Relations between Indo-European and the Caucasus

only or only Myth?


Last semester, as part of my MA in
Comparative Indo-European Linguistics at Leiden University, I took a class with
prof.dr. Alexander Lubotksy in Ossetic, a language spoken in the northern
Caucasus. This was my first introduction to the languages of the Caucausus,
although Ossetic is technically speaking not a Caucasian language, but rather a
Caucasized Indo-European language from the Northeast-Iranian branch. Having
spent a semester reading Nart sagas and marvelling at the rich case system and
consonantism of Ossetic, in the summer the opportunity came along to enroll in
a summerschool course by the name of “introduction to the Nakh-Daghestanian
languages”, taught by Diana Forker from the Max Planck institute in Leipzig. In
this course we were introduced to grammatical features of especially the
Daghestanian languages, e.g. Avar, Tzesh and the language that ms. Forker was
working on, Hinuq.

These two courses enriched me with a
rather large fascination for the Caucasus and it’s languages. The linguistic
features of the area which the Arabs call “the mountain of languages” look both
familiar and exotic to the Indo-Europeanist and therefore it constitutes an
interesting means of typological comparison for phonological developments
postulated for Proto-Indo-European. Ivanov and Gamkrelidze turned to the Nakh
consonantism to strengthen their glottalic theory of the Proto-Indo-European
stops and their purported development in the daughter languages. Even in the
strict linguistic realm connections between the Caucasus and Indo-European seem
plausible if one considers the obvious relation between PIE *snusos and
the Proto-Nakh *nuso, both of them meaning “daughter-in-law”!

In my search for more information on
the Narts and the Caucasian languages I quickly came across a book written by
John Colarusso, called “Nart sagas from the Caucasus” which is an amazing collection
of Nart sagas from the Northwest-Caucasian language communities, e.g. Ubykh,
Abchaz, Abaza, etc. It didnt take me long to figure out that Colarusso also
wrote some lengthy and interesting articles in the Journal for Indo-European
studies on comparative mythology and the phyletic relations between
Indo-European and the Northwest-Caucasus. The articles testify to his extensive
erudition and knowledge of the Indo-European languages, but I was surprised how
easily he accepted controversial views on root-derivation postulated by
Watkins. Thereupon I found a book called “current trends between Caucasian,
Eastern-Indo-European and Asian linguistics” which contained an article that
really got me suscipicous to his linguistic approach of specific problems in
Indo-European studies.

In this article called “More Pontic”
Colarusso wants to postulate a prehistoric phyletic relationship between
Proto-Indo-European and Northwest-Caucasian, which, according to him, can
enlighten some longstanding problems in Indo-European studies. His
argumentation on PIE reoconstructions and his interpretation of the glottalic
element of the PIE consonantism leans heavily on suggestions made by Eric Hamp
and it is especially the interpretation of the PIE larygeals that lead Colarusso
to link the reconstructed PIE forms to his reconstruction of
Proto-Northwest-Caucasian. In this essay I want to take the first etymon, *h1eḱṷos,
 that is elaborated on in Colarusso’s article and point at some
problems and leaps of argumentation which are present in it.

Colarusso starts with the word for
“horse” in PIE, commonly reconstructed as *h1eḱṷos, a
word widely attested in the Indo-European languages. This word has been
plausibly connected to the word for “swift” attested in Greek as ὠκύς by Jasanoff,
Beekes and Kloekhorst, in doing so attributing the onomagenisis of the word to
cryptonymic animal names, in this case calling a horse “the swift one”. To get
back to the word for “horse”, the Greek reflex
also attested in Mycenaean in a primitive form iqqo <i-qo>,
presents us with some problems. How did Greek get the i-vocalism? How
did Greek get the aspiration? A suggestion postulated by Hamp and accepted by
Colarusso would be that a laryngeal cluster caused the aspiration and a
schwa-secundum developing into a compromised e-grade between the
laryngeal cluster and the palatal caused the i-vocalism. The
laryngeal cluster would be constituted by *h3 followed by *h1,
according to the communis opinio representing ʕ
and ʔ. As
support for the assumption that the laryngeal cluster contained a pharyngeal
element (PIE *ʕ
or *H3)
he points at a marginal Northeast Caucasian language, Udi, in which the word
for “horse” is /eʕkw/ with a plural / eʕk-ur/.
On the basis of the link with “horse” Colarusso reconstructs the word for
“swift” also with these laryngeals:

PIE *h3eh1us >
Greek ὠκύς.

Support for this reconstruction he
finds in the Latin adjectival element acu-, attested in acupedius.
Latin acu must be related to Greek ὠκύς and the way to make that work,
according to Colarusso, is to assume a vocalization of a laryngeal cluster.

PIE *h3h1u– >
Latin acu

He therefore, instead of the common
reconstruction *h1eḱṷos,  postulates the
following development:

PIE (common reconstruction) *h3hṷos >
Late PIE *h3h
ṷos >
[PIE *HH– > Greek h]


PIE (glottalic reconstruction) *ʕʔəṷos >
Late PIE *ʕ
ʔéṷos >

The postulated compromised e-grade
between the laryngeal cluster and the consonant would be coloured by the
following palatal with i-vocalism (emphatic palatalization). It is
unclear how Colarusso imagines the development of the other cognates. He either
assumes that the laryngeal cluster was simplified in the proto-stages of the
other cognates (as he does elsewhere in the same article) or that the e-grade
which arose was only compromised by the laryngeal cluster in Greek.

PIE * h3h1eṷos >
Protogermanic *ehwaz and the other cognates.

This explanation brings its own
problems along but let’s leave those for later and follow Colarusso’s argument
to the next level. Colarusso believes he found an exact correlate within
Northwest Caucasian build on the root √*-xə– “to run” followed by an intensifier
suffix *-ʔá-, preceded by a noun-class marker *w-, ergo */ṷ-xə-ʔá/.
This protoform is attested in this exact ordering in Abaza where it yielded /ʕ
ə-ra/ “to pursue”. The reconstruction
for proto-Northwest Caucasian he projects back to Pontic, which furtheron
developed into the PIE laryngeal cluster to which a PIE suffix was added.

*ṷxəʔá > *x
əʔá > PIE *ʕʔó > *ʕʔ or PIE *h3h1
+ –

start with the things that Colarusso probably got right. On the basis of the
link with the PIE word for “swift” Colarusso infers that the thematization to a
PIE o-stem must be secondary. This is made plausible by Kloekhorst (2008) who
showed that the Anatolian forms attested in Hieroglyphic Luwian and Lycian
(Hittite used foreign ideograms for the word for “horse”) point to an original
u-stem, which leads him to reconstruct the Hittite word as *ekku based
on Hieroglyphic Luwian /à-sú/. But the reason why most linguists reconstruct h1
as the initial laryngeal is partly because the Anatolian forms don’t show a
laryngeal, h2 and h3 on the other hand would have been
preserved in Anatolian. The reconstruction of *h1eḱu(o)s for
“horse” should therefore be preferred along with the reconstruction *h1o-h1ḱus
for “swift (cfr. Beekes 2010).Furthermore, there is an inherent teleological
tendency in Colarusso’s argumentation. He needs *h3 to be part of
the laryngeal cluster in order to link it to his Proto-Northwest-Caucasian
reconstruction, but his only proof for *h3 consists of a reference
to a marginal Caucasian language attested in modern times.

brings us to another point; the reconstruction of 
Proto-Northwest-Caucasian relies on attestations in modern times, forcing us to
project hypothetical reconstructions back four or five millennia.
Proto-Northwest-Caucasian is therefore a theoretical construct of
reconstruction which leaves much more room for error than our reconstructions
of PIE, whose earliest attestations are only a millennium and a half removed
from the proto-language. Is a reconstruction of Proto-Northwest-Caucasian
eligible for linkage with reconstructed PIE forms? Personally, I’d like to stay
sceptical. Also, whilst the Indo-European languages have a morphemic structure
which contains a root and derivational suffixes with a specific semantic value,
the Northwest-Caucasian languages have a way larger array of markers and
suffixes capable of filling the numerous morphological slots around the root.
Therefore it is easier to postulate a formation which fits the purported
transition to PIE. Finally, it is kind of suspicious that Colarusso’s 
reconstruction of Proto-Pontic is practically the same as his reconstruction of
Proto-Northwest-Caucasian. Wouldn’t we want a larger time depth between the
Proto-Northwest-Caucasian stage and the Proto-Pontic stage? Further
complications are brought into play when Colarusso wants to link the words for
“wheel” PIE *kwékwlos to a
Proto-Northwest-Caucasian root that also contains pharyngeals. However, this
time the pharyngeals don’t develop into PIE laryngeals but into PIE
labiovelars. To explain this he must asume that the word made it’s way into PIE
at the PIE stage of the language and not at the hypothetical Proto-Pontic

freedom in the formation of Proto-Pontic forms and the subsequent linkage to
the PIE forms make for a quite teleological argument in which the semantic
correspondance between Proto-Northwest-Caucasian is not always evident,
sometimes even needing four or five semantic shifts to make the meaning of the Caucasian
word fit the meaning of the supposed PIE cognate. Although long and complex
semantic shifts are ofcourse possible they greatly impair the cogency of the
supposed relationship between the Caucasian form on the one hand and the PIE
form on the other. For the shifts suggested by Colarusso we move too far into
the realm of the hypothetical. Following Colarusso’s  analysis of the
etymon for “horse” a whole bunch of other words with perfect Indo-European
etymologies, some of them not even starting with laryngeals (which brings
Colarusso to postulate the presence of laryngeals which from a Indo-European
perspective do not have to be reconstructed) are treated in the same way to
strengthen his suggested link between the Caucasus and the Indo-European speaking
realms in the phyletic Proto-Pontic stage. Colarusso asserts that his
suggestions aren’t ad hoc-explanations and that the different outcomes of the
same Northwest-Caucasian phonemes in PIE are only significant if we persist in
an Indo-European perspective. This however creates too much space for
accidental correspondances and teleological inferments; the space which he uses
to push his argument, however creative his solutions for specific IE problems
may be (e.g. the i-vocalism and pre-aspiration in Greek of
ππος and the explanation of the *ith-prefix
before the Greek word for fish ἰχθῦς trough laryngeal clusters, the aspiration
in the latter having disappeared by an untransparant instance of Grassman’s

concludes my critique on Colarusso’s article on Pontic and brings us to the
mythological links between the Caucasus and the Indo-European realm he defends
in other articles. There as well he shows great ingenuity and erudition in
constructing his arguments, but the rather far-flung assumptions and the ad-hoc
nature of some of his explanations leave his plea for the larger part in the
hypothetical realm. Therefore the link between the Indo-European mythologies
and the Caucasian mythologies remains attractive but lacks cogent arguments.
For the sake of the explanation power of the Caucasian link in the cultural
realm I still want to keep it as a plausible hypothesis, but the Proto-Pontic
connection is to my opinion a bridge too far. Therefore I believe, awaiting
cogent data, we’d better regard the relation between the Caucasus and
Indo-European as mainly pertaining to the exchange of mythologies. The
linguistic relationship between the Caucasus and Indo-European remains too
vague for a compelling argument.

J. Colarusso, More Pontic, Further
Etymologies between Indo-European and Northwest Caucasian, in Dee Ann Holisky
and Kevin Tuite (eds.) A Festschrift for Howard Aronson, (Leiden 2001)

J. Colarusso, Myths from the
Caucasus: the Nart Sagas of the Circassians, Abazas, Abkhaz, and Ubykhs
Mythos (Princeton 2002). R.S.P. Beekes, An etymological dictionary of Greek, 2
vols (Leiden 2010).

M. de Vaan, An etymological dictionary
of Latin (Leiden 2008).

A. Kloekhorst, Etymological dictionary
of the Hittite inherited lexicon (Leiden 2008).

H. Frisk, Griechisches Etymologisches
Wörterbuch, 2 vols (Heidelberg 1960-1970).

Beekes, Etymological dictionary
of Greek, 2 vols (Leiden 2009).

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