Why does the Caucasus have so many languages?

Sandwiched between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, Caucasia is home to the Caucasus Mountains, separating Eastern Europe and West Asia. Encompassing mainly Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and some parts of Southern Russia, the Caucasus may seem geographically small. But make no mistake, this region is among the most linguistically and culturally diverse regions on Earth. In fact, dozens of languages are spoken, and have been historically spoken in this region no larger than 450,000 square kilometers, roughly the size of Papua New Guinea or Morocco.

Similarly, the Caucasus is among the world’s biodiversity hotspots, with an incredible number of plant species endemic to this region. However, in this introduction to the languages of the Caucasus, we want to address this question: Why the diversity?

The languages of the Caucasus which are still being spoken today, as of 2014.

Perhaps the most direct, and simplest explanation for this diversity has got to do with the intense geographical separation due to the mountain ranges of the Caucasus. After all, in ecology, speciation can occur when populations are geographically separated (and removing a substantial amount of gene flow between them). This hypothesis could hold some water to explaining this diversity, but may not quite apply to other linguistically diverse regions across the world.

Evidence for this theory points to the lower language diversity in the plains of the South Caucasus, compared to the substantially higher language diversity in the mountains in the North.

However, this is not quite the full picture. Counterexamples to this theory often cite Papua New Guinea, with a markedly inverse situation. Languages with more speakers are found in the highlands, while languages with fewer speakers are found along the coast. Linguists have suggested social factors which can affect language diversity in certain regions.

You see, as the Caucasus is a really mountainous region, this meant that an extremely small proportion of the region is arable, and a smaller part of it is actually used for farms and grazing. This scarcity of available suitable land for agriculture could have driven people there to practice a thing known as endogamy. This is the practice of marrying within a specific social group, religious denomination, caste, or ethnic group, and rejecting those from others as unsuitable for marriage or other close personal relationships. In the Caucasus, this meant that outsiders would not be able to lay claim to what little land could be farmable. This also carries certain sociolinguistic implications.

Perhaps the most prominent effects are the reduction of outside social influence, and heightened effects of internal changes. These could increase the community’s differentiation among neighbouring ones. In the Annual Review of Anthropology, Bernard Comrie (2008) mentioned Tsez as an example displaying this level of differentiation, as its dialects, although mutually intelligible, still contain distinct differences that can reveal the speaker’s village of origin.

Comrie also discussed the potential effects of the fading practice of endogamy on language diversity in the Caucasus. One would expect an erosion of language diversity as endogamy disappears, as seen in the case of languages like Tsez, Bezhta, and Hinuq. The increase in marriages between communities speaking these languages has resulted in an increased use of Tzes and Bezhta, but a decline in Hinuq speakers, which has only 350 speakers as of 2010.

Circling back to the question in the title, we start to understand the role of geography in the linguistic diversity of this region. Terrain, social factors, and arable land exert intertwining influences on the populations that inhabit the Caucasus, giving us a linguistic map with stark differences in grammar, syntax, and vocabulary between each language family. As most of these languages traditionally lack writing, most of the evidence and studies linguists and anthropologists on the languages of the Caucasus are largely synchronic.

I hope this week’s post serves as an engaging introduction to the languages of the Caucasus, which is a topic I have been wanting to cover, read up on, and write for quite some time.

Further reading

Comrie, B. (2008) Linguistic diversity in the Caucasus. Annu. Rev. Anthropol. 37 131-43. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.anthro.35.081705.123248.

Amiridze, N. (2019) Languages of the Caucasus and contact-induced language change. STUF – Language Typology and Universals 72(2) 185-192. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1515/stuf-2019-0007.

Featured image from freeworldmaps.net

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