Northwest Caucasian languages

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The Northwest Caucasian languages, also called Abkhazo-Adyghean, or sometimes Pontic as opposed to Caspian (for the Northeast Caucasian languages), are a group of languages spoken in the Caucasus region, chiefly in Russia (Adygea, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachay-Cherkessia), the disputed territory of Abkhazia, and Turkey, with smaller communities scattered throughout the Middle East.

Contents

Main features

Phonetics

The entire family is characterised by a paucity of phonemic vowels (two or three, depending upon the analysis) coupled with rich consonantal systems that include many forms of secondary articulation. Ubykh (Ubyx), for example, had both the minimal number of vowels (two), and probably the largest inventory of consonants outside Southern Africa.

Linguistic reconstructions suggest that both the richness of the consonantal systems and the poverty of the vocalic systems may be the result of a historical process, whereby vowel features such as labialisation and palatalisation were reassigned to adjacent consonants. For example, ancestral */ki/ may have become /kʲə/ and */kuː/ may have become /kːʷə/, losing the old vowels */i/ and */u/ and vowel length but gaining the new consonants /kʷ/, /kʲ/, and the "strong" consonants. The linguist John Colarusso has further postulated that some instances of this may also be due to the levelling of an old grammatical class prefix system (so */w-ka/ may have become /kʷa/), on the basis of pairs like Ubykh /ɡʲə/ vs. Kabardian and Abkhaz /ɡʷə/ heart. This same process is claimed by some to lie behind the development of labiovelars in Proto-Indo-European which once neighboured Proto-NWC.

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