Learning Avar.

The proprietor of the new blog Дунго кив вукIаниги (in English, despite the Cyrillic name — I have no idea what it means) has taken on the impressive self-imposed task of learning Avar, one of the major languages of Dagestan (“major” in this case involving well under a million speakers). I thought I was being daring when I studied Georgian, but that’s a piece of cake by comparison — there are textbooks, grammars, dictionaries, and published books available. For Avar there is almost none of that; as the introductory post explains:

Of the 3 languages featured on the album [Ay Lazzat: Songs and Melodies from Dagestan], it was Avar (the largest one with all of 730,000 speakers) that grabbed my attention, with its guttural pops and creaks that made it sound more like the speech of a fictional race of extraterrestrial warriors than anything human (the apostrophe-heavy transcriptions of the song titles – “Kh’uwativ sh’ai qu’at’azav”, “Ak’lu tle ebel” – only reinforced this Klingon-like impression), with a great, but unknown, literary and oral tradition, with its own pantheon of poets and writers, some of whose verses were set to music in those songs, lyrics only hinted at in descriptions about girls’ hearts shattering like pearls from a string and other such things.

So of course I had to learn it.

But I quickly ran into trouble – the difficulty, lack of decent (or any) learning material and the sheer impracticality of it all made me drop it as quickly as I’d picked it up.

After a few more abortive attempts I continued to feed my interest in Dagestan by reading and listening to music but otherwise dismissed the idea of ever learning it. Instead, I turned my attention to “easier” Georgian and, in an unexpected turn of events, ended up flying away to Georgia and living there for a few years.

It was about a year ago, as my Georgian adventure was nearing its end, that I made the acquaintance of an Avar and the germ of something-as-yet-unclear was planted. After a lazy, unpromising start, I finally picked up the grammar books (there is nothing that could even charitably be called a “textbook”) and a bilingual Russian-Avar edition of “Taras Bulba” and started learning again, so many years after that first wide-eyed encounter.

The second post describes the frustration of trying to work with a Soviet translation of “the famous Dagestani poet and author Rasul Gamzatov’s ‘My Dagestan,'” whose translator clearly did not know Avar and did not appear to take the task very seriously:

Delving further into the book, the Russian “translation” got ever looser – a more and more wildly elaborate riff on the spare, laconic Avar.

And then I stumbled on a 6-page-long passage that was completely ignored by the Russian translator.

And then followed long, elaborate pieces of Russian “translation” that simply did not exist in the Avar original (or perhaps got shuffled around and are buried in some other part of the book).

Ok, I’m a translator myself, and know very well that readability often comes at the expense of accuracy, and some sacrifices need to be made. But large parts of this translation were just pure invention, and large parts were not translated at all. And that’s in only 30-odd pages of 498.

This is great stuff, and I thank Andrew for alerting me to it!


  1. Wherever I may be, my heart is always in the mountains

    My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here etc.

  2. 1 Бищунго цебе букІана РагІи. РагІи Аллагьасда аскІоб букІана. РагІи букІана Аллагьлъунги.

    1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

    2 Бищунго цебе гьеб Аллагьасда аскІоб букІана.

    2 The same was in the beginning with God.

    3 Гьеб РагІудалъун бижана кинабго. Бижарабщиналъул щибниги бижичІо гьеб гьечІого.

    3 All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.

    4 Гьелъулъ букІана чІаголъи. Гьеб чІаголъи букІана гІадамазе Нурлъун.

    4 In him was life; and the life was the light of men.

    5 Гьеб Нур бецІлъуда кунчІун буго, бецІлъиялда гьеб Нур киданиги къезабизе кІвечІо.

    5 And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

    6 Гьале Аллагьас витІун вачІана ЯхІя абулев чи.

    6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.


    It’s the entire New Testament there, should be more than enough to learn the language. It’s a pity there is no audio available, the language is pretty weird, I’ve heard.

  3. Incidentally, no keyboard layout for the North-Caucasian languages has Ӏ (Palochka), so people have to make do with what they have to hand: a Cyrillic І, a Latin I, 1, etc, etc. What a shame!

  4. The reason palochka was chosen in the first place is that Russian typewriter keyboards usually had I and V to type Roman numerals with.

  5. Greg Pandatshang says

    So, the NT God is Alla-? Neat. Not that I’m so surprised, but I didn’t know that generalisation of the Arabic loan was a thing in the Caucasus.

  6. Not just there, but anywhere the Arabic name of the One God has been adopted: see this discussion.

  7. It’s the entire New Testament there, should be more than enough to learn the language.

    Perfect! I’m gonna file that right alongside Jakobson’s “You are linguist, no?”

    The tale of the Russian translation is so egregious that it made me wonder if the translator wasn’t working from a different version of the text. (Not necessarily the same thing, but a lot of the great postwar Japanese translations seem to be taking outrageous liberties until you learn that in many cases the translators were actually discussing their changes with authors as they went. Giants on the earth, etc.)

  8. Nephilim in the earth.

  9. You’ll pry my Wycliffe from my cold, dead hands!

  10. Ah yes, thank the Christian missionaries for spreading the gospel through the minority languages of Russia. The Jesus film has also been translated into Avar and at least a half-dozen other Dagestani languages, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Watchtower were available in them as well.

    The blog’s author here. Luckily for those who are not searching for Salvation, there are materials (a grammar, a “textbook”, really bite-sized bits of the former, and a phrasebook – all by the same author, and a searchable dictionary – http://avar.me/), which, while not abundant, are enough to get beyond a basic level. And things to read, like literature (including Rasul Gamzatov’s complete works in Avar – http://fatiha.ru/knigi/klasika/), newspapers, and even Radio Free Europe’s (sadly, now disbanded) Avar-language service (http://www.radioerkenli.com/). So the picture is not as bleak as I may have painted it – the internet has brought these languages a lot closer to the average person, much more than in the days of Richard Feynman and Paul Pena’s similarly quixotic quests for Tannu Tuva.

    As for “My Dagestan”, yet another name can be added to the translation daisy-chain – a certain Umarhazhi Shakhtamanov, Rasul’s fellow country-(republic-?)man, who was perfectly up to the task, but because of political considerations was passed over for the Russian Soloukhin, who was reluctant to do the translation and only followed through at Gamzatov’s insistence. (At least, this is what my still-imperfect Avar enables me to glean – http://www.radioerkenli.com/a/dagestan-bisavaliev-magomed-blog/27763969.html)

    The Russian version is not a bad book as it is; a lot of the extra details were clearly furnished by the author himself (in my imagination, over shots of vodka, or drinking horns). But the omissions and discrepancies are still enough to turn it into an almost different book, one lacking a lot of the actual content of the Avar original, if not its “essence”.

    Thanks for the post.

  11. David Marjanović says

    So, the NT God is Alla-?

    Specifically Allah, with гь for /h/. (The Soviet linguists got very creative in trying to represent really large sound systems in just 34 letters.) And in verse 6, it turns out John is Yaħya, with хІ for epiglottal /ʜ/.

    It’s a pity there is no audio available, the language is pretty weird, I’ve heard.

    Remember the thread on Winnie the Pooh in Caucasian languages? Start here, and afterwards scroll down to 7:39 pm for a link to a YouTube video that explains the spelling system.

  12. The blog’s author here.

    Hey, glad you found the thread! While I have your attention, what does the blog’s name mean?

  13. The French-language “Parlons…” series from L’Harmattan has books on a few of the languages of Dagestan (Rutul, Lak and Aghul) but not, as far as I can see, Avar.

  14. Hey, glad you found the thread! While I have your attention, what does the blog’s name mean?

    See my (first) comment.

  15. I saw the About page, but do you know for a fact that that’s what the Avar means, or are you assuming it?

  16. checked Gimbatov’s Avar-Russian dictionary and found the following:

    ДУНГО (form of дун – I)
    КИВ (Where)
    ВУКIАНИГИ, (appears to be a form of verb б/ýкІ/ине – to be)
    ракI (heart)
    дир (genitive of дун – mine)
    кидаго (always)
    мугIрузда (мугIруз – plural of мегIéр – mountain)
    буго (another form of verb to be)

    grammar seems quite complicated

  17. Thanks, and it sure does!

  18. Like SFReader, I poked around in Avar-Russian dictionaries and found that individual words probably match. No knowledge of Avar beyond that. It seems that the blog author uses this phrase (in Avar) as his online commentary signature.

  19. Rasul Gamzatov

    The cranes

    Дида ккола, рагъда, камурал васал
    Кирго рукъун гьечIин, къанабакь лъечIин.
    Доба борхалъуда хъахIил зобазда
    ХъахIал къункърабазде сверун ратилин.

    At times I think that the soldiers
    Who never made it home from the bloodied fields
    Are not sleeping in cold graves,
    But turned into white cranes.

    Гьел иххаз хаселаз халатал саназ
    Нилъее салам кьун роржунел руго.
    Гьелъин нилъ пашманго, бутIрулги рорхун,
    Ралагьулел зодихъ щибаб нухалда.

    From the minute that they perished to this very day
    They fly and they call onto us.
    Isn’t this why every time we look up to heavens
    We get so soft and so sad?

    Боржун унеб буго къункърабазул тIел,
    Къукъа буго чIварал гьудулзабазул.
    Гьезул тIелалда гъоркь цо бакI бихьула —
    Дун вачIине гьаниб къачараб гурищ?

    An exausted flock struggles through gray skies
    Flying in the fog towards day’s end
    And as I see a small gap between the beautiful birds,
    I think that perhaps this is the place for me.

    Къо щвела борхатаб хъахIилаб зодихъ
    ХъахIаб къункъра лъугьун дунги паркъела.
    Гьелъул гьаркьидалъул ракьалда тарал
    Киналго нуж, вацал, дица ахIила.

    A day will come when with a bunch of cranes
    I will fly in the same blue-gray haze,
    From under the heavens, like a bird calling out
    To all of you who are left on the ground.


  20. Search seems to associate Дунго кив вукIаниги, ракI дир мугIрузда буго with МухIамад ГIабдулхабиров (محمد بن عبد الكبير).

  21. There’s Charachidze’s 1981 Grammaire de la langue avar, online at Gilles Authier’s academia.edu page. It has several parallel texts at the end. Authier also posted Uslar’s 1889 grammar and “40 easy stories of Malla Nasrudin in Avar” (untranslated).

  22. Thanks, that looks great!

  23. It’s the entire New Testament there, should be more than enough to learn the language. It’s a pity there is no audio available,
    Go to http://www.bible.is/download/audio and scroll to Avar.

  24. What a great resource!

  25. I’ve come across a curious statement concerning Avar phonology in a book called Башни в горах by Аркадий Федорович Гольдштейн:

    Между прочим, в словах Гидатль, Согратль и т. п. «тл» произносится как один щелкающий звук. Произносится не прямо, а в сторону, ударяя языком в щеку. Я как будто научился его воспроизводить. Так, по крайней мере, мне казалось. Но вот слово «Антльратль» (есть такая местность в Аварии) выговорить никак не смог. Имеются в аварском языке и другие непостижимые для нас звуки. Чтобы выучиться говорить по-аварски, нужно родиться аварцем или иметь особый талант. Но на Кавказе есть языки и похлеще.

    He seems to understand a lateral consonant literally.

  26. January First-of-May says

    The reason palochka was chosen in the first place is that Russian typewriter keyboards usually had I and V to type Roman numerals with.

    Not sure which ones – maybe the very early versions?
    All the Soviet typewritten texts with Roman numerals that I recall seeing had to improvise with 1 (which fortunately looked just like a serifed I) and У; supposedly (I don’t recall that part, but I’ve read about it in other sources) even П and Ш were pressed into service (instead of II and III) occasionally.

  27. FWIW, the BDS standard Bulgarian keyboard has I and V; it imitates Bulgarian typewriters.
    Perhaps that was copied from early Russian typewriters.

  28. Adding another resource to the list, an ~45 minute long video recording audio to different books in Avar. I’ve copied the link to the point where the audio for the alphabet & examples starts.

  29. Very cool, many thanks!


  1. […] Hat considers the experiences of one man trying to learn […]

Speak Your Mind