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Northwest Caucasian languages

The Northwest Caucasian languages or Abkhaz-Adyg languages are a family of languages spoken in the Caucasian part of Russia and in Abkhazia. The entire group is characterised by paucity of phonemic vowels, rich consonantal systems with many forms of secondary articulation[?], and high levels of agglutinativity.

Current theory holds that the richness of consonantal phoneme systems in the Northwest Caucasian languages is the result of a process called syllable-periphery assignment. The basis behind this theory is that, during language evolution, vowel features such as labialisation[?], pharyngealisation[?] or frontness[?] are removed from the vowels in a root and reassigned instead to the consonants which surround them. This theory also explains why there are so few vowels in Northwest Caucasian languages.

The languages are thought to have split off from the Proto-Pontic root as follows:

Table of contents

Abkhaz-Abazin Group

Abkhaz Language

The Abkhaz language has appr. 100 000 speakers in Abkhazia, with possibly up to 500,000 speakers in Turkey. It has been a literary language from the beginning of the 20th century. Abkhaz is often claimed to be simply a divergent dialect of a larger language, Abkhaz-Abaza. It makes better linguistic sense, however, to separate Abkhaz and Abaza into two separate languages. Abkhaz is generally viewed as having three major dialects, Abzhuy[?], Bzyp[?] (both spoken in Georgia) and Sadz[?] (spoken in Turkey). Abkhaz is characterised by unusual consonant clusters and a small vowel inventory. It has only two distinctive vowels: an open vowel /a/ and a closed vowel /ı, ǝ/. Depending on the environment both of the vowels can be realized as [e,i,o,u]. See also Abkhaz alphabet.

Abaza Language

The Abaza language[?] shares with Abkhaz the distinction of having just two phonemic vowels[?] in its sound inventory. Abaza is phonologically more complex than Abkhaz, but the two share a great number of linguistic ties. Abaza has two major dialects, Akhchepse[?] and T'ap'anta[?]. Abaza is characterised by large consonant clusters, similar to those that can be found in Georgian.

Circassian Group

Adyghe or Adyg

The Adyghe language[?] is one of the more widely spoken North-West Caucasian languages. It can be found anywhere from Russia to Turkey. There is even a small community in the United States. Three main dialects are recognised: Kemirgoy[?], Abdzakh[?] and Bzedugh[?]. Adyghe has three vowels, and is less consonantally complex than the Abkhaz-Abaza group.


The Kabardian language[?], also called Kabard-Cherkess, has one main dialect, Besleney[?]. It has the least number of consonants of any North-Western Caucasian language, with 48. Kabardian is characterised by ejective fricatives[?] and a small number of vowels in speech.

Ubykh or Ubyx Group


The Ubykh language is more closely related to Abkhaz and Abaza than to Adyghe and Kabardian. It became extinct on October 7, 1992, with the death of Tevfik Esenc, the language's last native speaker. Ubykh has the largest number of consonants of any North-West Caucasian language, with 80. Ubykh is characterised by pharyngealised consonants[?] and a four-way contrast between sibilants, or hissing-type sounds, of which English "s" is one; English contrasts two, whereas Ubykh contrasts four.

The North-West Caucasian languages are currently undergoing some study as to whether they may share a phyletic link with the Indo-European family, at a time depth of about 12,000 years before the present.

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