The Udi Language


A grammatical description with sample text


© Wolfgang Schulze 2001/2 (University of Munich)



1. The Udi Language


1.1 Location and demographic data


Udi (the local designation is udin muz ‘Udi(sh) language’) belongs to the Lezgian (or Southern) branch of the autochthonous East Caucasian language family. Within the Lezgian branch, Udi occupies a so-called marginal position reflecting the fact that historically speaking the language separated from the Lezgian ‘branch’ soon after this branch disintegrated into at least three ‘dialects’ (Early Udi, Early Archi, and Early Samur). There is a (very!) vague possiblity to relate the ethnonym udi to the ancient ethnic name Qûtîm documented in Middle Assyrian sources. Later, the name turned up as Utíoi in Greek, as Utii in Latin, and as Utink` in Classical Armenian. Today, Udi is spoken in three villages in Transcaucasia as well as in a number of Diaspora places scattered throughout the Russian Federation, in Armenia, in Turkmenistan, and in Kazakhstan. Nowadays, the original habitat of the ethnic Udis in Northern Azerbaijan is confined to the village of Nidzh (Nij), located on the road from Sheki (in the West) to Qabala (formerly Kutkashen) in the East. In Nidzh, the ethnic Udis represent a rather compact unity of roughly 4.500 people, 80% of whom reclaim to use Udi in one context or the other. Before autumn 1989, Vartashen (now Oghuz) was the second Azerbaijani village which hosted a significant number of ethnic Udis. By virtue of the Armenian Azerbaijani clashes in 1989, most of the roughly 3.000 Vartashen Udis left Vatashen/Oghuz. Some families fled to neighboring Nidzh, others left Azerbaijan and settled in Armenia, in the Russian Federation, in Turkmenistan, or in Kazakhastan. Today, some 35 ethnic Udi families still live in Oghuz. A third settlement of ethnic Udis had been founded in Eastern Georgia (east of Kvareli) in 1922 when a considerable number of basically Vartashen Udis left their original habitat due to the disastrous economic situation after the Civil War. This villages, called Okt’omberi (formerly Zinobiani), today hosts some 80 ethnic Udis (93 in 1989, 83 in 1995), living in a totally ‚Georgian’ environment. Ethnic Udis are Christians (basically, Orthodox in Oghuz, and Georgian in Nidzh). However, there has been a considerable semi-Islamic adstrate, mixed with Jewish traditions especially in Vartashen.


In a total, there are up to 8.100 ethnic Udis today (7,971 Udis in Azerbaijan in 1989). Most of the Udi speakers are bi- or even multilingual. In Okt’omberi, it is Georgian that plays the role of a language for ‘external’ communication, whereas Udi is retained by some 50 people in ‘internal’ communication (most of them are 50 years old and beyond). In Nidzh, the language is much better preserved than in Georgia: Here, multilingualism forms an integrated part of everyday communication, being based on Azeri and – till 1989 – on a local variety of Armenian. Additionally, Southwest Iranian Tati (the language of the local Jewish communities) is occasionally present among ethnic Udis, too. Russian is not as important as it used to be in times of Soviet rulership. In Nidzh (and, till 1989, in Vartashen) Udi is spoken by most elder ethnic Udis (50 years and beyond), whereas the knowledge of the language decreases the younger people are. Nevertheless, in ‘internal’ communication, a considerable number of young Udis still use a yet strongly Azeri influenced variety of Udi that can be described as ‚Young People’s Udi’. The sociolinguistic situation of Udi in Nidzh has become more stable after the immigration of Udis from Vartashen. Stipulated by the work of the native Udi Georgi kechaari (from nizh), a graphic tradition gradually develops. It is derived from the now Latin based tradition of Azeri (some Cyrillic signs are added). Yet, teaching is neraly completely in Azeri – although certain classes are given in Udi. The last years saw a growing interest in the cultural and linguistic heritage of the Udi people due to an increasing debate on the ethnic layers in Azerbaijan. The Udi people is often thought to represent the last off-spring of one of the ethnic groups that once constituted the Early Christian kingdom of Alwan (Caucasian Albania). The foundation of the ‘Scientific Research Center of Caucasian Albania’ in Baku in the year 2000 that also opts to support the maintenance of the Udi cultural and linguistic tradition can be regarded as another expression of such a growing interest [although it is undoubtedly directed by political rather than purely cultural objectives]. Also, an Udi National Cultural Center (Orayin – ‘The Spring’) has recently been established in Baku that tries to promote both the preparation of Udi textbooks and the translation of foreign , mainly Azeri and Western European belletristic literature into Udi. The Norwegian Humanitarian Enterprise (NHE) has put considerable efforts into the promotion of Orayin’s activities (including the publication of a (Nizh-)Udi text book by Georgi Kechaari (2001)). 


The long-standing and strong impact from Azerbaijani cultural and linguistic traditions has led to a dramatic decrease in the knowledge of the ‘mental’ culture among Udis. Folk traditions are generally adopted from the Azeri surroundings though occasionally accommodated to the original Udi traditions. It still is a matter of research to disclose the extent to which specific Udi traditions with respect to folk tales, fairy tales, heroic or religious myths, and songs are still present among Udis. Most of the data exploited in the scientific literature are older than at least 50 years. As a matter of fact, the large bulk of textual data on Udi stems from the 19th century. Among them, there are tales, notes on conversation, and - last but not least - the translation of the Gospels, prepared by Semjon Bezhanov, an Udi teacher from Vartashen in the years 1890-1898 (assisted by his brother Mikhail Bezhanov, a local ethnograph). The Gospels have been recently reedited by W. Schulze (Schulze 2001a).  


The unique position of Udi within the Lezgian branch of East Caucasian has motivated linguists to work on this language since nearly 150 years, starting with Schiefner’s famous (nevertheless in parts unreliable) 1863 grammar of Udi. Though Udi has experienced a rather comprehensive linguist description since then (including the exceptional work carried out by the Udi linguists Voroshil Lukasyan and Evgeni Dzhejranishvili), the results can hardly be regarded as an overall contribution to the preservation and documentation of the language. Western linguists such A. Harris (e.g. 1992, 1997, 2000, 2002), and W. Schulze (e.g. 1982, 1994, 2001a, 2001b, forthcoming) have helped to refine the linguistic analysis of Udi and to augment the stock of texts available, yet the number of texts still is regrettably small. The most urgent task would be to document as much texts as possible documenting both the actual conversational styles in Nidzh and Okt’omberi and the general oral tradition and to cumulate the data in a new comprehensive (etymological) Udi dictionary (the best distionary we have so far is Gukasyan 1974). A first step into this direction has been done by Jost Gippert and Manana Tanadshvili (U Francfort) who have started a audiovisual documentation project on Okt’omberi Udi in September 2002 (as part of the DOBES project funded by the Volkswagen Stiftung). A typologically oriented reference grammar will be availble towards the end of the year (W. Schulze 2003, in preparation. A Functional Grammar of Udi).

1.2 Genetic affiliation


Udi belongs to the Southern (or Lezgian)group of the East Caucasian language family. It can be regarded as a marginal Lezgian language stemming from a Proto-Lezgian dialect that became separated from the central ‘Samur’ branch quite early (1500 BC ?). It can be assumed that the Proto-Lezgian ‘urheimat’ was located in Northern Azerbaijan (roughly speaking in the region between the Kura and Alazani rivers). Archi, another marginal language, was the first dialect to leave this continuum, lateron followed by what then became the Samur languages (Eastern Samur: Lezgi proper, Tabasaran, and Aghul), Western Samur (Rutul, Tskahur), Southern Samur (now in the Shah-Dagh mountains) (Kryts and Budukh). The speakers of Early Udi obviously stayed in the southern and eastern parts of the Proto-Lezgian urheimat. The so-called ‘tenth’ Lezgian language, namely Khinalug (in the Shah-Dagh mountains) probably emerged from contact of a Proto-Lezgian dialect with another yet unidentified East Caucasian language (or vice versa). Udi shares some important isoglosses with the Western Samur language Tsakhur. There are no significant isoglosses with languages outside the Lezgian branch of East Caucasian (Nakh, Awaro-Andian, Tsezian, Lak, or Dargwa).


1.3 Contact Linguistics of Udi


Udi has obviously experienced a high degree of ‘foreign’ impact. If we neglect some rather obscure look-alikes with PIE roots (such as Udi e?k’ ‘horse’ (PIE *Hek`wos-?) etc.) we can describe at least the following contact layers:


1000 - 500 BC            Old (Northwest) Iranian

  500 - 300 BC            Old Medic /Old Persian

 300 - 300 AD            Early MiddlePersian (Pehlevi), Early Middle Northwest Iranian

                                   Early Talysh(-like) variant (?)

 300 - 800 AD            Old Armenian/ Jewish Tati / local Middle NW Iranian languages

 800 - 1300 AD          Early Azeri /Middle Armenian / Early Modern Persian / Arabic / Georgian(?)

 800 - … AD              Local Jewish Tāti varieties

1300 - 1800 AD         Modern Persian, Modern East Armenian, residues of local Northwest Iranian dialects/ Azeri

1800- …..                   Azeri, Russian, Modern East Armenian, Georgian (in Oktomberi)


The loan layers have influenced both the grammar and the lexicon of Udi (cf. section 5).



1.4 Udi and the problem of Caucasian Albania (Alwan)


Udi is famous for the assumption that it represents the youngest reflex of the language of the ancient kingdom of Albania (rather Alwan) that existed as a more or less independent mode in what now is Northern Azerbaijan from the 3rd to the 9thcentury AD. This Christian kingdom was temporarily subjected to the rule of the Armenian kingdom which also represented the major cultural superstrat of Alwan. According to the Armenian ‘History of Alwan’ by Movses Daskhurantsi, the famous inventor of the Armenian script Mesrob Mashtots (362-440) is thought to have developed a script for one of the languages of Alwan. This script seems to be used in the inscription of Mingechaur as well as in some other minor inscriptions. Some palimpsests recently discovered at Mt. Sinai (also see Aleksidze& Mahé 1997) show this ‘Albanian’ script, too, which is often related to the Udi language (see Schulze 1982 and W. Schulze [2001a]: The Language of the Caucasian Albanian palympsest). However, it should be noted that up to now we have not arrived at a safe interpretation of even a single of these documents, be it on the basis of Udi or another Lezgian language. Also see Manana Tandashvili's contribution for examples of the Alvan script. All we know for sure ist that some officials in the kingdom of Alvan have used a language different from Armenian and Georgian which - according to the sources- shared some phonetic features with those languages that are generally describedas 'Southeast Caucasian'. There are some look-alikes between e.g. some namesof the months as documented in a medivial manuscript (see Gippert,Jost: Old Armenian and Caucasian CalendarSystems [III.]: The Albanian Month Names- Annual of Armenian Linguistics 9 1988, 35-46) and certain Udi terms, but this evidence is not sufficient to finely declare the Alvan inscriptions as 'Udi' [the language of the palympsests seem to be more Udi-like than that of the inscriptions].