechkhum

The number of languages was even greater in earlier times. The ancient Greeks knew the coast of Georgia as Colchis, the half-mythical land famous for the Golden Fleece and the sorceress Medea. Inland lay a country they called Iberia (not to be confused with the western Iberia which is Spain and Portugal). Strabo (in his Geography, written about 10 B.C.) said that traders from seventy peoples, all speaking their own languages, used to gather at the port which is now Sukhumi. Pliny the Elder in his Natural History (A.D. 77) said that Romans traveling on business to Colchis had to use eighty interpreters.

Arab geographical writers of the Middle Ages had a wonderfully relishable name for the Caucasus: Jabal ul-Alsinah, "the Mountain of Tongues". (Alsinah is the Arabic "broken plural" of lisn, "tongue", which is the cousin of the Hebrew lashon.)

What's so especially difficult about the Caucasian languages? Consonants. This applies more to the North Caucasian languages, and most of all to the Western ones. In the first place, there are so many different consonants. English has 24 consonant sounds; some Polynesian languages have as few as 6; the Caucasian languages go to the other extreme. One, Ubykh, has 80—perhaps the world's record except for some Bushman languages of southern Africa, which have dozens of consonants of the kind called "clicks" (one of those languages, !Xu, has 48 clicks and 47 non-click consonants). The Caucasian languages tend to have many differing consonants of the l and k types.

(How can there be "different kinds of l"? For a speaker of English, where there is only one significant kind, this may be hard to imagine, rather as someone from England, where there is one kind of oak, is surprised to find that in the United States there are eighty-five. Well, for example the ll in Welsh names, such as Llangollen, represents an l that is voiceless or "breathed". And listen to the "clear" l in lick and the "dark" l in milk: in Polish these are different phonemes, or distinctive sounds. There are many more ways to vary an l.)

In the second place, the Caucasian consonants are often in contact, with no vowels between them. Think of the English word strengths, which has three consonants followed by a vowel followed by three more consonants (written as five letters); or such sequences as guests drink or hundreds strong or waxed splendid, with four or five or six consonants in a row (stsdr, dzstr, kstspl); or Which thrift shop?, where the sequence tsh is a single "affricate" consonant in one place (written ch) and two consonants in another; or Shakespeare's "unripp'dst" (in Richard III, act I, scene iv).* This can seem uncouth to speakers of Spanish, who do not start any word with s-plus-consonant, or speakers of many other languages who separate almost all their consonants with vowels. Indeed, English-speakers drop plenty of their vowels in natural speech. (I heard a British operatic singer—of whom one might expect clear enunciation—say on the radio prfeshnl pfomns—"professional performance".)

But some of the Caucasian languages far outdo English or German in consonant-piling. Whole words can be composed of consonants, such as Georgian mghwdl, "priest". Six or more consonants may be in contact, and P. J. Hillery (in an online grammar, http://www.armazi.com/georgian) gives these examples of word-initial clusters: mts'vrtneli, "trainer", and gvprtskvni, "you are peeling us". What is most impressive of all to a linguist is that often each one of the consonants is not only a separate phoneme (unit of sound) but also a separate morpheme (unit of meaning, like the un-, load, -ing, and -s in English unloadings). Often the root of a verb is a single consonant.**

And Caucasian languages are rich with other complexities. In some, there are up to six "genders", but whereas in Latin you can usually (not always) tell that a word meaning "woman" or ending in -a is feminine, in these languages you cannot tell from either a word's meaning or its form which gender it belongs to, and it may even belong to one gender when it is singular, another when plural; but you have to know, in order to know which of several consonants to add to neighboring adjectives or verbs as prefix, suffix, or infix. The Tabasaran language has 35 cases. Verbs have a wealth of forms whose differences of meaning are hard to define in other languages. There are hosts of special words for ideas such as "five days ago" (with no similarity to the word for "five").

Linguists, that is, those who study languages scientifically, generally maintain that one language is not inherently more difficult than another to learn. Its apparent difficulty is merely proportional to its distance from the learner's language; English is as difficult for a Japanese-speaker to learn as Japanese is for an English-speaker. And certainly it is not difficult for its own speakers to learn as children. In the case of the Caucasian languages, even linguists have been known to waver from this coolly scientific doctrine!

The world has at least three thousand human languages, perhaps four thousand. (Or more; it depends on the very often uncertain distinction of languages versus dialects. Is Chinese eight languages, or a language with eight major dialects?) In earlier times there may have been several times as many languages. Linguists have gradually sorted the languages into "families". A language family is something that started as one language and gradually differentiated into dialects which became separate languages. The number of families that have been recognized is in the hundreds. More recently, linguists have discovered deeper connections between families. The extreme of this tendency is the school of thought represented by the scholar Joseph Greenberg. He suggested at the conclusion of his study of Language in the Americas (1987) that the world has as few as fifteen "major language stocks"—here is his list:

North Caucasian
Khartvelian [sic] (South Caucasian)

—with the addition of some single languages for which no relation is known at all: Basque (at the corner of Spain and France), Ket (in central Siberia), Burushaski (in northern Kashmir), and some languages of the Middle East long extinct but preserved by writing, such as Sumerian and Elamite.

A striking thing about Greenberg's list of major stocks is that they are all very major indeed, except for two. Except for two, they cover or once covered large fractions of continents (such as Dravidian of southern India, or Khoisan of southern Africa), or whole continents (such as Australian), or straddle two continents (such as Amerind, in South and most of North America). "Euroasiatic" is Greenberg's name for a truly enormous family in which he links our Indo-European with the families that contain Finnish, Magyar, Turkish, Mongolian, Korean, Japanese, Ainu, and Eskimo. Afro-Asiatic is the family containing what used to be thought of as the separate families of Semitic, Berber, Ancient Egyptian, and the languages of the Horn of Africa. Sino-Tibetan includes Chinese, Tibetan, Burmese, and many others. Austronesian is the vast spread of Polynesian and Melanesian and Malay and Madagascan languages. And so on.

The two exceptions are North Caucasian and South Caucasian.

In other words, all the surviving languages of all the continents may be descended from just a few ancestral languages, of which a large fraction—two out of fifteen—came from and are still almost confined to the relatively tiny region of Caucasia.

This probably does not mean that one ancestral language sprang up in each huge area—Africa, Australia, the plains of Eurasia, and so on—and just two of them close together in Caucasia. Rather, it means that as some languages spread and differentiated, many other languages and whole families disappeared without descendants, long before the dawn of history. But in rugged Caucasia two of them without spreading held stubbornly on.

Caucasia is a treasure-mountain of tongues.

The Russian empire gradually conquered the Caucasian peoples from the 1780s onward. Wars of rebellion against Russian rule raged from the 1830s to the early 1860s. The Circassians, who then extended along the coast northwestward toward the Crimea as well as into the plains north of the Caucasus, fought a prolonged Russian-Circassian War, which the Russians ended by scorched-earth and massacre. Up to two million, mostly Circassians, fled into Turkey and other parts of the Middle East then under the Ottoman Turkish empire, so that communities called "Circassian" (whether purely Circassian or not) are to be found in Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Egypt, and New Jersey. Amman almost owes its existence to Circassian settlers, and its first mayors were Circassian. Under the French Mandate of Syria there was a proposal to create a Circassian homeland in the Golan Heights. Back in the Caucasus there was another attempt at independence from Russia after World War One.

A Georgian, Joseph Djugashvili, taking the name of Stalin, became dictator of the Soviet Union; yet his policy was to homogenize or obliterate ethnic minorities by mixing and moving them. He falsely accused whole Caucasian groups of collaborating with the German invaders of Russia, and ordered the deportation of whole peoples—all of the Chechen, Ingush, Karachai, Balkar, Kalmyk, and the Meskhetian Georgians. (As well as, from other parts of Russia, the Crimean Tartars and the Volga Germans.) In February of 1944—the middle of winter—400,000 Chechens were herded like cattle into freight trains, in such clothes as they were wearing, without food or water, and taken far northeast to the bitterly cold wastes of Kazakhstan and Siberia. There they had to try to stay alive in open dugouts, under conditions of hard labor and the hostility of neighbors, who had been told they were bandits. A quarter of the Chechens died over the next four years. It was there that later Chechen independence leaders were born, such as Aslan Maskhadov (murdered in 2005). Meanwhile in their homeland their names were deleted from maps and streets, their graveyards destroyed, and their lands taken by other relocated people or by Russian settlers. In 1957 they were allowed back, to a re-established Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Republic, facing the inevitable land disputes and even some massacres by the settlers, who later began to depart.

It is fairly clear why Chechens and others are disinclined to trust their fate to Russia.

In 1991 the Soviet Union dissolved, and Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan became separate nations, but the territories of the smaller peoples remained inside Russia. Post-communist Russia, plagued by declining social conditions and rising crime, found a scapegoat in "Caucasian mafias". "Caucasian appearance", "person of Caucasian nationality", became racist terms used as weapons of discrimination. People from Caucasia became forbidden to settle or trade in Moscow; more than thirty thousand were expelled. At the same time, the Caucasus having become again Russia's southern frontier, Russian troops were posted there in increasing numbers. The Chechen, the most numerous of the Caucasian peoples after the Georgians, Azeris, and Armenians, and long the most independence-minded, tried to secede; the result was two of the most brutal wars of repression. Russia under president Yeltsin invaded in 1994, was expelled in 1996, and in 1997 signed a treaty of peace and friendship with Maskhadov, the freely elected Chechen president, rejecting "for ever the use of force or threat of force". But in 1999 Putin, the month after becoming president, launched the second war, imposed a puppet government, and continued to reduce Chechnya to ruins. Maskhadov, the moderate, was assassinated in 2005. Many Russians seem able to combine a dislike of Caucasians with an unwillingness to let them go.

Meanwhile the Southern Ossetians and the Abkhaz, provoked by Georgian repression, split from Georgia. Armenians and Azerbaijanis went to war over their enclaves inside each other's territory (enclaves created by Stalin in order to weaken ethnic cohesion). Even the Armenians, despite their own sufferings at the hands of neighbors, disdain their own small fascinating minorities, the Molokan and Dukhobor Christians driven out of Russia and the Kurds of the rare Yezidi religion. And so on. Minorities oppress sub-minorities: the Kists of north Georgia beat and drive out their Ossetians. The jewels are not yet alive to each other's jewelhood.


* Or this from John Fowles, The French Lieutenant's Woman, chapter 33: "her betrothed's chastened bride" (dhdztsh). Writers of a literature that is no longer primarily spoken may fall into phrases that cannot be spoken aloud! But Caucasian-speakers manage such consonant-sequences all the time. (The same novel, by the way, is rife with sentences almost impossible to read aloud because of parentheses injected into their middles.)

** There are rivals to Caucasian in consonant-packing. Of Salish-Pend-d'Oreille, a language of the Salishan group, in Montana, Sarah Grey Thomason says in Natural History, December 2007, "The language has no detectable limits on the number of consonants that can occur in a row, so that there are marvelous words like Ta qesm'l'm'l'cstmstxw ("Don't play with it!")  . . . "