A grammar of Ubykh

A grammar of Ubykh. By Rohan S. H. Fenwick. (LINCOM studies in Caucasian linguistics 19.) Munich: LINCOM Europa, 2011. Pp. 225. ISBN 9783862880508. $174 (Hb).

Reviewed by Edward J. Vajda, Western Washington University

The Northwest Caucasian (NWC) family contains some of Europe’s most incompletely described languages, which are relatively unknown beyond Russia and the Caucasus region itself. Basic questions remain without consensus regarding their polysynthetic verb structure and typologically marked phonology, which consists of over eighty consonant phonemes and only one to three vowel phonemes. This full-length grammar of the recently extinct Ubykh, one of the family’s three primary branches alongside the Abkhaz and Adyghe dialect continua, is an important contribution to NWC linguistics for several reasons.

Rohan S. H. Fenwick’s authoritative command of existing documentation and earlier treatments of Ubykh sets the cornerstone for this study. The language began to disappear after the 1864 exodus of speakers from their homeland on the north shore of the Black Sea to the Ottoman Empire. Serious documentation began in the late nineteenth century and continued until the passing of the language’s last fully competent native speaker, the celebrated Tevfik Esenç. F’s survey of this material carefully identifies dialectal and idiolectal variation. He also identifies and assesses Ubykh linguistic data collected before the nation’s exodus, most of which was misidentified in the primary source publication as belonging to another NWC language. The brief discussion of loanwords and their probable origins (12–14) is also useful, as are charts providing a historical overview of competing Ubykh transcriptions used in the most important earlier published sources (208–10).

Nearly double the length and detail of most grammars in LINCOM Europa’s Languages of the world/materials series, this book offers a concise but penetratingly thorough treatment of all major aspects of Ubykh phonology and grammar. A chart (25) divides vowel articulations into three phonemes distinguished primarily by tongue height, the allophony conditioned by consonant environment, which F demonstrates to consist of eighty-five phonemes, eighty of which occur in native words, arguably the largest consonant inventory outside of Africa (16–17). Verb morphology receives extensive description, making Ubykh now the most accessibly described language in the NWC family. The descriptions benefit from the author’s comparisons of the same phenomena in related NWC languages, which should facilitate future typological and comparative work on the family. For example, Ubykh has forty-three local and direction preverbs, which occupy a distinct prefixal slot in the verb template (112–16); their description here facilitates a comparison with the 123 local preverbs described for Abkhaz. Interlinear morpheme glosses throughout the book are superb, making the explication of even the most complex facets of the verb morphology extremely easy to follow.

F does not attempt to answer whether NWC has identifiable genealogical ties with other families, giving instead a generalized overview of existing hypotheses. Nor does he answer whether Ubykh is closer to Abkhaz or to Adyghe at an early time in the family’s diversification. The data made available here, particularly regarding Ubykh morphological structure, can help tackle these questions. This book likewise offers a firm basis for future investigations of Ubykh based on still unpublished materials left by earlier scholars.