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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Grammars
  • Overviews of Morphology
  • Overviews of Syntax
  • Historical Phonology
  • Historical Morphology
  • Formal Analyses
  • Argument Marking
  • Agreement
  • Morphological Complexity
  • Finiteness
  • Tense and Mood Categories
  • Binding

Linguistics Northeast Caucasian Languages
David Erschler
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 January 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0151


Northeast Caucasian (also often referred to as Nakh-Dag(h)estanian) languages are autochthonously spoken in Daghestan, Chechnya, and Ingushetia, autonomous republics within the Russian Federation, as well as in Azerbaijan and Georgia. Besides that, large numbers of speakers fled to the Ottoman Empire from the Russian-controlled Caucasus in the 1860s, and some Northeast Caucasian languages are still spoken in modern Turkey. By Dag(h)estanian languages, the non-Nakh members of the family are subsumed in the literature. However, it should be kept in mind that non-Nakh languages do not form a genetic unit; nor are they all spoken in Daghestan. Northeast Caucasian languages are conjectured to be related to the Northwest Caucasian languages, a proposal first advanced by Trubetzkoy and argued at length in Nikolaev and Starostin 1994 (cited under Historical Phonology), but this conjecture has not gained much support so far outside of Moscow. The Northeast Caucasian languages are famous for the complexity of their phonological systems, rich case inventories, the prevalence of ergative alignment, and complex agreement systems. Along with “large” written languages, such as Avar or Lezgi, the family includes languages only spoken in a single village, such as Khinalug, Archi, or Batsbi. Due to mass migration from the highlands to the plains, many of these minority languages are currently threatened. Larger languages (e.g., Avar and Dargi) actually consist of widely divergent language varieties, which not infrequently deserve to be treated as separate languages in their own right. The field study of the languages is currently complicated by the difficult security situation in the north Caucasus. Some of the Northeast Caucasian languages now have Cyrillic-based orthographies, and these are often used to present language data in Russian publications. When using such sources it should be kept in mind that the orthographies sometimes fail to reflect phonemic contrasts. Moreover, standard written languages, although usually based on some specific “dialect,” can diverge widely from actual spoken varieties and are not always easily understandable to “dialect” speakers. Until the last decades, the bulk of the literature on Northeast Caucasian appeared in Russian and Georgian (with accidental publications in Western European languages). More recently, a steady flow of English works has started. Due to the limitations of space, the priority is given here to publications in more commonly read languages. For numerous discussions of the material in this article, the author is grateful to Timur Maysak, Maria Polinsky, and Yakov Testelets.

General Overviews

A general overview of the typological profile of, and literature on, the Northeast Caucasian languages is van den Berg 2005. Hewitt 2004 and the admittedly somewhat outdated Klimov 1994 present the Northeast Caucasian in the general context of the linguistics of the Caucasus. Smeets 1995 and Job 2004 are collections of short grammar sketches of Northeast Caucasian languages. For a number of the languages covered there, this is the only description in English published so far. All these works are theory-neutral and do not assume anything but the general acquaintance with the standard linguistic terminology. The atlas Koryakov 2006 provides some geographic and sociological data.

  • Hewitt, George B. 2004. Introduction to the study of the languages of the Caucasus. Munich: Linkom Europa.

    A general overview of languages of the Caucasus with an extensive bibliography. Contains much data on Northeast Caucasian. In particular, it is one of the very few sources that present Northeast Caucasian data in the IPA, and not in an ad hoc transcription.

  • Job, Michael, ed. 2004. The indigenous languages of the Caucasus. Vol. 3, The North East Caucasian languages, Part 1. Anatolian and Caucasian Studies. Ann Arbor, MI: Caravan.

    Sketches of two Andic languages (Chamalal and Godoberi), three Tsezic languages (Tsez, Hinukh, and Bezhta), of Dargwa, and of one Lezgic language, Tsakhur.

  • Klimov, Georgij A. 1994. Einführung in die kaukasische Sprachwissenschaft. Hamburg, Germany: Buske.

    An introduction to the study of all autochthonous languages of the Caucasus. Includes a chapter on the Northeast Caucasian languages (pp. 134–174). In German.

  • Koryakov, Yury. 2006. Atlas kavkazskix jazykov. Moscow: Pilgrim.

    Maps Caucasian languages and provides some historical comments and data on modern numbers and distribution of speakers. Sources of data are not systematically indicated and the overall accuracy is not clear. The book is extremely rare. The registry of languages and (sub)dialects used to compile the maps is available online. In Russian.

  • Smeets, Rieks, ed. 1995. The indigenous languages of the Caucasus. Vol. 4, The North East Caucasian languages, Part 2. Anatolian and Caucasian Studies. Delmar, NY: Caravan.

    Sketches of all the Nakh (Chechen, Ingush, Tsova-Tush), and some Lezgic (Rutul, Budukh, Archi, Khinalug, Kryz, Udi) languages.

  • van den Berg, Helma. 2005. The East Caucasian language family. Lingua 115:147–190.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.lingua.2003.06.004

    A detailed overview of the Northeast Caucasian grammar with a large bibliography including references to most important literature in Russian and Georgian.

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