Languages of the Caucasus
By: Giustina Selvelli
The Caucasus is a fascinating area from many points of view, embodying a primary strategical passage to between Europe and Asia.
The specific geographical and morphological features of its territories, in particular its high mountains, have played a crucial role also in the preservation of linguistic diversity, and this is why it has been defined as “the mountain of tongues."
It is a well deserved name, known since ancient times for this peculiarity, even mentioned by Strabo, Herodotus and Pliny the Elder.
At least 40 different languages are spoken in the wide Caucasus region, that are at the intersection of several language families, by not less than 50 distinct nations and ethnic communities.
Among the Indo-European languages, we find Russian, Armenian and Ossetian (possibly a descendant of the extinct Scythian, Sarmatian and Alanic languages) but also Farsi, Kurdish, Talysh, Pontic Greek and Ukrainian.
Among the Turkic languages, a prominent role is occupied by Azeri, followed by Karachai-Balkar, Nogay and Kumyk, as well as others.
We also find examples of tongues coming from the Semitic language family, such as Assyrian, Arabic, and, maybe surprisingly, even of the Mongolian one, with Kalmyk spoken in the “Buddhist” Republic of Kalmykia.
Furthermore, most interestingly, there are three language families that can be considered specifically “autochthonous,” as they are exclusively found in the Caucasus region.
The Northwest Caucasian language family includes languages such as Abkhaz, Abaz, Adyghe, Kabardian – both these also named “Circassian” - and Ubykh, now extinct, which used to have 84 consonants and two vowels.
All of the above languages are written with the Cyrillic Script. Secondly, there is the Kartvelian language family, which comprises Georgian, Mingrelian, Svan, all written with the Georgian alphabet.
Finally, we have the Northeast Caucasian one (or Nackh-Dagestanian), to which Chechen, Ingush, Avar, Dargwa, Lezgian, Lak and Tabasaran belong, all written in the Cyrillic alphabet as well.
Some of the languages of these three Caucasian families have been included in the Unesco Atlas of Endangered languages, with their status appearing as “threatened” or “highly endangered”.
By virtue of the multiplicity of languages present, the area can be compared to Papua New Guinea or some parts of the Amazon in terms of linguistic diversity density, where, in contrast to this area’s mountains, it is the thickness of the jungle to provide refuge to the small ethnicities and their languages against the more powerful ones.
For what concerns the distribution and density of tongues, it is important to remind that greater diversity is found in the North Caucasus than in the South Caucasus.
The Republic of Dagestan, whose territory corresponds in size more or less to that of Slovakia (little more than 50,000 km²), and with a population of almost 3 million people, can be considered the most linguistically diverse of the Northern Caucasus Republics (consisting of Karachay-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Adygea, Chechnya, Ingushetia and North Ossetia).
As a matter of fact, Dagestan is home to an impressive number of languages, with over 30 being recognized in the republic.
This explains why linguists have always had particular interest in studying this area of the world, researching both the specific, peculiar features of the tongues that are spoken (many of them considered among the most difficult in the world to master), and the reasons contributing to the preservation of linguistic diversity.
The majority of languages spoken in this Russian republic belong to the North-East Caucasian (Nakh-Dagestanian) language family, followed by three Turkic languages (Kumyk, Nogai, Azerbaijani) and two Indo-European languages (Tat and Russian).
Classical Arabic constituted the main lingua franca in Dagestan in the 18th Century, followed in the 19th, by a dialect of Avar, Kunzakh (representing the basis of the literary language Bolmats), as well as the Turkic Kumyk, which was widely used in the Northern part of the Caucasus.
For many decaded, the main lingua franca in the Republic of Dagestan has been Russian. This comes as no surprise, as the territory has been under the Russian Empire first, the the Soviet Union, and is part of the Russian Federation now.
However, during the years from 1917 to 1921, the Mountainous Republic of the Northern Caucasus existed, a political entity embracing the territories of Dagestan, Chechnya and Ingushetia which declared independence from Russia and was recognized by major world powers such as Germany, United States, the Ottoman Empire, Austro-Hungary and Italy.
After the Russians attacked the territory and occupied it in 1921, the Republic was dissolved and incorporated into the Soviet Union.
The establishment of Russian as a lingua franca in the 1920s-1930s led to a drastic decrease in the use and command of local tongues.
An important fact regards the aspect of literacy: many of the languages spoken in the area, written in the Arabic script, were forced from 1927-8 to undergo a process of “Latinization”, corresponding to a specific ideology of “Modernization” supported by Soviet authorities.
The aim was to suppress the use of the traditional Arabic alphabet, perceived as backward and strictly connected to the power of the Islamic clergy.
However, the alphabet was then changed again in 1938, with Stalin’s new policy of “Cyrillization”.
This writing system is still used nowadays for all of the languages of Dagestan, with the exception of Kumyk, which has been experiencing an attempt to return to the Latin alphabet since 2015.
Not only does the Russian language serves as the lingua franca in Dagestan, it also acts as the language of communication and national administration.
In accordance with the Constitution of the Republic of Dagestan of 1994, 14 languages are official in the country, also having a literary standard: Russian, Aghul, Avar, Azerbaijani, Chechen, Dargwa, Kumyk, Lak, Lezgian, Nogai, Rutul, Tabasaran, Tat, Tsakhur.
Eighteen other local languages are unwritten and have no official status. The eagle depicted on the coat of arms of the Republic of Dagestan has seven feathers one each wing, to symbolize the 14 official languages of the country.
In 2014, Ramazan Abdulatipov, then head of state, tried to promote a language policy aimed at making all 32 languages official languages.
Such proposal can be interpreted as an attempt to contrast phenomena of language loss due to the priority given to dominant languages, through a focus on the idea of revitalization of local linguistic and cultural heritage.
However, the proposal was unsuccessful, and we can assess that the traditional neighbour multilingualism of the past appears to be quite endangered in this republic.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, over 20 languages of Dagestan have been declared by UNESCO as endangered.
To add complexity to the picture, we can remind that Azeri is also widely used in the Southeast Caspian region around the city of Derbent, and that literacy in Arabic is attested in different parts of Dagestan.
Northeast Caucasian Languages of Dagestan
Let us now have a look at the most spoken languages in Dagestan belonging to the Northeast Caucasian family.
The Avar language, with around 890,000 speakers (subdivided into 17 sub-groups, each speaking their own dialect), serves as the second lingua franca after Russian between the different ethnic groups.
This language, spoken by the largest ethnic group in Dagestan (almost 30% of the total population), mainly concentrated in the Western part of the Republic, has a very long literary tradition dating back to the 17th century, or even earlier, with claims stating that there were attempts to write Avar with the Georgian alphabet already in the 14-15th centuries.
An important cultural institution related to this ethnic group is the Music and Drama Avar Theater in Makhachkala, devoted to performances of works in the native language.
The Lak language is spoken by about 161,000 people mainly in the central part of the Republic and is employed in education in many elementary schools, being also taught as a subject in secondary schools, vocational schools and universities.
Dargwa is the language of the Dargin, Kaitaks and Kubachi people, mainly inhabiting the Central Dagestan highlands.
The Akusha dialect constitutes the basis of the Dargin literary language, which has been attested since the late 19th Century, written with the Arabic script. According to the 2010 Census, there are around 490,000 speakers of Dargwa in Dagestan.
Lezgian, also called Lezgi or Lezgin, is a language spoken by around 385,000 in Southern Dagestan. The Lezgian literary language was established in the late 19th century on the basis of the Kurin dialect. The Lezgin people also speak this language in Northern Azerbaijan.
Tabasaran is spoken by around 118,000 people in Southern Dagestan, part of the wider Lezgic branch.
The Tabasaran literary language was established only in Soviet times, in 1932, as a strategy to counteract possible “Turkification” by the Azerbaijanis. The language is often cited by linguist as the one with the largest number of grammatical cases, amounting to 54.
The Udi language, spoken by only a few thousand people in Dagestan, is also member of the Lezgi branch. It is considered the successor of the language spoken in the old Caucasian Albanian Empire, which comprised territories from south Dagestan to current day Azerbaijan.
The old Caucasian Albanian language used the so-called Caucasian Albanian alphabet, created in the 5th Century most likely by the Armenian monk and linguist Mesrop Mashtots, with 52 different letters (many resembling other alphabets, such as Georgian, Ethiopian and Armenian), and used until the 10th Century.
Nowadays, the Udi language is written with the Cyrillic alphabet in Dagestan and with the Latin one in Azerbaijan.
According to the 2010 Census, Chechens make up around 95% of the Republic’s population, followed by Russians, Kumyks, Ingush, Ukranians and Armenians. Two languages are official in Chechnya: Chechen and Russian.
The Chechen language, as the above-mentioned languages of Dagestan, belongs to the Northeast Caucasian family. Chechen It is part of the Vaynakh branch, which also includes Ingush (with which there is a high level of mutual intelligibility) and Batsb.
Similarly to most autochthonous Caucasian languages, Chechen presents a large number of consonants, amounting to 40 or even 60, according to the specific dialect.
A reformed Arabic alphabet for writing the Chechen language was adopted in the 19th Century, and this was later modernized in 1910, 1920, and 1922, until the Latin script was imposed by Soviet authorities in 1925, followed by the Cyrillic one in 1938.
Interestingly, in the second part of the 19th Century, Russian linguist and ethnographer Peter von Uslar devised a “mixed” writing system for the Chechen language, consisting of Cyrillic, Latin, and Georgian characters, to be used for academic purposes.
This was later modernized in 1911 but did not succeed in becoming popular among the Chechens. In 1992, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was the attempt of introducing a new Latin Chechen alphabet by the local government, but the Cyrillic alphabet was later restored after the defeat of the secessionists.
During Soviet times, Russian was the only language employed for educational purposes in this region of the North Caucasus, and this has led to a loss of prestige in the status of Chechen.
Even nowadays, in their every day life, Chechens often use a mixture of Chechen and Russian, and resort to vocabulary from the latter.
As a result, many Chechens do not have a perfect competence of their mother tongue. Some years ago, UNESCO included Chechen on its list of endangered languages.
The lower status of Chechen can be deducted by looking at the linguistic landscape of the Chechen capital, Grozny, where all official signs (street names, road signs, cultural and scientific institutions, etc) appear to be in Russian language exclusively.
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