21 MayResearchCircassiansAcknowledgements

Language and culture

language and culture

Known as the Mountain of Tongues, the Caucasus is home to a large number of languages. There are three language families indigenous to the Caucasus:

  • Northwest Caucasian, also called the Abkhaz-Adyghe (Circassian): The family consists of Abkhaz-Abaza, Adyghe and Ubykh languages.

  • Northeast Caucasian, also called the Nakho-Dagestanian: It includes Nakh (Bats, Chechen and Ingush) and Dagestani (Avar-Andi, Lak, Dargi, Lezgian, and others) languages.

  • South Caucasian, also called the Kartvelian family: It includes Georgian, Mingrelian, Laz and Svan languages.

The Circassian languages have a very rich inventory of consonants that makes at almost every possible point in the mouth and throat. Kabardian, a dialect of Adyghe, is the minimum with 48 consonants, while Ubykh is the maximum with 81. However, these languages have only four, three, or two vowels. Two dialects of Adyghe, Chemgwi (West Circassian), and Kabardian (East Circassian), and both Abkhaz and Abaza are literary languages. Ubykh is now an extinct language.

The Nart sagas are among the most important aspects of the Circassian culture. Although they are much less known than their Greek counterparts, the Nart sages are no less developed.

The Nart sagas are dramatic tales of a race of ancient heroes in which the figure of the all wise and all fertile Lady Satanaya is pivotal. She is mother to all the heroes and in many ways resembles the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite. Other figures include a shape changer and trickster, Sosruquo. He is magically conceived by Satanaya when a shepherd lusts after her and is born aflame from a rock. The god of the forge, Tlepsh, seizes him with tongs and quenches him in a vat of water, thus hardening him and making him invulnerable everywhere but at his knees (much like the Greek hero Achilles), where the tongs held him. The mightiest and purest hero is Pataraz or Batradz, in some ways resembling Sir Lancelot of the Arthurian Romance. There is also a giant or hero, Nasran, who, like the Greek Prometheus, is chained to a mountain top as a punishment for trying to return fire to humankind.

Folk dance and music are the most protected part of the traditional Circassian culture. They are still essential ingredients of all wedding ceremonies and entertainment. Music at one time was played on violins and oboe-like instruments, but now clarinets and accordions are preferred. Drums, gourd rattles, and wooden clackers form the rhythm section. The Circassian dance has the quality of a sport, demanding enormous strength in jumps and leaps, and attended by a pervasive grace. The men twirl, strut, and leap with a proud bearing, while the women glide and swirl in a demure manner.