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Caucasian languages: a surprise package of linguistic complexity
Thread poster: Fabio Descalzi

Fabio Descalzi  Identity Verified
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Oct 29, 2007

This very month of October, it has been 15 years since a language passed away together with its last speaker: Tevfik Esenç died in October 1992 in Turkey, aged 88. The inscription that he wanted on his gravestone read as follows: This is the grave of Tevfik Esenç. He was the last person able to speak the language they called Ubykh

This topic is not about an extinct language... but about the family it belongs to. The Northern Caucasian language family, according to the Ethnologue , has 34 languages listed, spoken by less than 5 million speakers scattered through the Caucasus, Turkey and adjoining regions.
Who knows these languages? We all have heard about Chechen, some about Avar and Adyghe, even less about Abkhaz and Kabardin... somebody has ever heard about Khinalug?

Although the very composition of this language family is discussed (it is said to be actually two families), there are some relevant features to highlight:
· high levels of phonetic complexity: the extinct Ubykh language had 80 (yes: eighty) consonants
· many of them have great syntactic complexity in the noun: in Tabasaran we can find an array of some 48 locative suffixes
· some others have a very complex verbal structure: the subject, the direct object, the indirect object, benefactive objects and most local functions are expressed in the verb, so that virtually the entire syntactic structure of the sentence is contained within the verb.

When we think about the Caucasus, we automatically think about Georgian, Armenian and Azeri. Three official languages with long literary tradition. But... what about the "other" languages?


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Tim Drayton  Identity Verified
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Circassian Oct 29, 2007

Circassian is another Caucasian language which has quite a few speakers in Turkey. Speakers of this language whom I have met in Turkey appear to have retained a very strong sense of attachment to their Caucasian roots, while at the same time identifying fully with the Turkish Republic and the modernising goals which were set when this republic was established.

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xxxdikran d  Identity Verified
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Armenian Georgian Azeri Oct 29, 2007

Fabio Descalzi Sgarbi wrote:
When we think about the Caucasus, we automatically think about Georgian, Armenian and Azeri. Three official languages with long literary tradition. But... what about the "other" languages?


Hi Fabio

Those languages that you call official are the languages spoken by 3 different ethnic groupes namely Armenian, Georgian and Azerbaijani.

In Armenia I think those north Caucasian languages are not spoken simply because the related ethnic groupes live further in the North.

In Georgia however you find Abhkhazian as a distinct ethnic groupe. I don't know what relations it has with the Georgian language though.

On the other hand Ossetian which is spoken in Georgia does not belong to the groups you mentioned; I think it is more related with Farsi.

That's all I know about it!

[Edited at 2007-10-29 13:24]


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Alan R King
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A complex picture, not to be oversimplified Oct 29, 2007

Again, this is not my area of expertise. But to sum up a few basic points that I believe either do or should form part of the repertory of facts well-known to a self-respecting linguist:

1) The Caucasus is a geogrpahical region, of linguistic complexity as you say; languages belonging to several different language families (as well as having different political and sociolinguistic statuses) are spoken in this area.

2) The expression "Caucasian languages" refers to a putative language family, i.e. group of related languages. It is clear that all the "languages of the Caucasus" are not "Caucasian languages" under this definition. (Rather as if we were to say that "not all languages spoken in India and Europe are Indo-European languages".) Armenian, which you mention, is Indo-European and hence not a Caucasian language in the linguistic sense.

3) HOWEVER, the general consensus among linguists today no longer considers that the above-mentioned "Caucasian languages" constitute a single family all of the members of which are genetically related to each other. That is, it is now widely thought by specialists that all those languages sometimes called "Caucasian languages" are [a] unrelated to other language families outside the Caucasus region, but [b] it is no longer assumed by most that all these belong to the same family. Rather, there is more than one (mutually unrelated) family involved.

4) Although some issues are not yet fully resolved, I believe that the majority opinion is agreed on the existence of three such (I repeat, unrelated) language families, called South, Northwest and Northeast Caucasian respectively. South Caucasian is also referred to as Kartvelian and it includes Georgian, the official language of Georgia. Abkhaz is an example of a Northwest Caucasian language, while Chechen (with a million speakers) is one representative of the Northeast Caucasian family. Therefore, the three above-mentioned languages are not related to each other, although they all still fall within the informal designation of "Caucasian languages"; whereas Armenian, an Indo-European language (and therefore not related to any of these either), is not one of the "Caucasian languages".

5) The sharing of certain general similarities between languages spoken in a given area of the world does not necessarily demonstrate any genetic relationship between them. When this happens it may be referred to as a "linguistic area", also known as a "Sprachbund". There are numerous examples of linguistic areas of this type in different parts of the world. It was probably the existence of certain shared general traits that gave rise to the earlier belief in a single "Caucasian language family", which closer examination has debunked.

I am sure that many Caucasian languages are not onlyh substantially quite different from each other, but also have very different histories and find themselves in very different situations at the present time. It is therefore to be expected that there should be few valid generalisations across the whole set of languages. But here my knowledge of the subject has reached its limits and I must let others speak.

Alan


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Fabio Descalzi  Identity Verified
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Valid observations Oct 29, 2007

Hi people

Thank you all for the contributions so far.
In particular, I want to comment on Alan's post.
Alan R King wrote:
1) The Caucasus is a geogrpahical region, of linguistic complexity as you say; languages belonging to several different language families (as well as having different political and sociolinguistic statuses) are spoken in this area.

Of course. When I mentioned all in a hurry "Armenian / Georgian / Azeri", I was just referring to the fact that "OK, we are all very aware of those three languages". Period. No way to relate them to the North Caucasian "family" of languages.

Alan R King wrote:
2) The expression "Caucasian languages" refers to a putative language family, i.e. group of related languages. It is clear that all the "languages of the Caucasus" are not "Caucasian languages" under this definition. (...)
3) HOWEVER, the general consensus among linguists today no longer considers that the above-mentioned "Caucasian languages" constitute a single family all of the members of which are genetically related to each other. That is, it is now widely thought by specialists that all those languages sometimes called "Caucasian languages" are [a] unrelated to other language families outside the Caucasus region, but [b] it is no longer assumed by most that all these belong to the same family. Rather, there is more than one (mutually unrelated) family involved.

Yes. Very clear, if we look at the corresponding article on Wikipedia. It shows a "blanket group" of languages called North Caucasian.

Alan R King wrote:
South Caucasian is also referred to as Kartvelian and it includes Georgian, the official language of Georgia.

A punctual comment for you, Alan: there have been some scientists trying to link Georgian with Euskera - but that's not the topic of this thread all the same.


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Alan R King
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On the Basque-Caucasian Hypothesis Oct 29, 2007

Fabio Descalzi Sgarbi wrote:

There have been some scientists trying to link Georgian with Euskera...


Yes, Fabio, I didn't want to go off-topic by mentioning that. Besides, I don't think it's necessary since the majority of scientific opinion does not support this hypothesis. (I believe there may be slightly more proponents for the hypothesis among Caucasian linguists than in Basque academic circles today.)

Since you bring it up, let it suffice (I hope) to quote a few sentences from the six pages (392-398) devoted to the subject by R.L. Trask in his 1997 book "The History of Basque" (Routledge):

"Attempts at linking Basque genetically to some or all of the Caucasian languages have been underway for nearly a century... This is not because of any great success in these investigations, but only because of typological similarities. Basque shares its ergative morphology and its elaborate system of verbal agreement in varying measure with most of the Caucasian languages, and the common presence of these non-Indo-European characteristics has been enough to persuade any number of linguists that there MUST be a connection there to be discovered - a dangerous assumption, of course, since typological resemblances have rarely proved to be of much assistance in identifying genetic relations."

"The investigators achieve nothing... beyond compiling lists of Basque words and morphemes which bear some kind of resemblance to words and morphemes in one Caucasian language or another. But, with some thirty-eight highly divergent languages to play with, they could hardly fail to find such resemblances, particularly since the Caucasian 'cognates' they cite are in nearly all cases merely items found in some particular language, items which cannot be shown to have existed in any version of Proto-Caucasian."

"All of this work was done before Michelena's elucidation of the phonological history of Basque, and hence the Basque forms cited are not infrequently words which could not have been of the same form 2,000 years ago."

"Now Michelena was in no way hostile to the idea of a Basque-Caucasian genetic link.... None the less, he had a very clear understanding of what could be counted as evidence, and he did not find such evidence here."

"Michelena closes his review by suggesting that the linguists whose work he is surveying had started by simply ASSUMING that Basque and Caucasian must be related, and that they had therefore proceeded merely to collect possible confirming instances, without attempting any sort of scrutiny of their work. Michelena's assessment, I am confident, must be accepted by anyone who takes historical linguistics seriously."

"Michelena's review effectively dismissed the entire Basque-Caucasian enterprise as something close to a total waste of effort, and for nearly two decades hardly anyone seems to have pursued the matter further..."

Trask then goes on to mention a revival of some interest in the hypothesis in the 1980s, first with the Polish linguist Jan Braun and then the Caucasian linguist Cirikba (with a hacek on the C), whose work he proceeds to criticise. Of the former, he concludes: "I regret that I am unable to see in Braun's work anything more than a fistful of exceedingly vague chance resemblances." And of the latter:

"In short, then, Cirikba's paper is in no way an advance on the earlier work, and in fact the extraordinary number of errors which it contains renders it greatly inferior to that earlier work, which at least managed to cite and gloss Basque words correctly. There are no grounds for taking it seriously, and still today there is NO EVIDENCE AT ALL for a genetic link between Basque and any of the Caucasian languages."

Emphasis, here shown by capitalisation, is in the original. Trask's style could be biting and sarcastic at times but what he says coincides with and reflects the majority opinion in the scientific community at the present time. Luis Michelena, by the way, was the most learned, influential and (still today) authoritative Basque linguist of the twentieth century.

Alan


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Gennady Lapardin  Identity Verified
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Nicolay Marr - forgotten name in Caucasian linguistics Oct 29, 2007

Hi, Fabio,

Here are two links to a name, which I remember from my student years. Marr was an outstanding researcher of Caucasian (not Armenian or Azerbaijan) languages, although belonged completely to his post-revolutionary time. hth

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nikolay_Yakovlevich_Marr

http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-9051072/Nikolay-Yakovlevich-Marr


[Edited at 2007-10-29 20:18]

P.S. Many years ago I was in Georgia and I remember that the people in Kutaisi when asking "Do you speak Georgian ?" say "Kartveli khaz ?" (Kartveli in Georgia is as Toscano in Italy).

[Edited at 2007-10-29 20:58]


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Fabio Descalzi  Identity Verified
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About complexity and the origin of language Oct 29, 2007

Gennady Lapardin wrote:
Here are two links to a name, which I remember from my student years. Marr was an outstanding researcher of Caucasian (not Armenian or Azerbaijan) languages, although belonged completely to his post-revolutionary time. hth

Hi Gennady
Thank you for your interesting links.
In one of them, the linguist Marr states that "all languages derive from just four words".
In my first post of this thread, there is an incredibly complex language mentioned, Ubykh - which, although a dead language, has been extensively studied for its intrinsecal interest: so many consonants, complex sounds difficult to pronounce, etc. Several "North Caucasian" languages keep similar features, which makes them interesting to study.
Is this complex feature an evolution of those languages in itself... or rather a vestige of "primitive" speech that remained up to our days? (When I say "primitive" speech it is not meant as a value judgement, but rather as an acknowledgement of purity and originality).
The origin of language itself... maybe one of the best kept treasuries of "North Caucasian" languages.


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Alan R King
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On Marr the Caucasianist, Marr the nutcase, and addressing real issues Oct 30, 2007

It would seem that there were, in a sense, two Marrs (both in the same person). The (earlier) Marr who was an outstanding Caucasianist. And the (later) Marr who got carried away and whom, I think it is fair to say (and people should perhaps be warned), the academic community considers a total nutcase.

The four-original-words theory mentioned by Fabio pertains to Marr the nutcase.

I don't mean to be offensive, just to avoid beating around the bush. If it makes you feel better, in place of "nutcase" in the previous paragraphs you may read "highly eccentric".

In reply to Fabio's last remark:

The origin of language itself... maybe one of the best kept treasuries of "North Caucasian" languages.


I don't believe in talking about languages in such terms as these, Fabio (and also fail to see why they should be applied to the "North Caucasian" languages, anyway). It goes against scientific principles and only tends to encourage confusion among lay people. And people should feel enough pride in their native language and that of their people simply because it is THEIR language, without needing to depend on any fictitious ideas about their language being unique (all languages are "unique", or else none are), the oldest, the best, the most logical, the closest to the original proto-language or the most (or least) primitive. These are all outmoded absurditites. Let us encourage clear thinking that is a bit closer to reality. If we really want to promote the preservation of language diversity, then we cannot at the same time be suggesting that some are more special than others, can we?

Basques do not want to carry on using their language because it is the best or the oldest or the X-est language; what nonsense. They want to carry on using their language because it is their language and because they have a right to go on using it. That is the only reason that is needed, and the one that should be focused on!

Alan


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Maya Gorgoshidze  Identity Verified
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Thank you, Fabio, for this thread! Oct 30, 2007

This topic is very interesting to me as a representative of one of the languages, home of which is Caucasus. Yes, I would rather say “home”, because in this little region there live people with a wide spectrum of absolutely different languages. I do not mean Georgian (spoken in Georgia) Armenian (spoken in Armenia) and Azeri (spoken in Azerbaijani) only - the languages also with different roots having nothing common but the geographical place. I mean the number of languages spoken by the small ethnical groups in the whole geographical region of Caucasus. Caucasus, particularly the North Caucasus is really rich from this point of view. And these languages are not primitive at all. They have their long history, and they have even more sophisticated grammar structures than some of other well known languages. The people speaking them try to preserve their languages and cultures, but I am afraid they are seriously endangered for some reasons…

It is really interesting to me to hear opinions of people from outside the region. For me this mean that you are interested in this subject and this is really very pleasant.

Just a little correction:
"Kartveli khar?" in Georgian means “Are you Georgian?”
“Kartveli” in Georgian means “Georgian” (person)
“Kartuli” in Georgian means “Georgian” (language)

Gennady Lapardin wrote:

P.S. Many years ago I was in Georgia and I remember that the people in Kutaisi when asking "Do you speak Georgian ?" say "Kartveli khaz ?" (Kartveli in Georgia is as Toscano in Italy).


[Edited at 2007-10-30 11:06]


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Fabio Descalzi  Identity Verified
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Thanks Maya Oct 30, 2007

Maya Gorgoshidze wrote:
It is really interesting to me to hear opinions of people from outside the region. For me this mean that you are interested in this subject and this is really very pleasant.

And it is a pleasure to hear an opinion from locals, too
Maya Gorgoshidze wrote:
This topic is very interesting to me as a representative of one of the languages, home of which is Caucasus. Yes, I would rather say “home”, because in this little region there live people with a wide spectrum of absolutely different languages. I do not mean Georgian (spoken in Georgia) Armenian (spoken in Armenia) and Azeri (spoken in Azerbaijani) only - the languages also with different roots having nothing common but the geographical place. I mean the number of languages spoken by the small ethnical groups in the whole geographical region of Caucasus. Caucasus, particularly the North Caucasus is really rich from this point of view.

Very rich indeed, and inviting to every international linguist interested in studying very interesting language structures and relationships.
Maya Gorgoshidze wrote:
And these languages are not primitive at all. They have their long history, and they have even more sophisticated grammar structures than some of other well known languages.

Once again: about my usage of the word "primitive". When I used the word "primitive", evidently it wasn't the happiest term I could think of. Rather, I wanted to emphasize what I said between brackets: not meant as a value judgement, but rather as an acknowledgement of purity and originality.

Remember that I am no expert in these languages at all. As a mere external observer, whenever I read about the phonetics and grammar of these "Caucasian languages apart from the official ones", I think spontaneously: "Wow, this is really complicated".
There are lots of "easy" and "complicated" languages all around the world. Those categories are always relative. Take the case of two very widespread languages, Spanish and English, for instance: English, a world lingua franca par excellence, is often said to be "easy" to learn at least in the first stages, while Spanish has for instance a relatively "complex" verbal structure, as compared with English... But it is no surprise to hear adult speakers of Spanish, trying to take their first lessons in English, who say: "Oh dear, these Englishmen write quite difficult, I cannot read in peace because they write everything in a different way they pronounce it"

But back to Abkhaz, Chechen, etc. as seen by a layperson. "Difficult" languages to learn (phonology, grammar...) with the additional "drawback" for lay people that these languages are not widespread at all. So... if you wanna be proficient in Chechen (or Tabasaran, or Ubykh), you'd better be a LOVER of languages in general, and full of RESPECT and ADMIRATION for them.

Maya Gorgoshidze wrote:
The people speaking them try to preserve their languages and cultures, but I am afraid they are seriously endangered for some reasons…


That is this thread about: endangered languages. When I started it, I had in mind the following things that could be done:
1) Help raise awareness that these languages EXIST
2) Let's freely discuss what and how these languages actually ARE
3) Suggest, if we can, what can be ACHIEVED with these languages


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Maya Gorgoshidze  Identity Verified
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Some comments Oct 30, 2007

I was so busy that I missed something in this thread. Now I have reread this tread and found an opinion, which I think needs some comments.

Alan R King wrote:
....

2) The expression "Caucasian languages" refers to a putative language family, i.e. group of related languages. It is clear that all the "languages of the Caucasus" are not "Caucasian languages" under this definition. (Rather as if we were to say that "not all languages spoken in India and Europe are Indo-European languages".) Armenian, which you mention, is Indo-European and hence not a Caucasian language in the linguistic sense.
......
4) Although some issues are not yet fully resolved, I believe that the majority opinion is agreed on the existence of three such (I repeat, unrelated) language families, called South, Northwest and Northeast Caucasian respectively. South Caucasian is also referred to as Kartvelian and it includes Georgian, the official language of Georgia. Abkhaz is an example of a Northwest Caucasian language, while Chechen (with a million speakers) is one representative of the Northeast Caucasian family. Therefore, the three above-mentioned languages are not related to each other, although they all still fall within the informal designation of "Caucasian languages"; whereas Armenian, an Indo-European language (and therefore not related to any of these either), is not one of the "Caucasian languages".
.....


I should note that not only the Armenians belong to the Indo-European group, but the Georgians and many other Caucasian nations as well are representatives of the same Indo-European group. Armenia is located in the south Caucasus region and of course it is a Caucasian country, like Georgia and Azerbaijani. So if we think Georgian is a Caucasian language, that automatically applies to the Armenian language as well, taking into consideration the fact that the term “Caucasian languages” means that they are spoken in the Caucasus region, but they are not from one group of kindred languages.

Well, “Kartvelian languages” mean “Georgian languages” and consists of Georgian itself with all its dialects, including Svan and Megrelian. None of the Northn Caucasus languages listed here (http://www.ethnologue.com/show_family.asp?subid=90526 ) are “Kartvelian (Georgian) languages”.

Also some people think that “Judeo-Georgian” is a separate language from this family. Maybe some day in the far future this will be so, but today “Judeo-Georgian” is absolutely equal to Georgian and it is spoken by the people who moved to Israel from Georgia. Their mother tongue was Georgian and that’s the entire story. I.e. “Judeo-Georgian” would be something similar to “Judeo-Russian”, “Judeo-Ukrainian” and so on.


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Binnur Tuncel van Pomeren  Identity Verified
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Caucasian languages Oct 30, 2007

I don't know so much about these languages. I am however writing to answer your question as to raising awareness that these languages EXIST.

Besides I do know, in this geography there have been lots of interactions throughout the history. It will be just enough to look up a historical atlas to see this.


I have at home few songs from "Kardes Türküler (ENG. Fraternal folksongs: all the folks living in the same geography for many hunderd years) in some of these languages, also with their respective translations into Turkish. Knowing only Turkish, you cannot understand any Armenian, Laz, Georgian but upon looking more closely I am sure you will be able to find some similarity among words. Gyalin (Armenian) = Gelin (Turkish) ...looks like pure coincidence from my modest comparison based on the lyrics available from my few CDs.

However, Azeri is totally another story. It is practically Turkish. Analogically, Dutch vs Afrikaans are other living examples for this type of similarity. Historical interactions with other nations, or isolation of a certain group of people, their level of education at a particular era caused a rupture from their origin. That's why insisting on keeping the origin would not survive. As long as everything in this universe is entropic, easiest function would be to fit in where you are and enjoy the dynamism of languages and learn the idioms of the newly borrowed changing language. I am sure we all are using many words our ancestors would not be able to understand and if I may say so, even idioms tend to change. The way we express ourselves change. For this reason, any idea to help awareness that these languages EXIST is remote for me, but I agree 100% with the idea if these languages exist, they open up another thinking code and world. But how would you do this in a continuously unifying world?


Fabio@1) Help raise awareness that these languages EXIST
2) Let's freely discuss what and how these languages actually ARE
3) Suggest, if we can, what can be ACHIEVED with these languages


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Fabio Descalzi  Identity Verified
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When names become mixed-up Oct 30, 2007

Hi Maya
Thanks for posting again.
Sometimes the names for denominating a language family might be unappropriate or "too far-reaching". And if we use "Caucasian" (even "Northern Caucasian") to denominate a given, particular family of languages, the rest of the inhabitants of the Caucasus region might feel that something important is wrongly named...
Yeah, there is "Caucasian pride" in the feeling of the regional people as well - quite the same way there might be a "South African pride" among the inhabitants of Southern Africa (although South Africa is a very different country/region of the world), with people of different origins and languages living there. Every group with its own strong identity, in its own right.
Maya Gorgoshidze wrote:
Well, “Kartvelian languages” mean “Georgian languages” and consists of Georgian itself with all its dialects, including Svan and Megrelian. None of the Northn Caucasus languages listed here (http://www.ethnologue.com/show_family.asp?subid=90526 ) are “Kartvelian (Georgian) languages”.

Yes, Kartvelian languages are an independent family. I missed specifying it in my former posts of this thread. A relatively small family concerning number of languages, but nevertheless significative.
Maya Gorgoshidze wrote:
Also some people think that “Judeo-Georgian” is a separate language from this family. Maybe some day in the far future this will be so, but today “Judeo-Georgian” is absolutely equal to Georgian and it is spoken by the people who moved to Israel from Georgia. Their mother tongue was Georgian and that’s the entire story. I.e. “Judeo-Georgian” would be something similar to “Judeo-Russian”, “Judeo-Ukrainian” and so on.

A showcase of diversity couldn't be complete if we miss commenting the Judeo-Georgian and other Jewish languages of the world. As you rightly put it, Judeo-Georgian is a particular sort of Georgian itself (there are speakers of it even in New York). Similar to many other Jewish languages: Ladino (coming from Spain) is the very Spanish language of 500 years ago. There are Judeo-Arabic languages, that are "very Arabic". Yiddish, actually belongs to the Germanic group of languages. And so on. So: Jewish languages (with the exception of Hebrew) are not bound by "language family", but by the culture (and religion) of its speakers.

[Edited at 2007-10-30 19:51]


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Maya Gorgoshidze  Identity Verified
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Nothing was used in an inappropriate way Oct 30, 2007

Fabio Descalzi Sgarbi wrote:

...Sometimes the names for denominating a language family might be unappropriate or "too far-reaching". And if we use "Caucasian" (even "Northern Caucasian") to denominate a given, particular family of languages, the rest of the inhabitants of the Caucasus region might feel that something important is wrongly named...
Yeah, there is "Caucasian pride" in the feeling of the regional people as well ...


Hi Fabio,

Actually you did not touch any national feelings at all. It was my fault that I was not quite clear So now I will simply explain what I wanted to say.

Caucasus region is populated with a broad variety of small ethnical groups with very different languages. The north part of the Caucasus (so called the North Caucasus, now being in the Russian Federation where Russia is the official language) is the most interesting from the ethnical and linguistic viewpoint, because these cultures and languages have a strong vigor not to mix-up and a strong intension to survive despite their small populations. I admire these people for their nature and hope that they will not disappear after all.

The southern part of the Caucasus called the “South Caucasus” consists of three countries: Georgia, Armenian and Azerbaijani, with absolutely different official languages – Georgian, Armenian and Azeri. I have little information about the Armenian and Azeri language groups, but Georgian languages consist of a little group - official Georgian, Megrelian and Svan. There is also one Georgian language called Laz, which is spoken in Turkey (and in the western Georgia if I am not mistaken). Laz is very close to the western Georgian and official Georgian.

Of course the northern and southern parts of the Caucasus make the whole Caucasus region, which you can hardy find on the globe, but this is a real museum of language diversity with different ethnics, cultures and religions…


[Edited at 2009-01-19 20:07 GMT]


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