Ubykh or Ubyx is an extinct Northwest Caucasian language once spoken by the Ubykh people (who originally lived along the eastern coast of the Black Sea before migrating en masse to Turkey in the 1860s). The language’s last native speaker, Tevfik Esenç, died in 1992.
The Ubykh language is ergative and agglutinative, with polypersonal verbal agreement and a very large number of distinct consonants, but only two phonemically distinct vowels. With around eighty consonants it has one of the largest inventories of consonants in the world, the largest number for any language without clicks.
The name Ubykh is derived from /wəbəx/, its name in the Abdzakh Adyghe language. It is known in linguistic literature by many names: variants of Ubykh, such as Ubikh, Ubıh (Turkish) and Oubykh (French); and Pekhi (from Ubykh /tʷaχə/) and its Germanised variant Päkhy.
Ubykh is distinguished by the following features, some of which are shared with other Northwest Caucasian languages:
It is ergative, making no syntactic distinction between the subject of an intransitive sentence and the direct object of a transitive sentence. Split ergativity plays only a small part, if at all.
It is highly agglutinative, using mainly monosyllabic or bisyllabic roots, but with single morphological words sometimes reaching nine or more syllables in length: /aχʲazbatɕʼaʁawdətʷaajlafaqʼajtʼmadaχ/ (‘if only you had not been able to make him take [it] all out from under me again for them’). Affixes rarely fuse in any way.
It has a simple nominal system, contrasting just four noun cases, and not always marking grammatical number in the direct case.
Its system of verbal agreement is quite complex. English verbs must agree only with the subject; Ubykh verbs must agree with the subject, the direct object and the indirect object, and benefactive objects must also be marked in the verb.
It is phonologically complex as well, with 84 distinct consonants (four of which, however, appear only in loan words). According to some linguistic analyses, it only has two phonological vowels, but these vowels have a large range of allophones because the range of consonants which surround them is so large.
Esenç was raised by his Ubykh-speaking grandparents for a time in the village of Hacı Osman in Turkey, and he served a term as the muhtar (mayor) of that village, before receiving a post in the civil service of Istanbul. There, he was able to do a great deal of work with the French linguist Georges Dumézil and his associate Georges Charachidzé to help record his language.
Having an excellent memory, and understanding quickly the goals of Dumézil and the other linguists who came to visit him, he was the primary source of not only the Ubykh language, but also of the mythology, culture and customs of the Ubykh people. He spoke not only Ubykh, but also the Hakuchi dialect of Adyghe, allowing some comparative work to be done between these two members of the Northwest Caucasian family. He was also a fluent speaker of Turkish. He was a purist, and his idiolect of Ubykh was considered by Dumézil as the closest thing to a standard “literary” Ubykh language that existed.
The Frenchman Georges Dumézil also visited Turkey in 1930 to record some Ubykh and would eventually become the most celebrated Ubykh linguist. He published a collection of Ubykh folktales in the late 1950s, and the language soon attracted the attention of linguists for its small number (two) of phonemic vowels. Hans Vogt, a Norwegian, produced a monumental dictionary that, in spite of its many errors (later corrected by Dumézil), is still one of the masterpieces and essential tools of Ubykh linguistics.
Later in the 1960s and into the early 1970s, Dumézil published a series of papers on Ubykh etymology in particular and Northwest Caucasian etymology in general. Dumézil’s book Le Verbe Oubykh (1975), a comprehensive account of the verbal and nominal morphology of the language, is another cornerstone of Ubykh linguistics.
Since the 1980s, Ubykh linguistics has slowed drastically. No other major treatises have been published; however, the Dutch linguist Rieks Smeets is currently trying to compile a new Ubykh dictionary based on Vogt’s 1963 book, and a similar project is also underway in Australia.
The Ubykh themselves have shown interest in relearning their language.
Brian George Hewitt
Julius von Mészáros