In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Caucasian Languages

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews

Linguistics Caucasian Languages
Marina Chumakina
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 October 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0057


Medieval Arab geographers called the Caucasus “a mountain of tongues.” Many diverse languages are spoken in this relatively small area, but the term “Caucasian languages” usually applies only to languages that belong to one of the three linguistic families indigenous to the Caucasus: Kartvelian (also referred to as South Caucasian), West Caucasian (Northwest Caucasian, Abkhaz-Adyghe), and East Caucasian (Northeast Caucasian, Nakh-Daghestanian). These languages are believed to have been spoken in the area for at least four thousand years. West and East Caucasian were traditionally joined into one family, but now most specialists agree that all three are genetically unrelated. Nevertheless, the notion “Caucasian languages” makes sense: they are spoken in a contiguous geographic area, which is characterized by cultural homogeneity and established trading contacts. Traditionally, specialists in Caucasian languages and cultures have been trained across three families, both in the Soviet Union (which included the Russian Federation and Georgia) and abroad, partly for practical reasons: specializing in these languages often presupposes knowing Russian or Georgian. The Kartvelian languages are spoken predominantly in Georgia; West and East Caucasian languages are spoken mostly in the Russian Federation. Kartvelian is a relatively small family in terms of number of languages but with a high number of speakers (Georgian has more than four million) and a long literary tradition, whereas East Caucasian comprises twenty-six languages, many of which are spoken in just one village and are either unwritten or developed their written forms within the last two hundred years. More details are given for each family in respective sections (see Kartvelian, West Caucasian, and East Caucasian). All Caucasian languages are characterized by rich consonantism; rich inflection, especially in verb systems; and ergative alignment. Out of the three, the Kartvelian languages are probably the best studied, though much of the materials are in Georgian. During the 20th century much was written on East and West Caucasian languages (mainly in Russian), mostly on their phonology and morphology. Only recently have the syntactic riches of these languages been discovered—partly due to the progress in syntactic theory.

General Overviews

Despite being genetically unrelated, the Caucasian languages have often been the subject of linguistic comparison. A good place to start for English sources is a special issue of Lingua (van den Berg 2005). It gives an overview of each family’s phonology, morphology, and syntax. The typological interest of Caucasian languages is summarized in the introduction (Comrie 2005). More detailed descriptions are in Greppin 1989–2004, a four-volume collection on Caucasian languages in which each volume provides an overview of the family and a description of each language belonging to it (two volumes are dedicated to East Caucasian family). Lexical, syntactic, morphological, and phonological features shared by Caucasian languages are discussed in Klimov 1978. Verbs of perception are an example of a common Caucasian way of structuring the lexicon: they tend to make a distinct group with a special way of coding the arguments (the experiencer argument is marked by the dative or by a special case, the affective). Klimov and Alekseev 1980 focuses on the syntactic features common to Caucasian languages, considering in turns the alignment of the verb arguments, syntactic government, and syntactic characteristics of ergativity. The overall conclusion is that West Caucasian languages are the most prototypically ergative, East Caucasian languages have elements of nominative-accusative strategies, and Kartvelian languages represent a combination of active, ergative, and nominative types. Alekseev 1999 provides an overview of Caucasian languages (in Russian); each chapter opens with a general description of the linguistic branch and is followed by descriptions of individual languages following the same format: an overview of phonology, morphology, syntax, and the vocabulary of the language. Detailed information on the geographical distribution of Caucasian languages is in Koryakov 2006. Comrie 2008 describes the sociolinguistic situation in the Caucasus and contacts between the indigenous languages and languages from other linguistic families spoken in the Caucasus. Nikolayev and Starostin 1994 is an etymological dictionary (available as an online database) for all Caucasian languages. The authors believe that Caucasian languages had a common ancestor. This view has not been shared by all Caucasiologists, but the database presents an invaluable resource for comparative studies: it allows query by lexical or semantic value and returns the reconstructions plus lexical items in modern Caucasian languages.

  • Alekseev, M. E., ed. 1999. Yazyki mira: Kavkazskie yazyki. Moscow: Academia.

    A short grammatical description of every Caucasian language. In Russian.

  • Comrie, Bernard. 2005. Introduction to Caucasian. In Special issue: Caucasian. Edited by Helma van den Berg. Lingua 115:1–4.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.lingua.2003.07.009

    General information about the Caucasian family stressing the typological interest of the phenomena represented in its languages.

  • Comrie, Bernard. 2008. Linguistic diversity in the Caucasus. Annual Review of Anthropology 37:131–143.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.anthro.35.081705.123248

    Overview of all languages spoken in the Caucasus with sociolinguistic information and a description of linguistic diversity across indigenous Caucasian languages.

  • Klimov, G. A., ed. 1978. Strukturnye obshchnosti kavkazskikh yazykov. Moscow: Nauka.

    The vocabulary, syntax, morphology, and phonology of Caucasian languages are considered in turn, and common features are established. In Russian with an English summary.

  • Klimov, G. A., and M. E. Alekseev. 1980. Tipologiya kavkazskikh yazykov. Moscow: Nauka.

    Typological comparison of three families, Abkhaz-Adyghe (West Caucasian), Nakh-Daghestanian (East Caucasian), and Kartvelian, focusing on the syntactic structures. In Russian with an English summary.

  • Koryakov, Y. B. 2006. Atlas kavkazskikh yazykov. Moscow: Piligrim.

    Maps showing where individual Caucasian languages are spoken. Map legends in Russian.

  • Nikolayev, S. L., and S. A. Starostin. 1994. North Caucasian etymological dictionary. Moscow: Asterisk.

    The printed version contains roots common to East Caucasian and West Caucasian languages. The online resource has the Kartvelian etymologies added (among other etymological databases, including North Caucasian etymologies.

  • Greppin, John A. C., ed. 1989–2004. The indigenous languages of the Caucasus. 4 vols. Delmar, NY: Caravan.

    This four-volume collection provides an overview of each family followed by short grammatical descriptions of every language. Volume 1, The Kartvelian Languages; Volume 2, The North West Caucasian Languages; Volumes 3 and 4, The North East Caucasian Languages.

  • van den Berg, Helma. 2005. Special issue: Caucasian. Lingua 115.1–2.

    Special issue on Caucasian languages comprising three articles, one on each of the three families of Caucasian languages: South Caucasian, Northwest Caucasian, and Northeast Caucasian. Each article emphasizes the typological interest of the family and provides a brief grammatical description and a bibliography.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.