Start page

Valentyn Stetsyuk (Lviv, Ukraine)

Personal web site


The North Caucasian Languages

Finding refuge in the cold season, Paleolithic man mastered cave dwellings in the Caucasus much earlier than in the neighboring regions of the Middle East. The Caucasus is one of the first places (and possibly the first) by the number of sites of Stone man (LUBIN V.P. 1998: 49) The intense colonization of the Caucasus by first man took place in Acheulean times (Lower Palaeolithic era), although archaeological finds of earlier time are known too. By the end of Acheulean period people have already invaded the territory of modern Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan and North Caucasus (sites in Azykh cave, Dmanisi, Kudaro, Muradovo, Tsona, Karakhach).

At left: Azokh cave in Azerbaijan, the site of Pre-neandertalian people. Photo from Wikipedia.

Since this large region has been obviously inhabited continuously, we have suggested that people of Mongoloid anthropological race settled here at the Upper Paleolithic era. The ground for this assumption was the result of research of kinship Sino-Tibetan languages .

People of Caucasoid type settled in Caucasus and Transcaucasia at the Mesolithic times and have developed their own Neolithic culture. The question about the population of the Transcaucasus, spoke the language of Nostratic macrofamily, is considered separately, but here we present only the map of the settlement of the speakers of Nostratic languages (see below). Further, we try to throw light on the possible presence of ancient inhabitants of different linguistic identities on the Caucasus and the nearest places. This is the key question of whether any part of the present population of this territory were autochthonous inhabitants.

At right: The ethnic map of the Caucasus at Neolith time.

Asking this question, we will try to explore the languages of the modern peoples of the North Caucasus by the graphic-analytical method. Currently, there are native speakers of Nakh, Dagestan, Abkhaz-Adyghe, and Turkic languages. As will be shown later, Balkarians, Karachays, Kumyks, and Nogai are newcomers. Therefore, we should establish kinship of the Nakh, Dagestan, and Abkhaz-Adyghe languages and try to find the ancestral home of their speakers using graphic models of these languages.

Many linguists join the Abkhaz-Adyghe and the Nakh-Dagestan Languages into a North Caucasian family, sometimes simply called Caucasian. The South Caucasian languages (we call them Kartvelian) belong to another macrofamily (phylum) named the Nostratic languages. The relation of the Abkhaz-Adyghe and Nakh-Dagestani languages to any language macrofamily has not yet been determined. As their speakers lived in the Caucasus in close proximity to the Kartvelian languages group from ancient times, we may assume that these languages can also be Nostratic. Numerous Indo-European and North Caucasian isogosses speak in favor of such a preposition (STAROSTIN S.A. 2007: 312-358).

Lexical data on North Caucasian languages have been collected in the tables by the group of scientists led by Nikolai Starostin the project The Tower of Babel . Data taken from the tables were used for the study of these languages by graphic-analytical method, but an attempt to build a common model of relationship for them failed. However, models for Abkhaz-Adyghe and Nakh-Dagestani languages have been built successfully. And this allows us to put forward the next working hypothesis.

Probably both groups of languages come from one common ancestor, which S. Starostin called the Proto-North Caucasian language (PNC). As proof of his existence, he cited phonetic and lexical correspondences between the Nakh-Dagestan and Abkhaz-Adyghe languages (STAROSTIN S.A. 2007: 290-305). PNC was divided into two dialects already at an early stage of development. When the speakers of these dialects migrated in different directions, Proto-Nakh-Dagestan (PND) and pre-Abkhaz-Adyg (PAA) languages were formed in the places of residence, which over time also went through the division process. Their common ancestral home was supposed to be located somewhere close between modern habitats, that is, in the Caucasus. Here there is only one free area that was not inhabited by the speakers of any Nostratic language, namely the Kura valley in modern Azerbaijan (see the map above). The areas of formation of distinct Abkhaz-Adyghe and Nakh-Dagestan languages can be determined by their graphic models.

The Abkhaz-Adyghe languages

At present the Abkhaz-Adyghe languages also called Northwest Caucasian languages are presented by the Abkhaz, Abaza, Adyghe, Kabardian/Circassian, and Ubykh languages. The Ubykh language is dead, but documented evidence of its vocabulary and grammar exists. At the same time, Kabardino-Circassian and Adyghean are so close that one can assume their common origin from the same paternal language. Less confidently we can talk about the common parent language of Abkhaz and Abazin. Nevertheless, the data of Sergei Starostin presented for all the five Abkhaz-Adyg languages ​​mentioned above were taken for constructing a graphical model of their kinship.

In accordance with these data, the relationship scheme is constructed very easily, it is shown at left.

At left: The graphical model of the Abkhaz-Adyghe languages.

A presumable place on the map for the obtained scheme should be looked for somewhere near the modern settlements of the Abkhaz-Adyghe peoples, but a small number of languages ​​of this group do not allow to precisely localize their prehistoric ancestral home. In addition, there is no place for an area of the Kabardino-Circassian language in the place of ​​their proposed location. Obviously, Kabardino-Circassian, and Adyghean, in fact, had a common individual genetic ancestor. Under this assumption, the scheme can be correlated with the territory of the Western Caucasus, where four fairly distinct geographical areas can be identified on the Black Sea coast. In this case, the ancestors of the Adygeans, Kabardians, and Circassians, whom we give the conventional name of the Adyge, should live in the area between the rivers Mzymta and Bzyb, and the ancestors of the Ubykhs populated area between the rivers Mzymta and Shahe.

This localization of the graphic model (see the map at left) allows us to state that the Abkhazians stayed at the places of their primary settlement between the Bzyb and Kialasur rivers, somewhat widening by now their original territory for the Bzyb and Kodori rivers.

At left: The map of areas of the formation of the Abkhazo-Adyghean languages on the West Caucasus.

The presence of an area between the Kelasur and Kodori rivers corresponding to the kinship model, suggests that the Abazin language developed exactly there, in the neighborhood of the Abkhazian area, and this caused special proximity of these languages. The Abazins are the ancestors of the historical Abazgs (Abaska), whose country was located approximately in the same places.

The Dagestanian and Nakh languages

The Nakh-Dagestanian language family consists of the Dargwa and Lak languages and such language groups: Nakh, Avar-Andi, Tsezic, Lezghian.

Obviously, at first six languages were arisen in Dagestan that is each mentioned group has its parent language which we will name Nakh, Avar-Andi, Tsezic, Lezghian. The graphic model of the Nakh-Dagestanian language constructed by means of Tower of Babel is shown at right.

At right: The graphical model of the Nakh-Dagestanian languages.

The model is good located in the valleys of Dagestan mountain country. Boundaries between the areas are mountain ranges (see map below)

At left: The map of areas of the formation of the Nakh-Dagestanian languages on the East Caucasus.

Subsequentlythe speaker of Nakh-Dagestani languages resettled along the Greater Caucasus Mountain Range (resettlement directions are shown on the map by arrows), and in new places settlements, some languages dismembered again.

Languages developed out of the former Nakh language.

The map of areas of the further development of the Nakh-Dagestanian languages.

The Proto-Nakh language gave the origin to present-day Chechen, Ingush, Batsbi, and Kisti languages. It was formed in a large habitat, limited by the main Caucasian, Bogos, and Snowy ridges. Now, this area is partly within the territory of Georgia, the modern border with Russia separates the area into two parts.

Western part of the area is formed by the valleys of Piriketeli Alazani and Tusheti Alazani Rivers merging in the Andi Koysu River. The Eastern part of the area is located in the valley of its tributary Metlyuda River. Obviously, the ancestors of the Chechens and Ingush left their ancestral home under pressure Avar-Andean tribes who came through Tsuntin Pass (2464 m above sea level) from the Avar Koysu valley. Going through the mountain pass between Big Borbalo on the Main Caucasian ridge and ridge Nukatl, Nakh tribes came to the upper reaches of the Argun River and went with its stream till its merging with the Sharoargun River and then populated valleys of both rivers. Just on these valleys, the Chechen and Ingush languages were formed finally. The Batsbi and Kisti languages developed in the western part of the area under the influence of Georgian.

Languages developed out of the former Avar-Andi parent language..

Left: Graphic model of the Avar-Andean languages. Right: Territory of the formation of Avar-Andean languages on a modern map.

The kinship model of Avar-Andean languages is well placed in the upper reaches of the Avar Koysu and Andi Koysu rivers. A part of the native speakers of the parent language went upstream the Avar Koisu River and forced the Laks who inhabited these places into the valley of the Kara Koisu River. The other part was passed to the valley of the Andi Koysu. The Bagvala language was formed in the western part of the area of the Proto-Nakh language, that is on the territory which now belongs to Georgia. At present native speakers of Bagvala (Bagulal otherwise) form no majority in any of the regions of Dagestan and are dwelling in the countryside, which is just adjacent to their historic homeland in Tsumandin district of Dagestan. Obviously, the bulk of them was assimilated by Georgians.

The Chamvala language was formed in the area on both banks of the river Avar Koysu limited on the north by Snowy range with the main peak Diklosmta, on the east by the Mountain Addala-Shuhgelmeer. Just there is Tsumadin region of Dagestan, where the bulk of the nation Chamala is concentrated which has relative majority (40%) here.

The native speakers of Tindi (Tyndali) inhabit the same Tsumadin district, accounting for 15% of the population. It is north of their ancestral home, which was located in Tsuntin district where the absolute majority are native speakers of the languages belonging to the group of Tsezi (Didoian, Bezhita, Hunzib, Hinukh).

The Urheimat of Akhvakh was localized on the territory of the Bezhita land of Dagestan with a minor amount of the population (less than 10 thousand). Except Bezhita, Hunzib and Didoian people inhabit it. On the contrary, Akhvakh people, also in small quantities (seven thousand) inhabit Akhvakh district where relative majority is conctituted by Karatin people whose language was formed just in this area. Since Akhvakh also live in one of the villages in Azerbaijan, we can assume that they left their ancestral home, migrating as northward and southward.

The areas of formation of the Botlikh and Andian languages are defined in general correctly. Currently the speakers of these languages ​​inhabit Botlikh district, which partly correspond to the area of the Botlikh language, while the area of the Andian language has been located to the south and sharp boundaries between them is absent.

The area of formation of the Avar language has been located in Tliaratyn district of Dagestan, it is just here where the Avars constitute the vast majority of the population (99, 07%).

Languages developed out of the former Didoian (Tsezi) parent language..

At left: The graphical model of the Didoic (Tsezic) languages.

According to the Didoic (Tsezic) language kinship model, they should have been formed in the lower reaches of the Andi Koysu and Avar Koysu rivers. These are the Gunib, Gumbet, Gergebil, Khunzakh, and Untsukul districts. However, the population of these districts consider themselves to be Avars. At the same time, most of the speakers of the Tsezian languages ​​live in insignificant numbers much further south.

However, there are several villages near the old habitats in Khasavyurt, Kizilyurt, Kizlyar districts where people speak Tsezi, Khvarshi, and Inkhokvari. It can be assumed that at some time a part of the Tsezi, Bezhita, Hunzibs, and Hinukh migrated south due to the invasion of new aliens, while the speakers of Khvarshi and Inkhokvari remained in place.

Right: Gunib plateau. Photo by Andrey Shlykov.

Moving up the valley of the Andi Koysu River, the migrants could not find a place for themselves among the Avar-Andi population, until they came to the upper reaches of the Metluda River and settled on the territory that is now the part of Tsuntin and Tsumadin districts and Bezhita land of Dagestan. Here they live scattered in separate groups mixed with the Avars, preserving native languages. Strangers who forced the migration of the Thezi, Bezhita, Hunzib, Hinukh people were Kipchak tribes, whose descendants are the modern-day Kumyks inhabited to north and north-east of the speakers of the Dagestan languages. This hypothesis is confirmed by local place names, in particular by the names of rivers, having in its names an element Koysu of clearly Turkic origin (quj,qoj "to pour, flow" and su "water"). Over time reverse movement of the population could begin, because Turkic population in the basins of the Andi, Avar, Kara Koysu rivers is absent.

The Lak and Dargin languages.

Pressed by Avar-Andi tribe, the speakers of the Lak language left their ancestral homeland on the upper reaches of the Dzhurmuta river and moved to the valley of the Karakoysu River its tributaries. Here they live in Lak and Kulin districts of Dagestan, keeping your common language, although a small part of the Laks remained on the homeland, which is now a part of the Charodinsky district. The ancestors of Dargin (Dargwa) inhabited the area on the lower reaches of the rivers flowing to the Caspian Sea. There are no special geographical obstacles, so their language avoided splitting. Dargwa people settled over a wide area until the Kuma River. Already mentioned Kipchaks, have came in Fore Caucasus, moved to Caspian Sea south of the mouth of the Terek River and occupied a steppe part of Dargin territory adjacent to foothills and along the sea. This assumption is confirmed by he modern-day settlements of Kumyks.

The languages developed out of the former Lezghian parent language..

At right: The graphical model of the Lezghian languages.

Forced out of the valley of the Karakoysu River by Lak people, the ancestors of the speakers of Lezghian languages moved into the upper reaches of the Samur and Khunnikh River. Present-day settlements the peoples of this group meet their languages kinship model only partially. In accordance with it, the Rutuls and Tsakhurs live in Rutul District of Dagestan, Lezghians inhabit Akhtin, Magaramkent, and Kurakh districts, Aguls – in Agul, Tabasarans – in Khiv districts. Residence of minorities do not correspond to the scheme absolutely. So the Archi people together with the Avars live in Charodin district of Dagestan, people Budukh and Kryz occupy several villages in Azerbaijan and Udi people live in different places in Azerbaijan, Georgia, Dagestan, and even Kazakhstan.

Summing up the data, we can recreate the linguistic situation in the Caucasus in the Neolithic era (see map below).

Having left for an unknown reason the ancestral homeland in the Kura valley, the speakers of the PAA moved west and finally settled in the territory of modern Abkhazia, and the PND speakers carriers passed the Main Caucasus Range.

At left: Linguistic map of the Caucasus for about the period of 7-5th millennium BC

One part of the immigrants found Dagestan convenient for living, and the other part came down to the plain. Later, these latter became the creators of the so-called Maykopian culture, which existed in Ciscaucasia until the end of the 3rd millennium BC. This population will be referred to as Maykopians. To date, no traces that would speak about the ethnicity of Maykop people have not survived. At some time they left their seats. On the contrary, the autochthonous population of Dagestan has survived today (see the map below).

Right: Ethno-Linguistic map of Dagestan at the middle of the 20 cen.

The Kartvelian languages 1. Georgian
The Nakh languages 7. Chechen 8. Ingush 9. Kisti 10. Batsbi
The Dagestan languages 11. Avar 12. Lak 13. Dargwa 14. Tabasaran 15. Lesgi 16. Aguli 17. Rytul 18. Tsakhur 19. Khinalugi 20. Kriz 21. Budukh 22. Udi
The Turkic languages 34. Azerbaijan 35. Karachay 36. Balkar 37. Kumyk 38. Nogai 39. Turkmen 40. Tatar 41. Kazakh
The Indo-European languages 23. Russian 24. Ukrainian 25. Armenian 26. Ossetic 27. Kurdish 28. Talishi 29. Tatish 30. Jewish-Tatish 31. Greek 32. German 33. Romanian

Comparison of the maps of areas where the Nakh-Dagestani languages were arisen from a common parent language with present-day settlement places of their respective speakers showed that they really were formed on the territory of Dagestan, and we see that the related Abkhaz-Circassian and Nakh-Dagestani languages were undergoing division process on quite a distance from each other, that is they were dwelling on these areas during long historical time. Obviously, as we suggested, in antiquity two groups of a common North Caucasian language speakers migrated from common Urheimat in two different directions, namely, the ancestors of Abkhaz-Adyghes moved to the Black Sea and settled north of Kartvels but the ancestors of Nakh and Dagestan people settled in the hill country of Dagestan.

Left: The population of the Caucasus at the Scythian time

At the turn of the 3rd and 2nd thousand BC during the First "Great Migration of Peoples", the North Caucasus was populated by Turkic tribes (the ancestors of modern Turks, Kumyks, Karachays and Balkars, Turkmen and Gagauz). Later Armenians and Iranian Medes tribes settled in Transcaucasia, soon joined by other Iranians: Talysh, Gilyanians , Balochi, Masendarants. The Albanians and Caspians known from history, who inhabited the Transcaucasus in the Scythian time, obviously belonged to that part of the speakers of the hypothetical North Caucasian language, which remained on its historical ancestral homeland. The Kolkhs mentioned in historical documents were the ancestors of modern Megrels and Laz.

The Ossetians, who constitute a significant part of the population of the North Caucasus, came to their present habitat in historical time. The ways of their migrations are reflected in place names. They, as with other peoples of the North Caucasus, in particular Chechens, played a certain role in the Scythian-Sarmatian period (see "Pechenegs and Magyars".)