The Abkhaz Language

1. Abkhaz belongs to the small North West Caucasian language-family whose other members are Circassian, the virtually extinct Ubykh and Abaza. There may well be a distant genetic relationship with the remaining two North Caucasian families (North Central Caucasian and North East Caucasian, or Daghestanian), but no such link can be demonstrated with South Caucasian (Kartvelian). From a purely linguistic point of view Abaza can be viewed as a divergent dialect of Abkhaz, though for geo-political reasons both were awarded literary status in the early days of Soviet power in the Caucasus. The two main dialects of Abkhaz are (northern) Bzp and the literary (southern) Abz'wa. Both are spoken in Abkhazia, which since 1931has had the status of an autonomous republic within (the former Soviet) Georgia. The designation "Abkhaz" derives from the Georgian ethnonym, though that in turn ultimately comes from Greek.

2. Like all members of the family Abkhaz is characterised by:

(a) a minimal (viz. two-term open vs close) vertical vowel-system, though the orthography indicates vowel-phones in addition to these two phonemes;

(b) a large consonantal inventory, made up of the standard Caucasian opposition between voiced vs voiceless aspirate vs voiceless ejective obstruents with widespread use of the secondary articulatory features of palatalisation and labialisation -- Abz'wa has 58 consonantal phonemes, Bzp 67;

(c) simple noun-morphology, Abkhaz possessing only one formally marked case (the Adverbial);

(d) polysynthetic verb-forms, which, in addition to incorporating markers for the normal verbal categories of tense, aspect, mood  and   causation, recapitulate  almost  the  entire  syntax  of   the clause by means of a complex system of pronominal cross-referencing affixes that shew agreement with subject, direct object and indirect-oblique objects, e.g.

sara'
I

a-pY's
the-woman

a-sap''n
the-soap

s-xarp
my-shirt

(0-)a-la-l-s-r-dZYdZYa'-(0-)jt'
(it-)it-by- her-I-cause-wash-(PAST-)FINITE

"I got the woman to wash my shirt with (the) soap"

3. Word-order is predominantly Subject-(Indirect/Direct) Object-Verb, possessor precedes possessed, most adjectives follow their nouns, postpositions rather than prepositions exist; intransitive subjects and direct objects are marked alike within the verb, leaving transitive subjects to be treated differently, which makes the language Ergative in structure. If a clause is defined as a word-sequence containing a finite verb, then subordinate clauses as such (as in North Caucasian languages generally) are rare, since non-finite verb-forms are employed, relative pronouns and subordinating conjunctions as separate word-classes being absent, e.g.

sara'
I
 

  a-sap''n  
  the-soap
 

  s-xarp
  my-shirt
 

  (0-)a'-la-z-s-r-dZYdZYa-(0-)z
  (it-)it-by- whom-I-cause-wash (PAST-)NON.FINITE
 

  a-pY's
  the-woman
 

"the woman whom I got to wash my shirt with (the) soap..."

4. Iranian, Turkish, Kartvelian (Mingrelian and Georgian) and especially Russian influences are present in the vocabulary, particularly in the  semantic  fields  relating to objects and concepts  within the   sciences and politics. Morphology  seems unaffected by foreign influence, though the occasional use of a full subordinate clause (with, for example, the speech-particle Ya "having said" serving as conjunction) may be due to Russo-Kartvelian influence.

5. According to the 1989 Soviet census there were 102,938 Abkhazians in the whole USSR, of whom 93.3% spoke Abkhaz; of this total 93,267 lived in Abkhazia itself. An indeterminate number of Abkhazians, possibly more than reside in the (former) USSR, live in the Near East, predominantly Turkey, where at least the older generations have succeeded in preserving their language.

6. The assignment of literary status to Abkhaz, with all that this entails (publishing of papers, journals and books; teaching of the language throughout schooling and use of it as the actual means of instruction for the first few grades in local-language schools before transference to Russian; radio- and, since 1978, TV-broadcasting), have helped guard against its disappearance within Abkhazia. No such benefit accrued to those Abkhazians living beyond the USSR's boundaries, with the result that especially amongst the younger generation language-retention is probably less strong than amongst their Soviet coevals. However, the opening of Soviet borders in the late 1980s and the subsequent collapse of the USSR have led, and will undoubtedly continue   to lead, to closer ties between home- and emigre-communities. This will surely guarantee the survival and indeed strengthening of the language, which represents the only one the two communities share and which will underpin the consolidation of their ethnicity that both seem to desire. Renewed pressure on Soviet Abkhazians from their Kartvelian neighbours (see 8) has had the natural, if unintentional, consequence of awakening amongst them a determination not lose their language to the advantage of Russian, which is the main lingua franca of Abkhazia and which Abkhazians know much better than the Kartvelians, thanks to their educational system.

7. The first script devised for (Bzp) Abkhaz was that proposed in 1862/3 by the man who laid the foundation for the study of North Caucasian languages, the Russian soldier-linguist Baron Peter von Uslar. A series of adaptations were made for the occasional publications that preceded the Soviet period, and it was the 55 character script of A. C`'oc''ua, first utilised in 1909, that was adopted for the literary language as part of the Soviet drive to eradicate illiteracy throughout the Union. In 1926 this was replaced by the complicated 75 character Analytical Alphabet of (Scottish-Georgian) Nikolai Marr. This in turn yielded to the Latin-based script of N. Jakovlev in 1928. When the Young Written Languages of the USSR were forced to move to Cyrillic-based scripts in 1936-38, Abkhaz (along with South Ossetic) was compelled to accept a Georgian-based orthography, which lasted until the death of (Georgian) Stalin. Since 1954 the present Cyrillic-based script has been in use. It is cumbersome, containing 14 characters not found in Cyrillic, and inconsistent. There are suggestions that a new Latin-based orthography should now be created.

8. The development of the written language has not been smooth. Apart from the disruption occasioned by so many changes of script, the attempt, begun in the 1930s before his elevation to office in Mosocw by (Mingrelian) Lavrent'i Beria, to georgianise Abkhazia, which was the motivation behind the introduction of the Georgian-based script in 1938, culminated during the war in the replacement of Abkhaz-language schools by Georgian schools and a ban on both the teaching of, and publication in, the Abkhaz language. This policy was only reversed after the deaths of Stalin and Beria and explains why Bagrat' Dz'anas'ia's Abkhaz-Georgian Dictionary, completed in 1938 and thus utilising the Georgian alphabet, was only published in 1954. The State Programme for the Georgian Language, the draft of which appeared in November 1988 and which was passed into law in August 1989, makes no provision for the minority- languages of Georgia but does require not only that Georgian be taught in all schools throughout the republic but also that candidates for higher education establishments in Georgia first pass a test in Georgian language and literature. As stated above, Georgian is little heard in Abkhazia and thus poorly known among the Abkhazians. Therefore, at a time when Russian was the predominant second language (Mingrelian a third for many Abkhazians) such provisions in this Programme only served to reinforce the suspicions about Kartvelian intentions towards Abkhaz language  and culture that had been harboured since the middle years of the century. Following the expulsion of so many Abkhazians to the Ottoman Empire after Russia's conquest of the North Caucasus in 1864 and the forced immigration into Abkhazia of Slavs, Armenians and especially Mingrelians during the 1930s the Abkhazians are a 17% minority on their own territory. But the determination to halt any further decline and to keep the language alive both at home and amongst the emigre;-communities is likely to produce a flourishing of literature, given the importance of the written word for any literate society at the end of the 20th century and the consequent choice of a literary career by those with the necessary talent. However, Abkhazia's desire to leave Georgia, the Kartvelians' unyielding attitude to such aspirations, and the political turmoil in Georgia at the time of writing make for an uncertain future.

9. Drmit' Gulia (1874-1960) is justifiably regarded as the Father of Abkhaz Literature. He wrote the first novel, published the first volume of verse and founded the first newspaper in the language. His output also contains plays, translations, historical and ethnographical writings. He lectured on Abkhaz for a time (1924-25) at Tbilisi University. Samson C`'anba (1886-1937) lay the foundations for Abkhazian drama. The fact that both these pioneers were southern Abkhazians helped to establish the southern dialect as the literary norm. Amongst living writers Bagrat' S`inkwba is universally acknowledged to be a master in both prose and poetry; his novel "The Last of the Departed", which deals with the aftermath of the migration to Turkey of the entire Ubykh nation (cousins of the Abkhazians) in 1864, is available in English. Ivan Tarba (b.1921) and the children's author Neli Tarba (b.1934) are also highly regarded. Abkhazian folklore shares with that of other North Caucasian peoples the epic Nart sagas, an edition of which, containing 42 tales, was published in 1962.

Bibliography

  1. Hewitt, B. George. 1979. "Lingua (now Croom Helm) Descriptive Studies 2: Abkhaz. Amsterdam: North Holland (now Croom Helm).

  2. Hewitt, B. George. 1989. Abkhaz, in "The Indigenous Languages of the Caucasus" (Series Editor John Greppin), vol.2 (ed. B. George Hewitt): "North West Caucasus". New York, Caravan Books, 39-88.

  3. Hewitt, B. George. 1989. Aspects of Language Planning in Georgia (Georgian and Abkhaz), in "Language Planning in the Soviet Union" (ed. Michael Kirkwood).London: Macmillan, 123-144.

  4. Wixman, Ronald. 1980. "Language Aspects of Ethnic Patterns and Processes in the North Caucasus."Chicago: University Press (Dept. of Georgraphy).

  5. Dumzil, Georges. 1967. "Documents anatoliens sur les langues et les traditions du Caucase V: Etudes abkhaz". Paris: Maisonneuve.

    Dr. B. George Hewitt
    Reader in Caucasian Languages,
    School of Oriental and African Studies
    University of London
    England