Abkhaz ( ) is a Northwest Caucasian language spoken mainly by the Abkhaz people. It is the official language of Abkhazia where around 100,000 people speak it. Furthermore, it is spoken by thousands of members of the Abkhazian diaspora in Turkey, Georgia's autonomous republic of Adjara, Syria, Jordan and several Western countries. There are 9,447 speakers of Abkhaz in Russia, according to the 2002 census.
Abkhaz is a Northwest Caucasian language, indicating it originated in the northwest Caucasus. Northwest Caucasian languages have been suggested as being related to the Northeast Caucasian languages and both are often merged under the blanket term "North Caucasian languages"; several linguists, notably Sergei Starostin, posit a phylogenetic link between these two families. Some consider the proposed North Caucasian family to be a member of the Den Caucasian macrofamily; however, the Den Caucasian hypothesis is itself unproven and highly controversial, and attempts to categorize Abkhaz as a Den Caucasian language are thus premature. Also, sometimes the North Caucasian families are grouped with the South Caucasian languages into a pan-Caucasian or Ibero-Caucasian macrofamily, but these have not been shown to be related and are widely considered to be a geographically based convention.
Abkhaz is often united with Abaza into one language, Abazgi, of which the literary dialects of Abkhaz and Abaza are simply two ends of a dialect continuum. Grammatically, the two are very similar; however, the differences in phonology are substantial, and are the main reason why many other linguists prefer to keep the two separate. Most linguists (see for instance Chirikba 2003) believe that Ubykh is the closest relative of the Abkhaz Abaza dialect continuum.
Abkhaz is spoken primarily in Abkhazia. Abkhaz is also spoken by members of the large Abkhaz Muhajir diaspora, which is mainly located in Turkey with smaller groups living in Syria, Iraq and Jordan; Georgia's autonomous republic of Adjara; throughout the former USSR (e.g. Armenia and the Ukraine) and through more recent remigration in Western countries such as Germany, the Netherlands and the United States. However, the exact number of Abkhaz-speakers in these countries remains unknown due to a lack of official records.
Abkhaz is generally viewed as having three major dialects:
Abzhywa, spoken in the Caucasus, and named after the historical area of Abzhywa ( ), sometimes referred to as Abzhui, the Russified form of the name ("Abzhuiski dialekt", derived from the Russian form of the name for the area, ).
Bzyb or Bzyp, spoken in the Caucasus and in Turkey, and named after the Bzyb (Abkhaz ) area.
Sadz, nowadays spoken only in Turkey, formerly also spoken between the rivers Bzyp and Khosta.
The literary Abkhaz language is based on the Abzhywa dialect.
Abkhaz has a very large number of consonants (58 in the literary dialect), with three-way voiced/voiceless/ejective and palatalized/labialized/plain distinctions. By contrast, the language has only two phonemically distinct vowels which, however, have several allophones depending on the palatal and/or labial quality of adjacent consonants.
Abkhaz is typologically classified as an agglutinative language. Like all other Northwest Caucasian languages, Abkhaz has an extremely complex (polysynthetic) verbal system coupled with a very simple noun system; Abkhaz distinguishes just two cases, the nominative and the adverbial.
Abkhaz has had its own adaptation of the Cyrillic script since 1862. The first alphabet was a 37-character Cyrillic alphabet invented by Baron Peter von Uslar. In 1909 a 55-letter Cyrillic alphabet was used. A 75-letter Latin script devised by a Russian/Georgian linguist Nikolai Marr lasted from 1926 to 1928, when another Latin script was used. The Georgian script was imposed in 1938, but after the death of Stalin, an Abkhaz desire to remain separate from Georgians led to the reintroduction of the current Cyrillic alphabet in 1954 designed in 1892 by Dimitri Gulya together with Konstantin Machavariani and modified in 1909 by Aleksey Chochua.
The earliest extant written records of the Abkhaz language are in the Arabic script, recorded by the Turkish traveller Evliya elebi in the 17th century. Abkhaz has only been used as a literary language for about 100 years.
Both Georgian and Abkhaz law enshrines an official status of the Abkhaz language in Abkhazia.
The 1992 law of Georgia, reiterated in the 1995 Constitution, grants Abkhaz the status of second official language on the territory of Abkhazia, along with Georgian.
In November 2007, the de facto authorities of Abkhazia adopted a new law "on the state language of the Republic of Abkhazia" which mandates Abkhaz as the language of official communication. According to the law, all meetings held by the president, parliament or government must be conducted in Abkhaz (instead of Russian which is currently a de facto administrative language) from 2010 and all state officials will be obliged to use Abkhaz as their language of every-day business from 2015. Some, however, have considered the implementation of this law unrealistic and concerns have been made that it will drive people away from Abkhazia and hurt the independent press due to a significant share of non-Abkhaz speakers among ethnic minorities as well as Abkhaz themselves, and a shortage of teachers of Abkhaz. The law is an attempt to amend a situation where up to a third of the ethnic Abkhaz population are no longer capable of speaking their own language, and even more are unable to read or write it; instead, Russian is the language most commonly used in public life at present.
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Darbanzaalak auwajoiy dshoup ihy daqwithny. Auwaa zeg' zinlei patulei eiqaroup. Urth irymoup ahshyjoi ahalmysi, dara darag' aeshei aeshei reiphsh eizyqazaroup.
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
- Chirikba, V. A. (1996) 'A Dictionary of Common Abkhaz'. Leiden.
- Chirikba, V. A. (2003) 'Abkhaz'. Languages of the World/Materials 119. Muenchen: Lincom Europa.
- Hewitt, B. George (2010) 'Abkhaz: A Comprehensive Self Tutor' Muenchen, Lincom Europa ISBN 978-3-89586-670-8
- Hewitt, B. George (1979) 'Abkhaz: A descriptive Grammar'. Amsterdam: North Holland.
- Hewitt, B. George (1989) Abkhaz. In John Greppin (ed.), The Indigenous Languages of the Caucasus Vol. 2. Caravan Books, New York. 39-88.
- Vaux, Bert and Zihni Psiypa (1997) The Cwyzhy Dialect of Abkhaz. Harvard Working Papers in Linguistics 6, Susumu Kuno, Bert Vaux, and Steve Peter, eds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Linguistics Department.
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