Monday, August 25, 2008

Caucasian languages

Anyone who ever took a linguistics class in college will have heard that Basque, like Ainu, is a linguistic isolate unrelated to any other language. I'm intrigued by this passage from today's International Herald Tribune, which suggests that Basque and Georgian may be related:

...Ossetians speak a language related to Farsi; Georgians speak a language whose closest relative, some linguists say, is Basque....

The languages of the Caucasus explain much about the current conflict.

Some 40 indigenous tongues are spoken in the region — more than any other spot in the world aside from Papua New Guinea and parts of the Amazon, where the jungles are so thick that small tribes rarely encounter one another. In the Caucasus, mountains serve the same purpose, offering small ethnicities a natural refuge against more powerful or aggressive ones.

As a result, there is a dense collection of ethnic groups, the kind of arrangement that was common before the Greek and Roman empires swept through the plains of Europe and Asia, shaping ethnic patchworks into states and nations, said Johanna Nichols, a linguist at the University of California at Berkeley.

Medieval scholars concluded that the Caucasian groups scattered when God wrecked the Tower of Babel. Since then, generations of linguists have made their painstaking way into the mountains to document such tongues as Svan, Ubykh, Udi, Tsova-Tush and Bzyb.

As the field gradually explained how the world's languages shade into one another, the Caucasus remained "a residual problem area," said William Poser, an adjunct professor of linguistics at the University of British Columbia. Though the Caucasian languages fall into three main groups, so far none has been decisively linked to any other language on earth....

Source: International Herald Tribune