LING 117: Languages of the Caucasus





This course pursues two related goals: to introduce the students to the empirical complexity of languages of the Caucasus and to discuss theoretical analyses in phonology, morphology, and syntax motivated by these languages.


The Caucasus is often referred to as “the mountain of tongues”, and it richly deserves this name. Three language families are exclusive to the Caucasus: Northwest Caucasian (NWC), Northeast Caucasian or Nakh-Dagestanian (ND), and Kartvelian. In addition, there are Turkic and Indo-European languages spoken in the Caucasus. The languages are relatively understudied, and a large proportion of published work is in German, Russian, and Georgian, which makes it more difficult to access for American students. By surveying the critical aspects of these languages we hope to fill in some of the knowledge gaps.


In terms of their linguistic promise, languages of the Caucasus have an enormous amount to offer. They have rich and complex sound systems with such features as pharyngealization, ejective, and for NWC, a very limited number of vowels (some researchers posit just one, and some have claimed NWC has none whatsoever). These languages have morphological ergativity (NWC also has syntactic ergativity), rich and varied case systems, and complicated agreement systems. These languages are pro-drop and show a dazzling array of silent elements that call for a systematic examination. Their quantified expressions are still a mystery, and their marking of topic and focus seems radically different from what is found in more familiar languages.