Phonetic Structures of Turkish Kabardian, by Matthew Gordon and Ayla Applebaum

Matthew Gordon and Ayla Applebaum
University of California, Santa Barbara


This paper reports results of a quantitative phonetic study of Kabardian, a Northwest Caucasian language that is of typological interest from a  phonetic  standpoint.    A  number  of  cross-linguistically rare properties are examined.   These features  include  the phonetic realization of Kabardian’s small vowel inventory, which contains only three contrastive vowel qualities (two short  vowels  and  one  long  vowel),  spectral  characteristics  of  the  ten  voiceless  fricatives  of Kabardian,  as well  as  the  acoustic  and  aerodynamic  characteristics of  ejective  fricatives,  an extremely rare type of segment cross-linguistically. In addition, basic properties of the consonant stop  series  are  explored,  including  closure  duration  and  voice  onset  time,  in  order  to  test postulated universals linking these properties to place of articulation and laryngeal setting.

1. Introduction

Kabardian  is a Northwest Caucasian  language spoken by approximately 647,000 people  (SIL online  Ethnologue,  primarily  in  Russia  and  Turkey  and  also  in  smaller communities in various countries, including Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Germany, and the United States.  Kabardian belongs to the Circassian branch of the Northwest Caucasian language family, which also includes three other languages: Ubykh, a moribund language of Turkey, and the two very closely  related  languages/dialects of Abkhaz and Abaza. The Circassian languages are commonly divided into two branches:  East Circassian, including Kabardian and closely related Besleney, and West Circassian, including Adyghe and its associated dialects.

Kabardian dialects can be further divided into three groups (Smeets 1984): West Kabardian, including Kuban and Kuban-Zelenchuk, Central Kabardian, which includes Baksan and Malka, and East Kabardian, comprising the Terek and Mozdok varieties.  The Baksan dialect serves as the basis for the literary language arising in the 19th century (Colarusso 1992:3).  Most speakers of Kabardian living outside of Russia do not read Kabardian, which has been written using the Cyrillic  script  since  1937  (Kuipers  1960:9).    Nevertheless,  Kabardian  (along  with  other Northwest Caucasian languages) has a rich tradition of oral tales, the best known of which are the Nart sagas (Colarusso 2002).

The largest concentration of Kabardian speakers resides in the Kabardino-Balkar republic of Russia.  However, a substantial minority of speakers now reside in Turkey after a long struggle between the Northwest Caucasians and the Russians culminated in a mass exodus from Russia in the 19th  century.  The Ethnologue cites a figure of 202,000 Kabardian speakers in Turkey, though it  is quite  likely  that  the actual number of speakers exceeds  this  figure  (John Colarusso, p.c).

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