Shiri / Sanzhi


Shiri and Sanzhi belong to the Dargi branch of the Nakh-Daghestanian language family. The diversity of languages within this family is very high. 13 languages belonging to this group have official status in the Republic of Daghestan, while Chechen and Ingush are officially recognized in the respective republics. The total number of languages in the family is much higher and should be estimated as more than 30 even by the most conservative standards.

Officially, the three largest North-East Caucasian languages spoken in Daghestan are Avar, Dargwa and Lezgian. While Avar and Lezgian have dialectal variation, the respective literary languages are not significantly different from the local varieties and are understood by most people of these ethnicities. But the status of Dargwa, to which Shiri and Sanzhi belong, as a single language is debatable.

Before the 1920s, the term “Dargwa” was never used as a general term for the people now considered to belong to this group. In fact, the area where the “Dargwa language” is currently spoken never constituted a single political entity, being divided between several feudal holdings and tribal federations. The people living in this area did not identify themselves as belonging to a single ethnic group, using terms based on the names of their villages.

The situation changed drastically after the October Revolution of 1917. In the 1920s, the policy of the Soviet government was to promote the cultural and linguistic autonomy of ethnic minorities by creating standard literary languages and orthographies. This process was successful in those cases when the ethnic groups in questions were already relatively numerous and possessed some kind of interdialectal koiné. However, in those cases where no wider cultural identity or language existed, it was deemed inefficient to create a literary standard for each of the numerous languages, some of which were spoken by no more than a single village with a few hundred inhabitants. In such cases, either the ethnic group was artificially assigned to a totally different nationality (as happened with the Archi, who are considered to be Avars but whose language belongs to the Lezgian branch), or a new common language was created from scratch based on one idiom, and then imposed on the speakers of all the languages that belong to the same branch. The latter situation happened with Dargwa.

While a Latin alphabet was introduced for “Dargwa” in 1928, it was not until 1930 that it was finally decided that the literary language was to be based on the dialect of Aqusha. There were two main motivations for this choice. The first was that the settlement of Aqusha was the capital of the tribal confederation called Aqusha-Dargo, which was at that moment the largest politically unified group of Dargi speakers. Thus not only was the number of people who spoke the dialect of Aqusha the largest among all the Dargi idioms, but the dialect was also understood by many speakers of other Northern Dargi varieties (spoken in today’s Akushi, Levashi and Sergokala districts), which are all closely related to each other. The second reason was that this dialect was deemed the “simplest” of all the Dargi idioms by the Soviet language authorities, chiefly because it lacked geminate and labialized consonants that are found in the southern idioms.

Thus, at the beginning of the 1930s, it was decided to promote a single national identity for all speakers of Dargi languages, with literature and school education in the literary language. The name for the ethnic group, “Dargwa”, was chosen based on the name of Aqusha-Dargo.

However, what worked well on paper did not work that well in reality. While the Aqusha dialect was the largest, it was not spoken by the majority of Dargi subgroups; and while a number of northern dialects are indeed mutually intelligible with the literary language, this cannot be said of the southern dialects, for the speakers of which literary Dargwa sounds like a foreign language. In spite of this, it continues to be the only regional language taught in schools of the Dargi area. Thus, while the literary language and the dialects that resemble it, as well as large languages like Kubachi are not endangered, smaller dialects are seriously threatened because of growing urbanization and the need to use Russian as a lingua franca for communicating not only with people of other ethnicities, but with speakers of other Dargi idioms.


Internal diversity of Dargwa

The internal variation of Dargi languages is also confirmed by the data of lexicostatistics. The following graph has been composed by Yuri Koryakov based on Swadesh lists of various languages. Idioms are positioned in a manner close to their geographic location, with distances being adjusted according to the number of cognates (the higher the number, the smaller the distance), shown as numbers.



Figure 3: Internal classification of Dargi languages (Koryakov 2012)


It can be seen that the southern group of Dargi languages, to which Shiri and Sanzhi belong, shares only 75% of the basic lexicon with the northern group, to which the literary language belongs. This number is comparable to the distance between two languages in well-established genera, e.g. between French and Spanish. Even within the southern group, the variation is quite high. Amuzgi-Shiri and the geographically close language of Kubachi have a similarity of only 87,3%, which is similar to two languages within a smaller group (e.g. Czech and Slovak). While the particular classification based on lexicostatistics can be contested, there is no denying that these distances demonstrate that Dargwa cannot be considered a single language.

The situation becomes even more complex if one takes a look on morphology. There, substantial differences are found even between pairs languages with a large rate of cognates. For example, Sanzhi and Icari share 92% of the basic lexicon, but Sanzhi has none of the grammatical features that make Icari outstanding among Dargi languages (e.g., the imperfective converb suffix -a-tːi). In terms of lexicon, Shiri is closer to Icari-Sanzhi than to Kubachi, yet Shiri has salient grammatical features that are characteristic of Kubachi (e.g. the attributive suffix ­-zi-b and the 3rd person witnessed past ending -aj). It is probable that the southern dialects form a continuum whose internal structure is strongly distorted by inter-dialectal borrowings and grammatical influences, which makes the family tree model inapplicable to Dargi languages.



The Dargi languages, including Sanzhi, are typologically similar to other Nakh-Daghestanian languages. They have a relatively large consonant inventory including pharyngeal and ejective consonants. As is typical for many Nakh-Daghestanian languages, the case system is quite rich. Thus, Sanzhi has three grammatical cases (absolutive, ergative and genitive) and 16 semantic cases. Most of the latter are spatial cases. The morphology is concatenative and predominantly suffixing. Sanzhi has a rich system of verbal TAM forms and spatial preverbs. There is gender system, whereby all nouns can be divided into three genders based on their semantics (masculine, feminine, neuter). The language has gender/number and person agreement. The gender/number agreement is triggered by arguments in the absolutive case and shows up on verbs, adverbs and on nouns in some of the spatial cases. In Sanzhi all gender/number markers are also found on adjectives and participles, which is typical for Kubachi, but absent from other many Dargi languages. Person agreement is triggered by the argument that is higher on the personal hierarchy 2>3>1. Word order in Sanzhi is predominantly head-final with SOV being the most frequent word order in the clause.



The Shiri language,and the closely related idiom of Amuzgi have never been described in any detail before the start of our project. In the only major work on Dargi dialectology, Gasanova (1971), neither Shiri nor Amuzgi are mentioned at all. Abdullaev’s (1956) grammar of Dargwa considers Amuzgi to be a subdialect of Kubachi, with no mention of Shiri. Our studies, however, have shown that even if Shiri and Amuzgi do have closer relation to Kubachi than to other Dargi varieties, the two are clearly separate languages. While there are some grammatical features that are shared between Shiri/Amuzgi and Kubachi (such as the attributive suffix ­-zi-b, the 3rd person witnessed past ending -aj, and the ergative marker -dil), there are also some very substantial differences, for instance:


In Kubachi, the common Dargi phoneme /r/ has either turned into /j/ or dropped, causing lengthening of the preceding vowel. Thus, the word for ‘girl’ that in most dialects has the form rursi has the form juːsːi in Kubachi; the perfective stem of the verb ‘do’ in Kubachi is aːq’, while in other dialects it is arq’. Shiri and Amuzgi, however, do not share this innovation, and share the roots rursi, arq’ with the majority of Dargi idioms.

This fact is especially significant, given that the subdialect of Kubachi, Ashti, also shows evidence of this phonetic change. It is known that Ashti speakers have migrated from Kubachi in about the 13th century; thus, the date of divergence between Kubachi and Shiri/Amuzgi is at least that early, and is certainly earlier if lexicostatistical data given above is to be believed.


The markers of spatial cases in Shiri often have completely different forms than in Kubachi. For example, in Kubachi and Ashti, the marker for the localization super is –ži, and for in it is -li; in Shiri, these localizations are not distinguished, and the marker for in/super is either -li or -ja. Shiri, unlike Kubachi and Ashti, has no post localization. The marker for ante is -sa in Shiri, but -ta in Kubachi/Ashti.


The verbal paradigms of Shiri and Kubachi/Ashti are quite different, despite the similarity of many forms. For example, the participle in -ib is never used predicatively in Kubachi/Ashti, but Shiri has, like other Dargi dialects, a periphrastic verb form using this participle (in addition to other verb forms that are shared between the two varieties). Specialized converbs also have etymologically different forms: for example, the general temporal converb (‘when’) has the marker -muːtil (from interrogative muːt ‘when’) in Kubachi/Ashti, but -qːil in Shiri.