THE LANGUAGES OF THE CAUCASUS.

Ellen Barry has a surprisingly good article in Sunday’s NY Times that starts by talking about the difficulties of Georgian—”its ridiculous consonant clusters (‘gvprtskvni’ ['you peel us'–LH]); its diabolical irregular verbs” (having studied Georgian, I was able to assure my appalled wife that the description was, if anything, understated)—and goes on to describe the rest of the region:

Some 40 indigenous tongues are spoken in the region — more than any other spot in the world aside from Papua New Guinea and parts of the Amazon, where the jungles are so thick that small tribes rarely encounter one another. In the Caucasus, mountains serve the same purpose, offering small ethnicities a natural refuge against more powerful or aggressive ones.
As a result, there is a dense collection of ethnic groups, the kind of arrangement that was common before the Greek and Roman empires swept through the plains of Europe and Asia, shaping ethnic patchworks into states and nations, said Johanna Nichols, a linguist at the University of California at Berkeley.

Aside from Nichols, an expert on the area, she quotes Bill Poser of the Log, and you can read his take on it here (he has a nice linguistic map of the Caucasus). The one thing that bothered me in Barry’s piece was the reference to Georgian as “a language whose closest relative, some linguists say, is Basque”: Larry, thou should’st be living at this hour!
The story ends with this horrifying anecdote:

Dr. Dybo has yet to hear from a library in Tskhinvali, which held a magisterial lexicon of the Ossetian language that was compiled over the course of many years. It’s a single manuscript, never transferred to a computer.
She is not sure, she said, but she thinks it burned up on Aug. 8.

War: What is it good for?

Comments

  1. It’s misleading to say that Europe was like the Caucasus before hellenization + romanization took place: while there were a great many tribal groupings/ethnic groups, large parts of Europe were linguistically unified well before Rome or the Greeks had an impact: Gaul, for example, was predominantly Gaulish-speaking before Caesar’s time(indeed Gaulish may have been part of a vast Celtic dialect continuum including much of Southern Germany, Northern Italy, much of the Iberian peninsula, the British isles, much of the Balkans and even parts of far-away Asia Minor): Indo-European languages were clearly dominant over much of Europe in the immediate pre-roman, pre-Greek period: I would suggest that, linguistically, pre-INDO-EUROPEAN Europe, rather than pre-Rome/pre-Greek Europe, would have been much closer to the present-day patchwork found in the Caucasus.

  2. …trying to think of a context in which the phrase “You peel us” would crop up…

  3. Crown, A. J.P. says:

    How about in a synopsis of The Love of Three Oranges?

  4. She quotes Bill Poser of the Log, and you can read his take on it here (he has a nice linguistic map of the Caucasus). The one thing that bothered me was the reference to Georgian as “a language whose closest relative, some linguists say, is Basque”: Larry, thou should’st be living at this hour!
    The way you quote this it isn’t obvious that it’s Ellen Barry you are quoting, not Bill Poser. What the latter says seems quite unexceptionable:
    Georgian has been proposed by other scholars to be related to Basque. This should surprise no one since Basque has been proposed to be related to practically everything. Anyone interested in the history of Basque, its various proposed relationships, and why these proposals are dubious, should consult The History of Basque by the late Larry Trask, which is the definitive work on the sujbect.

  5. Good point; I’ll clarify that.
    And AJP, you get the Languagehat Medal of Ingenious Repartee for the day!

  6. According to Johanna Nichols, quoted in the article, the -eti suffix in Ingushetia comes from Georgian. Not hard to imagine the same is true for Ossetia – see previous thread.

  7. To be fair to Poser, he does say

    This should surprise no one since Basque has been proposed to be related to practically everything. Anyone interested in the history of Basque, its various proposed relationships, and why these proposals are dubious, should consult The History of Basque by the late Larry Trask, which is the definitive work on the sujbect.

  8. komfo,amonan says:

    [...] before the Greek and Roman empires swept through the plains of Europe and Asia [...]
    Who on earth refers to Alexander’s conquests as the “Greek empire”?
    [...] she thinks it burned up on Aug. 8.
    This is unfortunate, to be sure. But to have foreseen during the last 17 years that this thing was in danger would not have been rocket science. I wonder if any efforts were made to duplicate it, either in the West or in Russia (which I hear is swimming in cash).

  9. alifsikkiin says:

    That the author used the “you peel us” example is interesting. I have a Georgian-English pocket dictionary and the preface has a brief description of some characteristics of the language, including the consonant clusters. The examples the book gives are “he is peeling us” and “he is plucking us.”
    Back when I had a blog I asked my readers to come up with situations in which a native English speaker could plausibly say one or both of those sentences. Some of the suggestions were pretty funny.

  10. marie-lucie says:

    The Armenian example for “you peel us” (or something close) is unlikely to have been chosen at random as something that could just occur in any conversation. It means that this particular verb form happens to have an unusually heavy consonant cluster and therefore can serve as an example of “pushing the envelope” of consonantal complexity. English does not go that far, but one example which often turns up in linguistics textbooks is the word sixths, which ends in four consonants (s-i-k-s-th-s), the last three of which are rarely found together in a word, and also rarely pronounced separately in normal speech, as in saying “four sixths of …”.
    In French (as in Spanish, Italian and other Romance languages, and others which have complex verb morphology) if you consult a verb book (eg 205 French verbs, or a similar book) you will find quite a number of forms which exist theoretically in the language in so far as they follow a pattern in common with many other verbs, but which are very unlikely to be uttered or written in actual situations, especially if combined not only with subject but also object and other pronouns. Sometimes the combination of verb ending and other features of the verb leads to strange results, as in this fragment from a humorous poem: … pour que vous m’assassinassiez (… “for you to murder me”, using an old imperfect subjunctive ending).

  11. Speaking of burning libraries, I heard an awful story from someone who’d been in the basement of Baghdad’s archaeological museum and seen their manuscript ‘storage’ – thousands of mss from Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East, completely uncatalogued…

  12. The story about the possibly lost dictionary is a good reminder to MAKE BACKUPS. In this day and age there is really no good excuse for having a unique copy of such a work.
    As for the imperfect subjunctive being an old form, I must protest. Though aware that most French speakers no longer use the imperfect subjunctive, I myself continue to use it. How vulgar it would be, for example, to say “Il faudrait que je pisse” rather than the correct “Il faudrait que je pissasse”.

  13. I totally agree with Bill. It may be that the imperfect subjunctive will be preserved by stubborn foreign speakers unwilling to give up something they learned at such cost long after it’s been abandoned by native speakers.

  14. An additional factor in my case is that even in English I speak a dialect that is very conservative in use of the subjunctive. I cringe when I read British English, for example, and encounter sentences in which verbs like “require” have indicative complements.
    In any case, the high use of the subjunctive is not dead among native speakers. One has only to read Balzac to encounter it in all its glory.

  15. There is another use for the imperfect subjunctive: Scrabble. I think that I have won every game of Scrabble that I have ever played in French. This is due partly to the fact that many French speakers lose their ability to spell once they leave school, but also to the fact that I know obscure verb forms like the imperfect subjunctive and the passe simple.

  16. In any case, the high use of the subjunctive is not dead among native speakers. One has only to read Balzac to encounter it in all its glory.
    I don’t know how to tell you this, Bill, but… Mister Balzac, he dead.

  17. marie-lucie says:

    Bill, Balzac is hardly an example of a modern speaker. Just because the passé simple and imperfect subjunctive are found in most of French literature including some contemporary instances (and therefore are recognized passively by most readers) does not mean that they (especially the second one) are still “alive”.
    For instance, in the novel by André Gide, Les Faux-Monnayeurs, the characters use both in their everyday conversations. Gide was criticized for this unrealistic, anachronistic use – indeed it makes most of the conversations (especially those between teenaged boys who are not particularly inclined towards literary pursuits) sound ridiculously formal as well as out of date. This is a conceit of the author, not one engaged in for effect by some of the characters.
    These tenses are still taught in French schools, since they are needed at least to understand older works. A few years ago one teacher became famous for using examples similar to yours in order to demonstrate the proper use of tenses, including the two in question.

  18. I heard an awful story from someone who’d been in the basement of Baghdad’s archaeological museum and seen their manuscript ‘storage’ – thousands of mss from Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East, completely uncatalogued
    This would not be the first time that Baghdad has been the site of tragic, irreparable losses to civilisation.
    When the Mongols (bless their souls) sacked the city in 1258, “the Grand Library of Baghdad, containing countless precious historical documents and books on subjects ranging from medicine to astronomy, was destroyed. Survivors said that the waters of the Tigris ran black with ink from the enormous quantities of books flung into the river.” (From Wikipedia).

  19. Marie-Lucie,
    Yes, I know that usage in Balzac is not the same thing as being “alive”. I was being facetious. Though I do wish that more modern writers wrote like Balzac.
    Although the imperfect subjunctive is pretty much dead in spoken French, there are dialects in which the passe simple is still used. In parts of Southern France the passe simple of some verbs – it seems to be the common verbs whose passe simple is short – is used in conversation, sometimes with regularization, e.g. “naissa” instead of “naquit” for “he was born”.

  20. marie-lucie says:

    In Southern France the language used to be Occitan (still spoken natively by a few) which had a passé simple in normal use, as in Spanish, and that use was carried over into French with no problem (my Occitan-speaking grandparents often used the passé simple), so it is not surprising that it is still going on there. Regularization occurs because this form is often relatively unpredictable, and also because those of Occitan background might be frenchifying Occitan forms.

  21. Bill, Marie-Lucie: another stronghold of the passe simple is (conservative dialects of) Acadian French, which has inherited from Western French dialects a singular /i/, plural /ir/ ending which is attached to verbs belonging to all classes, with very few exceptions (indeed, I suspect the form for “I was born” would be “je naissi”): one often has the impression that in Romance languages/dialects generally the languages where the passe simple is alive and kicking are more often then not those which have streamlined/regularized the morphology.

  22. David Marjanović says:

    —”its ridiculous consonant clusters (‘gvprtskvni’ ['you peel us'–LH]);

    That’s actually harmless the way I interpret it: the only unusual feature is the syllabic /v/, which doesn’t exist in any other language I know anything about. For really awkward, if rare, consonant clusters, look to German: geröntgt “X-rayed”. I recently discovered a two-word phrase that contains six consonants in a row (and I really mean six consonant phonemes, not the usual example of schimpfst where the “five” consonants are just four), but unfortunately I have already forgotten it…

    one often has the impression that in Romance languages/dialects generally the languages where the passe simple is alive and kicking are more often then not those which have streamlined/regularized the morphology.

    I can offer a similar phenomenon in German. In German, the literal translations “if I were” and “if I would be” both exist, but they mean exactly the same thing. What happens? In Standard German, the short form is used for irregular, but not too irregular verbs, because for regular ones it is identical to the homologue of the English past tense, while for the most irregular verbs the combinations of Ablaut and Umlaut can get so bizarre that people don’t remember them and finally find them ridiculous. In the southern dialects, on the other hand, the “past tense” is extinct except for (in my dialect) “was/were” and most persons of “wanted” (because an apocope event rendered the past and the present identical for regular verbs), so there is no danger of confusion, and the “if I were” form is used all over the place, often with regularizations (which are in several cases optional). The “if I would be” form is also used, but mostly to prevent the accumulation of too many endings on a verb.

  23. David Marjanović says:

    I would suggest that, linguistically, pre-INDO-EUROPEAN Europe, rather than pre-Rome/pre-Greek Europe, would have been much closer to the present-day patchwork found in the Caucasus.

    Not quite so hastily, young padawan. If you combine the work of Theo Vennemann and John Bengtson (…which may or may not be a good idea), you arrive at the picture of a pre-IE Europe that was covered by relatives of Basque from sea to shining sea, themselves the result of a recent agriculture-driven expansion out of the Caucasus.

  24. Crown, A. J. P. says:

    David Marjanović: but unfortunately I have already forgotten it…
    A likely story. I suppose it was you who came up with that Fermat’s last theorem wheeze.

  25. Crown, A. J. P. says:

    David Marjanović: but unfortunately I have already forgotten it…
    A likely story. I suppose it was you who came up with that Fermat’s last theorem wheeze.

  26. Crown, A. J. P. says:

    (Seriously, very interesting, David.)

  27. Crown, A. J. P. says:

    (Seriously, very interesting, David.)

  28. I found this remark from the NY Times article particularly reprehensible:
    This dynamic continued after the breakup of the Soviet Union, and she recalled her horror at hearing Dzhokhar Dudayev, the Chechen leader, cite work from her institute in support of Chechen independence, during the build up to a bloody war with Russia. “At those moments, you feel like the inventor of the atom bomb,” Dr. Dybo said.
    The racism dripping from that quote is just disgusting. I wonder if Dybo would feel like “the inventor of the atom bomb” if her institute’s work was used to justify the Civil Rights movement in the United States, or the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. God forbid those uppity negroes, err, Chechens should demand basic human rights!

  29. Yes, it’s amazing how easy people find it to sweep minority populations under the rug, especially when there are oil deals at stake.

  30. This page (moved from the last time we did consonant clusters, but the content is the same) glosses gvbrdgvnit ‘you tear us into pieces’ and offers German Angstschweiss and Slovak odstvrtvrstvit.

  31. Crown, A. J. P. says:

    Thanks, MMcM; you’re a 4-letter cluster all on your own. I may start using the Dutch, 9-consecutive lettered slechtstschrijvende on a daily basis. I’m assuming it means badly-written. Without my glasses it’s taken me several minutes to type, so until I’ve got it memorized I’ll be copying and pasting it.

  32. Crown, A. J. P. says:

    Thanks, MMcM; you’re a 4-letter cluster all on your own. I may start using the Dutch, 9-consecutive lettered slechtstschrijvende on a daily basis. I’m assuming it means badly-written. Without my glasses it’s taken me several minutes to type, so until I’ve got it memorized I’ll be copying and pasting it.

  33. Fellow Padawan David: Jedi Master Larry Trask has shown that the idea that Europe was once a wholly Basque-speaking continent is little more than an illusion created by the Dark Side. And indeed, the fact that Basque has been so useless in terms of deciphering as geographically close a language as Iberian does indeed suggest that, were The Force to send us back to Europe twenty-five centuries ago, we would find a continent dominated by a great many Indo-European languages, with a large number of utterly unrelated non-Indo-European languages in the more remote parts of the continent (Etruria, the Alps, parts of the Iberian peninsula…). Although it is true that Jedi Council Member Johanna Nichols has claimed (in her 1992 book, as I recall) that the typological similarities between Caucasian languages and Basque may well be remnants of a pre-Indo-European SPRACHBUND embracing the entire continent.

  34. David Marjanović says:

    Don’t worry about the phrase with the six consecutive consonants! I found a single (admittedly compound) word with six consonant phonemes in a row, one of which is /pf/: Kirschen zum Selbstpflücken.
    The Dutch example has 7 consonants in a row, however. I bet it means “worst-writing”.
    Angstschweiß has 5 or 6 consonants in a row depending on where the speaker comes from. The Slovak example fails because both r’s are syllabic.

    The racism dripping from that quote is just disgusting. I wonder if Dybo would feel like “the inventor of the atom bomb” if her institute’s work was used to justify the Civil Rights movement in the United States, or the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. God forbid those uppity negroes, err, Chechens should demand basic human rights!

    The good man went on to start a war (first against the Ingush, then against the Russians), and I think it was already pretty obvious back then that this would happen…

    Jedi Master Larry Trask has shown that the idea that Europe was once a wholly Basque-speaking continent is little more than an illusion created by the Dark Side.

    Great is the wisdom of the master, yet he died before most of the work I’m talking about was even published. I have little experience with Vennemann’s work, and it seems that he likes to jump to conclusions a bit too much, but Bengtson is very methodical.
    However, nobody (AFAIK) believes that relatives of Basque were all over the continent as recently as 500 BC!

    it is true that Jedi Council Member Johanna Nichols has claimed (in her 1992 book, as I recall) that the typological similarities between Caucasian languages and Basque may well be remnants of a pre-Indo-European SPRACHBUND embracing the entire continent.

    Forget typology, and 1992 is ancient history (two years before Bengtson started publishing). Look here (pdf), here (large pdf) and… oopsie. The paper about the timing (by which kind of vocabulary is shared) is apparently not yet published. Sorry. I’ll have to ask.

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