Abkhaz phonology

Abkhaz phonology

Abkhaz is a language of the Northwest Caucasian family which, like the other Northwest Caucasian languages, is very rich in consonants. Abkhaz has a large consonantal inventory that contrasts over 50 consonants in the literary Abzhywa dialect, coupled with just two phonemic vowels.

Abkhaz has three major dialects, Abzhywa, Bzyp and Sadz, which differ mainly in phonology.


Below is the IPA phoneme chart of the consonant phonemes of Abkhaz:

Phonemes in green are found in the Bzyp and Sadz dialects of Abkhaz, but not in Abzhywa; phonemes in red are unique to the Bzyp dialect. The total number of consonant phonemes in Abkhaz is, therefore, 58 in the Abzhywa dialect, 60 in the Sadz dialect, and 67 in Bzyp. The Sadz dialect also has distinctive consonant gemination; for example, Sadz Abkhaz contrasts IPA|/a.χʷa/ "ashes" vs. IPA|/a.χʷːa/ "worm", where Abzhywa and Bzyp Abkhaz have only the one form IPA|/a.χʷa/ for both; it seems that many Sadz singletons reflect positions where a consonant has been dropped from the beginning of a cluster in the Proto-Northwest Caucasian form (compare Ubykh IPA|/tχʷa/ "ashes"). Some scholars (for instance, Chirikba 2003) prefer to count the Sadz consonant inventory at well over 100 (thus forming the largest consonant inventory in the Caucasus, outstripping Ubykh's 80-84) by treating the geminated consonants as a set in their own right. (Note, however, that this practice is not usual in counting the consonant inventory of a language.)

The Bzyp consonant inventory appears to have been the fundamental inventory of Proto-Abkhaz, with the inventories of Abzhywa and Sadz being reduced from this total, rather than the Bzyp series being innovative. Plain alveolopalatal affricates and fricatives have merged with their corresponding alveolars in Abzhywa and Sadz Abkhaz (compare Bzyp IPA|/a.t͡ɕʼa.ra/ "to know" vs. Abzhywa IPA|/a.t͡sʼa.ra/), and in Abzhywa the labialised alveolopalatal fricatives have merged with the corresponding postalveolars (compare Bzyp IPA|/a.ɕʷa.ra/ "to measure" vs. Abzhywa IPA|/a.ʃʷa.ra/).

The non-pharyngealised dorsal fricatives of Abkhaz may be realised as either velar or uvular depending upon the context in which they are found; here, they have been ranged with the uvulars. Also, while the labialised palatal approximant IPA|/ɥ/ is here placed with the approximants, it is actually the reflex of a labialised voiced pharyngeal fricative, preserved in Abaza, and a legacy of this phoneme's origin is a slight constriction of the pharynx for some speakers, resulting in the phonetic realisation [IPA|ɥˁ] .


Abkhaz has only two distinctive vowels: an open vowel IPA|/a/ and a close vowel IPA|/ɨ, ǝ/. These basic vowels have a wide range of allophones in different consonantal environments, with allophones IPA| [i] and IPA| [e] next to palatals, IPA| [u] and IPA| [o] next to labials, and IPA| [y] and IPA| [ø] next to labiopalatals. IPA|/a/ also has a long variant IPA|/aː/, which is the reflex of old sequences of *IPA|/ʕa/ or *IPA|/aʕ/, preserved in Abaza.


*Chirikba, V. A. (2003) "Abkhaz" in "Languages of the World/Materials 119". Lincom Europa.
*Hewitt, B. G. (1979) "Abkhaz". Routledge: London.
*Vaux, B., and Z. Pəsiypa. (1997) "The Tshwyzhy dialect of Abkhaz" in "Harvard Working Papers in Linguistics 6".

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