Ubykh language

From Academic Kids

Ubykh (twaχəbza)
Spoken in: Turkey
Region: Manyas, Balıkesir
Total speakers: none (extinct)
Ranking: extinct
Genetic classification: North Caucasian (disputed)

   Northwest Caucasian

Official status
Official language of: none
Regulated by: none
Language codes
ISO 639-1none
ISO 639-2cau
See also: LanguageList of languages

Ubykh is a language of the Northwestern Caucasian group, spoken by the Ubykh people up until the early 1990s.

The word 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, Ubıh (Turkish) and Oubykh (French); and Pekhi (from Ubykh ') and its Germanicised variant Päkhy.

Template:IPA notice


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, unusually, does not appear to be relevant in the grammar.
  • 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 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). However, 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 may hold the world record for consonant sounds. It is sometimes said to be eclipsed by Khoisan languages such as !Kung, which have been claimed to have over 100 click consonants alone, but it now seems that many of the more unusual Khoisan consonants are actually consonant clusters.
  • Ubykh has 26 pure fricative phonemes, more than any other known language.
  • Ubykh contains many rare phonemes: the sound only appears in Ubykh, its relatives Abkhaz and Abaza, and two other languages, both of which are found only in the Amazon rainforest; and the phoneme ', 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.
  • 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 the International Phonetic Alphabet.


Ubykh has very few basic phonemic vowels. Hans Vogt's analysis retains as a separate vowel, but most other linguists do not accept this analysis, preferring to maintain a simple closed-open distinction: and . Other vowels, notably , appear in some loanwords. The question of whether an additional vowel should be retained is of some debate, since it differs from not in length but in quality. However, phonologically and diachronically, it is often derived from two instances of .

Even with so few vowels, there are many vowel allophones, 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 and . 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:

Other, more complex vowels have been noted in Ubykh: you did it can become , for instance. On occasion, nasal sonorants (particularly n) may even decay into vowel nasality. For instance, young man has been noted as , not as the phonemic notation would indicate.

a appears initially very frequently, particularly in the function of the definite article. is extremely restricted initially, appearing only in ditransitive verb forms where all three arguments are third person, e.g. he gave it to him (normally ). Even then, itself may be dropped to provide an even shorter form

Both vowels appear without restriction finally, although when is unstressed finally, it tends to be dropped: father becomes the definite form 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 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 [] are found only in loans: crow (from Turkish), slat, batten (from Abdzakh Adyghe), estate, legacy. As well, the pharyngealised labial consonants are almost exclusively noted in words where they are associated with another pharyngealised consonant (for instance, handful), but are occasionally found outside this context (the verb root is an example, meaning to explode, to burst). Finally, is mainly found in interjections and loans, with now the only real native word to contain the phoneme.

Some consonants are extremely rare: is noted in the words Circassia and testis, and is noted in just five words: (four homophones meaning oak, to spy on, moustache and acorn), spark, firebrand, thick (of fabric) and coarse flour. The frequency of consonants in Ubykh is very variable; the two phonemes and 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 in the past tense suffix - was often pronounced as glottal stop, due to the influence of the Kabardian and Adyghe languages.

The consonant has not been attested word-initially, and is found initially only in the personal name , but every other consonant can begin a word. 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 , , and have not been noted word-finally.


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: 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 ( 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).


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, - and -, have been noted as synthetic datives ( 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 -: the man. There is no indefinite article, 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 the 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 gave 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 given with verb suffixes:

  • - and;
  • - but, however, although.

Pronominal benefactives are also part of the verbal complex, marked with the preverb -: he gives it to you for me. However, benefactives are the only case in Ubykh where a quadripersonal verb becomes possible; the verb can usually take only three agreement prefixes, for subject, direct object, and dative object or preverbal object (not both).

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 eat it
  • I can eat it
  • I eat it all the time
  • I am eating it all up
  • I eat it too much
  • I eat 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, 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 so large as in Abzhui Abkhaz or in Georgian, being almost always of 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.

Some slang terms and idioms can be shown to be caused by historical events; 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. 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 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) =
  • slat, batten (Abdzakh) =

Some words, usually much older ones, are borrowed from less influential stock: pig is believed to be borrowed from a proto-Semitic *huka, and 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, , corresponds to the reflex 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 similar to standard Ubykh, but has a very different sound system, which has 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 1875, when the Ubykhs were driven out of the region by the Russians. They eventually came to settle in Turkey, in the villages of Hacı Osman, Kırkpınar, Masukiye and Hacı 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 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. Ubykh was never written except for the few phrases Evliya Celebi transcribed in the Seyahatname, but a substantial portion of the oral literature, along with some cycles of the Nart saga, was transcribed.

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, 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 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


  • Dumézil, Georges Le Verbe Oubykh: Etudes Descriptives et Comparatives. Imprimerie Nationale, Paris (1975).
  • Vogt, Hans Dictionnaire de la Langue Oubykh. Universitetsforlaget, Oslo (1963).

Sample of Ubykh

Once, two men set out together on the road.

They bought some provisions for the journey. The one bought cheese and bread;

the other bought bread and fish.

While they were on the road,

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

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

"If you eat fish, you get smarter,"

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

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