Ubykh is a language of the Northwestern Caucasian group, spoken by the Ubykh people up until the early 1990s.
The word is derived from wəbəx, its name in the Abdzakh Adyghe (Circassian) language. It is known in linguistic literature by many names: variants of Ubykh, such as Ubikh, Ubıh (Turkish) and Oubykh (French); and Pekhi (from Ubykh tʷaχə) and its Germanicised variant Päkhy.
Ubykh is distinguished by the following features, some of which are shared with other Northwest Caucasian languages:
- It is ergative, making no syntactic distinction between the subject of an intransitive sentence and the direct object of a transitive sentence.
- It is highly agglutinative, using mainly monosyllabic or bisyllabic roots, but with single morphological words sometimes reaching nine or more syllables in length: aχʲazbatʂʾaʁawdətʷaajlafaqʾajtʾmadaχ if only you had not been able to make him take it all out from under me again for them. Affixes rarely fuse in any way.
- It has a simple nominal system, contrasting just four noun cases, and not marking grammatical number in the direct or locative cases.
- Its system of verbal agreement is quite complex. English verbs must agree only with the subject; Ubykh verbs must agree with the subject, the direct object and the indirect object, and benefactive objects must also be marked in the verb.
- It is phonologically complex as well, with 83 distinct consonants (three of which, however, appear only in loan words). It only has two phonological vowels, but these vowels have a large range of allophones because the range of consonants which surround them is so large.
- Ubykh once held the world record for consonant sounds. It has since been eclipsed by the !Kung Bushman language, which is now known to exceed Ubykh by 34 consonants.
- Ubykh has 26 pure fricative phonemes, more than any other known language.
- Ubykh has just seven of the 10 phonemes noted in Pirahã, the language with the fewest phonemes.
- The Ubykh phoneme vˁ, a pharyngealised labiodental voiced fricative, may not exist in any other language on Earth.
- Ubykh has some 17 ejective phonemes, but lacks a phonemic glottal stop.
- The sounds [tʷ dʷ tʷʾ] only appear in Ubykh, its relatives Abkhaz and Abaza, and two other languages, both of which are found only in the Amazon rainforest.
- Ubykh has more than twenty verb prefixes to delineate spatial relationships.
- Ubykh may be related to Hattic, a language spoken in Anatolia before 2000 BC and written in a cuneiform script.
Unfortunately, the phonetics of Ubykh are so complex that it still does not have a satisfactory ASCII transcription system. Ubykh had no native writing system, so all transcriptions here are in IPA.
Ubykh has only two (arguably three) basic phonemic vowels: closed [ə] - schwa, as in English "about" - and open [a] and [aa] (which actually differ in quality but do not differ in length, although diachronically aa is derived from sequences of a + a).
However, there are many vowel allophones, which are affected by the secondary articulation of the consonants that surround them. Ten basic phonetic vowels appear, derived from the two phonemic vowels adjacent to labialised or palatalised consonants. These ten phonetic vowels are /a e i o u/ and /a: e: i: o: u:/. The phonetic vowels are the standard five found in many of the world's languages, such as Georgian, and the same five vowels with increased phonetic length. In general, the following rules apply:
- [Cʷa] > [Co] and [aw] > [o:]
- [Cʲa] > [Ce] and [aj] > [e:]
- [Cʷə] > [Cu] and [əw] > [u:]
- [Cʲə] > [Ci] and [əj] > [i:]
Other, more complex vowels have been noted in Ubykh: [ajəwɕqʾa] you did it can become [ayɕqʾa], for instance. On occasion, nasal sonorants (particularly n) may even decay into vowel nasality. For instance, [najnɕʷ] young man has been noted as [nɛ̃jɕʷ], not [najnɕʷ] as the phonemic notation would indicate.
a appears initially very frequently, particularly in the function of the definite article. ə is extremely restricted initially, appearing only in doubly transitive verb forms where all three arguments are third person, e.g. əntʷən he gave it to him (normally jəntʷən). Even then, ə itself may be dropped to provide an even shorter form ntʷən.
Both vowels appear without restriction finally, although when ə is unstressed finally, it tends to be dropped: tʷə father becomes the definite form atʷ the father.
Eighty-three basic consonants are noted at nine basic points of articulation. Labialisation is present on all classes barring the glottal, bilabial, labiodental and retroflex consonants; palatalisation may be noted on uvulars and velars. Pharyngealisation of consonants, rare among the world's languages, is a distinctive feature. The system is very symmetrical in the main - for instance, the sets of affricates are all complete - but some interesting asymmetries may be noted, such as the presence of a pharyngealised labiodental fricative vˁ in the absence of a non-pharyngealised version. An IPA rendition of the Ubykh consonant system is available in the Ubykh phonology article.
All but three of the 83 consonants are found in native vocabulary. The plain velars [ k g kʼ] are found only in loans: gaarga crow (from Turkish), kawar slat, batten (from Abdzakh Adyghe), makʼəf estate, legacy. As well, the pharyngealised labial consonants [pˁ pˁʼ] are almost exclusively noted in words where they are associated with another pharyngealised consonant (for instance, qˁʼaapˁʼa handful), but are occasionally found outside this context (the verb root tʼapˁʼ is an example, meaning to explode, to burst). Finally, h is mainly found in interjections and loans, with hənda now the only real native word to contain the phoneme.
Some consonants are extremely rare: ɣ is noted in the words adəɣa Circassia and ɣa testis, and vˁ is noted in just five words: vˁa (four homophones meaning oak, to spy on, moustache and acorn), vˁatʂʼəkjʼ spark, vˁaʂa firebrand, avˁa thick (of fabric) and səpʼavˁa coarse flour. The frequency of consonants in Ubykh is very variable; the two phonemes n and qʼ account for over 20% of the consonant phonemes encountered.
Far fewer allophones of consonants are noted, mainly because a small acoustic difference can be phonemic when so many consonants are involved. However, the alveolopalatal labialised fricatives were sometimes realised as alveolar labialised fricatives, and the uvular ejective stop qʼ in the past tense suffix - qʼa was often pronounced as glottal stop, due to the influence of the Kabardian and Adyghe languages.
All consonants can appear word-initially. Restrictions on word-final consonants have not yet been investigated; however, Ubykh has a slight preference for open syllables (CV) over closed ones (VC or CVC). The pharyngealised consonants mˁ, wˁ, pˁ and pˁʼ have not been noted word-finally.
Ubykh is agglutinative and polysynthetic: ɕəkʲʼaajəfanamət we shall not be able to go back, awqʼaqʼajtʼba if you had said it. Ubykh is often extremely concise in its word forms: azbatʂʾaʁawtʷaajlafaqʾajtʾdaχ if only you had been able to take it all out from under me again is just nine syllables, much shorter than the 19 syllables of the English translation.
The boundaries between nouns and verbs in Ubykh is somewhat blurred. Any noun can be used as the root of a stative verb ( məzə child, səməzəjtʼ I was a child), and many verb roots can become nouns simply by the use of noun affixes ( qʼa to say, səqʼa my speech, what I say).
The noun system in Ubykh is quite simple. Ubykh has four noun cases (the oblique-ergative case may be two homophonous cases with differing function, thus presenting five cases in total):
A pair of postpositions, - laaq and - ʁaafa, have been noted as synthetic datives (cf. aχʲəlaaq astʷadaw I will send it to the prince), but their status as cases is best discounted.
Nouns do not distinguish grammatical gender; feminine gender is distinguished in the verb paradigm only. The definite article is a-: atət the man. There is no indefinite article, but za-(root)- gʷara (literally one-(root)-certain) translates French un and Turkish bir: zanaynʃʷgʷara a certain young man.
Number is only marked on the noun in the ergative case, with - na. The number marking of the absolutive argument is either by suppletive verb roots (e.g. akʷən blas he is in the car vs akʷən blaʒʷa they are in the car) or by a verb suffix - aa: akʲʼan he goes, akʲʼaan they go. Interestingly, the second person plural prefix ɕʷ- triggers this plural suffix regardless of whether that prefix represents the ergative, the absolutive or the oblique argument:
- ɕʷastʷaan I give you all to him (abs.)
- səɕʷəntʷaan he gives me to you all (obl.)
- asəɕʷtʷaan you all give it/them to me (erg.)
Note that in this last sentence, the plurality of it ( a-) is obscured; the meaning can be either I give it to you all or I gave them to you all.
Adjectives, in most cases, are simply suffixed to the noun: tʃəbʑəja pepper with pɬə red becomes tʃəbʑəjapɬə red pepper. Adjectives do not decline.
Postpositions are rare; most locative semantic functions, as well as some non-local ones, are provided with preverbal elements: awəsχʲatxəɬqʼa you wrote it for me. However, there are a few postpositions: səʁʷa səgʲaatʂʼ like me; aχʲəlaaq near the prince.
A past-present-future distinction of verb tense exists (the suffixes - qʼa and - awt represent past and future) and an imperfective aspect suffix is also found (- jtʼ, which can combine with tense suffixes). Dynamic and stative verbs are contrasted, as in Arabic, and verbs have several nominal forms. Morphological causatives are not uncommon. The conjunctions and and but are given with verb suffixes:
- - gʲə and;
- - gʲəla but, however, although.
Verbs agree with the subject, the direct object and the indirect object. Pronominal benefactives are also part of the verbal complex, marked with the preverb χʲa-: asχʲawəntʷən he gives it to you for me.
Gender only appears as part of the second person paradigm, and then only at the speaker's discretion. The feminine second person index is χa-, which behaves like other pronominal prefixes: awəsχʲantʷən he gives it to you (normal; gender-neutral) for me, but compare aχasχʲantʷən he gives it to you (feminine) for me
A few meanings covered in English by adverbs or auxiliary verbs are given in Ubykh by verb suffixes:
- asfəpχa I need to eat it
- asfəfan I can eat it
- asfəgʲan I eat it all the time
- asfəlan I am eating it all up
- asfətɕʷan I eat it too much
- asfaajən I eat it again
Questions may be marked grammatically, using verb suffixes or prefixes:
- Yes-no questions with - ʂ: wana awbjaqʼaʂ? did you see that?
- Complex questions with - j: saakʲʼa wəpʼtsʼaj? what is your name?
Other types of questions, involving the pronouns where and what, may also be marked only in the verbal complex: maawkʲʼanəj where are you going?, saawqʼaqʼajtʼəj what had you said?
Preverbs and Determinants
Many local and other functions are provided by preverbal elements, and it is in this that Ubykh is hideously complex. Two main types of preverbal elements exist in Ubykh: determinants and preverbs. The number of preverbs is limited, and mainly show location and direction. The number of determinants is also limited, but the class is more open; some determinant prefixes include tɕa- with regard to a horse and ɬa- with regard to the foot or base of an object.
For simple locations, there are a number of possibilities that can be encoded with preverbs, including (but not limited to):
- above and touching
- above and not touching
- below and touching
- below and not touching
- at the side of
- through a space
- through solid matter
- on a flat horizontal surface
- on a non-horizontal or vertical surface
- in a homogeneous mass
- in an upward direction
- in a downward direction
- into a tubular space
- into an enclosed space
There is also a separate directional preverb meaning towards the speaker: j-, which occupies a separate slot in the verbal complex. However, preverbs can have meanings that would take up entire phrases in English. The preverb jtɕʷʼaa- signifies on the earth or in the earth, for instance: ʁadja ajtɕʷʼaanaaɬqʼa they buried his body (lit. they put his body in the earth). Even more narrowly, the preverb faa- signifies that an action is done out of, into or with regard to a fire: amdʑan zatɕətɕaqʲa faastχʷən I take a brand out of the fire.
Ubykh syllables have a strong tendency to be CV, although VC and CVC also exist. Consonant clusters are not so large as in Abzhui Abkhaz or in Georgian, being almost always of two terms. Three-term clusters exist in two words - ndʁa sun and psta to swell up, but the latter is a loan from Adyghe, and the former more often pronounced nədʁa when it appears alone. Compounding plays a large part in Ubykh and, indeed, in all Northwest Caucasian semantics. There is no verb to love, for instance; one says I love you as tʃʼanə wəzbjan I see you well.
Reduplication occurs in some roots, often those with onomatopoeic values ( χˁaχˁa to curry(comb) from χˁa to scrape; kʼərkʼər, to cluck like a chicken (a loan from Adyghe); warqwarq, to croak like a frog).
Roots and affixes can be as small as one phoneme. The word wantʷaan they give you to him, for instance, contains six phonemes, and each is a separate morpheme:
- w - 2nd singular absolutive
- a - 3rd singular dative
- n - 3rd ergative
- tʷ - to give
- aa - ergative plural
- n - present tense
However, some words may be as long as seven syllables (although these are usually compounds): ʃəqʷʼawəɕaɬadətɕa staircase.
Slang and Idioms
As with all other languages, Ubykh is replete with idioms. The word ntʷa door, for instance, is an idiom meaning either magistrate, court or government. Some slang terms and idioms can be shown to be caused by historical events; the term wərəs Russian, a Turkish loan, has come to be a slang term meaning infidel, non-Muslim or enemy (see section History).
The majority of loanwords in Ubykh are derived from either Adyghe or Turkish. Towards the end of Ubykh's life, a large influx of Adyghe words was noted; Hans Vogt's Ubykh dictionary of some 3000 roots notes more than a hundred examples. The phonemes [g k kʼ] were borrowed from Turkish and Adyghe. ɬʼ also appears to be an Adyghe loan, although at a greater time depth. It is possible, too, that ɣ (fricative) is a loan from Adyghe.
Many loanwords have Ubykh equivalents, but were dwindling in usage under the influence of Turkish, Circassian and Russian equivalents:
- bərwə to make a hole in, to perforate (Turkish) = pɕaatχʷ
- tʃaj tea (Turkish) = bzəpʂə
- wərəs enemy (Turkish) = bˁaqˁʼa
- kawar slat, batten (Abdzakh) = sətχa
Some words, usually much older ones, are borrowed from less influential stock: χˁʷa pig is believed to be borrowed from a proto-Semitic *huka, and agʲarə slave from an Iranian root.
In the scheme of Northwest Caucasian evolution, Ubykh is the most divergent language of the Abkhaz-Abaza branch, and has a number of features which are unique even within that family. It has fossilised palatal class markers where all other Northwest Caucasian languages preserve traces of an original labial class: the Ubykh word for heart, gʲə, corresponds to the reflex gʷə in Abkhaz, Abaza, Kabardian and Adyghe.
Ubykh also possesses groups of pharyngealised consonants otherwise found in the Northwest Caucasian family only in some dialects of Abkhaz and Abaza. All other NWC languages possess true pharyngeal consonants, but Ubykh is the only language to use pharyngealisation as a feature of secondary articulation.
With regard to the other languages of the family, Ubykh is closer to Abkhaz than to any other member, but is quite close, both lexically and grammatically, to Adyghe.
While not many dialects of Ubykh exist, one divergent dialect of Ubykh has been noted. Grammatically, it is basically the same as standard Ubykh, but has a very different sound system, which has collapsed into just 62-odd phonemes:
- [dʷ tʷ tʷʼ] have collapsed into [b p pʼ].
- [ɕʷ ʑʷ] are indistinguishable from [ʃʷ ʒʷ].
- ɣ seems to have disappeared.
- Pharyngealisation is no longer distinctive, having been replaced in many cases by geminate consonants.
- Palatalisation of the uvular consonants is no longer phonemic.
Ubykh was spoken in the eastern coast of the Black Sea, around Sochi until 1875, when the Ubykhs were driven out of the region by the Russians. They eventually came to settle in Turkey, and came to use Turkish and Circassian for everyday communication. Many words from these languages entered Ubykh in that period.
The Ubykh language died out on October 7, 1992, when its last fluent speaker (Tevfik Esenç) passed away in his sleep. Fortunately, before that time thousands of pages of material and many audio recordings had been collected and collated by a number of linguists, including Georges Dumézil, Hans Vogt and George Hewitt, with the help of some of its last speakers, particularly Tevfik Esenç and Huseyin Kozan.
Julius von Mészáros, a Hungarian linguist, visited Turkey in 1930 and took down some notes on Ubykh. His work Die Päkhy-Sprache was extensive and accurate to the extent allowed by his transcription system (which could not represent all the phonemes of Ubykh), and marked the foundation of Ubykh linguistics.
The Frenchman Georges Dumézil also visited Turkey in 1930 to record some Ubykh, and would eventually become the most celebrated Ubykh linguist of all time. He published a collection of Ubykh folktales in the late 1950s, and the language soon attracted the attention of linguists for its small number (two) of phonemic vowels. Hans Vogt, a Norwegian, produced a monumental dictionary that, in spite of its many errors (later corrected by Dumézil), is still one of the masterpieces and essential tools of Ubykh linguistics.
Later in the 1960s and into the early 1970s, Dumézil published a series of papers on Ubykh etymology in particular and Northwest Caucasian etymology in general. Dumézil's book Le Verbe Oubykh (1975), a comprehensive account of the verbal and nominal morphology of the language, is another cornerstone of Ubykh linguistics.
Since the 1980s, Ubykh linguistics has slowed drastically. No other major treatises have been published; however, one Dutch linguist is currently trying to compile a new Ubykh dictionary based on Vogt's 1963 book, and a similar project is also underway in Australia. The Ubykh themselves have shown interest in relearning their difficult language. A partial Ubykh to English dictionary (in Microsoft Word format) is available for downloading (http://www.usacba.org/ReaderArticles/Contents.asp).
People who have published literature on Ubykh include
- Brian George Hewitt
- Catherine Paris
- Christine Leroy
- Georg Bossong
- Georges Dumézil
- Hans Vogt
- John Colarusso
- Julius von Mészáros
- Rieks Smeets
- Tevfik Esenç
- Wim Lucassen