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Comparative Grammar of East Caucasian

East Caucasian

This long-term project concerns the reconstruction of Proto-East Caucasian morphosyntax and morphosemantics. Proto-East Caucasian (PEC) is generally considered as having been the common ancestor of today about thirty autochthonous languages spoken mainly in Chechnya, Daghestan (some people prefer to write ‘Dagestan’), and Northern Azerbaijan. An alternative term frequently used in ‘Nakh(o)-Daghestanian’ that, however, is a not-quite-correct term: Pending on the reading of ‘Daghestanian, it either suggests that the proto-language split up in two major groups (Nakh and Daghestanian) – which is not correct – or relates an ethnolinguistic term (Nakh) to a geographical term (Daghestanian) – which is rather infelicitous.
ks_img    The term ‘autochthonous’ means that ancestors of the present-day East Caucasian languages seem to have been spoken in the area since at least pre-classical times. It does not imply that their speakers descend from the earliest population of the Eastern Caucasus. Rather it refers to the fact we cannot find obvious traces of other languages spoken in the area prior to the appearance of PEC.  Nevertheless, we can assume that speakers of PEC and/or of its later subgroups once have migrated into the region at issue. A possible ‘homeland’ can be associated with regions between the southern slopes of the Eastern Caucasus in the north and the Araxes River in the south. This scenario strongly goes against popular assumptions that relate PEC to the world of West Caucasian languages (Abkhaz, Abaza, Adyghej, Kabardian etc.) subsuming both PEC and Proto-West-Caucasian (PWC) under the label ‘(Proto-)North Caucasian’ PNC). The PNC-hypothesis mainly dwells upon rather dubious lexical correspondences and morphological look-alikes. It ignores possible scenarios of earlier language contact be it between early descendants from both PWC and PEC, be it with a common (still unidentified) substrate. What has been said for a hypothetical PNC holds the more for what is sometimes called ‘Ibero-Caucasian’ (IC, or ‘Proto-Caucasian’, PC). PC is said to encompass Proto-West-Caucasian, Proto-East-Caucasian, and Proto-South-Caucasian (actual descendants are Georgian, Megrel, Laz, and Svan (= ‘Kartvelian’). The idea of Ibero-Caucasian has been favored in early times of Caucasiology (see Tuite 2008 for an illuminating discussion), but cannot be substantiated in any way.
protoks    All three (or, if one would accept PCN, two) language families are frequently referred to in order to relate them with (ancient or actual) languages outside the Caucasus. Popular favorites are Basque (> Kartvelian), Proto-Hatti (> West Caucasian), and Hurro-Urartian (> East Caucasian), just to mention a few (I ignore Nostratic approaches to the topic). Whereas the ‘Basque-Kartvelian’ hypothesis has become fully obsolete, the two remaining hypotheses may be characterized as very preliminary working hypotheses that, however, are based upon extremely weak arguments. None of them has ever reached the level of a ‘proof’.
    All speculations about the relationship of East Caucasian languages with languages outside the area suffer from the fact that hitherto, neither the phonology, nor the grammar, nor the lexicon of Proto-East-Caucasian have been reconstructed systematically and in more details. Admittedly, there is a bulk of work by specialists on individual issues. It is beyond the question that this work includes important findings that help to get a first idea of the make-up of PEC. However, many treatments especially of PEC morphology ignore principles of sound correspondences, regular sound change, language contact and so one. Moreover, the corresponding studies do rarely start from a systematic morphosyntactic approach that would evaluate reconstructed morphosyntactic units in the context of other reconstructed units (e.g. case + agreement + word order, aspect + syntax etc.).
    Another shortcoming of some of these approaches is given by the fact that they do not take a bottom-up perspective (the work by Mikhail Alekseev is a remarkable exception). By this I mean that any reconstruction of Proto-East-Caucasian should start from the reconstruction of subfamilies and subgroups again divided in smaller units (if given). This principle does not exclude the possibility that individual languages share isoglosses (in fact archaisms) with languages outside the subgroup or subfamily, just as we have to take into account parallel, but independent innovations as well as common borrowings (be it substantial or structural). A good example is the emergence of personal agreement in e.g. Bats (Nakh) and Caucasian Albanian/Udi (Lezgian). Another important point is that most East Caucasian languages have a relatively young written tradition (if ever they have such a tradition at all). Language-internal changes are thus hardly ever documented as such but have to be retrieved by internal reconstruction, too. One exception is Udi (Lezgian, Eastern Samur branch) that can now be related to the so-called Caucasian Albanian language [add ling] (documented in texts and minor inscriptions from the 6.-8th century).

The project

The project “Comparative Grammar of East Caucasian” aims at contributing to the reconstruction of PEC by observing the above-mentioned methodological requirements as much as possible. It is based on the assumption that language change may concern the signifiant of a linguistic sign (sound changes), its signifié (changes in the function/conceptual domain), or both (in terms of the maintenance, innovation or disappearance of linguistic signs as such). It starts from the following (nevertheless preliminary and not yet fully verified) ‘stammbaum’ of East Caucasian:


The structure of the “conservative (‘old’) type” would be:


The structure of the “innovative (‘new’) type” would be:


Meanwhile, sufficient comparative lexical material is available to verify at least a substantial set of sound changes elaborated so far for the individual subgroups (here, I do not refer to the highly controversial “North Caucasian Etymological Dictionary (NECD)” by Sergej Nikolayev & Sergej Starostin 1994). The results will be taken as a basis to approach the comparison of morphosyntactic units with respect to their signifiant [articulation]. Categorial/functional comparison will be done by referring to the frameworks of both ‘Standard Typology’ (Basic Linguistic Theory, Dixon 2009) and cognitive morphosyntax. The project starts from a sentence-centered morphosyntactic model. This means that individual morphosyntactic categories reconstructed for both intermediate stages and for PEC will be constantly evaluated with respect to the question whether they are compatible with  morphosyntactic patterns showing up in other categories. As a result, the project will hopefully end up in a more precise understanding of the grammar of PEC as well as of those processes that have become relevant in the formation of subfamilies/subgroups and their members.
     The project will focus (among others!) on the following dimensions:

  • Grammatical relations and their symbolizationNominal
    • Case
    • Verbal Agreement
    • Word order
  • Noun Phrase-internal features
    • Concordance
    • Possession
    • Pronominalization and pronouns
  • Verb Phrase-internal features
    • Tense/Aspect/Mood
    • Direction and Orientation
    • Diathesis
    • Nominalization (masdars, infinitives)
    • Adjectivzation (participles)
    • Adverbialization (converbs)
  • The structure of basic sentences
  • Subordination

Intermediate results will be published in terms of occasional articles/papers. The final objective of the project is to present a “Comparative Grammar of East Caucasian” in form of a comprehensive monograph.

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