An insatiable appetite for ancient and modern tongues

Overview. Caucasian languages are indigenous to the regions bordering the Great Caucasus range, between the Black and Caspian Seas. They exclude, thus, Indo-European and Turkic languages present in the area. Numbering between 35 to 40 and occupying a rather small territory, they are divided into three families, Northwest, Northeast and South, whose mutual relations are unclear. The South Caucasian languages, of which Georgian is the main representative, constitute an independent family, according to most scholars, while the Northwest and Northeast Caucasian families might be genetically related or not.

Distribution. Caucasian languages are distributed in the North Caucasian provinces of Russia, in Georgia, Abkhazia, northeastern Turkey and northern Azerbaijan.

  1. Map of Caucasian languages (click to enlarge it)

The Southern languages are spoken in Georgia and in adjacent regions of Azerbaijan and Turkey. Northwest languages are spoken along the southern and northern slopes of the western Great Caucasus: in Abkhazia, a de facto independent republic claimed by Georgia, and in the autonomous regions of Karachay-Cherkessia, Adygea, and Kabardino-Balkaria which belong to the Russian Federation. The Northeast family, the largest with nearly thirty languages, is spoken in the Russian republics of Chechnya, Ingushetya and Dagestan as well as in northern Azerbaijan.

Classification. Caucasian languages are divided into three families: South Caucasian or Kartvelian, Northwest Caucasian or Abkhazo-Adyghian and Northeast Caucasian or Nakho-Dagestanian. The latter is subdivided into Nakh (central) and Dagestanian (eastern) subfamilies.

  1. I. South Caucasian or Kartvelian includes four languages spoken by about 5 million people: Georgian, Svan, Mingrelian (Megrel), and Laz (Chan).

  2. Georgian, by far the largest Caucasian language, is spoken almost exclusively in Georgia (with small minorities in neighboring regions of Turkey and Azerbaijan). Svan and Mingrelian are also spoken in Georgia but restricted to certain areas, Svan to the northern part of the country (Svaneti region), and Mingrelian to the lowland west. Laz is spoken in northeastern Turkey, in a strip of land bordering the southeast shore of the Black Sea.

  1. II. Northwest Caucasian or Abkhazo-Adhyghian includes four languages spoken by around 2.3 million people: Abkhaz, Adyghe, Abaza (West Circassian) and Kabardian (East Circassian). Another language of the family, Ubykh, is now extinct. Abkhaz is spoken south of the Caucasus range in Abkhazia, the others north of the Caucasus: Adyghe in Adygea, Abaza in Karachay-Cherkessia, Kabardian in Kabardino-Balkaria.

  1. III. Northeast Caucasian or Nakho-Dagestanian is divided into Nakh and Dagestanian subfamilies:

  1. a) Nakh (North Central Caucasian): includes three languages, Chechen, Ingush and Bats spoken by about 1.8 million people. Chechen is predominant in Chechnya, Ingush in Ingushetya and Bats  in a village of northeastern Georgia.

  1. b) Dagestanian (North East Caucasian) comprises three groups:

  1. Avaro-Ando-Tsezic is spoken in central and western Dagestan and in northwestern Azerbaijan. Avar is the major language. The others have less than 50,000 speakers each: Andi, Botlikh, Godoberi, Karata, Akhvakh, Bagvalal, Tindi, Chamalal, Tsez (Dido), Khvarshi, Hinukh, Beztha and Hunzib.

  1. Lako-Dargib, spoken in central Dagestan by close to 700,000 people, includes Lak and Dargwa.

  1. Lezgic is spoken by around one million people. Lezgi is the major language followed by Tabasaran, Rutul, Tsakhur, Aghul, Udi, Archi, Budukh, Khinalugh and Kryts. The last five have less than 10,000 speakers each. The majority of Lezgic languages is found in southern Dagestan, but Kryts, Udi and Budhukh in northern Azerbaijan.

Speakers. Caucasian languages are spoken by close to 12 million people. The number of speakers for each language is given below (in descending order):


Status. A number of Caucasian languages are unwritten and most of the smaller ones are endangered. Georgian, the official language of Georgia, is the only one that has an ancient literature.


  1. Phonology

  2. -All Caucasian stops and affricate consonants have a three-way opposition between voiced, voiceless aspirate and voiceless glottalized. Generally when a large consonant inventory is present in a language it is accompanied by a minimal vowel system and vice versa.

  1. -Abkhazo-Adyghian languages have very few vowels (a and schwa are the basic ones) but large consonantal inventories. Abkhaz and Adyghian, for instance, have 70 consonants each and the extinct Ubykh had 80. They include palatalized, labialized and pharyngealized consonants besides those common to other Caucasian languages.

  1. -In contrast, Nakho-Dagestanian members have complex vowel systems including short and long vowels with nasalized, pharyngealized and labialized varieties. Their consonantal systems are smaller than those of Abkhazo-Adyghian but, nevertheless, quite substantial due to the presence of ejectives, pharyngeals and laterals. Besides, in most languages there is an opposition between strong and weak voiceless consonants; the strong consonants are characterized by a more intense pronunciation that makes them longer than weak ones.

  1. -Kartvelian languages have a simple five vowel system (a, e, i, o, u). Some of them have also a schwa, and in Svan there are front palatalized vowels (ä, ö, ü) and length contrast. Their consonantal systems are of moderate complexity with inventories of 28-30 consonants which include voiced, voiceless and glottalized stops and affricates, as well as voiced and voiceless fricatives. Consonant clusters in initial position are not infrequent (e.g. in Georgian).

  1. Morphology

  2. -Abkhazo-Adyghyan and Nakh-Dagestanian groups have opposite structural types, and South Caucasian is in an intermediate position.

  1. -Abkhazo-Adyghyan languages have minimal or non-existent case systems (nominative and oblique cases in most languages, no cases in Abkhaz and Abaza) combined with highly complex verbal systems characterized by polysynthesis.

  1. -The opposite is true for Nakh-Dagestanian languages which have complex nominal systems, with syntactical and locative cases and a variety of genders, but simple verbal systems that lack agreement or in which agreement is limited to gender or person.

  1. -Kartvelian languages have case systems and verbal systems of moderate complexity. They distinguish between six and eleven cases. The verb marks, by means of affixes and changes in the verb stem, person and number (singular and plural), tense (present, aorist and perfect), aspect, mood and voice. Prefixes added to the stem indicate the object of the verb (direct or indirect object).

  1. Syntax

  2. -Common syntactic features to all Caucasian languages are Subject-Object-Verb word order and ergative constructions. They all use postpositions (similar to English prepositions but placed after nouns/pronouns).

  1. -In Kartvelian and Nakh-Dagestanian the adjective and the genitive precede the noun. In Abkhazo-Adyghyan the genitive also precedes the noun, but the adjective follows it.


Though most of their original lexicon has been preserved, Caucasian languages have adopted many loanwords, particularly from Arabic, Persian and Turkic. In northern languages, Russian has provided many technical terms while in southern languages Greek has played this role.

  1. © 2013 Alejandro Gutman and Beatriz Avanzati                                                                               

Further Reading

  1. -The Indigenous Languages of the Caucasus, vol 1: The Kartvelian languages. A. C. Harris (ed). Caravan Books (1991).

  2. -The Indigenous Languages of the Caucasus, vol 2: The North West Caucasian languages. B. G. Hewitt (ed). Caravan Books (1989).

  3. -The Indigenous Languages of the Caucasus, vol 3: The North East Caucasian languages, part 1. M. Job (ed). Caravan Books (2004).

  4. -The Indigenous Languages of the Caucasus, vol 4: The North East Caucasian languages, part 2. R. Smeets (ed). Caravan Books (1994).

  5. -‘The South Caucasian languages’. W. Boeder. In Lingua 115, 5-89. Elsevier (2005).

  6. -'North West Caucasian'. G. Hewitt. In Lingua 115, 91-145. Elsevier (2005).

  7. -‘The East Caucasian language family'. H. van den Berg. In Lingua 115, 147-190. Elsevier (2005).

  8. -'Caucasian Languages'. T. V. Gamkrelidze & T. E. Gudava. In Encyclopædia Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite. Encyclopædia Britannica (2011).

  1. Top   Home   Alphabetic Index   Classificatory Index   Largest Languages & Families   Glossary


    Caucasian Languages

Address comments and questions to: