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Summary Article: Caucasian languages
from The Columbia Encyclopedia

family of languages spoken by about 7 million people in the Caucasus region of SE European Russia. The Caucasian languages take their name from the Caucasus Mountains, on the slopes of which their original homeland is believed to have been located. This linguistic family was once considerably more extensive; some 35 or so (depending on how the languages and dialects are classified) of its tongues have survived into modern times. There are two major subdivisions of the Caucasian family of languages, northern and southern. Whether or not these two branches are related linguistically is still disputed, but Georgian scholars since the 1930s have regarded as proved the kinship of all the Caucasian tongues.

The northern group consists of more than 30 languages native to more than2 million people. Its most important members are Chechen, Ingush, Avar, and Dargin in the Northeast grouping and Karbardian and Adyghe (often classified together as Circassian) and Abkhaz in the Northwest grouping; Circassian speakers are also found to some extent in Turkey and Syria. The southern group of Caucasian languages includes four tongues. Georgian, the leading member of the southern group, is the mother tongue of about 4 million people in Georgia and in neighboring areas of Turkey and Azerbaijan in Iran. It is a modern representative of the language of the ancient Colchians, of whom the celebrated mythological figure Medea was one (see also Colchis). A literature in Georgian goes back to the 5th cent. A.D., and the language has two alphabets of its own, one of which is still in use, although increasingly the Cyrillic alphabet is being adopted.

In general, the Caucasian languages have inflection and tend to be agglutinative in that different linguistic elements, each of which exists separately and has a fixed meaning, are often joined to form one word. Phonetically, the Caucasian tongues are distinctive, combining simplicity of vowels with abundant richness of consonants. Many of the Caucasian languages are spoken by comparatively few people (that is, fewer than 100,000), and have gradually given ground to Russian. An exception is Georgian, which has a comparatively large number of speakers.

  • See Geiger, B. et al., Peoples and Languages of the Caucasus (1959).
The Columbia Encyclopedia, © Columbia University Press 2018

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