Abkhaz phonology

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Abkhaz is a language of the Northwest Caucasian family[1] which, like the other Northwest Caucasian languages, is very rich in consonants. Abkhaz has a large consonantal inventory that contrasts 58 consonants in the literary Abzhywa dialect, coupled with just two phonemic vowels (Chirikba 2003:18–20).

Abkhaz has three major dialects: Abzhywa, Bzyp and Sadz, which differ mainly in phonology, with the lexical differences being due to contact with neighbouring languages.[2][3]


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

Consonant phonemes
Labial Alveolar Palato-
Velar Uvular Pharyngeal
plain lab. plain lab. plain lab. pal. plain lab. pal. plain lab. phar. lab. + phar. plain lab.
Nasal m n
Stop voiceless tʰʷ(t͡pʰ) kʰʲ kʰʷ
voiced b d (d͡b) ɡʲ ɡ ɡʷ
ejective tʼʷ(t͡pʼ) kʼʲ kʼʷ qʼʲ qʼʷ
Affricate voiceless t͡sʰ t͡ʃʰ t͡ɕʰ t͡ɕʰʷ(t͡ɕᶠ) ʈ͡ʂʰ
voiced d͡z d͡ʒ d͡ʑ d͡ʑʷ(d͡ʑᵛ) ɖ͡ʐ
ejective t͡sʼ t͡ʃʼ t͡ɕʼ t͡ɕʼʷ(t͡ɕᶠ’) ʈ͡ʂʼ
Fricative voiceless f s ʃ ʃʷ(ʃᶣ) ɕ *ɕʷ(ɕᶠ) ʂ χʲ χ χʷ χˤ χˤʷ ħ ħʷ(ħᶣ)
voiced v z ʒ ʒʷ(ʒᶣ) ʑ *ʑʷ(ʑᵛ) ʐ ʁʲ ʁ ʁʷ
Approximant l ɥ
Trill r

Phonemes preceded by an asterisk (*) are found in the Bzyp and Sadz dialects of Abkhaz, but not in Abzhywa; phonemes preceded by a dagger (†) 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 obstruents are characterised by a three-fold contrast between voiced, aspirated voiceless and glottalised forms; both the aspirated and glottalised forms are not strong, unless they are being emphasised by the speaker.[4] The glottal stop may be analysed as a separate phoneme by some, since it can be distinguish certain pairs as áaj 'yes', and ʔaj 'no',[5] and it can also be an allophonic variant of [qʼ] in intervocalic positions.[6] Some speakers also pronounce the word /aˈpʼa/ with a [fʼ], but it is not encountered anywhere else.[7]

The consonants highlighted in red are the 4 kinds of labialisation found in Abkhaz.[8] For this reason most Abkhaz linguists prefer using º to represent them in general instead of the standard IPA symbol.[9][10] The [w]-type is found with the velar stops and uvular stops and fricatives. The labial-palatal rounding involves the alveolar, pharyngeal and palatal fricatives. The one found in the dental-alveolar affricates and fricatives is described as an endo-labiodental articulation. The [p]-type is found in the dental stops, where there is full bilabial closure.

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 /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 [ɥˤ].


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


The Sadz dialect has distinctive consonant gemination; for example, Sadz Abkhaz contrasts /a.χʷa/ ('ashes') vs. /a.χʷːa/ ('worm'), where Abzhywa and Bzyp Abkhaz have only the one form /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 /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 /a.t͡ɕʼa.ra/ 'to know' vs. Abzhywa /a.t͡sʼa.ra/), and in Abzhywa the labialised alveolopalatal fricatives have merged with the corresponding postalveolars (compare Bzyp /a.ɕʷa.ra/ 'to measure' vs. Abzhywa /a.ʃʷa.ra/).


  1. ^ Catford, J. C. (1977). "Mountain of Tongues: The Languages of the Caucasus". Annual Review of Anthropology. 6: 283–314. doi:10.1146/annurev.an.06.100177.001435. JSTOR 2949334.
  2. ^ V.A, Chirikba (2003). Abkhaz. pp. 11–14.
  3. ^ Bert Vaux, 1997. The Phonetics and Phonology of Secondary Articulations in Abkhaz.
  4. ^ Viacheslav A. Chirikba 2003, pag. 18-19
  5. ^ Viacheslav A. Chirikba 2003, pag. 19
  6. ^ George Hewitt 2010, pag. 11
  7. ^ George Hewitt 2010, pag. 11
  8. ^ J. C., Catford (1977). "MOUNTAIN OF TONGUES: THE LANGUAGES OF THE CAUCASUS". Annual Review of Anthropology: 290.
  9. ^ Pedersen, Thomas T. "Transliteration of Abkhaz" (PDF). Transliteration of Non-Roman Scripts. Institute of the Estonian Language. Retrieved 10 August 2021.
  10. ^ Viacheslav A. Chirikba 2003


  • Chirikba, V. A. (1996). Common West Caucasian. The reconstruction of its phonological system and parts of its Lexicon and Morphology. Leiden: Research School CNWS.
  • Chirikba, V. A. (2003). "Abkhaz". Languages of the World/Materials 119. Lincom Europa.
  • Hewitt, B. G. (1979). Abkhaz. London: Routledge.
  • Vaux, B.; Pəsiypa., Z. (1997). "The Tshwyzhy dialect of Abkhaz". Harvard Working Papers in Linguistics 6.

Further reading[edit]