LINGUIST List 4.437

Wed 09 Jun 1993

FYI: In Memoriam: Ubykh

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  • , In memoriam: Ubykh (Tevfik Esenc)

    Message 1: In memoriam: Ubykh (Tevfik Esenc)

    Date: Wed, 9 Jun 1993 12:58:10 +In memoriam: Ubykh (Tevfik Esenc)
    From: <>
    Subject: In memoriam: Ubykh (Tevfik Esenc)

    Perhaps it is not inappropriate to post not only obituaries of linguists, but also obituaries of languages.

    Since October 7, 1992, when its last native speaker (Tevfik Esenc) died, the north-western Caucasian language Ubykh must be considered extinct.

    The fate of Ubykh is particularly sad not only because of its structural peculiarities that make it so interesting for us linguists, but also because its extinction is the final result of a genocide of the Ubykh people. Until 1864 they lived along the eastern shore of the Black Sea in the area of Sochi (north-west of Abkhazia). When Russia subjugated the Muslim northern Caucasus in the 1860s, tens (or hundreds?) of thousands of people were expelled and had to flee to Turkey, no doubt with heavy loss of life. The entire Ubykh population left its homeland, and the survivors were scattered over Turkey.

    Our knowledge of Ubykh owes particularly much to Georges Dume'zil (La langue des Oubykhs. Paris 1931) and Hans Vogt (Dictionnaire de la langue oubykh avec introduction phonologique. Oslo 1963). Until recently, the last native speaker, Mr. Tevfik Esenc, worked with several linguists so that as much as possible of his people's language could be recorded. The 1991-92 (No 6-7) issue of the Revue des Etudes Georgiennes et Caucasiennes was dedicated to Tevfik Esenc.

    The most striking structural feature of Ubykh is/was its large consonant inventory, consisting of 81 segments according to John Colarusso ("How many consonants does Ubykh have?" In: Hewitt, George (ed.) Caucasian perspectives. Untterschleissheim/Muenchen: Lincom Europa, 145-55). To elucidate some of its puzzling features, Mr. Esenc even allowed himself to be x-rayed while articulating. For many years Ubykh was thought to be the world record-holder of consonant inventory size. Now it seems that some African languages surpass Ubykh in this respect, but still, Colarusso remarks, "any rigorous account of human phonetic percepual capacity will have to take into account this precious marvel, Ubykh".

    This precious marvel is now lost forever.

    Martin Haspelmath (Free University of Berlin)