family in the Caucasus
Mountains, in the far south of European Russia and a neighbouring region of Georgia. It consists of only four languages, Abkhaz
, and Kabardian
. A fifth member, Ubykh
, has just become extinct. An alternative name for the family is Abkhazo-Adygean
This family has not the slightest resemblance to anything outside the Caucasus. There is a larger family, also confined to the Caucasus, called North-East Caucasian. There is no definite connexion between NWC and NEC (as linguists usually abbreviate them), but they have a number of features in common that suggest that at a deep level they can be grouped in a single North Caucasian superfamily.
Abkhaz is spoken by about 100 000 people in the secessionist Abkhazia region of Georgia; the others are mainly in small Russian autonomous republics near the Black Sea coast: Abaza by 35 000 in Karachay-Cherkessia, Adyge by 125 000 in Adygea, and Kabardian by 450 000 in Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachai-Cherkessia. There are also numerous speakers in Turkey. Adyge and Kabardian are both known as Circassian.
One striking feature of NWC is that the languages are very rich in consonants and very poor in vowels. In fact it is sometimes said that Kabardian has "only one vowel". This is not actually true, but the peculiar phonology of the NWC languages makes it to some degree justifiable. The NEC languages have comparable consonant inventories but a more normal vowel system.
As well as many places of articulation -- p t ts k q -- they have voiced, voiceless aspirated, and voiceless ejective b p ph p' at each place. This can further combine with palatalization or labialization: so ts tsw tsj and so through the other combinations, ts' tsw' tsj' etc. They also have velar and uvular fricatives multiplied in this way.
Adyge and Kabardian have a set of lateral fricatives. Adyge has fortis or geminate stops pp tt kk qq qqw tts ttsw and more. Adyge even has pharyngeal stops, which I have never heard of in a language: there is no phonetic symbol for them in the IPA and I certainly couldn't produce them myself.
Ubykh was formerly listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the language with the most consonants (81 by some counts), until displaced by an even more obscure Khoisan language from southern Africa. The last native speaker of Ubykh, Tevfik Esenc, died on 7 October 1992. Esenc fully cooperated with linguists to record his precious legacy, and was x-rayed to try to understand how he was making his sounds.
As far as I can tell, Ubykh had (i) sounds that were simultaneously labialized and palatalized; (ii) pharyngealized labial and uvular stops; and (iii) some intermediate "hissing-hushing" sibilants. Unfortunately to read the phonetic symbols on websites dealing with NWC you need a browser that's fallen through a wormhole from the twenty-fourth century.
This enormous inventory interacts with the vowels in something like the following way. I'm not clear about the details and have no accurate material on any North-West Caucasian language available to me, so this is fragmentary gatherings. Think of English bar - car - tar - war and bash - cash - lash - squash - wash. The rounded consonants of QU and W affect the following vowel. Think also of pork - lord vs work - word. In English this is just an oddity, but in NWC it's utterly pervasive.
Because most consonants can be labialized or palatalized, you get ta twa tja in which the vowel sounds different in each syllable because of the neighbouring consonant. So, although quite a few vowel sounds occur, they can be regarded as positional modifications of only a few basic vowel phonemes. In the case of Kabardian, it is even possible to analyse it in such a way that there is only one underlying vowel, and all shades of vowel are created by consonant influences. (This could also mean that in this language there was no real difference between the phoneme and the syllable.)
Although the North Caucasian languages bear no resemblance to anything outside the region, a minority of linguists speculate about finding deeper links. They believe they can discern the so-called Dene-Caucasian phylum, grouping NWC and NEC with Basque, Sino-Tibetan, and Na-Dene (which includes Navaho and Apache).