World Abaza Congress

21 July 2024
Abkhaz language in ten questions and answers
Abkhaz language belongs to the West Caucasian (Abkhaz-Adyg) group of the Caucasian language family. The closest to it is the Abaza language and they are related to the Adyg, Kabardino-Circassian languages, as well as the now extinct Ubykh. The Abkhaz language is one of the oldest and archaic languages of the world, which has survived to this day. The alphabet of the Abkhaz language consists of 64 letters: 56 consonants, 6 vowels, as well as two signs - a soft sign and a labialization sign.
First Abkhaz poem, Dmitry Gulia, Sukhum, August 26, 1912
© Dmitry Gulia House-Museum
When was the Abkhaz language formed?
The breakdown of the Abkhaz-Adyg primary language into three main groups (Abkhaz, Adyg and Ubykh) began about five thousand years ago.

In modern science, the hypothesis about the kinship of the Abkhaz-Adyg languages with the Hutt language that lived in the third millennium BC in Asia Minor was widely recognized.

In the ancient Abkhaz language there were many dialects representing the languages of related tribes. However, from the first centuries of the new era, tribes are united first into principalities, then in the VIII century into a state, thus, a single Abkhaz nation is formed and the unity of the ancient Abkhaz language is established.

The seal of Konstantin Abasgsky, early Middle Ages
© Abkhaz State Museum
Did ancient Abkhaz have written language?
Abkhaz language belongs to the category of young languages. It is believed that until the 19th century the language did not have its own written language, and the literate population of Abkhazia used Greek as the literary language until the 9th century, later Georgian in the 9th-19th centuries, and also Ottoman in the 18th century.

Nevertheless, there is an assumption that the Abkhaz people in ancient times had written language. In particular, in 1960, on the territory of the Koeshchevsky settlement, near the city of Maykop, a triangular stone slab with cuneiform was accidentally found. The find is dated 4–3 millennium BC. Researchers concluded that the letter on the Maykop plate belonged to the autochthonous population of the region. In turn, the researcher Georgy Turchaninov tried to decipher the inscription on the Maykop plate using the Abkhaz language. Here's what he did: "This is the descendant of the Azegan king of Great Marne. Ayia Fortress is his property. Pagya from Hiza coming here at the beginning of the month of sowing in the year 21 built this fortress in the land of rocks, in gold-bearing land, in the Pahu Valley."

However, this transcript, like the second well-known interpretation of the text, did not receive the recognition of the scientific community.

The theory of the existence of writing among the ancient Abkhaz is also evidenced by the presence in the language of such primordial words as "аҩра" - to write or "аԥхьара" - to read.

In this connection, writing could have been lost, if it existed, is also an open question.

At the same time, the first records of the Abkhaz language appeared already in the 1640s, when the Turkish traveler Evliya Celebi wrote 40 Abkhaz words and phrases in Arabic. Later, in the XVIII - early XIX centuries, the records of individual Abkhaz words and phrases are recorded in the works of the traveler in the Caucasus Johann Guldenstedt, the Russian general Grigory Rosen, the German scientist and traveler Peter Pallas and the German orientalist Julius Klaproth.

Maykop plate with cuneiform
Who and how created the Abkhaz alphabet?
Baron Pyotr Karlovich Uslar, major general of the Russian army, military engineer arrived in the Caucasus at the height of the Caucasian war to serve in the combat engineer battalion. However, he entered the history of the Caucasian peoples not as a conqueror, but as a creator. Uslar's main passion and vocation was linguistics and ethnography. He was part of the Caucasus department of the Imperial Russian Geographical Society, was a corresponding member in the category of linguistics of the Historical and Philological Department of the Academy of Sciences of the Russian Empire. On the instructions of the Academy, his entire stay in the Caucasus with a short break, from 1837 until his death in 1875, Uslar worked on compiling the history of the Caucasus. This became a matter of his life, and even according to the recollections of Uslar's daughter, he raved for several days before his death and "spoke loudly, incessantly calling on the highlanders with whom he was engaged in Shura, especially the Kazanfer." (Kazanfer-Beck, a resident of the village of Mamrach in Dagestan, Lezgi informant of Uslar - ed.).

Uslar saw in language a reliable source of the history of the people and therefore he first turns to the study of Caucasian languages. He began his research with the languages of the Western Caucasus - with Circassian, Ubykh and Abkhaz. He managed to gather some information on the first two, brief notes on the Circassian and Ubykh were published after the death of Uslar. However, Uslar studied the Abkhaz language in more detail.

He began his study of the grammar of the Abkhaz language in 1861 in Sukhum and continued in 1862 already in Tiflis. In just two years, he managed to figure out the structure of one of the most complex languages of the Caucasus and develop its alphabet based on its Bzyb dialect. He created a primer of 55 characters, which was based on the Cyrillic alphabet. Thus began the history of Abkhaz writing.

Three years later, in 1865, the primer of another Russian general Ivan Bartolomei appears, which was subsequently used for another thirty years. It used the Uslar alphabet with minimal modifications.

In 1882, the teacher of the Sukhum Mountain School Konstantin Machavariani and his student Dmitry Gulia improved the Abkhaz alphabet. In particular, they reduced the number of letters to 51, having removed letters from the alphabet to denote the phonemes of the Bzyb dialect. It was the primer of Machivariani and Gulia that was first actively used in schools in Abkhazia.

The alphabet of Machavariani and Gulia was improved by the teacher and public figure Andrey Chochua and has been used in Abkhaz schools since 1909. This alphabet of 64 characters was valid until 1926, it was used for publishing of educational and fiction books, newspapers.

Subsequently, throughout the twentieth century, the Abkhaz alphabet changed the graphic basis, from Cyrillic, to Latin, Georgian and again to Cyrillic.

In 1954, it was decided to return to the alphabet of Andrey Chochua, which is used today with some modifications.

Baron Pyotr Karlovich Uslar and his alphabet
© Dmitry Gulia House-Museum
Abkhaz vs Abaza. What are the similarities and differences of languages
Abaza are one of the autochthonous peoples of the Caucasus, belong to the group of Abkhaz-Adyg peoples. At present, Abaza live mainly in Russia, in the Karachay-Cherkess Republic, but their historical homeland is Abkhazia.

In the Abaza language, two dialects are distinguished - Tapant, or Ashu, and Ashkhar. They have differences both in phonetics and in vocabulary and grammar, but their carriers have no problems with understanding.

The Abaza language is very close to Abkhaz, in particular its more archaic Ashkhar dialect.

According to experts, Abaza stood out from the common language of Abkhaz and Abaza in the VIII-XII centuries. As in Abkhaz, in the Abaza language there are many whistling and hissing sounds and two main vowels "a" and "s".

Photo collage
Five pigeons sat on three branches. How to say this in Abkhaz?
Хә-ҳәыҳәк х-махәык ирықәтәан. This popular Abkhaz tongue twister in its original version was even more complex. "Five pigeons sit on five dry branches, each have five little pigeons, and their son-in-law sits on a crude branch" - such an option is quoted by Dmitry Gulia in his collection of Abkhaz proverbs and tongue twisters, published in 1939.

And here are some other Abkhaz tongue twisters:

Аҳ иҳаихаҳа ажә ихнаҳаҳаит /Ah ihaikhaha az⁰ ikhnahahait/ - Cow swallowed the whole grafted pear

Арланаа ран лылтарра /Arlanaa ran lyltarra/ - Alder grove owned by the mother of the Arlanievs

Амцарцәаҩцәа амца дырцәеит, амцарцәараз аамҭа рцәымцеит /Amcarc⁰aüc⁰a amca dirc⁰eit, amcarc⁰araz aamta rc⁰ymceit/ - Those who had to put out the fire extinguished it without spending much time on it.

Collection of Abkhaz proverbs and tongue twisters, Dmitry Gulia, 1921
Why Abkhaz language should be protected?
In 1994, for the first time, UNESCO published the Atlas of Endangered Languages, in those years the collection was also called the Red Book of Endangered Languages. When compiling the collection, 9 criteria were taken into account, the most important of which is not even the number of speakers, but the transmission of language between generations.

The Atlas is periodically updated, today it includes 2500 languages of the world, that is, more than a third of the existing ones, including Abkhaz, which is classified as "vulnerable," that is, the languages most children speak, but their use may be limited, for example, these languages are only spoken at school or only at home.

The preservation of all, even sparsely spoken languages, is important not only from the point of view of the cultural diversity of mankind, but also from the scientific one. The fact is that many languages that are on the verge of extinction are poorly described by linguists and are of great interest for comparative historical linguistics, ethnography, and cultural anthropology.

The problem of preserving the Abkhaz language in Abkhazia itself is dealt with at the state level. The State Language Policy Committee oversees policy in this area and publishes methodological literature, children's fiction, dictionaries, audio and video products for preschool and school institutions.

Modern textbooks of Abkhaz schools
© Naala Avidzba
How many people speak the Abkhaz language?
Abkhaz language is the state language of the Republic of Abkhazia. It is native to half of the population of the republic, that is, to 122 thousand ethnic Abkhaz living in the republic as of 2011.

In Russia, according to the 2010 census, 6,786 people speak the Abkhaz language.

In Turkey, according to the 1965 census, 4,563 people named the Abkhaz language (or Abaza, because in Turkey they are considered one language under the name Abaza) and another 7,836 people called it their second language.

The Abkhaz language is spoken throughout modern Abkhazia.

The Abaza language is spoken in the North Caucasus: in most of the territory of modern Karachay-Cherkessia, in the Mostovsky district of the Krasnodar Region and in the Kislovodsk region.

In the XIX century, a significant part of the Abkhaz was forced to leave their homeland and move to the Ottoman Empire. As a result, the Abkhaz language has spread in Turkey, where it is spoken in places of mass residence of the Abkhaz, in the provinces of Duzce, Bolu, Sakarya, Kayseri, Samsun, Sivas, Bursa and others.

150th anniversary of the Anban
© Naala Avidzba
Anasha or akiantyr? How many dialects are there in the Abkhaz?
Currently, only three dialects of the Abkhaz language have remained in Abkhazia. The Abjuy dialect is spoken in the Ochamchira region of the republic, the Bzyb dialect is widespread in the Gudauta region, a few Samurzakan speakers remained in the villages of Agubedia and Reka of the Ochamchira district and part of the village of Chkhuartal of the Gal district. Native speakers of all other dialects of the Abkhaz language were forced to move to the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century due to the aggressive policies of tsarist Russia in the Caucasus.

Until the 1860s, in the west of historical Abkhazia, on the territory between the rivers of Sochi and Joekvara, the Sadz dialect was widespread, which included coastal and mountain dialects. The Sadzs left their historical homeland during the Caucasian War, after which they disappeared from the historical arena.

In the south of the country along the coast were common Bzyb, Gum, Abjuy and Samurzakan dialects.

In the mountains of Abkhazia, one and a half centuries ago, they spoke Pskhu dialect, as well as Tsebelda-Dal.

The literary Abkhaz language is based on the phonetic system of the Abjuy dialect (in which there are no whistling hissing Bzyb sounds, as well as laryngual - x – xә), however, the vocabulary of the literary language included different dialects. In this case, the literary language uses the word "anasha" ("cucumber" in the Bzyp dialect), and not "akiantyr" ("cucumber" in Abuy).

Otkhara village
© Naala Avidzba
Can a foreigner learn Abkhaz?
Abkhaz is one of the most difficult languages in the world. In Abkhaz, there are only two root vowels (a, s) and a complex system of consonants (58 in the Abjuy dialect and 65 in the Bzyb one). Moreover, a lot of hissing, whistling, as well as guttural sounds. In addition, there are varieties of heavy breathing in the language with which the sound is pronounced.

However, phonetics is not the only difficulty. For example, there are five personal pronouns in the singular, three in the plural. And the verb in the Abkhaz language has such a wide variety of grammatical forms that it plays an exceptional role in the formation of sentences. One verb can denote the category of person, class, mood, tense, transitivity, as well as the interrogative or negative form.

Here are some examples. Дыҩналаӡом - she will not enter the house. Диацәажәоишьҭеи - since he speaks with him. Улызиасырцәажәоит - I will make you talk to him for her.

In view of the complexity of the language, there is an opinion that it is not possible to learn Abkhaz not to its native speaker. Nevertheless, successful examples debunking this myth exist, although often due to the long stay of foreigners in the Abkhaz-speaking environment.

Abkhaz language textbook
© Naala Avidzba
What did the first book in Abkhazian look like?
The first book in the Abkhaz language is not the Bible as in the history of printing, it is not a set of laws, which was valued above all in the writing of the Ancient World, not an attempt to write a story or call for action. The book that began the formation of young Abkhaz literature is a small brochure with a volume of not more than twenty pages, and this is a collection of poems and ditties about good, spring and peace. The author of the collection is Dmitry Gulia, then a young poet and seminary teacher, whose family miraculously was able to return to their homeland after the ordeal of forced exile. Subsequently, he will be called the patriarch of Abkhaz literature, awarded the title of People's Poet and called the founder of Abkhaz literature.

"The horse will die, the court will remain, the man will be gone, the word will remain" - with these words Gulia began his journey into Abkhaz literature and began the Abkhaz literature itself.

"Poems and ditties" were published in the printing house of the Office of the Viceroy in the Caucasus, a certain E.I.V., in Tiflis. The main sponsor of the publication was the "Society for the dissemination of education among the Abkhaz", which at that time for the most part were illiterate. It was this organization at the beginning of the last century that opened Abkhaz schools, equipped libraries, published textbooks, and even financially helped Abkhaz who were hungry for enlightenment.

The publication of the first book in the Abkhaz language was not without a love story. Cherchez la femme (from the French "look for a woman" - ed.), as they say. A year before the publication of the book, the 37-year-old poet married the 16-year-old beauty Elena, who lived on the Politseyskaya street in Sukhum. On the same street along which a stately poet wearing a Circassian coat went to work every day to the Real School (now Industrial College - ed.), where he taught students. On the same street on which the future bride somehow unleashed the dogs on him, trying to find a reason to get to know each other.

Gulia explained to his bride that all he has is his papers. It was Gulia's beloved one who encouraged him to write a collection of poems and achieve recognition and glory. And so it happened, and Politseyskaya street today bears the name of the People's poet of Abkhazia Dmitry Gulia.
The first books in the Abkhaz language: "Abkhaz proverbs, riddles and tongue twisters" by Dmitry Gulia, 1907; "Poems and ditties" by Dmitry Gulia, 1912, "Abkhaz alphabet" by Andrey Chochua, 1909
Text by – Astanda Ardzinba, photo editor – Naala Avidzba, editor Olga Soldatenkova, editor-in-chief – Amina Lazba