Sometimes regarded as a dialect of the Adyghe (or West Circassian) language, reflecting in part larger issues of ethnic identity, Abzakh is a distinctive language variety spoken in the Republic of Adygea in the Caucasus region of southern Russia–and not to be confused with Abkhaz. Once one of the most numerous groups, the Abzakhs have traditionally considered themselves to be one of twelve principalities within the Circassian nation, living on the northern slope of the Caucasian ridge, north of the Shapsugs and east of the Ubykhs. Today, there is a concentration of Abzakhs in the village of Hakurinohabl, in the Shovgenovsky District in the north of Adygea. The largest diaspora population is in Turkey, with smaller groupings in Israel, Jordan, Syria, and other countries, but the number of Abzakh speakers is unknown.
Abzakh is a Northwest Caucasian language of the Circassian branch, with ties to other (especially West) Circassian languages, including Kabardian, across what might be described as a dialect continuum.
Like other Circassian languages, Abzakh speakers have faced the loss of their homeland and the wholesale deportation of a large portion of the population to what was then the Ottoman Empire. Even as “standard” forms of Kabardian and Adyghe enjoy some official recognition and use in schools and media, the Abzakh variety is primarily spoken in villages and rarely written. Its long-term maintenance will be difficult given the small number of speakers, the fact that they are scattered, and the predominance of Russian and Turkish as national languages and other Circassian languages as local ones.
Although the Circassian languages as a whole have received increasing academic attention, the Abzakh variety in particular is comparatively underresearched and underdocumented. Linguists Catherine Paris and Niaz Batouka compiled an extensive Abzakh-French dictionary, published in 1987, and Paris compiled and recorded other materials as well. More recently, Hayriye Güpse Güneş, born into a Circassian community in the north of Turkey, has started to intensively document the language through film.
As part of its larger Circassian Languages Project and its work with Circassians living in the US, particularly in New Jersey, ELA has supported Hayriye Güpse Güneş’ documenting the language once spoken by her family, particularly with Abzakh-speaking elders in Circassian communities in Turkey and in Maykop, the capital of the Adygea Republic in southern Russia.