Endangered Language Alliance



Kabardian

A Northwest Caucasian language of the Karbadino-Balkar Republic and the Circassian diaspora

Background

The largest and easternmost of the languages spoken by ethnic Circassians (or Adyghe), Kabardian (sometimes called Beslenei or East Circassian) originated in and still has hundreds of thousands of speakers in what is today the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic within the Russian Federation, centered on its capital of Nalchik. Particularly since the 19th century, as a result of bitter conflicts with Russian troops, large number of Circassians fled into diaspora communities, principally in Turkey (where the Kabardian language is probably strongest, with a few hundred thousand speakers) as well as Jordan, Syria, Israel, and the United States.

Affiliation

Kabardian is classified by linguists as being a Northwest Caucasian language, in the Circassian branch. To a considerable extent, it is mutually intelligible with Adyghe (or West Circassian), and ideas differ about the relative status of those two varieties, though other Circassian varieties such as Abaza, Abkhaz, and Ubykh are somewhat more distantly related. Some linguists have spoken of a Circassian dialect continuum which once linked these varieties geographically.

Endangerment

Kabardian is still a vigorous language spoken by people of all ages, particularly in the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic, where it has an official status and is apparently a language of education, as well as in Turkey, where a large and active diaspora population exists. Still, the longterm future of the language is difficult to gauge given the pressures of assimilation wherever Circassians live–in Jordan and Syria, where community circumstances are difficult, the language is said to be particularly under threat. There are many different dialects of Kabardian–eight are mentioned by the Ethnologue database–and the situation is complicated by the emergent differences in Kabardian speech in the diaspora, Turkey for instance, and the close ties between Kabardian and varieties of Adyghe. Despite a written tradition using the Arabic script and a Latin-based orthography which has existed since 1923, Kabardian today makes use of a Cyrillic writing system, although many are not literate in the language.

Academic Work

There is a long history of academic work on Kabardian, but many varieties await detailed treatment. Much of the research is in Russian, but more recently there have also been studies of Kabardian as it is spoken in different parts of the Circassian diaspora, including Ayla Applebaum’s documentation work in Turkey. Aert Kuipers was an early researcher on the language who wrote on the language in English, advancing the controversial (now generally debunked) theory that Kabardian, like some other Northwest Caucasian languages, may be “vowelless”. Circassian activist Amjad Jaimoukha has contributed important work on the Kabardian lexicon, and John Colarusso’s 1992 grammar represents a critical landmark.

See the Glottolog entry on Kabardian

Dialect Comparison

Below you will find comparative wordlists for Kabardian and Adyghe:


Bzhedukh Kabardian

ELA’s Work

Of the estimated 5,000 Circassians living in the United States, the largest single group lives in New Jersey, primarily in the town of Wayne. Kabardian is probably the most widely spoken variety among the older people here and some younger ones, although Bzedukh, Abaza, and Shapsug are also represented.

ELA’s Circassian Languages Project is recording several different Circassian languages in the New York area and abroad. The project includes an effort to increase outreach and education around Circassian language issues, undertaken in partnership with community organizations such as the Nassip Foundation. Initial recordings have been made with Majda Hilmi, originally of Amman, Jordan. The words and phrases from these archived recordings can be heard below.