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Classification: Altaic?, Turkic, Oghur (Bulgar) branch.

Chuvash is a member of the Turkic family. The external classification of Turkic is disputed. Many consider it one of the three divisions of the Altaic phylum (the other two are Tungusic and Mongolic). However, the parallelisms between Turkic, Mongolic and Tungusic are too few, according to others, to support the unity of Altaic. Chuvash is the only representative of the Bulgar branch.

Overview. Chuvash might be a descendant of the language spoken by the Volga Bulgars, members of the Oghur tribal confederation who settled in the middle and low Volga River and established a kingdom in the 9th century. Though Chuvash has the usual Turkic morphosyntax, it has experienced many phonological changes and incorporated many loanwords.

Distribution. The core region of Chuvash is the Republic of Chuvashia situated in the middle course of the Volga River, in European Russia. Many speakers of Chuvash live in other parts of Russia too, namely in neighboring Tatarstan and Bashkortostan as well as in Siberia. A few inhabit the Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Speakers. Native Chuvash speakers number over one million. The vast majority of them resides in the Russian Federation (1.1 million) and the rest in Kazakhstan (23,000), Uzbekistan (9,000), and Kyrgyzstan (2,000).


Status. Chuvash is, together with Russian, an official language of the Republic of Chuvashia.


Varieties. Dialectal differences are quite small. Three dialects are recognized: Viryal spoken in northern and northwestern Chuvashia, Central in northeastern and central Chuvashia, and  Anatri, which is the base of the standard language, in southern Chuvashia and outside the Republic.


Vowels (8). Chuvash has an eight-vowel system constituted by six full vowels and two reduced or lax ones (ĕ and ă) which are pronounced without any stress. The additional vowel o occurs in Russian loanwords.


The symbols are those current in writing in the Cyrillic alphabet; those of the International Phonetic Alphabet are indicated between brackets. The diacritical marks placed above low vowels indicate that they are reduced.

Vowel harmony. It governs the distribution of vowels within a word opposing front versus back vowels. In the first syllable of a word all vowels can occur. If it is a front vowel all the subsequent vowels must be also of the front type. If it is a back vowel all the other vowels must be also of the back type. Thus, all the vowels of a word belong to the same class (back or front) and the vowels of suffixes (with some exceptions) vary according to the class of vowels in the primary stem.

Consonants (14). The consonant inventory of Chuvash is small when compared to that of other Turkic languages. It has lost all voiced stops except in Russian loanwords. Other sounds, not listed here, like f, ts, z, ʒ, dz, are found only in loanwords:


Stress. It falls on the final syllable if it has a full vowel, otherwise (if it has one of the reduced vowels ĕ, ă) it falls on the preceding syllable that has a full vowel. If all vowels are reduced the accent falls on the first syllable.

Script and Orthography

Chuvash is written in a variant of the Cyrillic alphabet devised by Ivan Jakovlev in 1873 that was reformed in 1938. It contains 37 letters including some (highlighted in color) which are only used in Russian loanwords. Below each sign its equivalent in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is shown between brackets. Transliteration into the Latin alphabet  coincides with the IPA except in the following cases:

  1. ы [ɨ] is transliterated ï

  2. ӳ [y] is transliterated ü

  3. ш [ʃ] is transliterated š.

  4. ч [tʃ] is transliterated č.  

  5. ç [ç] is transliterated ś.

  6. э represents [e] at the beginning of a word and in loanwords; [e] in non-initial position is denoted by e (word-initially it represents [je]).

The letters highlighted in color are used only in foreign words.


Chuvash is an agglutinative language adding different suffixes to a primary stem to mark a number of grammatical functions. Each morpheme expresses only one of them and is clearly identifiable.

  1. Nominal. Suffixes are added to nominal stems to indicate possession, number, and case (in that order). In contrast to other Turkic languages, the plural suffix follows possessive suffixes (instead of preceding them).

  1. gender: there is no grammatical gender.

  1. possession: There are five possessive markers, one for each person and number, which are attached to the noun. The same suffix is used for the singular and plural of the 3rd person; to differentiate them personal pronouns are added.

  1. 1s: -(Ă)m

  2. 2s: -U

  3. 3s/p: -ĕ /-i

  4. 1p: -(Ă) mĂr

  5. 2p: -Ăr (with dropping of final vowel)

  1. -Ă may be ă or ĕ.

  2. -U may be u] or y].

  3. -ĕ is used after consonants and -i after vowels and some consonants.

  1. Examples: aś-u ('your father'), ïval-ĕ ('his/her son').

  1. number: singular and plural. The singular is unmarked and the plural is marked with the suffixes -sem or -sen which are not subject to vowel harmony. The plural marker is placed after the possessive suffixes and before the case suffixes. For example:

  1. kil-ĕm-sen-čen

  2. house-my-plural-ablative

  3. 'from my houses'

  1. Sem is used before the nominative and instrumental case suffixes, sen before other case suffixes.

  1. case: nominative, genitive, dative-accusative, locative, ablative, instrumental.

  2. Nouns, pronouns and numerals, present and future participles as well as words ending in i, ĕ, xi and sker are marked for case.

  1. The dative and accusative have merged into the dative-accusative that marks both, the direct and indirect objects. The instrumental is an innovation shared by some Turkic languages, though it does not belong to the common Turkic six-case system. The nominative is unmarked, the other cases are marked by suffixes which differ for singular and plural nouns.

  2. A may be a or e.

  3. black: word stem, red: plural suffix, blue: case suffix.

  1. pronouns: personal, reflexive, demonstrative, interrogative, collective, indefinite.

  2. There are six personal pronouns (for the first, second and third person, singular and plural) which are declined in all cases, like nouns, with minor differences. The genitive forms are used as possessive pronouns.


  1. The reflexive pronouns are:


  1. Demonstrative pronouns are similarly declined and express four deictic degrees: ku ('this'), śak(ă) ('that' visible), śav(ă) ('that' invisible), lešĕ (remote). Their plurals are, respectively, kusem, śaksem, śavsem, lešsem.

  1. The interrogative pronouns are kam ('who?'), mĕn ('what?'), mĕsker ('what?'), xaš(ĕ) ('which?').

  1. Collective pronouns are, for example, pur(te) ('all, every'), purĕ ('in all'), mĕnpur ('all, without exception').


  1. Indefinite and negative pronouns are, for example, takam ('someone'), temĕsker ('something'), nikam ('no one'), nimsker ('nothing').

  1. Verbal. Verbs express tense-aspect, mood, person and number by adding suffixes to the stem. Other suffixes express voice, possibility or ability, and negation (in that order).

  1. person and number: 1s, 2s, 3s; 1p, 2p, 3p.

  1. tense-aspect: present, simple past, imperfect, perfect, pluperfect, prospective (future).

  2. The present tense indicates an ongoing or habitual event as well as an event that is scheduled to occur; it is marked by the suffix -At. In contrast, the prospective, marked by -Ă, refers to an event that it is not certain to occur.

  3. The simple past indicates that an event happened in the past without further specifications or nuances, its suffixes are -r, -t (with stems ending in n, l, r), or č  (in the 3rd. person).

  4. The imperfect indicates a repeated or habitual past event and its marker is the suffix -Att (Atč for the 3rd person).

  5. The perfect signals a past event that may not have been witnessed by the speaker, it is marked by suffix -nĂ.

  6. The pluperfect indicates that an event happened before some point in the past. It has two forms, one marked with the suffix -nA followed by -ččĕ ('was') is more focused on the result of the action, the other marked by -sA and followed by -tt/čč is broader.

  7.     The personal markers for the various tenses are:


  1. A may be a or e; Ă may be ă or ĕ.

  1. Ability to perform an action is marked with -Ay. Negation is done by adding a negative marker to -Ay.

  1. mood: indicative, subjunctive, optative-imperative, necessitative.

  2. The optative-imperative function varies with the person. In the 1st and 3rd persons expresses a wish to do something (optative) and in the second a command (imperative). Its markers are:

  1. 1s-Am: expresses a wish to perform an action that needs permission.

  2. 2sø: has imperative force.

  3. 3s-tĂr: expresses a desire that a third person should act.

  4. 1p-Ar: used to ask for permission to perform an action.

  5. 2p-Ăr: has imperative force and may be used as a polite form for the 2s.

  6. 3p-ččĂr: expresses a desire that a third person should act.

  1. A may be a or e; Ă may be ă or ĕ.

  1. The subjunctive uses the suffix -Ătt (-ĕčč for the 3rd person).

  2. The necessitative, marked by -mAllA, expresses an obligation to perform an action.

  1. voice: active, reflexive, passive, cooperative-reciprocal, causative.

  2. The reflexive voice is indicated by the suffixes -(Ă)n or -(Ă)l; for example: śu ('wash'), śăvăn ('wash oneself'). Some verbs in -(Ă)n may have a passive sense e.g. śir ('write') > śirăn ('be written').

  3. The suffix marking cooperative-reciprocal voice is -(Ă)š e.g. văr ('hit') > vărăś ('fight').

  4. The causative is formed with the suffix -tAr after consonants and -ttAr after vowels e.g. vula ('read') > vulattar ('cause to read').

  1. non-finite forms: infinitive, verbal nouns, participles (present, past and future), converbs. The infinitive in -mA is an adverbial form indicating the aim or the result of an action.

  1. Participles can function in Chuvash as the non-finite verb of a relative clause or as attributes of a head. They can take declensional suffixes. The present participle is formed with -AkAn, the past participle with - and the future participle with -As.

  1. Verbal nouns are derived from participles by adding the particle i: -AkAnni, -ni, Assi. They play a verbal role in complement clauses.

Converbs have an adverbial, most often temporal, character. They are formed with the suffixes -sA (connecting two events in a sequential way), -sAn (marking clauses of time), -iččen (meaning 'as long as'), -mĂśem(ĕn) ('as much as'), -mAsseren ('every time one does').


    Chuvash, like all Turkic languages, has a basic Subject-Object-Verb word order. Attributes precede their nouns but they do not agree with them in case, number or person. It employs postpositions (corresponding to English prepositions, but placed after the words they interact with) to specify and precise syntactical relations established by the grammatical cases. The genitive marks the possessor in a possessive construction. The dative marks direct and indirect object.

    The word mar at the end of a clause and the suffix -mA after the verb stem are used to negate. Yes/no questions are posed with the  particles i, im, ši or šim. Conjunctions and juxtaposition are the means to connect coordinate sentences.

     Subordinate clauses precede main ones and are formed with participles or converbs.


Chuvash basic vocabulary is Turkic though it has borrowed extensively from other languages. Many of the Turkic words have experienced sound changes that may hide their origin. Tatar has deeply influenced Chuvash lexicon; most Arabic, Persian and Mongolian loanwords reached Chuvash through it. One layer of the Chuvash vocabulary is of Uralic origin reflecting contacts with the Samoyeds of Siberia and with the Mari of the Volga region. Russian loans are also numerous.

Basic Vocabulary (in Cyrillic script with transliteration between brackets)

  1. © 2013 Alejandro Gutman and Beatriz Avanzati                                                                               

Further Reading

  1. -Chuvash Manual. J. R. Krueger. Routledge (1997).

  2. -'Chuvash'. L. Clark. In The Turkic Languages,  434-452. L. Johanson & É. Á. Csató (eds). Routledge (1998).

  3. -'Cuvass̆kij jazyk'. I. A. Andreev. In Jazyki narodov SSSR 2. Tjurkskie jazyki, 43–65. N. A. Baskakov (ed). Nauka (1966).

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