I got a number of excellent things for Christmas (including a Boris Barnet double feature I can’t wait to see), but the one I want to babble about here is a gift from my lovely and generous wife: Nart Sagas from the Caucasus: Myths and Legends from the Circassians, Abazas, Abkhaz, and Ubykhs, assembled, translated, and annotated by John Colarusso. I recently posted about the Narts, and apparently the enthusiasm with which I discussed them at that time convinced her that the book would be greatly appreciated, as indeed it is. Not only does it have 92 stories from among those of the peoples mentioned in the title, it has an appendix with specimen texts in Kabardian East Circassian, Bzhedukh West Circassian (Adyghey), Ubykh, Abaza (Tapanta Dialect) (“Northern Abkhaz”), and Bzyb Abkhaz. Each text is preceded by a complete phonemic inventory of the language and a page or so of linguistic description; each line of the text is given first in a broader transcription, then in a word-by-word phonemic transcription that separates and translates each morpheme, then a complete translation is given (more literal than the one in the body of the book). I’ll obviously have to work through Colarusso’s A Grammar of the Kabardian Language; in the meantime I’ll have fun playing with the detailed analysis here. I’m already very pleased by a bit of information from the Abaza section:

Abaza and Abkhaz questions are very unusual in that they choose rightward question movement; that is, the interrogative pronoun appears at the end of the verb, and since the verb is usually the last word of the phrase, these wh-words, as they are called, appear phrase finally. Most linguists do not believe that such question formation exists, but lines 15, 16, and 103 offer clear examples.

I’m all in favor of anything that discomfits proponents of alleged universals.

Colarusso does a lot of comparison, both mythological and linguistic. Some of his etymologies seem plausible: Georgian tamada ‘toastmaster’ from Circassian thaamáta, perhaps originally ‘father of the gods’; the name of General Ermolov (who conquered part of the Caucasus for Tsar Alexander I) from Circassian yarmáhl ‘Armenian’ (though I’ll have to check Unbegaun to see if there’s a more convincing etymology). Others seem pretty dubious: Greek Maeotis ‘Azov Sea’ from Circassian miwitha (I’ve replaced Colarusso’s schwas with is for ease of transcription). But it’s all food for thought, and thoroughly enjoyable.

Incidentally, I discovered while looking at the Amazon entry for the book that Amazon now has a citation page that list all the items in a book’s bibliography for which they have listings; if you click on any of the links, you can find other books that list that item in their bibliography. Interesting and potentially useful.

Addendum. Some Ossetian versions here (courtesy of Mithridates).


  1. Congratulations on a successful gift-acquisition period. That sounds a marvellous book.
    Incidentally, you’ve got an improperly closed italic tag after the title, which is messing up this post for me (though probably not in more commonly used browsers).

  2. Great feeling, to open new and much-coveted book -I’m happy for you. Best time of year, Presents Days.
    Tiny note, though, about general Ermolov.
    While Russian nobility was generally very proud of their foreign ancestors (often built their genealogies on the fact – or even a vague notion), and the version of Circassian root could be plausible, I doubt they would use the word that meant foreigner even in foreign language they are borrowing from, especially word with negative meaning, considering ancient religious divide in Caucasus.
    I would think like majority of Russian family names, Ermolov means son of Ermolaj (or older, forms of this name) – and it is considered orthodox Christian name from Church baptism indexes, coming from Byzantium and having Greek roots.
    Quick googling brought me this reference;
    От производных форма крестильных имен Ермолай (из греч. – “вестник народа”), Еремей ( с греч. – “дающий богатство”), Ермил (из греч. – “из гермесова леса”).
    Not knowing any Greek I can’t vouch for this translations. Can you?
    Secondary thought, probably faulty – does Ormolu, guilt decoration on cabinetry, has any connection to Circassian ?

  3. Tim: Thanks for the heads-up; I fixed the ital tag.
    Tat: Who needs Unbegaun when they have you? That’s a much more plausible etymology of Ermolov, and illustrates the problem with an author who’s so enamored of his field of study he sees it everywhere. I’m surprised he doesn’t claim “Russia” is from a Circassian root. (Maybe he does — I’ve only started the book…)
    I don’t have my Greek references with me, so I’ll have to defer a response on the name etymologies for a couple of days.

  4. For those interested in the complex linguistic situation in the Caucasus, there’s an ethnolinguistic map of the area available on-line at
    (Just click on my name below to go to it.)

  5. An update: ormolu has nothing whatsoever to do with anything Caucasian;
    “alloy of copper, zinc, and tin, resembling gold,” 1765, from Fr. or moulu, lit. “ground gold,” from or “gold” (from L. aurum, from PIE *aus- “gold.”) + moulu “ground up,” pp. of moudre “to grind,” from L. molere “to grind.”
    Moral: it helps to have at least a basic idea about European languages…

  6. the interrogative pronoun appears at the end of the verb, and since the verb is usually the last word of the phrase, these wh-words, as they are called, appear phrase finally. Most linguists do not believe that such question formation exists.
    This sounds like question formation in Turkish as well. What is controversial about it?

  7. Does Turkish put words like “who” and “what” at the end of a sentence?

  8. Yes, the question word is frequently the last word of the sentence in Turkish, though it doesn’t have to be.

  9. LH, I enjoyed the hell out of that book, and I’m sure you will too. But if your eyebrows raised at the Yermolov etymology, wait till you get to the Trobriand footnote.

  10. Michael Farris says:

    The only ‘question’ word that I’m aware of that frequenly ends Turkish clauses is mi (subject to fourfold vowel harmony). Which indicates yes/no questions and not wh-questions.
    On the other hand, I think it’s possible, though not common to put wh-question words after the verb just as it’s possible to put any argument after the verb (in ‘reversed’ sentences) but I’m not aware of it as a general style, much less as a requirement which is I think the case in the caucasian languages in question here.

  11. A universal, eh? They know this how? This was first proposed when?

  12. OK, so it’s pretty common to front interrogative pronouns (e.g. English), and it’s pretty common to treat them like other pronouns and leave them in situ (e.g. Japanese). It’s also not all that unusual for interrogative pronouns to be able to be extraposed righward. What’s so unusual is for that to be a grammatical rule. How do these universals arise? People slogging through grammars and finding or not finding things. Want to make the universals better? Fund grammar-writers!

  13. I’m jealous. As soon as I can raise the cash, I’m going to get that Colarusso book. In the mean time, I’ve been getting my Nart fix from “Le Livre des Héros: Légendes sur les Nartes”, translated from Ossetian to French by Georges Dumézil, which is a far cheaper Gallimard paperback without so much in the way of notes or apparatus, but still highly enjoyable (and probably more of a complement than a rival to Colarusso, since the Ossetian legends differ in many ways from their Circassian counterparts).

  14. Yeah, now I’m eager to read the Ossetian versions.

    Nart Sagas From The Caucasus
    By John Colarusso
    Myths from the Forests of Circassia
    Two myths from the Circassians of the Caucasus Mountains offer detailed insights into the ancient veneration of trees and sacred groves.
    By John Colarusso
    Prometheus among the Circassians
    A modern oral tale from a little known people of the Caucasus shows striking parallels with myths from Ancient Greece, Ancient India and the pagan Germanic world.
    By John Colarusso
    The Nart Epos: The Fountain-Head Of Circassian Mythology
    Amjad Jaimoukha’s Page
    Aetiological Remarks And Legends In The Context Of Abkhazian Nart Epic
    By Zurab Jopua, Abkhazia

  16. Looks like Amazon eliminated the citation page. Why?

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