Demystifying the Caucasus

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Demystifying the Caucasus

Post by Avo » 04 Sep 2015 15:16

Hello

I don't remember when I started reading articles about languages on Wikipedia, but I do remember when I discovered Georgian and, through it, the whole Caucasian linguistic landscape. I was already familiar with the basic concepts of linguistics, but it was this discovery that truly got me into it. Ever since then I basically devoured every resource about the Caucasus, its people and its languages I could find.

So while most conlangers are somehow aware of their existence, the languages of the Caucasus are still surrounded by mystery and I often see "facts" and factoids around that may not be entirely true or even just not true at all. With this thread I guess I'll try to share as much as I can so that we can all enjoy the awesomness of these languages, and I invite anyone who knows stuff to join me.



I'll start with a quick terminology issue. When people say "Caucasian languages", they usually mean the Northeast Caucasian, Northwest Caucasian and Kartvelian language families. Using the word this way, however, is ambiguous, as "Caucasian languages" usually also includes the non-indigenous languages that are traditionally spoken in the area.
Actually, "Caucasian languages" is a rather useless word and really more a geographical than a linguistic classification. Lots of features attributed to "Caucasian languages" actually apply only to one, two language families at most. There is no such thing as a Caucasian Sprachbund (an important thing I'll get to in a post in the future, if anyone is interested) and, even if you disregard the non-indigenous languages, the Caucasian languages are far from being alike. So next time you say "Caucasian languages" remember you're talking about an area that is more linguistically diverse than Europe! [:P]

So yeah, that's it for a start. I don't really have a plan for this, so questions are very welcome. Otherwise I'll probably continue my random rambling.

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Re: Demystifying the Caucasus

Post by clawgrip » 04 Sep 2015 15:19

Definitely interested. You said:
Lots of features attributed to "Caucasian languages" actually apply only to one, two language families at most.
Maybe you can start by giving some overview of the families and explaining what famous features belong to which family, how common or uncommon they are within the families, etc.

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Re: Demystifying the Caucasus

Post by Creyeditor » 11 Oct 2015 01:24

Avo wrote: There is no such thing as a Caucasian Sprachbund (an important thing I'll get to in a post in the future, if anyone is interested)
I really would appreciate that.
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Re: Demystifying the Caucasus

Post by shimobaatar » 11 Oct 2015 03:16

clawgrip wrote:Definitely interested.
Creyeditor wrote: I really would appreciate that.
[+1] Absolutely. I can't believe I haven't seen this thread before now.

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Re: Demystifying the Caucasus

Post by Znex » 11 Oct 2015 12:29

shimobaatar wrote:
clawgrip wrote:Definitely interested.
Creyeditor wrote: I really would appreciate that.
[+1] Absolutely. I can't believe I haven't seen this thread before now.
I second that motion. Learns please! [:D]
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Re: Demystifying the Caucasus

Post by cntrational » 11 Oct 2015 13:11

greenberg and his ilk were bad >:[

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Re: Demystifying the Caucasus

Post by qwed117 » 11 Oct 2015 19:26

shimobaatar wrote:
clawgrip wrote:Definitely interested.
Creyeditor wrote: I really would appreciate that.
[+1] Absolutely. I can't believe I haven't seen this thread before now.
5 hours before Creyeditor submitted his revival post, I was looking over this thread. Avo, you better have some reason why you haven't updated this [}:(]
Edit: I knew I should've put a [xD] face there.
Last edited by qwed117 on 11 Oct 2015 21:06, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Demystifying the Caucasus

Post by shimobaatar » 11 Oct 2015 20:50

qwed117 wrote: 5 hours before Creyeditor submitted his revival post, I was looking over this thread. Avo, you better have some reason why you haven't updated this [}:(]
Yeah, it's not like they're a real person with real responsibilities and a real life and it's not like the thread only got one response until like a month later.

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Re: Demystifying the Caucasus

Post by HoskhMatriarch » 11 Oct 2015 21:50

Avo wrote:Hello

I don't remember when I started reading articles about languages on Wikipedia, but I do remember when I discovered Georgian and, through it, the whole Caucasian linguistic landscape. I was already familiar with the basic concepts of linguistics, but it was this discovery that truly got me into it. Ever since then I basically devoured every resource about the Caucasus, its people and its languages I could find.

So while most conlangers are somehow aware of their existence, the languages of the Caucasus are still surrounded by mystery and I often see "facts" and factoids around that may not be entirely true or even just not true at all. With this thread I guess I'll try to share as much as I can so that we can all enjoy the awesomness of these languages, and I invite anyone who knows stuff to join me.



I'll start with a quick terminology issue. When people say "Caucasian languages", they usually mean the Northeast Caucasian, Northwest Caucasian and Kartvelian language families. Using the word this way, however, is ambiguous, as "Caucasian languages" usually also includes the non-indigenous languages that are traditionally spoken in the area.
Actually, "Caucasian languages" is a rather useless word and really more a geographical than a linguistic classification. Lots of features attributed to "Caucasian languages" actually apply only to one, two language families at most. There is no such thing as a Caucasian Sprachbund (an important thing I'll get to in a post in the future, if anyone is interested) and, even if you disregard the non-indigenous languages, the Caucasian languages are far from being alike. So next time you say "Caucasian languages" remember you're talking about an area that is more linguistically diverse than Europe! [:P]

So yeah, that's it for a start. I don't really have a plan for this, so questions are very welcome. Otherwise I'll probably continue my random rambling.
Cool. I expect this thread to be quite interesting. Can you explain about the fortis and lenis consonants in the languages that have those and what makes the fortis consonants not just geminates? All the sound samples I can find of languages that have those are really staticky...
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Re: Demystifying the Caucasus

Post by Avo » 12 Oct 2015 01:05

Oh wow. I have written down a bunch of notes and had one complete-ish post prepared when I started this thread, but then life happened etc, you know how it goes. Also, I did not not post here anymore because too few people expressed their interest, but thanks anyway for doing so. Sorry for the bait, but I promise I'll continue this (or actually start it).

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Re: Demystifying the Caucasus

Post by Salmoneus » 13 Oct 2015 02:04

Will there also be a timely companion thread, "demystifying the Caucuses"?

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Re: Demystifying the Caucasus

Post by qwed117 » 13 Oct 2015 02:10

Salmoneus wrote:Will there also be a timely companion thread, "demystifying the Caucuses"?
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Re: Demystifying the Caucasus

Post by WeepingElf » 08 Mar 2016 21:26

I have written an overview of the indigenous families of the Caucasus. An interesting bunch those are!
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Re: Demystifying the Caucasus

Post by KaiTheHomoSapien » 09 Mar 2016 05:19

I've always been interested in the Caucasian languages as well, especially given that a lot of them have ergative alignment. Why is it that there is such linguistic diversity in the Caucasus? Is it mainly a result of the physical geography? Or is there more to it?

Also, I know the three indigenous families, but are there are any other indigenous languages (i.e. any isolates there?) Also, what do you guys think of the "Alarodian" hypothesis (i.e. that Northeast Caucasian is related to Hurro-Urartian)?

Those are just some things I've wondered about.

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Re: Demystifying the Caucasus

Post by Avo » 09 Mar 2016 16:52

This thread is embarassing me. Oh well.
KaiTheHomoSapien wrote:I've always been interested in the Caucasian languages as well, especially given that a lot of them have ergative alignment. Why is it that there is such linguistic diversity in the Caucasus? Is it mainly a result of the physical geography? Or is there more to it?
The geography is probably an important factor. The area has been invaded by a bunch of different people over the course of history and the mountains acted like a kind of refuge for the speakers of the indigenous languages. Consider that most Caucasian languages are pretty small and confined to an equally small territory, and out of the three families, only the East Caucasian one is truly diverse when you look at the number of languages. It also seems to be the oldest language family in the area. West Caucasian and Kartvelian are merely a hand full of languages each.
KaiTheHomoSapien wrote:Also, I know the three indigenous families, but are there are any other indigenous languages (i.e. any isolates there?) Also, what do you guys think of the "Alarodian" hypothesis (i.e. that Northeast Caucasian is related to Hurro-Urartian)?

Those are just some things I've wondered about.
There are no isolates, but a bunch of outliner languages that are isolated within each given family (Ubykh in West Caucasian, Svan in Kartvelian, Lak and Khinalug in East Caucasian).
As for the Alarodian hypothesis, short answer: Highly doubtful.

Long answer: It would fit into what I personally think could have happened in the prehistory of the area. On the other hand, it seems to me like the only "evidence" here is Urartian has been spoken in the vicinity of NE Caucasian and Both language families have an ergative case.
The latter argument is pretty weak, "ergativity" is one of the features attributed to a hypothetical Caucasian Sprachbund by some, ignoring entirely what the function of the cases labelled ergative actually is in the different languages. In short: The ergative in Georgian has an entirely different purpose than that of Kabardian and both aren't used like the one in Chechen. In fact, pretty much the only consistent thing within the NE Caucasian family is the languages' grammar. And grammar wise, Hurro-Urartian and NE Caucasian don't match up at all. Lexical correspondances, if they even exist, would be pretty hard to detect aswell. There are some words that match up in the Nakh and Daghestanian branches of NE Caucasian (Chechen butt, mott vs Hunzib boco, mɨc "moon, tongue/language" are two that come to my mind here) aswell as some grammatical morphemes (most notably the noun class markers), but pretty much everything about Proto-East Caucasian is still a mystery to us. But yeah, I'm wandering off the subject of your question.
I guess we're safe to say that there is 1. no relationship between Hurro-Urartian or 2. if there is one I guess Hurro-Urartian and NE Caucasian would be more like distant cousins than members of the same family.
The same is true for the theory that connects Burushaski and NE Caucasian by the way. Burushaski has a noun class system not too different from the one found in some NE Caucasian languages, but other than that, I don't think they have much in common.

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Re: Demystifying the Caucasus

Post by KaiTheHomoSapien » 10 Mar 2016 04:42

Well, thanks a lot for answering my questions [:D] It does seem the Alarodian theory isn't too strong, but would be very interesting if true. And also very interesting about the small number of languages in the Kartvelian and Northwest Caucasian families (4 languages each, I think) compared to the Northeast. The Caucasus will always be a fascinating area to me, politically, historically, and linguistically.

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Re: Demystifying the Caucasus

Post by Avo » 10 Mar 2016 17:58

KaiTheHomoSapien wrote:Well, thanks a lot for answering my questions [:D] It does seem the Alarodian theory isn't too strong, but would be very interesting if true. And also very interesting about the small number of languages in the Kartvelian and Northwest Caucasian families (4 languages each, I think) compared to the Northeast. The Caucasus will always be a fascinating area to me, politically, historically, and linguistically.
Population genetics do point to a Mesopotamian origin of at least some Caucasian people, especially the speakers of Northeast Caucasian, so chances are that there is some relationship between them and some languages of the Ancient Near East, but we'll probably never know for sure. Shared vocabulary among NE Caucasian languages, as far as I know, includes agricultural vocabulary, which may or may not be another hint of their ultimate Mesopotamian origin.

I too find the disparity between the number of languages in NW Caucasian/Kartvelian and NE Caucasian pretty interesting, so let me ramble on about this a bit more. Old Georgian, or Kartvelian in general, seems to have spread more into Anatolia in Ancient and Prehistoric times. What is now Western Georgia was Abkhaz/NW Caucasian/Pre-Early-Proto-Old-Abazgi/Whatever then, as demonstrated by toponymy and a significant number of loanwords in Mingrelian. Eastern Georgia, on the other hand, seems to have been ancient Nakh/NE Caucasian territory. Again, there is a small but notable number of words that seem to have been borrowed into (Old) Georgian from those languages.
Then there is Svan, which doesn't seem to fit into this at all. In fact, a lot of what is referred to as Proto-Kartvelian leaves Svan out entirely. However, there is some evident NW Caucasian influence here aswell. My speculation would be, that speakers of what would later become Georgian and the Zan languages (Laz and Mingrelian) moved into the North Caucasus, pushing Proto-Svan into the less accessible area where it is spoken today, and Kartvelian languages in general pushing out or replacing whatever NW Caucasian offspring was spoken there. At the same time or maybe later, the same thing happened with (Proto-)Georgian and NE Caucasian languages in Eastern Georgia.
I also believe that there is some connection between Proto-NW Caucasian, Proto-Kartvelian and Proto-Indo-European, probably in the steppe of what is now Southern Russia. Later, the intrusion of Iranian people, the Mongols and ultimately, the Russians, created the scattered distribution of Northwest Caucasian languages we see today. I'd like to stress that I do not believe that the three families are genetically related, but the NW Caucasian two vowel system strongly reminds me of the reconstructed e/o-vocalism of PIE, on one hand, and the Ablaut processes in Kartvelian and, to a lesser degree, NW Caucasian, look eerily similar to what we see in PIE aswell.
Keep in mind though that all of the above is pure speculation and I probably don't even know what I'm talking about.

Anyway, I probably should rename the thread to In which Avo babbles randomly about the languages of the Caucasus or whatever.

/e: Random but probably worth knowing when speaking about the Caucasus: Georgian and Old Udi (the language of Caucasian Iberia) have been the only indigenous Caucasian languages to be written down for like one and a half millennia, and while Udi stopped being used (in writing, that is), Avar became the lingua franca of Daghestan at some point during the Middle Ages, using an Arabic-derived alphabet with extra letters.

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Re: Demystifying the Caucasus

Post by WeepingElf » 10 Mar 2016 23:10

Avo wrote:Population genetics do point to a Mesopotamian origin of at least some Caucasian people, especially the speakers of Northeast Caucasian, so chances are that there is some relationship between them and some languages of the Ancient Near East, but we'll probably never know for sure. Shared vocabulary among NE Caucasian languages, as far as I know, includes agricultural vocabulary, which may or may not be another hint of their ultimate Mesopotamian origin.
In which case, NEC may indeed be related to Hurrian-Urartian as some linguists suspect. I don't know how good that idea is. The languages are indeed quite similar in their grammatical typology, but Hurrian and Urartian seem to have much smaller consonant inventories than the NEC languages, though we may just be dealing with an underspecifying script (a variant of Mesopotamian cuneiform) here, and such differences say nothing about relationship.
Avo wrote:I too find the disparity between the number of languages in NW Caucasian/Kartvelian and NE Caucasian pretty interesting, so let me ramble on about this a bit more. Old Georgian, or Kartvelian in general, seems to have spread more into Anatolia in Ancient and Prehistoric times. What is now Western Georgia was Abkhaz/NW Caucasian/Pre-Early-Proto-Old-Abazgi/Whatever then, as demonstrated by toponymy and a significant number of loanwords in Mingrelian. Eastern Georgia, on the other hand, seems to have been ancient Nakh/NE Caucasian territory. Again, there is a small but notable number of words that seem to have been borrowed into (Old) Georgian from those languages.
Then there is Svan, which doesn't seem to fit into this at all. In fact, a lot of what is referred to as Proto-Kartvelian leaves Svan out entirely. However, there is some evident NW Caucasian influence here aswell. My speculation would be, that speakers of what would later become Georgian and the Zan languages (Laz and Mingrelian) moved into the North Caucasus, pushing Proto-Svan into the less accessible area where it is spoken today, and Kartvelian languages in general pushing out or replacing whatever NW Caucasian offspring was spoken there. At the same time or maybe later, the same thing happened with (Proto-)Georgian and NE Caucasian languages in Eastern Georgia.
So Kartvelian came from Anatolia? Fine. Then it may be related to Tyrrhenian (Etruscan, Rhaetic and Lemnian) which I fancy to originate from Northwest Anatolia - the Trojans may have been the speakers of Proto-Tyrrhenian, which may underlie the Roman foundation myth (pre-Republican Rome was ruled by an Etruscan aristocracy). There are a few morphological elements in Etruscan that resemble their Georgian counterparts. I don't know about lexical cognates, though. But maybe the idea of a Tyrrhenian-Kartvelian connection is utter hogwash, especially if Tyrrhenian turns out to be native to Italy.
Avo wrote:I also believe that there is some connection between Proto-NW Caucasian, Proto-Kartvelian and Proto-Indo-European, probably in the steppe of what is now Southern Russia. Later, the intrusion of Iranian people, the Mongols and ultimately, the Russians, created the scattered distribution of Northwest Caucasian languages we see today. I'd like to stress that I do not believe that the three families are genetically related, but the NW Caucasian two vowel system strongly reminds me of the reconstructed e/o-vocalism of PIE, on one hand, and the Ablaut processes in Kartvelian and, to a lesser degree, NW Caucasian, look eerily similar to what we see in PIE aswell.
Keep in mind though that all of the above is pure speculation and I probably don't even know what I'm talking about.
Fair. Some scholars (e.g. Allan Bomhard) have speculated that PIE may have been a sister language of Proto-Uralic (which seems to be more conservative than PIE) altered by the influence of a Caucasian (NWC, Kartvelian or whatever) sub- or adstratum. I think this makes much sense, though the details need to be sorted out.
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Re: Demystifying the Caucasus

Post by Avo » 11 Mar 2016 15:41

WeepingElf wrote:
Avo wrote:Population genetics do point to a Mesopotamian origin of at least some Caucasian people, especially the speakers of Northeast Caucasian, so chances are that there is some relationship between them and some languages of the Ancient Near East, but we'll probably never know for sure. Shared vocabulary among NE Caucasian languages, as far as I know, includes agricultural vocabulary, which may or may not be another hint of their ultimate Mesopotamian origin.
In which case, NEC may indeed be related to Hurrian-Urartian as some linguists suspect. I don't know how good that idea is. The languages are indeed quite similar in their grammatical typology, but Hurrian and Urartian seem to have much smaller consonant inventories than the NEC languages, though we may just be dealing with an underspecifying script (a variant of Mesopotamian cuneiform) here, and such differences say nothing about relationship.
I see this claim (that Hurro-Urartian and NE Caucasian languages are typologically similar) all the time, but I never see any examples and I honestly fail to see the similarities, but maybe I'm missing something. Or are we talking about the superficial similarities (the ergative case, SOV word order, primarily suffixing morphology) here? As far as I know, neither Hurrian nor Urartian show any traces of a noun class system, a feature which was clearly present in Proto-NE Caucasian. The verbal morphology looks pretty different too, the most obvious difference being polypersonal agreement in Hurro-Urartian while most NE Caucasian languages lack person agreement entirely (and in the ones that don't it's a later innovation).
I do think we're dealing with an undrspecifying script here though. It's pretty unlikely that all the unrelated Ancient Near Eastern languages' phoneme inventories fit neatly into cuneiform writing imo. But that's one of the many things we'll never know I guess.
WeepingElf wrote:So Kartvelian came from Anatolia? Fine. Then it may be related to Tyrrhenian (Etruscan, Rhaetic and Lemnian) which I fancy to originate from Northwest Anatolia - the Trojans may have been the speakers of Proto-Tyrrhenian, which may underlie the Roman foundation myth (pre-Republican Rome was ruled by an Etruscan aristocracy). There are a few morphological elements in Etruscan that resemble their Georgian counterparts. I don't know about lexical cognates, though. But maybe the idea of a Tyrrhenian-Kartvelian connection is utter hogwash, especially if Tyrrhenian turns out to be native to Italy.
I wouldn't go as far as to say it came from Anatolia, but the Kartvelians certainly were present beyond the Turkish-Georgian border during antiquity, while they weren't in the Georgian border regions in the North-West and North-East.
I quickly checked the grammar section of the Wikipedia article on Etruscan for things that look familiar from Kartvelian. Apparently there was a genitive -s/-ś, a dative -si and a plural in -ar. The case endings indeed look similar to the reconstructed Proto-Kartvelian genitive -is1 and dative -s. Svan shows plurals in -ar/-är, among others, that have no cognate in the other Kartvelian languages. That's certainly interesting, but I don't think Kartvelian and Etruscan are related.
WeepingElf wrote:
Avo wrote:I also believe that there is some connection between Proto-NW Caucasian, Proto-Kartvelian and Proto-Indo-European, probably in the steppe of what is now Southern Russia. Later, the intrusion of Iranian people, the Mongols and ultimately, the Russians, created the scattered distribution of Northwest Caucasian languages we see today. I'd like to stress that I do not believe that the three families are genetically related, but the NW Caucasian two vowel system strongly reminds me of the reconstructed e/o-vocalism of PIE, on one hand, and the Ablaut processes in Kartvelian and, to a lesser degree, NW Caucasian, look eerily similar to what we see in PIE aswell.
Keep in mind though that all of the above is pure speculation and I probably don't even know what I'm talking about.
Fair. Some scholars (e.g. Allan Bomhard) have speculated that PIE may have been a sister language of Proto-Uralic (which seems to be more conservative than PIE) altered by the influence of a Caucasian (NWC, Kartvelian or whatever) sub- or adstratum. I think this makes much sense, though the details need to be sorted out.
That paper looks interesting. I'm not sure what to think about Indo-Uralic to be honest, but it's one of the few macrofamily theories that make at least some sense to me.

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