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Ubykh language

Ubykh alphabet Ubykh or Ubyx is an extinct language of the Northwestern Caucasian group, spoken by the Ubykh people (who originally lived along the eastern coast of the Black Sea before migrating en masse to Turkey in the 1860s). The language's last native speaker, Tevfik Esen , died in 1992.

The Ubykh language is ergative and agglutinative, with polypersonal verbal agreement and a very large number of distinct consonants, but only two distinct vowels. With around eighty consonants it has one of the largest inventories of consonants in the world,[1] the largest number for any language without clicks.

The name Ubykh is derived from , its name in the Abdzakh Adyghe (Circassian) language. It is known in linguistic literature by many names: variants of Ubykh, such as Ubikh, Ub h (Turkish) and Oubykh (French); and Pekhi (from Ubykh ) and its Germanised variant P khy.


Major features

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. Split ergativity plays only a small part, if at all.
  • It is highly agglutinative, using mainly monosyllabic or bisyllabic roots, but with single morphological words sometimes reaching nine or more syllables in length: 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 always marking grammatical number in the direct case.
  • 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 84 distinct consonants (four of which, however, appear only in loan words). According to some linguistic analyses, 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 has 84 phonemic consonants, a record high amongst languages without click consonants, but only 2 phonemic vowels. Four of these consonants are found only in loanwords and onomatopoeia. There are nine basic places of articulation for the consonants and extensive use of secondary articulation, such that Ubykh has 20 different uvular phonemes. Ubykh distinguishes three types of postalveolar consonants, apical, laminal, and laminal closed. Regarding the vowels, even though there are only two phonemic vowels, there is a great deal of allophony.


Ubykh is agglutinative and polysynthetic: we shall not be able to go back, if you had said it. Ubykh is often extremely concise in its word forms.

The boundaries between nouns and verbs in Ubykh is somewhat blurred. Any noun can be used as the root of a stative verb ( child, I was a child), and many verb roots can become nouns simply by the use of noun affixes ( to say, my speech, what I say).[2][3]


The noun system in Ubykh is quite simple. Ubykh has three noun cases (the oblique-ergative case may be two homophonous cases with differing function, thus presenting four cases in total):

The instrumental (- by means of, by using) was also treated as a case in Dum zil (1975). Another pair of postpositions, - to(wards) and - for, have been noted as synthetic datives ( I will send it to the prince), but their status as cases is also best discounted.

Nouns do not distinguish grammatical gender. The definite article is - the: the man. There is no indefinite article directly equivalent to the English a or an, but -(root)- (literally one-(root)-certain) translates French un and Turkish bir: a certain young man.

Number is only marked on the noun in the ergative case, with -. The number marking of the absolutive argument is either by suppletive verb roots (e.g. he is in the car vs they are in the car) or by verb suffixes: he goes, they go. Interestingly, the second person plural prefix - triggers this plural suffix regardless of whether that prefix represents the ergative, the absolutive, or an oblique argument:

  • I give you all to him (abs.)
  • he gives me to you all (obl.)
  • you all give it/them to me (erg.)

Note that in this last sentence, the plurality of it (-) is obscured; the meaning can be either I give it to you all or I give them to you all.

Adjectives, in most cases, are simply suffixed to the noun: pepper with red becomes 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: you wrote it for me. However, there are a few postpositions: like me; near the prince.


A past-present-future distinction of verb tense exists (the suffixes - and - represent past and future) and an imperfective aspect suffix is also found (-, 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 usually given with verb suffixes, but there is also a free particle for each:

  • - and (free particle , borrowed from Turkish);
  • - but, nevertheless, even so, however, although (free particle )

Pronominal benefactives are also part of the verbal complex, marked with the preverb -, but a benefactive cannot normally appear on a verb that has three agreement prefixes already.

Gender only appears as part of the second person paradigm, and then only at the speaker's discretion. The feminine second person index is -, which behaves like other pronominal prefixes: he gives (it) to you (normal; gender-neutral) for me, but compare 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:

  • I need to drink it
  • I can drink it
  • I drink it all the time
  • I am drinking it all up
  • I drink it too much
  • I drink it again


Questions may be marked grammatically, using verb suffixes or prefixes:

  • Yes-no questions with -: ? did you see that?
  • Complex questions with -: ? what is your name?

Other types of questions, involving the pronouns where and what, may also be marked only in the verbal complex: where are you going?, what had you said?

Preverbs and determinants

Many local, prepositional, and other functions are provided by preverbal elements providing a large series of applicatives, 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 - with regard to a horse and - 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
  • towards
  • 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 - signifies on the earth or in the earth, for instance: they buried his body (lit. they put his body in the earth). Even more narrowly, the preverb - signifies that an action is done out of, into or with regard to a fire: I take a brand out of the fire.


Native vocabulary

Ubykh syllables have a strong tendency to be CV, although VC and CVC also exist. Consonant clusters are not as large as in Abzhywa Abkhaz or in Georgian, rarely being larger than two terms. Three-term clusters exist in two words - sun and to swell up, but the latter is a loan from Adyghe, and the former more often pronounced 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 I see you well.

Reduplication occurs in some roots, often those with onomatopoeic values ( to curry(comb) from to scrape; , to cluck like a chicken (a loan from Adyghe); , to croak like a frog).

Roots and affixes can be as small as one phoneme. The word they give you to him, for instance, contains six phonemes, and each is a separate morpheme:

  • - 2nd singular absolutive
  • - 3rd singular dative
  • - 3rd ergative
  • - to give
  • - ergative plural
  • - present tense

However, some words may be as long as seven syllables (although these are usually compounds): staircase.

Slang and idioms

As with all other languages, Ubykh is replete with idioms. The word door, for instance, is an idiom meaning either magistrate, court or government. However, idiomatic constructions are even more common in Ubykh than in most other languages; the representation of abstract ideas with series of concrete elements is a characteristic of the Northwest Caucasian family. I love you translates literally as I see you well; you please me is literally you cut my heart. The term Russian, a Turkish loan, has come to be a slang term meaning infidel, non-Muslim or enemy (see section History).

Foreign loans

The majority of loanwords in Ubykh are derived from either Adyghe or Turkish, with smaller numbers from Persian, Abkhaz and the South Caucasian languages. Towards the end of Ubykh's life, a large influx of Adyghe words was noted; Vogt (1963) notes a few hundred examples. The phonemes were borrowed from Turkish and Adyghe. also appears to be an Adyghe loan, although at a greater time depth. It is possible, too, that is a loan from Adyghe, since most of the few words with this phoneme are obvious Adyghe loans: proud, testis.

Many loanwords have Ubykh equivalents, but were dwindling in usage under the influence of Turkish, Circassian and Russian equivalents:

  • to make a hole in, to perforate (Turkish) =
  • tea (Turkish) =
  • enemy (Turkish) =

Some words, usually much older ones, are borrowed from less influential stock: Colarusso (1994) sees pig as a borrowing from a proto-Semitic *huka, and slave from an Iranian root; however, Chirikba (1986) regards the latter as being of Abkhaz origin (< Abkhaz ag r-wa lower cast of peasants; slave (literally Megrelian)).


In the scheme of Northwest Caucasian evolution, despite its parallels with Adyghe and Abkhaz, Ubykh forms a separate third branch of the 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, , corresponds to the reflex in Abkhaz, Abaza, Adyghe and Kabardian. Ubykh also possesses groups of pharyngealised consonants. 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 Adyghe and Kabardian, but shares many features with Abkhaz due to geographic influence; many Ubykh speakers were bilingual in Ubykh and Adyghe.


While not many dialects of Ubykh existed, one divergent dialect of Ubykh has been noted (in Dum zil 1965:266-269). Grammatically, it is similar to standard Ubykh (i.e. Tevfik Esen 's dialect), but has a very different sound system, which had collapsed into just 62-odd phonemes:

  • have collapsed into .
  • are indistinguishable from .
  • 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 1864, when the Ubykhs were driven out of the region by the Russians. They eventually came to settle in Turkey, founding the villages of Hac Osman, K rkp nar, Masukiye and Hac Yakup. Turkish and Circassian eventually became the preferred languages for everyday communication, and 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 Esen ) died in his sleep. Before his death, thousands of pages of material and many audio recordings had been collected and collated by a number of linguists, including Georges Charachidz , Georges Dum zil, Hans Vogt and George Hewitt, with the help of some of its last speakers, particularly Tevfik Esen and Huseyin Kozan. Ubykh was never written by its speech community, but a few phrases were transcribed by Evliya Celebi in his Seyahatname, and a substantial portion of the oral literature, along with some cycles of the Nart saga, was transcribed. Tevfik Esen also eventually learned to write Ubykh in the transcription that Dum zil devised.

Julius von M sz ros, a Hungarian linguist, visited Turkey in 1930 and took down some notes on Ubykh. His work Die P khy-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 Dum zil also visited Turkey in 1930 to record some Ubykh, and would eventually become the most celebrated Ubykh linguist. 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 Dum zil), is still one of the masterpieces and essential tools of Ubykh linguistics.

Later in the 1960s and into the early 1970s, Dum zil published a series of papers on Ubykh etymology in particular and Northwest Caucasian etymology in general. Dum zil'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, the Dutch linguist Rieks Smeets 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 language.

People who have published literature on Ubykh include

  • Brian George Hewitt
  • Catherine Paris
  • Christine Leroy
  • Georg Bossong
  • Georges Dum zil
  • Hans Vogt
  • John Colarusso
  • Julius von M sz ros
  • Rieks Smeets
  • Viacheslav Chirikba
  • Tevfik Esen
  • Wim Lucassen

Notable characteristics

Ubykh has been cited in the Guinness Book of Records (1996 ed.) as the language with the most consonant phonemes, although it may have fewer than some of the Khoisan languages. It has 20 uvular and 29 pure fricative phonemes, more than any other known language. Ubykh may be related to Hattic, a language spoken in Anatolia before 2000 BC and written in a cuneiform script.

Samples of Ubykh

All examples from Dum zil 1968.[4]

Once, two men set out together on the road.

|-class=IPA |faa a ||t q a-k ab a ||k a -n ||a-za- a- -na-n ||a-m a-n || -k a-q a-n |- |once ||two-man ||friend-ADV ||they-each.other-BEN-become-PL-ADV ||the-road-OBL ||on-enter(PL)-past-PL |}

They went to buy some provisions for the journey; the one bought cheese and bread,

|-class=IPA |a-f-awt -n ||m aw f ||a- ada-awt -n ||a-k a-na-n ||a-za-n ||fat -aala || b a-aala || ada-q a |- |they-eat-FUT-ADV ||provisions ||they-buy-FUT-ADV ||they-enter(PL)-PL-ADV ||the-one-ERG ||cheese-and || bread-and ||buy-PAST |}

and the other bought bread and fish.

|-class=IPA |aajd - -n- || b a-aala ||psa-aala || ada-n ||a-j-n -w-q a |- |other-of-ERG-and ||bread-and ||fish-and ||buy-ADV ||it-hither-he-bring-past |}

While they were on the road,

|-class=IPA |a-m a-n || -k a-na- |- |the-road-OBL ||on-enter(PL)-PL-GER |}

the one who had bought the cheese asked the other, "You people eat a lot of fish;"

|-class=IPA |wa-fat -d - ada-q ajt - || a-k a - aafa || a a ||psa ||jada || -f-aa-n |- |that-cheese-REL-buy-PLUP-GER ||his-friend-towards ||you.all ||fish ||much ||you.all-eat-PL-PRES |}

"why do you eat fish as much as that?"

|-class=IPA |saaba ||wana-n- aaf ||psa || -f-aa-n -j ||q a-n || a-aa-dz a-q a |- |why || ||fish ||you.all-eat-PL-PRES-QU ||say-ADV ||him-to-ask-past |}

"If you eat fish, you get smarter,"

|-class=IPA |psa ||w -f -ba ||w -t a ||jada || -awt |- |fish ||you-eat-if ||your-knowledge ||much ||become-FUT |}

"so we eat a lot of fish," he answered.

|-class=IPA |wana- aafa || a a ||psa ||jada || -f -n ||q a-q a |- |that-for ||we ||fish ||much ||we-eat-PRES ||say-PAST |}

See also


  • Colarusso, J. (1994). Proto-Northwest Caucasian (or how to crack a very hard nut). Journal of Indo-European Studies 22, 1-17.
  • Dum zil, G. (1961). Etudes oubykhs (Ubykh Studies). Librairie A. Maisonneuve: Paris.
  • Dum zil, G. (1965). Documents anatoliens sur les langues et les traditions du Caucase (Anatolian Documents on the Languages and Traditions of the Caucasus), III: Nouvelles tudes oubykhs (New Ubykh Studies). Librairie A. Maisonneuve: Paris.
  • Dum zil, G. (1968). Eating fish makes you clever. Annotated recording available via
  • Dum zil, G. (1975). Le verbe oubykh: tudes descriptives et comparatives (The Ubykh Verb: Descriptive and Comparative Studies). Imprimerie Nationale: Paris.
  • Hewitt, B. G. (2005). North-West Caucasian. Lingua. 115, 91-145.
  • M sz ros, J. von. (1930). Die P khy-Sprache (The Ubykh Language). University of Chicago Press: Chicago.
  • Vogt, H. (1963). Dictionnaire de la langue oubykh (Dictionary of the Ubykh Language). Universitetsforlaget: Oslo.
  • Chirikba, V. A. (1986). Abxazskie leksicheskie zaimstvovanija v ubyxskom jazyke (Abkhaz Lexical Loans in Ubykh). Problemy leksiki i grammatiki jazykov narodov Karachaevo-Cherkesii: Sbornik nauchnyx trudov (Lexical and Grammatical Problems of the Karachay-Cherkessian National Languages: A Scientific Compilation). Cherkessk, 112-124.
  • Chirikba, V. A. (1996). Common West Caucasian. The Reconstruction of its Phonological System and Parts of its Lexicon and Morphology. CNWS Publications: Leiden.

External links

kbd: az:Ub x dili br:Oubic'heg de:Ubychische Sprache es:Idioma ubij eo:Ubi a lingvo fr:Oubykh ko: os: it:Lingua ubykh kv: hu:Ubih nyelv mk: nl:Oebychs ja: no:Ubykhisk pms:Lenga Ubykh pl:J zyk ubyski pt:L ngua ubykh ru: fi:Ubyhin kieli sv:Ubychiska th: tr:Ub h a uk: zh:

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