Endangered Languages of the Caucasus and Beyond

Jesse Steele

Linguistic diversity and minority languages among indigenous communities around the world are under threat. The collected writings in the book under review focus on threats facing indigenous languages of the Caucasus region and its surrounding area. It provides a linguistic analysis into many of the region’s language structures and grammatical systems. These writings represent a consensus among academic researchers regarding the overarching causes and implications inherent in the loss or endangerment of minority languages within the region. Authors point to the cause of linguistic imperialism, coupled with resultant cultural assimilation. Further, the text identifies shifting cultural identities as a key implication associated with language degradation among minority groups of the Caucasus area and beyond.

Pros and Cons of Linguistic Imperialism and Hegemony

There are arguably both positive and negative aspects related to a regional hegemonic state imposing itself on smaller states. For example, in regards to language degradation, a notable highlight from chapter 7 discussed imperial Russia’s policy that could have bolstered one specific language in the region. Throughout the 19th Century Imperial Russia dominated the region surrounding the Caucasus. In fact there were several language groups present during this time that were confounded. One in particular did not survive, Ubykhs. According to the text ‘if the Ubykhs reconciled themselves to Russia’s victory in 1864 and accepted the offer to live compactly under Russian domination, their language would be alive today’ (p. 92). This contradictory example signifies the implications a dominant super power has when attempting to preserve a minority language.

Another highlight noted in chapter 7 related to language preservation pertains to Abkhaz and the Circassian languages. The author states ‘both standard Abkhaz (plus its divergent Abaza dialect) and two varieties of Circassian (western Adyghe and eastern Kabardian) were included in the so-called “Young Written Languages” by the early Soviets. This gave them literary status and officially approved scripts’ (p. 92). As a result of this policy these particular languages were approved to be studied and maintained.

A highlight from chapter 1 contrasts that during the 19th century there were minority nomadic groups in Central Asia, Mongolia, and Siberia who spoke a variety of Turkic related languages. These people were affected by Russian colonialism and hegemonic dominance in the region. The undermining efforts by the Russians resulted in minority language endangerment, especially during the 19th and 20th centuries. Russian imperialists exiled families to Siberia, ‘exiles with families were to begin an irrevocable shift in the demographics in Siberia. Territorial hegemony was expanded and economic hegemony over the already exploited Native Siberians solidified throughout the 19th century’ (p. 3,). The consequences of these actions resulted in Russian becoming the dominant language throughout the region. As a side note, some could even liken these policies to those the English colonists implemented in the Americas during the 18th century.

Some states make blatant attempts to erode minority languages. In Chapter 7 George Hewitt argues that the S. Caucasus language, Mingrelian, is an example of how a ‘state can act deliberately to undermine the prestige that is necessary for speakers to feel in order to sustain their willingness to pass their language on to their children’ (p. 92). Currently there are still a number of people throughout the S. Caucasus region (particularly in Georgia) who speak Mingrelian, however the numbers are disputed. The estimated population is up to 500,000.[i]

So over the past half century the number of people who speak the Mingrelian language has dwindled. Further, as a result of government policies in the 20th century, Mingrelians were labeled as Georgians. For example, a prominent Mingrelian politician in 1920, Ishak Zhvania, “advocated for the autonomy of Mingrelia and the publication of texts, along with teaching, in the Mingrelian language” (pg. 93). His impact at this time was gaining ground throughout the region. However as Joseph Stalin began to take control of the Soviet Union in the 1930’s, Mingrelians “were officially classified as Georgians” (pg. 93). As a result of these Russian policies publishing in Mingrelian was discontinued.

Georgians believe that Laz and Svan (as well as Mingrelian) are dialects of Georgian and they are labeled as a ‘sociolinguistic language’ by local linguists (p. 93). In spite of this Hewitt states that ‘linguists know these languages are not dialects of Georgian, but they do not want to upset the official designation of these peoples as “Georgians”, therefore this term “sociolinguistic language” is an odd term’ (p. 93).

Language Confusion among Minority Groups

In the Balkan region there are minority groups’ languages under threat  – Goran in particular – in Kosovo and Albania because of competing special interests and cultural/geographic isolation from mainstream life. To add, many minority groups who speak a specific language are viewed as a national security threat, regardless of whether they are or are not dangerous, specifically in Greece because of the growing threat of Islamic extremism. Victor Friedman (Chapter 6) disputes Greece and the notion that minority languages are a threat, he states that ‘in some ways researching minority languages in Greece is like researching in a war zone, because the government and its supporters pretend that Greece’s minority languages constitute a threat to its national security’ (p. 86).

Among some of the other minority languages in this region, Pomak in Bulgaria is changing to Bulgarian, and in Greece it is ‘giving way to Turkish’ (p. 86). This is because most of its speakers in Greece are Muslim. Christian speakers consider themselves and their dialect to be Bulgarian, and on the other hand Muslims do not consider themselves to be ethnic Bulgarians. The politics and special competing interests and cultural isolation contribute to the sociocultural implications and linguistic erosion throughout this region.


To conclude, conflicting linguistic identities, identity/special interest politics, and linguistic/cultural imperialism have all contributed to the weakening of many minority languages in the Caucasus, even the extinction of certain languages as well. The authors discussed consequential sociolinguistic and sociocultural factors that contribute to language endangerment. The authors also deliberated on significant implications that affected the people living in the region and how language endangerment has affected familial structures and societal identity.

Endangered Languages of the Caucus and Beyond also expands upon and reviews the development and history of regional endangered languages and their grammatical structures. With this said it is best to analyze each essay on its own in a classroom with serious university academics and students, as each essay discusses something slightly different, yet correlates to the study of endangered languages in the region. The extensive research conducted for each essay is intriguing and will enhance any graduate or undergraduate university classroom. As a suggestion to aspiring scholars who are dedicated to saving minority languages around the world, I recommend this book and hope that perhaps these important topics will be supplemented with further research.

[i] Mingrelians, http://www.encyclopedia.com/places/commonwealth-independent-states-and-baltic-nations/cis-and-baltic-physical-geography-7, accessed 19 August 2019.