The Abkhazian language and its place in the Caucasian family of languages

Dr. Philol. Khibla Amichba


Our language is also our history.

There is more living illustration of

the peoples, than bones, weapons

and graves – it’s their languages." /Jacob Grimm/


The territory of Abkhazia was populated from ancient times, and the richest archaeological excavations illustrate this. From antique times the different information on the history of Kolhida, especially about Abkhazia, was compiled from original sources of Ancient Greece (Aristotel, Strabon, Timosphen, Klaudi Ptolemei and others) and Rome (Dion Kassy, Appian, Phlavy Arrian, Plyni Secund etc.).


By the Middle Age History of Abkhazia the valuable information is contained in the works of Italian travelers and missionaries (Arkangelo Lamberty, Juseppe Judichi (XYIIc.), Dortelli D’Askoli, Barbaro (Venetian diplomat (XYc), George Interiano(XYIc), Tsampy, Raspony (XYIIc.)and others); Arabian and Persian travelers (Masudi (Xc.), Ibn-Haucal(Xc.), Abulfeda (XIYc.) and others).


From ancient times, side by side with legends about Prometheus, who was chained to the mountains and the golden fleece, wich was connected with the Caucasus, there were a lot of legends about an unusual polylingual of its inhabitants. About many tribes of the Caucasus is said by “Father of History” Herodot. The Rome historian Pliny Secund left his information, according to wich the Romes managed with the help of 130 interpreters in Dioskuria, that later was renamed in Sebastopolis /the modern Sukhum, the capital of Abkhazia/. Masudi, the author of X-th century, wrote: "There are about 72 tribes in these mountains, and each tribe has its own Tsar, its own language, which is quite different from all the others... Only Allah can count different peoples living in the Caacasus. The mountain Caucasus is a mountain of languages."2


Nowadays, you will be quite right, if you call the Caucasus by the name “A mountain of languages”, in spite of the fact that both its languages and its speakers suffered greatly.


Today more than 50 languages are spoken in the Caucasus. Among them there are Indo-European (Russian, Ukrainian, Armenian, Ossetic), Turkic languages (Azerbaijani, Kumyc, Karachaevo-Balkarian), Semitic (Isorian) a.o.


The majority of the Caucasian languages are autochthonal /about 40/. They are divided into 4 groups: Abkhazo-Adygian, Nakh, Daghestan and Kartvelian.


Abkhazo-Adygian group in its turn is divided into two groups: Abkhazo-Abazian (Abkhazian and Abazian languages) and Adygian (Adygean, Kabardinian-Cherkessian languages). The intermediate position between them is occupied by the Ubykh language, which has already disappeared even in Turkey. All these languages, except Ubykh, are representeted in the Caucasus.


Abkhazians are the autochtonal population of the Caucasus, whose ancestors lived on the territory of Abkhazia from the ancient times. The documents of archeological excavations testify diversified economy and versatile spiritual life of ancient abkhazian tribes- Apsils, Abasgoos, Sanygoos, Misimians and others. The name of the Apsils tribe has been preserved to this day in the self-name of the Abkhazian people - Aps-ua, and the Abkhazian’s name for their country – Apsny. The names "Abkhaz", “Abaza”, “Apsua” are the modifications of the same ethnonyms, which go back to one root (ps, bz). The terms "Abkhaz", "Motherland", "Ancestor”, “Soul" have the same root “ps", in the Abkhazian language the word "Mother-country" /apsadgyl/ means "the Land of soul”, and the language of the Abkhazians /aps-shva/ - "the Song of Soul",


The Abkhazian language - is the native language of Abkhazians, which live in Republic of Abkhazia and it is also spoken in many countries of the world /Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Germany, USA and others/ by the descendants of makhadgers, which were exiled by force from Abkhazia in 19 century.


Nowadays Abkhazian language is represented in Republic of Abkhazia by two dialects: they are - Abzuyian and Bzypian. The Abzuyian dialect is the basis of literary language.


Abkhazian language has developed for thousands years. By the beginning of XX century it reached the highest level of its development. Some scientists think that this fact is connected with the writing language, which Abkhazians had long ago. Academician Klimov sayst: "If it is possible to prove, that Maikop inscription, dated by 12-13 centuries is interpreted in Abkhazian language as Turchaninov supposes, then we shall be faced to the most ancient written monument- on the territory of the USSR”. As a fact, the epithet name Lasha /I q of XIII c./, which can be translated from Abkhazian as “Enlightener", may be considered as the first proved written word.3


The scientist and the teacher Machavariani wrote about the Abkhazian language: “The Abkhazian language is very flexible and sonorous; it gives not only the solemn tones, but it caresses an ear with the tenderest expressions. Both terrible sounds of the nature and the melody of the quiet wind puff, the streamlet purl,sorrow and joy, anger and kindness,- are fully expressed in this language”.4


The Abkhazians were always very careful with their language,with their folklore monuments. For its develop- ment the young written Abkhazian language had a well-made “oral literary language", the example of which is the heroic epos of “Nartaa”, the true stories,legends, heroic and everyday songs.


Together with other Caucasian languages, the Abkhazian language is referred to a number of well-investigated languages. From ancient times a lot of famous scientist-travellers from different countries visited Caucasus and paid a great attention to this language.


The first notes of real linguistic material in the Abkhazian and Abaza languages were made by the famous Turkish traveller Evlia Cheleby (l64l). He made his notes in Arabian alphabet, “The Abaza language is very unusual and splendid”, - he wrote. A little later I.A. Gueldenstaedt represented a very considerable material in Abkhazian language and made the first genetic classification of Caucasian languages. G.Rosen was the first, who paid attention to the scientific study of the Abkhazian language.


The first full description of Abkhazian grammar belongs to the famous Russian Caucasian investigator Uslar /I862/. Uslar’s work was translated into German by Shiefner. Many works on structure and senarate questions of the Abkhazian language belong to Marr, Charaya, Dirr, Genko, Deeters, Dumezil, Schmidt, Bowda, Dzanashia a.o. At present time the study of the Abkhazian language is very intensive held in scientific centres of Europe and USA. The scientist-linguists from Moscow, Saint-Petersburg, Makhachkala, Nalchik, Maikop, Cherkessk, Sukhum and others investigate it.


The large work on the investigation of the Abkhazian language was made by Academician Marr. His. works “About language and history of Abkhazians” /1938/ and "Abkhazo-Russian dictionary” /I926/ didn’t lose their value. Marr appriciated the significance of the Abkhazian language for linguistic theory very highly:


"The Abkhazian language linguistically is on one of the highest rungs of human speech and among languages akin to it, occupies that same rung as English does among European languages. The Abkhazian language is more changable new type. Dialectological wealth of Abkhazian speech, wich was without writing till XIX century, is very valuable for the science with its material lighting many facts of the cultural history in the Ancient-East world”.5.


The Abkhazian alphabet was worked out by Uslar in 1862 on the basis of Russian graph. After that the Abkhazian literary language began forming. The graph of Abkhazian writing was changed many times. In 1926 an analytical alphabet of Marr appeared. In 1928 - there was an alphabet on Latin graphical basis, in 1938 - on the Georgian basis and since 1954 - on the Russian one.


The working Abkhazian alphabet contains 40 signs, which can give 62 phonemes as well as in combinations and by themselves.


The Abkhazo-Adygian languages have the richest consonant systems in the world in spite of the fact, that they are very poor with the vocal ones. In the Abkhazian, Abazian and Ubykh languages there are only two vowel phonems: (a) and (?) wich can form other vowels (e), (o), (i),(u) as a result of assimilation and combining with half-vowels, wich haven’t phonem meaning in vocabulary.


Consonant system of the Ubykh language is characterized by 80 phonems,the Abkhazian literary language by 55 ones (the Bzyp dialect - b? 67 ones). The peculiarity of the Abkhazo-Adygian languages is the presence of the whistling and hissing spirants and affricates. There are palatalized and unpalatalized, labialized and unlabialized consonants. In the Abkhazian language the roots usually contain one syllable (ab - a father, a-tsla - a tree a.o.).


The stress in the Abkhazian language is dynamic, intensive, but not fixed (a’la - an eye, al’a - a dog, a’cva - a dream, acv'? - a skin a.o.). Assimilation, reduction and combining are widespread in phonetic process.


The morphological type of the Abkhaz is characterized as agglutinative (with polysynthetizm).The simple system of the names and complex system of verbs are very typical for morphology in this language. The Abkhazian language differs from the other Caucasian languages by the absence of declination, that is compensated by the verb structure. The number, locative particles are the same for both a name and a verb. The nouns are divided into two classes: a class of a person and a class of a thing. Common nouns have definite and indefinite, possessive categories, number and other grammar classes.


Adjectives don’t differ from the nouns morphologically. Qualitative adjectives are put after the nouns (auau’ bzia - a nice man). Relative adjectives stand before the definite word (alasa kasy- a wollen shawl). Comparative degree is expressed by the description (eiha ibziou - better). Numerals are characterised by the expression of ? person category or a thing category /adzy-one(a person class),aky-one(a thing class)/.There are 3 personal pronouns.The categories of a woman and a man are marked in the 2 and 3 person singular, and in the 3 person singular the category of a man is combined with a category of a thing. Personal pronouns have full and short forms /sara - sa - I/.


Pronoun-possesive prefixes are used in the function of possesive pronouns (s-napy - my hand).


Verb in the Abkhazian language is characterized b? a complex system of conjugation and word-building. There are some peculia- rities which depend on static and dynamic, transitivity and int-ransitivity of a verb. Transitivity and intransitivity of a verb is defined b? a place of person class showing in the verb itself /for example a verb of labile construction: transitive verb “isdzakh’ueit” – “ I am sewing smth", intransative verb “sdzakhueit” “I sew".


The dynamic verbs have all the forms of tenses and moods. Negative affix is' “m” /sykam – “I am not here”/.


There is also a personal - class inclination, it means that the verbs are inclined by persons and by grammatical categories of a person and a thing.


There are some moods in the Abkhazian language: indicative, imperative, conditional, subjunctive, finite and infinitive forms.


The system of preverbs is very complex. There are preverbs only of direction /”aa" - to the speaker, "na" - from the speaker/ and the preverbs-bases, which are from the roots –a’-tza-la-ra -to go under smth, a-kha-la-'ra- to go upstairs/, a very rich system of preverbs in verbs is compensating by a weak development of postpositions.


Morphologically the verb can express the categories of causative, reciprocity, possibility a.o. There are no voices in the Abkhazian language. The position of transitivity of the verb to the voice is neutral.


Different tense forms in Infinitive with relational prefixes (i) and (z), which mean a subject and an object in dependence from the verb and person, expressed in it, are used as preverbs.


Adverbial modifiers are morphologically expressed in a verb by means of verbal particles /s - the adverbial modifier of reason, sh - the adverbial modifier of manner, akh’- the adverbial modifier of place, an -the adverbial modifier of time/.


The qualitative adverbs are the verbal adverbs with suffixes /ny - ipshdza-ny – beautifully/. Some particular adverbs are represented without any special affixes.


In the Abkhazian language the postpositions and preverbs are used instead of prepositions in verbs. There are no conjunctions (relative pronouns “what”, “who” “which”, “when”), because the subordinate clause is absent in the Abkhazian language. The function of conjunctions are expressed with verbal particles.


There is a number of interjections in Abkhaz. They are: address /ua/, the interjection of blame /nykh-nykh/, motive /hai, amarja/, pity /gusha/.


The main member of the sentence is a verb. Besides a verb-predicate, there are also a noun and an object /direct and indirect/. There are not complex sentences in the Abkhazian language. Function of the subordinate sentences make verbal adverbs, participial and other infinitive constructions.


Vocabulary of the Abkhazian language mainly forms age-old root of the word and its derivatives. Nowadays about 400 words expose, they are rising to the old language condition /which ???? the natural phenomena, names of elements of wild flora and fauna, terms of relationship, numerals of the first ten and so on/.


Apparent specific character of vocabulary, which differs the Abkhazian from all the other Abkhazo-Adygian language, makes a rich stratum of navigation terms and it testifies the close contact of the Abkhazians to a sea /ag’ba - a ship, ashkhua - a boat, a-pra -a sail, azhvua - an oar /.


Onomatopoeia is one of the conciderable way of word-building and is highly developed in the Abkhazian language.


Vocabulary is mainly increased by means of word-building and borrowings. Besides of many new Russisms, the most considerable stratum of borrowings make up the Turkisms. In the Abkhazian language they all came out from Turkish and then with its help Arabisms and persisms appeared too.


Intra-group lexica1 borrowings are related to the times of hegemony of Adyg feudal lords in the North-West Caucasus /adygisms are in Ubykh and Abkhazo-Abazian dialects /in the Abkhazian language "adagua - the Kabardian "dagu"- "deaf”, Abkh. "apasa"- Kabardian "pas”- "early"/.


There are some difficulties to expose such borrowings because they are not clearly detached from their promordial common Vocabulary.


Side by side with above-named borrowings, the Indo-Europeisms are represented, they are especially close by their onomatopoeia to their old Indian correspondences:in Abkhaz "akata" - "net"' -Old.-Ind. katah - "net", in Adygean "as’a”, Kabardian "az’a"-" “he- goat”, Abkh.-'adzar'"- kids - Indian "ajah” - "he-goat".


In common, a definite cultural tradition, of Romap-names is observed in Kolhida and in Abkhazia independently from times and ways of its penetration. So in II century one ruler's name was Julian, in the YIIc. - the region Lazica was ruled by Sergiy, in the YIII -Absyi ruler Marin was known.


The similar tradition of Abkhazo-Italian cultural and historical mutual relations was renewed in the Middle Age Period, when the Italian, trading stations were existed, on the East Shore of the Black Sea.


The question is, that in XIY-XY c. Genoese trading stations were in the following places: in Gagra /Gacary/, near the village Alahadzy /Santa-Sofia/, in Pitzunda /Pezonda/, in the region of Gudauta /Cavo di Buxo/, in Novy Aphon /Nicoffa/, in Sukhum /Sevastopoli/ and by the river Ingur /Sant-Angelo/. The most important Genoese settlement in Abkhazia was Sebastopol /Sukhum/, which was protector's residence of all trading stations on the Black Sea Shore of the Caucasus.


All this testifies, that the versatile relations were never broken between Eastern Black Sea Shore and tne Mediterranean,in particular, the Apennines.The historical phenomena always found its reflexion here, and first of all, in the language. The Abkhazian language preserved its wonderful archaic system and sounding and represents itself like an inexhaustible well of information of the Abkhazian ancient history.


At the same time, it is enriching and widening,and it reflexes the present day of the Abkhazians, being a state language of the Republic Abkhazia and a native language of the Abkhazians abroad.


The Abkhazian language is the language of Republican newspapers and magazines. Numerous belles-lettres, social and political, teaching and methodical literature for different educational institutions are published. Radio and local television programmes are conducted in Abkhaz. The State Theatre, Philharmonic Society and other hearths of national culture perform original and translated plays in the Abkhazian language. Schools, High educational institutions, radio, television, theatre, belles-lettres help widespreading of the Abkhazian literary language.


Many large epic works, novels and stories are created in the Abkhazian language. They are characterized, by an usual expressiveness. The main works of the Abkhasian writers, short stories by Lakrba, novels by Gulia and Shinkuba are translated into many foreign languages.


Besides the Abkhazians, many other nationalities are represented on the territory of Abkhazia: they are — the Russians, the Ukrainians, the Byelorussians, the Greeks, the Turks, the Tatars, the Armenians, the Jaws and the others. They all love and respect the Abkhazian language. Many of them know it perfectly; their children learn it at school, special teaching and methodical literature is created for them.


Literature (in Russian ) :


1- Abaev V.I. - Osetinskiy yazyk i folklor. (Ossetic language and folklore), y.i, p.9, Moscow-St.-Petersburg, 1949.

2- Klimov G-.A. - Cavcazskiye yazyki. (Caucasian languages), Moscow,1965 ,p.4

3- Amichba G.A. - Abkhazia i abkhazy srednevekovykh gruzinskikh povestvovatelnykh istochnikov. (Abkhazia and Abkhazians in Georgian narrative sources of the Middle age period), Tbilissi, I988, p. 89.

4- Basariya S. - Abkhazia v geograficheskom, etnograficheskom i ekonomicheskom otnoshenii. (Abkhazia in geographical, ethnographical and economical aspects), Sukhum, 1923, p. 50.

5- Gulia D.Y. - Sochinenija. (Compositions) v. IV, p.46, Sukhum, 1986.