Languages of the Caucasus

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(Redirected from Caucasian language)

The term Caucasian languages is loosely used to refer to a large and extremely varied array of languages spoken by more than seven million people in the Caucasus region of Eastern Europe and Western Asia, between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. Linguistic studies allow those languages to be classified into several language families, with little or no discernible affinity to each other. Some of those language families have no known members outside the Caucasus area.

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Language families

The Caucasian languages fall into four widely accepted language families, with numberous subfamilies. The languages in these families are (with populations from the 1970 Soviet Census):

Proposed higher-level classifications

A topic that has attracted much research since the 19th century is the classification of the four major Caucasian families into larger groups. Unfortunately this field is quite sensitive, given the complex ethnic and political situation of the region, both before and after the extinction of the Soviet Union. As in many other regions of the globe, linguistic arguments are often used to back up or dismiss territorial disputes and separatist movements. Given the general paucity of linguistic and historical evidence for inter-family relationships, those political implications often dominate the debate.

Some linguists see the three northern families as having a common origin, about five thousand years ago, and have proposed a family of North Caucasian languages with the following genetic classification:

The reality of the North Caucasian family is not yet widely accepted; many of the cognates that have been claimed between its branches may actually be be loanwords.

Supposed affinities with other languages

Since the birth of comparative linguistics in the 19th century, the riddle of the apparently isolated Caucasian language families has attracted the attention of many scholars who have strenuously tried to relate them to other languages outside the Caucasus region. While most linguists do not accept these proposals, there may be connections between the Northwest and Northeast Caucasian families and some extinct languages formerly spoken in Anatolia and northern Mesopotamia.

Hattian

Some scholars have seen affinities between the Northwest Caucasian (Circassian) family and the extinct Hattic language. Hattic was spoken in Anatolia (Turkey), in the area around ancient Hattusa (modern Boğazköy), until about 1800 BC, when it was replaced by the Indo-European Hittite language.

The name Hetto-Iberian has been proposed for a superfamily comprising Northwest Caucasian and Hattic. (The Iberian in the name comes from the Caucasian Iberia, a kingdom centered in Eastern Georgia which lasted from the 4th century BC to the 5th century AD; it is not related to the Iberian Peninsula.)

Hurrian and Urartian

Some scholars — notably the Russian historical linguists I. M. Diakonoff and Sergei Starostin — also see similarities between the Northeast Caucasian languages and the extinct languages Hurrian and Urartian. Hurrian was spoken in various parts of the Fertile Crescent in the 3rd and 2nd millennia BC. Urartian was the language of Urartu, a powerful state centered in the area of Lake Van in Turkey, that existed between 1000 BC or earlier and 585 BC.

The two extinct languages been grouped into the Hurro-Urartian family, and the name Alarodian has been proposed for the union of the Northeast (and perhaps North-central) Caucasian and Hurro-Urartian families.

Basque

Many of the Caucasian languages have case systems (noun inflection rules) of a particular kind, known as ergative, which sets them apart from most European languages. The fact that Basque, an isolated language spoken in the Pyrenees, also has an ergative case system has led many scholars to propose it as a displaced member of some Caucasian family. However, the resemblances between the case systems of Basque and of the Caucasian languages have been found to be rather superficial. In fact, linguists claim that the underlying structure of Georgian is not ergative.

Dene-Caucasian family

Recently, some linguists — for instance, Merritt Ruhlen and John Bengtson — have proposed a Dene-Caucasian superfamily including, among others, Caucasian languages, Na-Dené languages, and Basque.

Iberian-Caucasian languages

The South Caucasian and North Caucasian families are unrelated phyla even in Greenberg's deep classification of the world's languages. Nevertheless, some scholars — notably Georgian linguist Arnold Chikobava — have proposed the single name Ibero-Caucasian languages for all four Caucasus-specific language families, i.e., the union of the North and South Caucasian families.

External links

hu:Kaukázusi_nyelvcsalád nl:Kaukasische talen pl:Języki kaukaskie de:Kaukasische Sprachen

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