The Svan language

The Svan language is located in the high mountain region of North West Georgia along the gorges of the rivers Enguri, Cxenis-cqali and Kodori. Today, linguists assume that it consists of five dialects: The so-called “Upper Svan” dialects Upper and Lower Bal, distributed in the Enguri valley above and below the Bal mountain, and the “Lower Svan” dialects Lashkh, Lentekhian and Cholurian spoken along the Cxenis-cqali river (cf. Schmidt 1991, 475 where Cholurian is not yet recognised as a separate dialect, however). The main differences between the dialects and sub-dialects are observable in their sound systems, but there are also considerable divergences in morphology and syntax.

According to the most recent statistics (1997), the number of speakers of Svan does not exceed 30,000 people today, with ca. 15,000 speakers of Upper Svan and less than 12,000 speakers of Lower Svan dialects (there are no reliable numbers available for speakers of the Kodori region which belongs to Abkhazia; the esteemed number is about 2,500). Contrasting this with the data given by Džaošvili (1968) according to whom the number of inhabitants of Upper and Lower Svanetia was more than 32,000 in the 1960ies, we can easily see that there has been a steadily decrease of speakers of Svan in recent times. All speakers of Svan are bilingual speaking Georgian alongside Svan, with the latter being used as a familiar means of communication only while Georgian is the language of administration and school teaching everywhere in the Svan speaking areas. It is clear from historical sources that the impact of Georgian has lasted for centuries, with Christianization serving as a primary stimulus.

While the Svan population resisted the unpleasant conditions of the high mountain environment they lived in for centuries, the increasing economic difficulties of the last two decades have brought about a strong tendency towards migration which will result in a radical dissolution of the Svan linguistic communities. Only in a few cases, complete villages were transferred to different regions of Georgia, among them three Svan villages which were founded 50 km south of Tbilisi about fifteen years ago. In most cases, however, families or single persons preferred to leave Svanetia and to settle in other parts of Georgia when their houses were destroyed by avalanches or other natural catastrophies.

The Udi language

Udi (the local designation is udin muz “Udi language”) belongs to the Lezgian (or Southern) branch of the autochthonous (North-)East Caucasian language family. Within the Lezgian branch, Udi occupies a so-called marginal position reflecting the fact that historically speaking the language separated from the Lezgian “branch” soon after this branch disintegrated into at least three “dialects” (Early Udi, Early Archi, and Early Samur).

Today, Udi is spoken in three villages in Transcaucasia as well as in a number of diaspora places scattered throughout the Russian Federation, Armenia and Kazakhstan. The original habitat of the ethnic Udis in Northern Azerbaijan is now confined to the village of Nidzh (Nij), located on the road from Sheki (in the West) to Qabala (formerly Kutkashen) in the East. In Nidzh, the ethnic Udis represent a rather compact unity of roughly 4,500 people, 80% of whom reclaim to use Udi in one context or the other. Before autumn 1989, Vartashen (now Oghuz) was the second Azerbaijani village which hosted a significant number of ethnic Udis. By virtue of the Armenian-Azerbaijani clashes in 1989, most of the roughly 3,000 Vartashen Udis were expelled. Some families fled to neighbouring Nidzh, others left Azerbaijan and settled in Armenia, the Russian Federation, or in Kazakhastan. Today, some 35 ethnic Udi families still live in Oghuz. A third settlement of ethnic Udis had been founded in Eastern Georgia (east of Kvareli) in 1922 when a considerable number of (basically) Vartashen Udis left their original habitat due to a disastrous economic situation. This village, called Oktomberi (formerly Zinobiani), today hosts some 80 ethnic Udis (93 in 1989, 83 in 1995), living in a totally “Georgian” environment.

In total, there are up to 8,100 ethnic Udis today (7,971 Udis in Azerbaijan in 1989). Most of the Udi speakers are bi- or even multilingual. In Oktomberi, it is Georgian which plays the role as the language for “external” communication, whereas Udi is retained by some 50 people in “internal” communication (most of them are 50 years old and beyond). In Nidzh, the language is much better preserved than in Georgia: Here, multilingualism based on Azeri and – until 1989 – on a local variety of Armenian forms an integrated part of everyday communication. Additionally, Southwest Iranian Tati (the language of the local Jewish communities) is occasionally present among ethnic Udis, too. Russian plays a much lesser role than in times of Soviet rulership. In Nidzh (and, until 1989, in Vartashen), Udi is spoken by most elder ethnic Udis (50 years and beyond), whereas the knowledge of the language decreases the younger people are. Yet, a considerable number of young Udis still use a (however strongly Azeri influenced) variety of Udi in “internal” communication which can be described as “Young People’s Udi”. The sociolinguistic situation of Udi in Nidzh has become more stable after the immigration of Udis from Vartashen. A modified (however informal) Cyrillic graphic tradition sporadically develops, opposing itself to the now Latin based tradition of Azeri. Yet, all teaching is in Azeri; no classes are given in Udi. The last years have seen a growing interest in the cultural and linguistic heritage of the Udi people due to an increasing debate on the ethnic layers in Azerbaijan. The Udi people is often thought to represent the last off-spring of the ethnic groups that constituted the Early Christian kingdom of Aghwan (“Caucasian Albania”). The foundation of the “Scientific Research center of Caucasian Albania” in Baku in the year 2000 which also opts to support the maintenance of the Udi cultural and linguistic tradition can be regarded as another expression of such a growing interest.

The strong impact of the Azerbaijanian cultural and linguistic tradition has led to a dramatic decrease in the knowledge of the “mental” culture among Udis. Folk traditions are generally adopted from the Azeri surroundings though occasionally accommodated to the original Udi traditions. It still is a matter of research to disclose the extent to which specific Udi traditions with respect to folk tales, fairy tales, heroic or religious myths, and songs are still present among Udis. Most of the (scanty) data exploited in the scientific literature are older than at least 50 years. As a matter of fact, the large bulk of textual data on Udi stems from the 19th century.

The Tsova-Tush language

Together with Chechen and Ingush which are mostly spoken North of the Caucasus, the Tsova-Tush language (also called Bats or Batsbi) belongs to the so-called Nakh subfamily of the North-East-Caucasian (or Nakh-Daghestanian) stock. Its speakers live in a close community within one village of North-East Georgia, viz. Zemo-Alvani, which is situated in a region where otherwise the Tush and Kakhetian dialects of Georgian are spoken. In 1953 when I. Dešeriev (Desheriev) wrote the first extensive description of the language (Batsbijskij jazyk, 1953), the number of Tsova-Tush speakers was still given as exceeding 3,000; according to recent statistics, it has been reduced to about 1,600 today.

All speakers of Tsova-Tush are bilingual, speaking Georgian alongside the Tsova-Tush language. While Georgian has been used as the primary means of communication, esp. with Georgian neighbours, Tsova-Tush has kept its status as a living language in familiar environments for centuries. Under these conditions, the Tsova-Tush people, who have been renowned as good dancers and singers throughout the Caucasus, have preserved an outstanding repertoire of folkloristic texts.

Today, the knowledge of Tsova-Tush is very inhomogeneous among the Tsova-Tush people. Only the older generation (people older than 50 years) has a perfect competence of the language; younger adults still understand it and are able to speak Tsova-Tush, but normally they refuse to do so, mostly because their lexical competence is steadily decreasing. There are probably no children, at least younger ones, who understand or use the language today, given that school education has always been in Georgian in the region and, subsequently, Georgian has developed into the main means of communication even within the families (cf. Holisky 1994, 149).

In recent times, the Tsova-Tush people have more and more been giving up their traditional way of life which included a typical tradition of sheep breeding (the “Tushian sheep” which is famous throughout the Caucasus) as well as special forms of production of wool and garment depending thereon; in the course of this process, the peculiar elements of the Tsova-Tush lexicon referring to these traditions are getting lost. It is to be expected that the substitution of the Tsova-Tush language by Georgian will soon lead to a loss of folkloristic and other traditions too.