Circassians - Orientation

Identification. The Circassians and their close kin, the Ubykhs, all call themselves "Adyghe" (three syllables). They originally inhabited an area of the northwestern Caucasus, though after the Russian conquest of 1864 fully half of them emigrated to the Ottoman Empire. Today they live not only in their original homeland but also in scattered groups in Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Israel, and Yugoslavia, with small communities in Europe and North America (New Jersey, New York, and California). Within the Soviet Union they are found, going from west to east, in and around the Adyghe Republic (also known as Adyghea), the Karachay-Cherkess Republic, and the Kabardino-Balkar Republic, all three being federated with the Russian Republic. In Adyghea they share their territory with Ukrainians; in the Karachay-Cherkess Republic with Ukrainians, Turkic Karachays, and Northwest Caucasian Abazas; and in the Kabardino-Balkar Republic with Great Russians and Turkic Balkars. Racially they are comprised of varied European types. In certain tribes many people have blue eyes and blond or red hair, whereas others have dark hair with light complexions. Some groups show a propensity toward long, aquiline faces and dolichocephalic heads, whereas others tend toward round faces and brachycephaly. Many have almond-shaped eyes and fine features. Epicanthic folds are common. Their physical variety attests to their long and varied history.

Location. Originally their homeland extended from the Black Sea coast at the mouth of the Sea of Azov (Taman Peninsula), down along the coast to the Psu River, thence over the Caucasian massif and southeastward along its eastern slopes down into the basins of the Baksan, Malka, and Kuma rivers, then into the so-called Kabardinian plain to a point north of the Terek River, thence northwestward to the course of the Kuban, and along the south bank of the Kuban back to the Taman Peninsula. This original homeland was bounded on the west by the Black Sea; on the northwest by the Crimea; on the north by the Ukraine; on the east by the territory of the Chechens and Daghestanis; to the south by the upland territories of the Ossetes, the Georgian mountaineers, and the Svans; and to the southwest by the land of the Abkhazians. In terms of latitude and longitude their homeland is roughly demarcated: 45°30′ N, 38°09′ E at its northwestern extremity; 45° N, 44°45′ E at its northeastern extremity; 43° N, 41°05′ E at its southeastern extremity; and 43°30′ N, 39° E at its southwestern extremity. On the coastal plains of the Black Sea (to the west of Adyghea) the climate is warm and humid, growing cooler as the Caucasian foothills are crossed. In the three administrative units the climate is cooler in the highlands and moderate in the rolling hills and plains of the lowlands, where more than half the year is frost-free. Rainfall is moderate. Vegetation ranges from steppe meadows in the plains, to beech and oak forests in the foothills, to evergreen forests and alpine meadows in the mountains. There are many rivers and streams throughout the region, many of which run through heavily forested gorges.

Demography. The vast majority of Circassians live outside the Soviet Union, where their exact numbers are impossible to determine. The following estimates have been made: Turkey, 150,000-1,000,000; Jordan, 20,000-100,000; Israel, 15,000; and New Jersey, United States, 18,000. Within the Soviet Union there are 46,000 Cherkess, 322,000 Kabardians, and 109,000 Adyghes, but the latter figure does not count many Circassians living to the west of the Adyghe Republic. The Karachay-Cherkess Republic is overwhelmingly Ukrainian, with the Circassians accounting for only 9 percent of the population; the Kabardino-Balkar Republic has many Great Russians, with the Circassians accounting for roughly 50 percent of the population, the Adyghe Republic has no more than 25 percent native Circassians within its boundaries, but the population is perhaps greater than 50 percent Circassian in the region surrounding it. In all three regions the Circassians form a rural village population, with the cities being predominantly Slavic.

Linguistic Affiliation. Circassian and Ubykh form two branches of the Northwest Caucasian Language Family, the third being the Abaza-Abkhaz Branch. Ubykh (nearly extinct) formed a transitional language between Circassian and Abaza-Abkhaz. Circassian itself is divided into a conservative Western or Kyakh language, often called Adyghean, and an Eastern one, Kabardian. Besleney, centered in the Karachay-Balkar Republic, is a dialect transitional between the two. Besleney has strongly influenced Abaza, the Abkhaz language spoken in and around the republic. The languages of this family are remarkable for their complexity—for example, the verb can inflect for all persons in a sentence, and most of the vocabulary is formed from more basic roots by extensive processes of compounding—and for their radical departure from the grammatical patterns that characterize the dominating Turkic and Indo-European languages of this region.

The nobility used a "hunting language" derived from standard Circassian by wordplay and distortions. I was once told by an old Ossete (Alexander Zuraetae) that the upper-class Circassian women shared in a northern Caucasian women's language, which was monosyllabic with distinctive pitch. Professor Tamerlan Guri of the North Ossetic Research Institute has suggested that a special jargon or language for small girls was current among some Circassians, as it was among Ossetes. The hunting language died out in the nineteenth century; the women's (or girls') language survived into the twentieth.

Some attempts were made to formulate a Circassian written language in the nineteenth century, using the Arabic script. In the 1920s two literary languages emerged, Adyghean based on the Chemgwi (Kemirgoy; Russian: Temirgoy) dialect of western Circassians and Kabardian based on the Baksan dialect. The first alphabets were based on the Arabic script, then the Latin was adopted, and finally in the late 1930s the Cyrillic was used. Currently efforts are under way to devise a new Latin-based script.

Folklorists both within and without the Soviet Union have recorded extensive texts in all the Circassian dialects and in Ubykh. In the Middle East, only Israel allows publication of material in Circassian.

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