The Caucasus—A “Mountain of Languages”
IMAGINE finding yourself in a predominantly mountainous region that is about the size of Spain. To your amazement, you discover dozens of different nations, each with its own language. Why, in some places, people living in neighboring villages cannot understand one another! Medieval geographers must have felt similar amazement, for one described just such a region—the Caucasus—as “a mountain of tongues.”
Straddling the Caucasus Mountains between the Black and Caspian seas, this region’s location is at a crossroads of continents and civilizations, which has given it a long history and rich culture. Its people are known for their respect for older ones, their love of dance, and their warm hospitality. But many visitors find the most fascinating aspect of the Caucasus to be its wide variety of ethnic groups and languages—more languages, in fact, than are spoken in any other European region of its size.
In the fifth century B.C.E., Greek historian Herodotus reported: “Many and all manner of nations dwell in the Caucasus.” About the beginning of the first century C.E., another Greek historian, Strabo, wrote of 70 tribes in the region. Each tribe had its own language and came to carry on trade at Dioscurias, now the site of the modern city of Sukhumi, on the Black Sea. Several decades later, Pliny the Elder, a Roman scholar, wrote that the Romans needed 130 interpreters to do business in Dioscurias.
Today more than 50 ethnic groups still call the Caucasus home. Each boasts its own customs and often its own characteristic clothing, art, and architecture. At least 37 indigenous languages are spoken here—some by millions of people while others are spoken only in certain villages. The most linguistically diverse part of this region, Russia’s Dagestan Republic, is home to about 30 indigenous ethnic groups. Until now, the exact linguistic relationships among all these languages and their relationship with other language groups remain unclear.
Would you like to see what Caucasian languages look like? Jehovah’s Witnesses’ official Web site, www.jw.org, publishes in more than 400 languages. Among them are some spoken in the Caucasus, the fascinating region appropriately described as a “mountain of languages.”