The Abkhaz Language
Updated: Dec 18, 2019
By: Giustina Selvelli
About the Abkhaz Language
The Abkhaz language (Aàpswa) is part of the North West Caucasian language family, an autochthonous group of languages which includes four branches: Abkhaz, Abaza, Circassian and Ubykh (now extinct).
The Abkhaz people are closely related ethnically and linguistically to the Abaza (or Abazins), and before the Bolshevik Revolution, they were considered one single people.
The Abkhaz language is subdivided into three closely related dialects: Abzhui, or Abzhywa (the central dialect) spoken in the basin of the Kodor River; Bzyb (or Bzyb-Guduat), which is the Northern dialect, present in the basin of the Bzyb River; and Samurzakan, the Southern dialect spoken in the area of the Inguri River, which shows the influence of the Mingrelian (Kartvelian) language.
Another dialect, Sadz, was formerly spoken in the Western part of Abkhazia but now only survives as the variant of the diaspora in Turkey.
From a phonetic point of view, the Bzyp dialect can be regarded as the most archaic one, while the Abzhywa is the most simplified one.
Similarly to many autochthonous Caucasian languages, Abkhaz is characterized by the presence of unusual consonant clusters and stands out as one of the languages having the smallest vowel inventory in the entire world: indeed, only two distinctive vowels are found in this language, an open vowel /a/ and a mid vowel /ə/, which, however, have many allophones in relation to their proximity to specific consonant sounds.
Furthermore, the consonant inventory is also impressive but for the opposite reason: up to 67 consonants appear, such as in the Bzyp dialect. For this, it is considered one of the most difficult languages in the world to learn.
As stated by eminent Russian linguist Trubetzkoy: «From the linguistic point of view, [Abkhaz] is the most difficult language, and the least harmonious from all over the Caucasus».
First Documentation of the Abkhaz Language
The earliest attestation of these language is found in a short list of phrases and words included in Seyahatnâme, the famous work of the 17th century Ottoman traveller Evliya Çelebi, himself of Abkhazian origin (from his mother’s side).
In the section devoted to the exploration of this Caucasian region, Çelebi indeed mentions the «lisān-i ՙacīb u garīb-i Abāza», i.e. «the strange and peculiar language of the Abaza».
Another interesting travel book mentioning the Abkhaz language dates back to the second half of the 19th Century and was written by Belgian traveller Carla Serena, who visited Abkhazia in 1876 and 1881.
The stereotype of Abkhaz as a “savage language” emerges in her book «Excursion au Samourzakan et en Abkasie», published in 1882 in Paris.
Serena shares her views and impressions on this language, commenting the fact that this language does not have a written form, is not intelligible to the other populations living in the surrounding areas and that appears like «a set of guttural or whistling sounds».
Furthermore, she adds that Abkhaz has very few words, a fact that would correspond in her opinion to a sign of extreme poverty in the ideas and needs of this population.
The first serious studies and attempts to write down this language date from the mid-19th century.
In 1887, the first Abkhaz Grammar (Ėtnografija Kavkaza I), was published in Tbilisi, written by Russian linguist and Caucasiologist Baron Peter von Uslar.
Later works by eminent linguist include Nikolaj Marr’s Abkhaz dictionary (Abxazsko-russkij slovar’), appeared in Leningrad in 1926.
History of the Abkhaz Language
Historically, the population of the territory corresponding to what is now the unrecognized country of Abkhazia was always exposed to a variety of linguistic and cultural influences, as their lands were the meeting point of many ancient trade roads.
For this reason, multilingualism has been a distinctive feature in the daily language practices of the locals.
For centuries, Abkhaz has been in contact with Megrelian, a Kartvelian language spoken in the South, and consequently we find many loanwords from this language, including Georgian words entered via Megrelian.
Older contacts with other autochthonous populations inhabiting the area, such as Circassians and Alans (old Ossetians), as well as later ones with Ottoman Turks have also left an impact on the vocabulary.
Russian loans are the most recent, and Russian still represents the source-language for the creation of modern terminology, although a new trend of de-Russification can be observed since the declaration of independence in 1993.
The Abkhazians, together with the speakers of the other North-West Caucasian languages, used to inhabit the area of North-Western Caucasus in a compact way until 1864, the year when the Russian Empire conquered the area and inaugurated a series of mass murders and massacres (known as the “Circassian Genocide”, and forced the majority the population to leave their homeland to settle in the territories of the Ottoman Empire (mainly the Balkans, Anatolia and the Middle-East).
This tragedy had serious consequences also at a linguistic level, since most Abkhaz speakers were scattered in the wide diaspora throughout different areas of the Ottoman Empire and later exposed to new sociocultural settings that implied also different dominant languages.
For what concerns the Abkhaz that remained in the original homeland, until the Circassian Genocide the dominant religion among the Abkhaz had been Sunni Islam, but after the mass expulsion of the Muslim majority, the former Eastern Orthodox minority became the majority.
In 1868, notwithstanding the recent publication of a first Abkhaz primer, Russian authorities declared Abkhaz an undeveloped language, without a writing system or literature, a reason to impose Russian as the language of education to the population, in what was clearly an attempt of Russification of the autochthonous inhabitants of the Caucasus.
On 3 September 1898, an order was issued decreeing that Abkhazian parishes use old Church Slavonic in the liturgy, and this provoked the reaction of some local representatives who were trying to defend both the Abkhaz and the Georgian language from the threats of assimilation.
The 20th Century brought other problems to the language from a political point of view, as, after the creation of the Soviet Union in 1917, a series of contrasting policies were adopted which had a negative impact on the smaller languages of the country.
In fact, in the period from 1936 and 1953, through a series of repressive policies, Abkhazians was heavily “Georgianized” and their language was banned from being used in the school setting and in official institutions.
Although the discriminating policies were lifted after the death of Soviet leader Stalin in 1953, these measures had long-term consequences for the small Abkhaz language, that are affecting its status still today.
Specifically, its prestige was diminished from a cultural point of view, and the literary production that took place afterwards (Aleksey Gogua being the most eminent Abkhaz writer of the time, and still is) was able to keep the language alive but it was not enough to allow it to develop further into a really functional language.
Literary Language and Writing Systems
The Abkhaz literary language was established in the mid-19th century on the basis of the Abzhui (Southern) dialect, and in the 55-characters Cyrillic script devised by Russian Baron Petar von Uslar.
The first book in this language, an Abkhaz Primer, was thus published in 1865. This writing system was however scarcely used and reformed in 1892 with the publication of another primer by linguists D. Gulia and K. Macavariani, who reduced the number of letters to 51.
Chochua's alphabet, published in 1909, consisted again of 55 letters and was employed in Abkhaz schools until 1926, when the so-called “Analytical Alphabet”, a Latin-based alphabet by Georgia-born historian and linguist Nikolaj Marr, containing around 75 characters, was adopted in the Soviet context.
However, a new, simpler Latin script, denominated “Unified Abkhaz Alphabet” and created by linguist Nikolaj F. Jakovlev, was introduced by Soviet authorities in 1928 at the time of the so-called “Latinization” (or Romanization) policy that was changing the writing systems of most languages (and especially the ones with no or short literary tradition) of the Soviet Union.
Nevertheless, another script change affected this language. In opposition to the other “young written languages” of the USSR, that went through a process of Cyrillization in the years from 1936 to 1938, Abkhaz, together with Ossetian (but only of the communities living in Georgian territories), was exposed to an other process of script change, this time in favour of a Georgian-based alphabet.
The cultural production in Abkhaz with Georgian alphabet was almost unexistent, due to the repression towards this culture in those years of harsh Stalinism. After Stalin’s death, the Abkhaz language adopted again the Cyrillic alphabet.
This writing system, which remains in use until today, presents 62 characters, 38 of which graphically distinct, and the rest being digraphs.
There are some characters that are foreign to other Cyrillic alphabets and exclusively found in the Abkhaz Cyrillic alphabet in order to represent the complex sounds of this fascinating language.
However, since the 1980s, there have been some suggestions by linguists to revert a Latin-based alphabet using phonetic values coming from the Turkish alphabet, but until today this remains only a proposal since many cultural representatives have opposed any attempt of changing or reforming the Cyrillic-based script.
Abkhaz as an Endangered Language
Abkhaz remained a small, vulnerable language until the collapse of the Soviet Union, and since the Abkhaz-Georgian war and the declaration of independence from Georgia, Abkhazia has tried to introduce specific measures aimed at preserving and supporting the language in all domains of public and private life, especially since Abkhaz was officially included in the Unesco’s list of endangered languages in 2004.
An example in this direction was the establishment of a “Foundation for the Development of the Abkhaz Language” immediately after the war, followed by the “Law on the state language of the Republic of Abkhazia”, passed in 2007, which tried to elevate the status of the Abkhaz language (penalizing other languages spoken in the area, especially Georgian), with the final goal of making Abkhaz the language of official communication by 2015.
However, the language is currently spoken only by a minority of people in the unrecognized country (around 100,000 out of the total 243,000), and appears to be particularly threatened by Russian, which remains the dominant language in most cultural and economic spheres, as well as on the media.
Apart from Abkhaz and Russian, other languages spoken in the country are Armenian, Georgian, Mingrelian, Greek and Svan.
For what concerns education, Abkhaz is the main language of instruction only during the first four years of primary school, being substituted by Russian in the later phases.
As a consequence, upon graduation, there are very few people who have enough competence of the Abkhaz language to apply it to more advanced contexts or in the workplace, also because in the city this tongue is rarely spoken outside the private sphere.
The government has tried to invert this trend by offering free language courses in the capital Sukhumi, but the number of people who took part to this initiative was extremely low and so far the results of this campaign have been quite irrelevant.
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