Sunday, December 11, 2016

Will Ubykh -- One of the World’s Hardest Languages -- Now Come Back from the Dead?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 11 – In its special year-end issue, “The Economist” suggests that one of the most difficult languages in the world is Ubykh, a non-literary Circassian dialect the latest native speaker of which died off 24 years ago (

            Because Ubykh is no longer spoken, the British journal suggested, there are other languages that must be listed ahead of it in difficulty. But that may change: activists in Russia and scholars in the West are promoting its revival – and there are even reasons to think that Moscow may not block this move, despite its general hostility to the Circassians.

Two years ago, deputies of the Kabardino-Balkarian parliament appealed to Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to include the Ubykhs, a subgroup of the Circassian nation, on the official list of numerically small indigenous peoples of the Russian Federation and thus take the first step to the revival of a language which has been considered dead since 1992 (

            For many, this action seemed and seems quixotic – there are after all only 33 people in Russia who identified themselves as Ubykhs in the 2010 census and none of them claimed to speak their native language, but Circassian activists like Ruslan Berzekov have been seeking for 15 years (

            Whether a language no longer spoken but felt to be the national language of a community of such a small size can be revived is an open question, but the pursuit of this goal, given the history of the Ubykhs who were among those deported by Russia in the 19th century, will help to energize the Circassian national movement as a whole after its post-Sochi Olympiad letdown.

            Berzekov said he was inspired in 2002 to focus on the fate of the Ubykh language after reading an article by Khasan Yakhtanigov in “Gazeta Yuga” entitled “The Circassian Washington” about the Ubykh family of the Berzeks and then reading Magomed Kishmakhov’s book on “The Family from the Holy Valley of the Ubykhs” about the same group.

            As a result, he formed an NGO, the Family Union of the Ubykhs-Berzeks, has made numerous trips to Turkey to meet with surviving Ubykhs there and studied the ways in which the Ubykhs have assimilated and combined with other peoples of the Caucasus both in their homeland and abroad.

            In Soviet times, people were actively discouraged from identifying as Ubykhs, but now, having won suits in Russian courts, a small number of people who trace their ancestry back to the once numerous national group have done so.  Their current state is a real comedown from their status in the past.

            Two centuries ago, Berzekov said, the Ubykhs dominated the population in the Western Caucasus “from the river Vokonka (which was earlier called the Godlik) to Adler. They bordered Abkhazia on one side and the Jigets and Sadzi (indigenous peoples of the Black Sea coast of the Caucasus, who were part of the Adygey-Abkhaz group), on the other.”

            The Ubykhs were among the most militant in resisting the advance of the Russian imperial forces and promoted unity with other groups because they knew, Berzekov said, that “without unification they would not be able to defend their freedom and the right to live on their own territory.”

            When Russian forces defeated them in 1864, the Ubykh were given a choice: they could either accept Russian citizenship and be resettled in the Kuban or leave for the Ottoman Empire. The Ubykhs chose Turkey, and an estimated 75,000 of them left their homeland where they were able to maintain their distinctive nationality for several generations.

            One of the reasons for that was their continuing attachment to pagan divinities, even after most had formally accepted Islam. But another was their language, one of the most complex in the world in terms of sound.  Berzekov notes that the Ubykh language has 84 sounds, far more than most languages.

            The last native speaker of the language, Tefik Esenc, died on October 7,1992, and many scholars viewed his passing as the final demise of the Ubykh language and at the same time of the Ubykh nation. (See, for example, Asya Pereltsvaig, “Obituary: The Ubykh Language,” at

But Ruslan Berzekov said “certain” that he and others will be able to revive the language. Many Ubykhs now call themselves Kabardinians, Bzhedugs, Abazas or Abkhazians, but if the language can be restored, they will return to their ancient identity. 

            “The Ubykh ethnos has deep historical roots,” he says. “It had its own code of life, of behavior in the family and society, which was based on centuries-long traditions. The people grew up in accordance with these laws … Now it is important to restore the balance,” although he says it would be “too pathetic” to “speak about justice.”

In Berzekov’s view, those who seek Russian recognition of the Circassian genocide of 1864 are unlikely to achieve their goals. “But the recognition of the Ubykhs as an indigenous people of Russia eliminated many sharp questions, including those which arose during the conduct of the Sochi Olympiad.”

Now Berzekov’s effort has been joined by Andrey Kizilov, an archaeologist in Sochi, Igor Kuznetsov, a linguist in Krasnodar, and John Colarusso, a specialist on Caucasian languages at McMaster University in Canada, and there is thus hope that the Ubykh language can be revived and with it the Ubykh identity both in the Caucasus and in Turkey.

There are at least three reasons to think that the Russian government will not block this effort now and may even assist it. First, the Russians could point to such support to blunt criticism of Russia for refusing to recognize the deportation of the Circassians in 1864 as a genocide.

Second, by supporting a smaller subgroup of Circassians, Moscow could reduce pressure on it to allow the larger Circassian community in the Middle East to return to their homeland in the North Caucasus. After all, there are only some 50,000 Ubykhs in Turkey and even if 10 percent returned to their homeland, that would not have impact that the return of 10 percent of the 5-7 million Circassians now in the diaspora would.

And third, it would be consistent with Moscow’s divide-and-rule policy. Failing to back the Ubykhs means that those who had identified as such are likely to shift to larger Circassian identities; supporting the Ubykh language and hence the Ubykh community would slow or even stop that development.

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