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Caucasus – A Mountain of Languages

40 languages, hundreds of dialects – the Caucasus is home to some of the most varied and complicated languages in the world.

This is where Orient and Occident, Islam and Christianity, Asia and Europe meet. The Caucasus is an enormous mountain range that stretches 1,100 kilometres from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea, from Russia to Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Even though it covers an area slightly smaller in size than Germany, it has a greater diversity of peoples, languages and cultures than most other regions on earth.

The Caucasus has been known as the cradle of humanity ever since the earliest human fossils outside of Africa were discovered in the Georgian town of Dmanisi. A rich body of myths and legends has grown around the mountainous region. It is said to be where Noah first landed in his ark after the flood subsided, and where Prometheus was bound to a rock.

4 COUNTRIES, 50 PEOPLES, 40 LANGUAGES

The population of the Caucasus is officially divided between four countries, but in reality, they belong to one of more than 50 peoples, almost all of which have their own language.

The region’s 30 million inhabitants speak 40 languages from mainly three language families: Indo-Germanic, Turkish and Semitic.

This riot of languages reaches Babylonian magnitude in the Russian Republic of Dagestan in North Caucasus: the region boasts 30 languages in 80 dialects over an area the size of Lower Saxony.

Ausschnitt der Sprachen im Kaukasus

BABYLONIAN MAGNITUDE

There are two main reasons why this diversity of peoples and languages developed in the Caucasus over the millennia. Located as it is on the threshold between Europe and Asia, people from a wide range of backgrounds have always come into contact with each other in the region.

The Caucasus Mountains are also extremely rugged, with 5,000-metre-high peaks dividing the region into a large number of small, remote valleys in which the various groups developed in almost complete isolation. In some cases the inhabitants of neighbouring mountain villages can’t even understand each other.

However, these Caucasian languages are not only numerous and different, some of them are also incredibly complex. »Tsez« is spoken by around 15,000 people in Dagestan. The language has 64 cases – German has four, English only three – making it one of the most complicated languages ever.

25 TIMES 20 TIMES 20 PLUS 16 TIMES 20 PLUS 1

The Bats language – which survived centuries of Persian, Ottoman, Tsarist and Soviet rule in a single shepherd tribe – also offers a few challenges. To give one example: the literal translation of the number 10,321 is »25 times 20 times 20 plus 16 times 20 plus 1«.

Almost all the languages of the Caucasus have a wealth of consonants to boot. The Abkhaz dialect »Bzyb« has 69 consonants, the Ubykh language has more than 80. For the uninitiated, the frequent combinations of gutturals, clicks and sibilants are almost impossible to produce.

So klingt: Abchasisch

Cover picture: Gergetier Dreifaltigkeitskirche © Alexander Ishchenko/123rf.com

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