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Ubykh language

Ubykh is a language of the Northwestern Caucasian group[?]. It is characterised, like most other Northwest Caucasian languages, by the following features:

  • Ubykh is an ergative language, making no distinction between the subject of an intransitive sentence and the direct object of a transitive sentence.
  • It is highly agglutinative, using mainly monosyllabic or bisyllabic roots, but with single morphological words sometimes reaching eight or nine syllables in length. Affixes rarely fuse in any way.
  • It has a simple nominal system contrasting just two cases, the direct and the oblique (marked with the suffix -n).
  • Its system of verbal agreement[?] is frighteningly complex. English verbs must agree only with the subject; Ubykh verbs, by contrast, must agree with the subject, the direct object and the indirect object, and benefactive objects must also be marked in the verb.
  • It is phonologically complex as well, with 83 distinct consonants (three of which, however, appear only in loan words). It only has two phonological vowels, but these vowels have a large range of allophones because the range of consonants which surround them is so large.

Linguistically speaking, Ubykh is polysynthetic, meaning that many sentence components can be incorporated into one word: the Ubykh for "we shall not be able to go back" is /shëki'ayëfanamët/ (the vowel /ë/ stands for schwa, and the trigraph /ki' / is a palatalised ejective version of the English letter /k/), and to say /awq'aq'ayt'ba/ is to say "If you had said something." Questions, unlike in English, can be marked grammatically: the Ubykh for "Did you see that?" is /yëna awbyaq'asr?/, and to ask "What is your name?" one says /wëp'c'ay?/ Unfortunately, since Ubykh is so consonantally complex, a satisfactory ASCII transcription for it is not yet in place. A phonemic transcription that can be used is as follows:

 Open     a, as the "a" in "father"
 Close    ë, as the "a" in "about"

                        Voiced  Voiceless  Ejective  Nasal  Approximant
 Bilabial stop          b       p          p'        m      w
 Phar. bilabial stop    b.      p.         p.'       m.     w.
 Bilabial fricative     v.      f
 Alveolar stop          d       t          t'        n      r
 Alveolar fricative     z       s
 Alveolar affricate     j       c          c' 
 Alv. labialised stop   du      tu         tu' 
 Alveolar lateral               lh         l'               l
 Postalveolar fric.     zh      sh                          y
 Postalveolar affr.     jh      ch         ch' 
 Postalv. lab. fric.    zhu     shu
 Alveolopalatal fric.   zi      si
 Alveolopalatal affr.   ji      ci         ci' 
 Alv-pal. lab. fric.    ziu     siu
 Alv-pal. lab. affric.  jiu     ciu        ciu' 
 Retroflex fric.        zr      sr
 Retroflex affr.        jr      cr         cr' 
 Velar stop             g *     k *        k' *
 Velar fricative        g       kh
 Palatalised velar stop gi      ki         ki' 
 Labialised velar stop  gu      ku         ku' 
 Uvular stop                    q          q' 
 Uvular fricative       gh      x
 Pal. uvular stop               qi         qi' 
 Pal. uvular fric.      ghi     xi
 Labialised uvular stop         qu         qu' 
 Lab. uvular fricative  ghu     xu
 Phar. uvular stop              q.         q.' 
 Phar. uvular fric.     gh.     x.
 Phar. lab. uvular stop         q.u        q.u' 
 Phar. lab. uv. fric.   gh.u    x.u
 Glottal                        h

 A SAMPA-compliant rendition of the above is available in the Ubykh phonology article.

The velar stops marked with * are phonemes borrowed from the Circassian and Turkish languages, and do not occur in any native Ubykh vocabulary, hence the overlap between /g/ (stop) and /g/ (fricative). An example is the word /mak'ëf/, meaning "slat" or "batten", and /garga/, borrowed from Turkish and meaning "crow". Also, /r/ and /h/ are Ubykh's two rarest consonant phonemes, freeing them for use as digraphic elements. Full stop marks a pharyngealised consonant, /h/ marks postalveolarisation and frication of dorsal sounds (a convention from English orthography), /u/ marks labialisation, /i/ marks palatalisation, /r/ marks retroflexion (a convention from Vietnamese orthography) and apostrophe marks ejectivity.

Vocalically, Ubykh presents many allophones, since so many consonants are present. Ten basic phonetic vowels appear, derived from the two phonemic vowels adjacent to labialised or palatalised consonants. These ten phonetic vowels are a e i o u, the standard five-vowel system common among the world's languages, and the same five vowels with phonetic length. In general, the following rule applies: Cwa > Co; Cja > Ce; Cwë > Cu, and Cjë > Ci. Other, more complex vowels have been noted in Ubykh: on occasion, nasal sonorants (particularly n) may decay into vowel nasality. For instance, /naynsu/ young man has been noted as SAMPA /nE~ys_w/, not /nayns_w/ as the phonemic notation would indicate.

Consonantally, far fewer allophones are noted, mainly because a small acoustic difference can be phonetic when so many consonants are involved. The alveolopalatal labialised fricatives were sometimes realised as alveolar labialised fricatives, and the uvular stop q had an allophonic glottal stop due to the influence of the Kabardian[?] and Adyghe[?] languages spoken in the same area.

Grammatically, Ubykh presents two cases (direct in zero and oblique in -n), a past-present-future distinction of verb tense (the suffixes -q'a and -aw represent past and future) and an imperfective aspect suffix (-yt' is its marker). Dynamic and static verbs are contrasted, as in Arabic, and verbs have several nominal forms. Any verb root may be treated as a noun by using noun case-endings with it.

Ubykh was spoken in the Caucasus Mountains of Georgia until 1875, when the Russian Tsar of the time drove the Ubykhs out of Georgia. The Ubykh people eventually came to settle in Turkey, but the process of language death had already begun. Turkish and Circassian became the lingue franchi of the Ubykh people, since these were the languages far more likely to be used in everyday exchanges.

Ubykh eventually was spoken only in the household, then only by the elders of the people. Finally, on the 7th of October, 1992, the Ubykh language died, when its last speaker - a farmer named Tevfik Esenc - passed away in his sleep.

Fortunately, thousands of pages of material and many audio recordings had been collected and collated by a number of linguists, including Georges Dumézil, Hans Vogt and George Hewitt, with the help of Mr Esenc, Huseyin Kozan, and a few of the other Ubykh elders. Vogt, in particular, compiled an Ubykh dictionary in the late 1960s, and Dumézil did a great deal of work on Ubykh etymology and storytelling. A linguist at Leiden University is currently trying to compile a new Ubykh dictionary, and some of the Ubykh people are showing interest in relearning their difficult language.

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