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Northeast Caucasian languages

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Northeast Caucasian
East Caucasian
North Caspian
Linguistic classificationOne of the world's primary language families
Proto-languageProto-Northeast Caucasian
Main areas of Northeast Caucasian languages

The Northeast Caucasian languages, also called East Caucasian, Nakh-Daghestani or Vainakh-Daghestani, or sometimes Caspian languages (from the Caspian Sea, in contrast to Pontic languages for the Northwest Caucasian languages), is a family of languages spoken in the Russian republics of Dagestan, Chechnya and Ingushetia and in Northern Azerbaijan as well as in Georgia and diaspora populations in Western Europe and the Middle East. According to Glottolog, there are currently 36 Nakh-Dagestanian languages.

Name of the family

Several names have been in use for this family. The most common term, Northeast Caucasian, contrasts the three established families of the Caucasian languages: Northeast Caucasian, Northwest Caucasian (Abkhaz–Adyghean) and South Caucasian (Kartvelian). This may be shortened to East Caucasian. The term Nakh(o)-Dagestanian can be taken to reflect a primary division of the family into Nakh and Dagestanian branches, a view which is no longer widely accepted, or Dagestanian can subsume the entire family. The rare term North Caspian (as in bordering the Caspian Sea) is only used in opposition to the use of North Pontic (as in bordering the Black Sea) for the Northwest Caucasian languages.

Linguistic features


Historically, Northeast Caucasian phonemic inventories were thought to be smaller than those of the neighboring Northwest Caucasian family. However, more recent research has revealed that many Northeast Caucasian languages are much more phoneme-rich than previously believed, with some languages containing as many as 70 consonants.[1]

In addition to numerous front obstruents, many Northeast Caucasian languages also possess a number of back consonants, including uvulars, pharyngeals, and glottal stops and fricatives. Northeast Caucasian phonology is also notable for its use of numerous secondary articulations as contrastive features. Whereas English consonant classes are divided into voiced and voiceless phonemes, Northeast Caucasian languages are known to contrast voiced, voiceless, ejective and tense phones, which contributes to their large phonemic inventories. Some languages also include palatalization and labialization as contrastive features.[2] Most languages in this family contrast tense and weak consonants. Tense consonants are characterized by the intensiveness of articulation, which naturally leads to a lengthening of these consonants.

In contrast to the generally large consonant inventories of Northeast Caucasian languages, most languages in the family have relatively few vowels, although more on average than the Northwest Caucasian languages.[3] However, there are some exceptions to this trend, such as Chechen, which has at least twenty-eight vowels, diphthongs and triphthongs.[4]

Percentage of Northeast Caucasian languages by speakers

  Chechen (33.6%)
  Avar (18.9%)
  Lezgian (16.3%)
  Dargwa (12.1%)
  Ingush (8.0%)
  Lak (3.8%)
  Others (7.3%)


These languages can be characterized by strong suffixal agglutination. Weak tendencies towards inflection may be noted as well. Nouns display covert nominal classification, but partially overt cases of secondary origin can be observed too. The number of noun classes in individual languages range from two to eight. Regarding grammatical number, there may be a distinction between singular and plural, plurality itself may impact the class to which a noun belongs.[5] In some cases, a grammatical collective is seen. Many languages distinguish local versus functional cases,[6] and to some degree also casus rectus versus casus obliquus.

The inflectional paradigms are often based on partially classifying productive stem extensions (absolutive and oblique, ergative and genitive inflection.)[clarification needed] Localization is mostly conveyed by postpositions, but it can be also partly based on preverbs. Noun phrases exhibit incomplete class agreement, group inflection[clarification needed] (on the noun) with partial attributive oblique marking, which may, in turn, carry a partially determining function.

Verbs do not agree with person, with a few exceptions like Lak, in which first and second persons are marked with the same suffix and verbs agree with the P argument, and Hunzib in which verbs agree with A argument. Evidentiality is prominent, with reported, sensory and epistemic moods all appearing as a way of conveying the evidence. Epistemic modality is often tied to the tense.


Most Northeast Caucasian languages exhibit an ergative–absolutive morphology.[7] This means that objects of transitive sentences and subjects of intransitive sentences both fall into a single grammatical case known as the absolutive. Subjects of transitive sentences, however, carry a different marking to indicate that they belong to a separate case, known as the ergative.[8] This distinction can be seen in the following two Archi sentences. Objects and subjects of intransitive sentences carry no suffix, which is represented by the null suffix, -. Meanwhile, agents of transitive sentences take the ergative suffix, -mu.

Intransitive sentence[9] Transitive sentence





buwa-∅ d-irxːin

Mother-∅ II.SG-work

Mother works.









buwa-mu xːalli-∅ b-ar-ši b-i

mother-ERG bread-∅ III.SG-bake-PROG II.SG-AUX

Mother is baking the bread.

Noun classes

Northeast Caucasian languages have between two and eight noun classes.[3] In these languages, nouns are grouped into grammatical categories depending on certain semantic qualities, such as animacy and gender. Each noun class has a corresponding agreement prefix, which can attach to verbs or adjectives of that noun. Prefixes may also have plural forms, used in agreement with a plural noun.[10] The following table shows the noun–adjective agreement paradigm in the Tsez language.

Noun class[10] Adjectival phrase example
I (men)





Ø-igu aħo

I.AGR.SG-good shepherd

Good shepherd

II (women)





y-igu baru

II.AGR.SG-good wife

Good wife

III (animals and inanimates)





b-igu ʕomoy

III.AGR.SG-good donkey

Good donkey

IV (other inanimates)





r-igu ʕoƛ’

IV.AGR.SG-good spindle

Good spindle

In many Northeast Caucasian languages, as well as appearing on adjectives and verbs, agreement can also be found on parts of speech which are not usually able to agree in other language families – for example on adverbs, postpositions, particles, and even case-marked nouns and pronouns.[11][12] In the example from Archi below, doːʕzub ‘big’ and abu ‘made’, but also the adverb ditːabu ‘quickly’ and the personal pronouns nenabu ‘we’ and belabu ‘to us’, all agree in number and gender with the argument in the absolutive case, χʕon ‘cow’.















nena<b>u doːʕzu-b χʕon b-ela<b>u ditːa<b>u χir a<b>u


‘We quickly drove the big cow to us (home).’ [13]

This kind of clausal agreement has been labelled ‘external agreement’.[14] The same term is also used for the (cross-linguistically even rarer) phenomenon where a converb agrees with an argument which lies outside the converb's own clause. This is seen in the following example from Northern Akhvakh, where mīʟō ‘not having gone’ has a masculine adverbial suffix (-ō), agreeing with hugu ek’wa ‘the man’.













[ĩk’a ri-da-la m-īʟ-ō] hu-gu ek’wa-la w-uʟ’-u-wudi.

long time-INT-ADD N-go.NEG-M[ADV] DIST-LL man-ADD M-die-M-PF3

‘Shortly after that (lit. ‘long time not having gone’), the man died.’ [15] Unknown glossing abbreviation(s) (help);

Language classification

Traditional classification (Nichols (2003))
Latest attempt at internal classification (Schulze (2009))
Branching without relative chronology (Schulze (2009))

A long-time classification divided the family into Nakh and Dagestanian branches, whence the term Nakho-Dagestanian.[16] However, attempts at reconstructing the protolanguage suggest that the Nakh languages are no more divergent from Dagestanian than the various branches of Dagestanian are from each other,[17] although this is still not universally accepted. The following outline, based on the work of linguist Bernard Comrie and others, has been adopted by Ethnologue. An Avar–Andi–Dido branch was abandoned, but has been resurrected as the "New Type" languages in Schulze (2009, 2013) and Lak–Dargwa has likewise returned.

One factor complicating internal classification within the family is that the diachronic development of its respective branches is marked both by an extreme degree of diffusion and divergence followed by secondary convergence, which complicates the comparative method.[18]

Population data is from Ethnologue 16th ed.

Avar–Andic family

Spoken in the Northwest Dagestan highlands and western Dagestan. Avar is the lingua franca for these and the Tsezic languages and is the only literary language. Schulze (2009) gives the following family tree for the Avar–Andic languages:

Figures retrieved from Ethnologue.[19] These languages are spoken in the following rayons of Dagestan: Axvax, Botlikh, Buynaksk (Shura), Čarodinsky (Tsurib), Gergebil, Gumbetovsky (Baklul), Gunib, Karabudaxkent, Kazbekovsky (Dylym), Lavaša, Tsumada (Agvali), Untsukul, Xebda, Xunzaq and Zaqatala rayon in Azerbaijan.

Dargic (Dargin) dialect continuum

Spoken by 492,490 in Dagestan, as well as Azerbaijan, Central Asia and Ukraine.[20] Dargwa proper is a literary language.

Dargwa is spoken in the following rayons of Dagestan: Aquša, Kaitak, Kayakent, Kubači, Sergokala.

Khinalug (Xinalug) isolate

Spoken in Quba region of Azerbaijan.

Lak isolate

Spoken in the Central Dagestan highlands. Lak is a literary language.

Lak is spoken in two rayons of Dagestan: Kumux and Kuli (Vači).

Lezgic family

Spoken in the Southeast Dagestan highlands and in Northern Azerbaijan. The Lezgian language or, as the Lezgian people themselves call it, Лезги чlал (lezgi ch'al), is the biggest in terms of the number of native speakers of all the languages of the Lezgic group (other languages from this group include Tabasaran, Udi, Tsakhur and Rutul). They are spoken in the following rayons of Dagestan: Agul, Akhty, Derbent (Kvevar), Kasumxur, Kurakh, Magaramkent, Rutul, Tabasaran, Usukhchay, Khiv and Quba and Zaqatala in Azerbaijan.

Tabasaran was once thought to be the language with the largest number of grammatical cases at 54, which could, depending on the analysis, instead be the Tsez language with 64.

Lezgian and Tabasaran are literary languages.

All figures retrieved from Ethnologue.[23]

Nakh family

Spoken in Chechnya, Ingushetia and Georgia. Chechen and Ingush are official languages of their respective republics.

Tsezic (Didoic) family

Spoken mostly in Southwest Dagestan. None are literary languages. Formerly classified geographically as East Tsezic (Hinukh, Bezta) and West Tsezic (Tsez, Khwarshi, Hunzib), these languages may actually form different subgroupings[clarification needed] according to the latest research by Schulze (2009):

All figures except for Khwarshi were retrieved from Ethnologue.[28] These languages are spoken in the Tsunta and Bezhta areas of Dagestan.

Disputed connections to other families

North Caucasian family

Some linguists such as Sergei Starostin think that the Northeast and Northwest Caucasian languages are part of a wider North Caucasian family,[29] citing shared vocabulary and typological features as evidence.[30] This proposed family does not include the neighboring Kartvelian languages.[30] This hypothesis is questioned by some linguists.[31]

Connections to Hurrian and Urartian

Some linguists—notably Igor M. Diakonoff and Starostin—see evidence of a genealogical connection between the Northeast Caucasian family and the extinct languages Hurrian and Urartian. Hurrian was spoken in various parts of the Fertile Crescent in the 3rd and 2nd millennia BC. Urartian was the language of Urartu, a powerful state that existed between 1000 BC or earlier and 585 BC in the area centered on Lake Van in current Turkey. The two languages are classified together as the Hurro-Urartian family. Diakonoff proposed the name Alarodian for the union of Hurro-Urartian and Northeast Caucasian.

Some scholars, however, doubt that the language families are related[32] or believe that, while a connection is possible, the evidence is far from conclusive.[33][34]


Proto-Northeast Caucasian
Reconstruction ofNortheast Caucasian languages

Below are selected Proto-Northeast Caucasian reconstructions of basic vocabulary items by Johanna Nichols, which she refers to as Proto-Nakh-Daghestanian.[35]

gloss Proto-Nakh-Daghestanian
eye *(b)ul, *(b)al
tooth *cVl-
tongue *maʒ-i
hand, arm *kV, *kol-
back (of body) *D=uqq’
heart *rVk’u / *Vrk’u
bile, gall *sttim
meat *(CV)=(lV)ƛƛ’
bear (animal) *sVʔin / *cVʔin / *čVʔin
sun *bVrVg
moon *baʒVr / *buʒVr
earth *(l)ončči
water *ɬɬin
fire *c’ar(i), *c’ad(i)
ashes *rV=uqq’ / *rV=uƛƛ’
road *D=eqq’ / *D=aqq’
name *cc’Vr, *cc’Vri
die, kill *D=Vƛ’
burn *D=Vk’
know *(=D=)Vc’
black *alč’i- (*ʕalč’i-)
long, far *(CV=)RVxx-
round *goRg / *gog-R-
dry *D=aqq’(u) / *D=uqq’
thin *(C)=uƛ’Vl-
what *sti-
one *cV (*cʕV ?)
five *(W)=ƛƛi / *ƛƛwi

Notation: C = consonant; V = vowel; D = gender affix

Possible connections to the origin of agriculture

The Proto-Northeast Caucasian language had many terms for agriculture and Johanna Nichols has suggested that its speakers may have been involved in the development of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent and only later moved north to the Caucasus.[36] Proto-NEC is reconstructed with words for concepts such as yoke (*...ƛ / *...ƛƛ’), as well as fruit trees such as apple (*hʕam(V)c / *hʕam(V)č) and pear (*qur / *qar; *qʕur ?),[35] that suggest agriculture was well developed before the proto-language broke up.

See also


  1. ^ Hewitt, George (2004). Introduction to the Study of the Languages of the Caucasus. Munich: Lincom Europaq. p. 49.
  2. ^ Hewitt, George (2004). Introduction to the Study of the Languages of the Caucasus. Munich: Lincom Europa. pp. 49–54.
  3. ^ a b Matthews, W.K. (1951). Languages of the U.S.S.R. New York: Russel & Russel. p. 88.
  4. ^ Hewitt, George (2004). Introduction to the Study of the Languages of the Caucasus. Lincom Europa. p. 58.
  5. ^ Hewitt, George (2004). Introduction to the Study of the Languages of the Caucasus. Munich: Lincom Europa. p. 80.
  6. ^ Hewitt, George (2004). Introduction to the Study of the Languages of the Caucasus. Munich: Lincom Europa. pp. 81–82.
  7. ^ Dixon, R.M.W. (1987). Studies in Ergativity. Amsterdam: Elsevier Science Publishers B.V. p. 133.
  8. ^ Van Valen, Robert D. (1981). "Grammatical Relations in Ergative Languages" (PDF). Studies in Language. 5 (3): 361–394. doi:10.1075/sl.5.3.05van. Retrieved 19 April 2013.
  9. ^ Van Valin Jr., Robert D. (1983). "Grammatical Relations in Ergative Languages" (PDF). Studies in Language. 5 (3): 361–394. doi:10.1075/sl.5.3.05van. Retrieved 19 April 2013.
  10. ^ a b Plaster, Keith; et al. Noun classes grow on trees: noun classification in the North-East Caucasus. Language and Representations (Tentative). Retrieved 20 April 2013.
  11. ^ Foley, Steven (25 February 2021), Polinsky, Maria (ed.), "Agreement in Languages of the Caucasus", The Oxford Handbook of Languages of the Caucasus, Oxford University Press, pp. 843–872, doi:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780190690694.013.23, ISBN 978-0-19-069069-4, retrieved 1 July 2021
  12. ^ Aristar, Anthony (September 1992). "Greville Corbett, Gender. (Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Pp. xix + 363". Journal of Linguistics. 28 (2): 542–547. doi:10.1017/s0022226700015449. ISSN 0022-2267. S2CID 146676617.
  13. ^ Bond, Oliver; Corbett, Greville G.; Chumakina, Marina; Brown, Dunstan, eds. (25 August 2016). "Archi". doi:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198747291.001.0001. ISBN 978-0-19-874729-1. ((cite journal)): Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  14. ^ "External agreement - Surrey Morphology Group". Retrieved 1 July 2021.
  15. ^ Creissels, Denis (13 January 2012), Gast, Volker; Diessel, Holger (eds.), "External agreement in the converbal construction of Northern Akhvakh", Clause Linkage in Cross-Linguistic Perspective, Berlin, Boston: DE GRUYTER, pp. 127–156, doi:10.1515/9783110280692.127, ISBN 978-3-11-028069-2, retrieved 1 July 2021
  16. ^ See Nichols (2003)
  17. ^ See Schulze (2009)
  18. ^ Wolfgang Schulze (2017). "11. The comparative method in Caucasian linguistics". In Joseph, Brian; Fritz, Mathias; Klein, Jared (eds.). Handbook of Comparative and Historical Indo-European Linguistics. De Gruyter Mouton. p. 106. ISBN 978-3-11-018614-7. The twenty-nine languages of East Caucasian are marked by both an extreme degree of diffusion/divergence and secondary convergence, which renders the application of the comparative method more difficult.
  19. ^ "Ethnologue". Retrieved 14 March 2015.
  20. ^ "Ethnologue report for Dargwa". Retrieved 18 April 2013.
  21. ^ "Ethnologue report for Khinalugh". Retrieved 18 April 2013.
  22. ^ "Ethnologue report for Lak". Retrieved 18 April 2013.
  23. ^ "Ethnologue". Retrieved 18 April 2013.
  24. ^ "Bats". Ethnologue. Retrieved 14 March 2015.
  25. ^ "Chechen". Ethnologue. Retrieved 14 March 2015.
  26. ^ "Ingush". Ethnologue. Retrieved 14 March 2015.
  27. ^ Khalilova, Zaira (2009). A Grammar of Khwarshi (PDF). University of Leiden: LOT, Netherlands. ISBN 978-90-78328-93-3.[permanent dead link]
  28. ^ "Ethnologue".
  29. ^ Pereltsvaig, Asya (2012). Languages of the World: An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 65.
  30. ^ a b Matthews, W.K. (1951). Languages of the U.S.S.R. New York: Russell & Russell. pp. 87–88.
  31. ^ Nichols, J. 1997 "Nikolaev and Starostin's North Caucasian Etymological Dictionary and the Methodology of Long-Range Comparison: an assessment". Paper presented at the 10th Biennial Non-Slavic Languages (NSL) Conference, Chicago, 8–10 May 1997.
  32. ^ Smeets, Rieks. "On Hurro-Urartian as an Eastern Caucasian language." Bibliotheca Orientalis XLVI (1989): 260–280.
  33. ^ Zimansky, Paul (September 2011), "Urartian and the Urartians", in McMahon, Gregory; Steadman, Sharon (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Ancient Anatolia: (10,000–323 BCE), pp. 548–559, doi:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195376142.013.0024, Sayce, for example, considered a relationship with Georgian, 'or with any of the Caucasian languages such as Ude or Abkhas,' but admitted he lacked the tools to explore this. […] That Hurro-Urartian as a whole shared a yet earlier common ancestor with some of the numerous and comparatively obscure languages of the Caucasus is not improbable. […] Diakonoff and Starostin, in the most thorough attempt at finding a linkage yet published, have argued that Hurro-Urartian is a branch of the eastern Caucasian family […]. The etymologies, sound correspondences, and comparative morphologies these authors present are quite tentative and viewed with skepticism by many.
  34. ^ Gamkrelidze, Thomas V.; Gudava, T.E. (1998), "Caucasian Languages", Encyclopædia Britannica, theories relating Caucasian with […] the non-Indo-European and non-Semitic languages of the ancient Middle East also lack sufficient evidence and must be considered as inconclusive
  35. ^ a b Nichols, Johanna. 2003. The Nakh-Daghestanian consonant correspondences. In Dee Ann Holisky and Kevin Tuite (eds.), Current Trends in Caucasian, East European and Inner Asian Linguistics: Papers in honor of Howard I. Aronson, 207–264. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. doi:10.1075/cilt.246.14nic
  36. ^ See Wuethrich 2000


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Northeast Caucasian languages
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