The Northwest Caucasian languages or Abkhaz-Adyg languages are a family of languages spoken in the Caucasian part of Russia, in Turkey and in Abkhazia. The entire group is characterised by paucity of phonemic vowels, rich consonantal systems with many forms of secondary articulation, and high levels of agglutinativity.

Current theory holds that the richness of consonantal phoneme systems in the Northwest Caucasian languages is the result of a process called syllable-periphery assignment. The basis behind this theory is that, during language evolution, vowel features such as labialisation, pharyngealisation or frontness are removed from the vowels in a root and reassigned instead to the consonants which surround them. This theory also explains why there are so few vowels in Northwest Caucasian languages.

There are five languages in the Northwest Caucasian family: Abkhaz, Abaza, Kabard-Cherkess, Adyghe or West Circassian, and Ubykh. The languages in the Northwest Caucasian family are related as follows:

Table of contents
1 Abkhaz-Abazin Group
2 Circassian Group
3 Ubykh or Ubyx Group
4 Relationship to other language families
5 External Links

Abkhaz-Abazin Group

Abkhaz Language

Abkhaz language has appr. 100 000 speakers in Abkhazia, with possibly up to 500,000 speakers in Turkey. It has been a literary language from the beginning of the 20th century. Abkhaz is often claimed to be simply a divergent dialect of a larger language, Abkhaz-Abaza. It makes better linguistic sense, however, to separate Abkhaz and Abaza into two separate languages, since Abaza preserves phonemes which Abkhaz lacks, and vice-versa. Abkhaz is generally viewed as having three major dialects, Abzhuy, Bzyp (both spoken in Georgia) and Sadz (spoken in Turkey). Abkhaz is characterised by unusual consonant clusters and a small vowel inventory. It has only two distinctive vowels: an open vowel /a/ and a closed vowel /ı, ǝ/. Depending on the environment both of the vowels can be realized as [e,i,o,u]. See also Abkhaz alphabet.

Abaza Language

Abaza language shares with Abkhaz the distinction of having just two phonemic vowels in its sound inventory. Abaza is phonologically more complex than Abkhaz, but the two share a great number of linguistic ties. Abaza has two major dialects, Akhchepse and T'ap'anta. Abaza is characterised by large consonant clusters, similar to those that can be found in Georgian.

Circassian Group

Adyghe or Adyg

The Adyghe language, also called Circassian, is one of the more widely spoken North-West Caucasian languages. It can be found everywhere from Russia to Turkey. There is even a small community in the
United States. Four main dialects are recognised: Kemirgoy, Abdzakh, Bzhedugh and Shapsugh, as well as many minor ones (for instance, the Turkish dialect Hakuchi spoken by the last speakers of Ubykh). Adyghe has three phonemic vowels, and is less consonantally complex than the Abkhaz-Abaza group.


The Kabard-Cherkess language, is split into two dialects, Kabardian and Cherkess (Circassian). Furthermore, Kabardian has several dialects, Terek, the literary standard, and Besney, which occupies a position intermediate between Terek Kabardian and the Adyghe complex. It has the least number of consonants of any North-Western Caucasian language, with 48. Kabardian is characterised by ejective fricatives and a small number of vowels in speech.

Ubykh or Ubyx Group


Ubykh language is more closely related to Abkhaz and Abaza than to Adyghe and Kabardian. It became extinct on October 7, 1992, with the death of Tevfik Esenc, the language's last native speaker. Ubykh has the largest number of consonants of any North-West Caucasian language, with 80. Ubykh is characterised by pharyngealised consonantss and a four-way contrast between sibilants, or hissing-type sounds, of which English "s" is one; English contrasts two, whereas Ubykh contrasts four.

Relationship to other language families

The North-West Caucasian languages are currently undergoing some study as to whether they may share a phyletic link with the Indo-European family, at a time depth of about 12,000 years before the present. The hypothesised protolanguage of this link is called Proto-Pontic.

However, a number of factors mean that the reconstruction of the Northwest Caucasian protolanguage is quite complicated:

  • many Northwest Caucasian roots are monosyllabic;
  • phoneme changes are complex, and a large number of consonants and sibilant contrasts provides further difficulty;
  • ablaut was extensively used prehistorically and plays some part in the modern languages;
  • borrowings and loans between the languages of the family were frequent;
  • widespread homophony occurs in the modern languages.
Proto-Northwest Caucasian is widely accepted as being one of the most difficult protolanguages to deal with.

External Links

The Russian linguist Sergei Starostin maintains a Northwest Caucasian etymological database as part of his Tower of Babel etymological project, at