The Last Man to Speak Ubykh.

Back in 2017, I posted about Tevfik Esenç (1904 – 1992), the last known speaker of the Ubykh language; John Burnside (see this 2020 post) wrote a poem about him which the LRB published in 2002 and have now put in front of the paywall:

The Last Man to Speak Ubykh

The linguist Ole Stig Andersen was keen to seek out the remaining traces of a West Caucasian language called Ubykh. Having heard that there was one remaining speaker he set out to find the man and arrived in his village on 8 October 1992. The man had died a few hours earlier.

At times, in those last few months,
he would think of a word
and he had to remember the tree, or the species of frog,

the sound denoted:
the tree itself, or the frog, or the state of mind
and not the equivalent word in another language,

the speech that had taken his sons
and the mountain light;
the graves he swept and raked; the wedding songs.

While years of silence gathered in the heat,
he stood in his yard and whispered the name of a bird
in his mother tongue,

while memories of snow and market days,
his father’s hands, the smell of tamarind,
inklings of milk and blood on a sunlit floor

receded in the names no longer used:
the blue of childhood folded like a sheet
and tucked away.

Nothing he said was remembered; nothing he did
was fact or legend
in the village square,

yet later they would memorise the word
he spoke that morning, just before he died:
the word for death, perhaps, or meadow grass,

or swimming to the surface of his mind,
that other word they used, when he was young,
for all they knew that nobody remembered.

Thanks, Trevor!

The poem brings to mind Fazil Iskander’s 1993 Пшада [Pshada], in which a retired Abkhazian general recalls incidents from WWII; having forgotten his native language, he feels rootless, and thinking of happy childhood visits to the village of Pshada he tries to recapture the name’s meaning — finally he remembers it means ‘windless’ and (spoiler!) dies of a heart attack.


  1. J.W. Brewer says

    The poem makes the fellow seem much more quaint and rustic than the Istanbul-resident bureaucrat with considerable cosmopolitan experience hobnobbing with foreign philologists (and strong prescriptivist views about the grammatical defects of their other informants) who is described in the earlier post.

  2. Dying men probably are not so cosmopolitan and bureaucratic as they were before they were dying. Perhaps you would prefer his last thoughts be provided with plenty of statistics and foreign phrases?

  3. Well, it could have been written that way. Remembering his cosmopolitan days in Istanbul, his eventful life, and then his twilight years in his native land, growing old, shuffling towards death, remembering his youth in words that he could not share because no one knew the old language…. Equally poignant, I think — the poignance of loss, the poignance of an old man — but with less emphasis on the linguist’s concerns and more on the man’s.

  4. J.W. Brewer says

    Well, and “in his native land” is rather double-edged because he was born in diaspora and lived his whole life there. It’s not clear to me whether ethnic-Ubykhs (whether or not they knew their ancestors’ language) were or weren’t ever a majority in the particular village in Turkey he grew up in. I suppose there’s also the question of whether the inventory of specific species of frogs, trees etc in that part of Turkey was sufficiently similar to that of the prior Ubykh homeland across the Black Sea that the ancestral lexicon fully matched up to the local environment.

  5. his father’s hands, the smell of tamarind,
    inklings of milk and blood on a sunlit floor

    receded in the names no longer used

    I wonder, why tamarind? It would be difficult to cultivate tamarind in Sochi, and impossible in Hacıosman in the Turkish province of Balıkesir. I never saw it in cultivation even in those coastal areas of Turkey where citrus can be grown. But tamarind pods are sold everywhere in Turkey, especially for şerbet, a sweet drink flavored with such ingredients as tamarind pulp, dried fruits, cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, and ginger. It wouldn’t be Ramazan Bayramı (Eid al-Fitr) without şerbet. Is the tamarind meant to resonate with the blood on the floor, perhaps from Kurban Bayramı (Eid al-Adha)?

  6. David L. Gold says

    @Xerîb “I wonder, why tamarind?”

    Might Tevfik Esenç have had in mind tamarisk (Latin Tamarix = Turkish Ilgın [bitki]), a genus of trees and shrubs which grows in Israel and might therefore also grow in Turkey, and Ole Stig Andersen confused it with tamarind (Latin Tamarindus indica = Turkish demirhindi)?

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