Documenting Dargi languages in Daghestan – Shiri and Sanzhi


Shiri people from Druzhba with Shiri plant booklet, August 2017


Murat from Druzhba with "Sanzhi book"

The Caucasus is the place with the greatest linguistic variation in Europe, in Nichol’s (1992) terms a classical ‘residual zone’. As Comrie (2008) puts it, the Caucasus is an area with high genealogical and high structural diversity. Within the Caucasus, Daghestan is the area with the highest number of languages.

The word “Daghestan” means ‘country of mountains’. Geographically Daghestan is characterized by steppes in the north, the Caspian sea coast in the east, mountainous areas in the central part and in the south, whereby the highest mountains (the Greater Caucasus Mountains) cover the south. The mountainous areas are mostly inhabited by speakers of Nakh-Daghestanian languages. Speakers of Turkic languages like Kumyk, Noghay and Azerbaijani live predominantly in the northern lowlands, or on the plains along the Caspian coast.

The autochthonous languages of the Caucasus belong to three families: North-West Caucasian (or Abkhaz-Adyghe), North-East Caucasian (or Nakh-Daghestanian) and South Caucasian (or Kartvelian), with probably no genetic relationship between them. Besides these so-called “Caucasian languages” there are a number of languages from other families spoken in the Caucasus, among them many in Daghestan, e.g. Indo-European languages like Armenian, Ossetic, Talyshi, Tat and nowadays Russian or Turkic languages like Azerbaijani, Kumyk, Karachay-Balkar and Noghay.

Sanzhi and Shiri belong to Dargi languages which form a subgroup of the Nakh-Daghestanian language family. The exact number of languages belonging to this family is unknown, but it can be estimated at around 40. The internal classification of the family has not yet been unanimously resolved.

Shiri and Sanzhi are highly endangered. The way of life and the economic basis for it have drastically changed. Old traditional handcrafts and ways of life disappear (e.g. terrace agriculture and horticulture) and with them the knowledge and the terminology related to these. Due to the resettlement speakers forget about the microtoponomy. The systems of demonstrative pronouns and spatial preverbs which are very elaborate in Shiri and Sanzhi, including numerous distinctions related to a mountainous environment are not used anymore by younger speakers. This is most probably also due to the fact that in the lowlands, geographical distinctions like ‘up from here’ or ‘down from here’ are less relevant. There is very strong Russian influence on the lexicon, as more and more Russian words replace Dargi expressions. Judging from our material collected in 2010 and 2011, occasionally younger speakers translate back from Russian into their own language, thereby also adopting Russian word order and other syntactic properties of Russian that are not characteristic for Dargi languages.
However, until now both varieties, although endangered, are still far enough away from language decay (cf. Sasse 1992). The Shiri and Sanzhi communities are aware of the changes that their languages and cultures undergo and they are very interested in preserving both. However, they lack possibilities to do so, because the government does not support unwritten languages and dialects that do not have an official status. Thus, in our project we will help them by documenting as much as possible of their linguistic and cultural knowledge and by actively supporting them in transmitting this knowledge to the younger generations.