Mapping the Ethno-Linguistic Mosaic of the Caucasus
If any conclusion can be drawn from our longer-than-planned yet shorter-than-desired exploration of the Caucasus, it is that this region presents a kaleidoscopic picture of ethno-linguistic groups. The relationships between these groups are often less than amicable and can even lead, or at least contribute, to geopolitical tensions on a grand scale. The languages spoken by these groups are fascinating in their own right, exhibiting intricacies and richness – for example, in the case systems of Northeast Caucasian languages or sound inventories of Northwest Caucasian languages – not found anywhere else in the world. Recent genetic studies, especially the ones that focus on Y-DNA, shed new light on the history and interactions among the various peoples of the Caucasus, adding to the complexity of the overall puzzle.
As we researched these posts, it became obvious that most available maps of the ethno-linguistic groups of the Caucasus are inadequate to the task. Many maps over-represent the extent of the territory occupied by certain groups, especially those speaking Northwest Caucasian languages: Abazians, Adygheis, Kabardians, Cherkess. Partially, this has to do with extending their territories to uninhabited areas in the high mountains, as is the case with this map. In other instances, certain groups are shown as occupying more extensive territories than they really do, often at the expense of neighboring peoples. The range of other groups is exaggerated by the use of out-of-date data. Even new maps often fail to capture the wholesale migrations, episodes of ethnic cleansing, and population exchanges have changed the situation on the ground. As several readers have noted in response to our posts, Ossetians and “Greeks” (more on them below) have largely disappeared from areas where they are still being mapped.
Other peoples of the Caucasus are often under-represented on ethno-linguistic maps. For example, the map of the “Ethnolinguistic groups in the Caucasus region” lists only 12 groups in Dagestan, out of 30, whereas the map of “Caucasus ethnic composition” lists only 11 peoples. Smaller linguistic groups such as Hunzib, Bezhta, Dido, Khinukh, Ghodoberi, Botlikh, and others seldom appear at all. (The map of languages in Dagestan produced by the Ethnologue is a rare exception; however, this map erroneously omits Ossetian and maps Ingush in its territory!) Ignoring the smaller languages in Dagestan, as most maps do, is particularly regrettable because the distribution of these linguistic groups is instructive. On the slopes on the Caucasus, languages and topography correlate in an interesting way. But topography, relegated to the realm of physical geography, almost never appears on ethno-linguistic maps.
Finally, available ethno-linguistic maps characteristically ignore the complex interplay between language and ethnicity, the two subjects they are meant to represent. While most ethnic groups in the region are defined by the language they speak – for example, Lezgins speak Lezgian and Avars speak Avar – some groups are curiously exceptional. One of them is the Jews. Apart from the Judeo-Tat-speaking “Mountain Jews”, who mostly live in Israel now, other Jews of the Caucasus speak languages shared with others: Russian, Georgian, Armenian, etc. Few if any Jews in the Caucasus have ever spoken Yiddish. Another exceptional group in this regard is the Greeks, most of whom speak a Turkic language, Urum, rather than Greek, as one would expect from the “Greek” label found on ethno-linguistic maps.
In order to address these issues, we have worked with Stanford cartographer Jake Coolidge to create a better ethno-linguistic map of the Caucasus, a project that has proven to be more complicated than any of us expected. We are now ready to unveil this map. Unlike most previous maps, ours represents purely linguistic rather than ethnic or “ethno-linguistic” groups; hence, the listing of “Urum” rather than “Greek”. We have used the most recent census data available to determine which groups are no longer found in certain areas. A careful use of the color scheme allows us to demonstrate the family relatedness of the various languages spoken in this region, known justifiably as “the mountain of tongues”. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Jake has employed modern cartography techniques to overlay the linguistic map on a detailed topographic representation.
The topographic dimension is particularly relevant for the detailed language map of Dagestan, where we represent visually the correlation, of language and topography. As described by Johanna Nichols, the newly arrived groups have either pushed earlier inhabitants up the slopes or have imposed their language on them. The Tsezic languages are the oldest tongues of the region, having split off the rest of the Dagestanian language family the earliest, around 2,000 years ago, and are therefore found at the highest elevations along the crest of the mountain range (Bezhta, Hunzib, Dido, Hinukh, and Khvarshi). Andic languages, including Akhvakh, Andi, Bagvalal, Botlikh, Chamalal, Ghodoberi, Karata, and Tindi, which split from the rest of the family tree more recently, occupy the medium elevation belt. Finally, the relatively new (and structurally simplified) Avar is spoken at the lowest altitudes.
Despite these achievements, we expect that errors and imprecisions have crept into these maps. We therefore welcome comments and corrections from informed readers, especially those who live in the Caucasus area or have done fieldwork there.