6. Lyrics of the Melodies

About the Karachay-Balkar language

The Karachay-Balkar language spoken in the southern part of the Karachay-Cherkess and Kabard-Balkar republics of the Russian Federation in the middle strip of the Caucasus is a typical Kipchak Turkic tongue. Up to the recent years it was thought to be two different dialects by Turkish and European Turkologists: Karachay and Balkar. This misconception was caused by those who had never carried out field research among the Karachay-Balkars having adopted the earlier results and regarded the dictionaries of others as sources. In the early 20th century Vilmos Pröhle conducted research among the Karachay-Balkars and published his findings and glossaries in Keleti Szemle, which greatly contributed to the emergence of this erroneous view.

Karachay-Balkar belongs to the Caucasian group of the Kipchak branch of Turkic languages. On the basis of Nekotorie dopolnenija k klassifikacii tureckih jazykov ‘A few observations about the classification of Turkic languages’ published by A. N. Samoylovič in St Petersburg in 1922, Soviet Turkologists claim that Karachay-Balkar constitutes the tav, bol-, kalgan classes of the z-Turkic languages using y. That means that Old Turkic azak/adak gives way to ayak, tag ~ dağ to tav, olmak to bolmak, kalan to kalgan in Karachay-Balkar. Also, in Karachay-Balkar the use of men instead of ben, and ǰ- in place of the initial y- is a Kipchak characteristics.

Karachay-Balkar dialects

The Karachay-Balkars call their language tavlu ‘mountaineer, highlander’. In the course of its evolution the language bifurcated, but not into a Karachay and a Balkar tongue. The language in the Karachay area and that in the Bashan and Chegem valleys in Balkaria are not different, which means that it is talked by 90 % of the Karachay-Balkar people, and it is the foundation of their literary tongue as well. The other dialect evolved in the Cherek valley of the Balkar area; the tongue spoken in the Holam and Bızıngı valleys is also influenced by this Cherek dialect.

Although the Karachay-Balkar language aroused the curiosity of several European scholars including Vilmos Pröhle and Omeljan Pritsak, it has not been elaborated in detail in Turkey so far.

So as to be able to thoroughly describe the characteristics of the Karachay-Balkar language, at first the origins and social and cultural stratification of the people must be examined. Superficial field research does not allow for the exploration of the language in its entirety.

In Turkey the majority of works on the Karachay-Balkar language are based on Vilmos Pröhle’s research and the linguistic material he collected. On the basis of the material he gathered in the Cherek valley Pröhle concluded: In Balkaria ten thousand people are living and In our village the river called Cherek flows from high to low.

The Bolsheviks pushing into the Caucasus after the 1917 Soviet revolution created a new power setup. Kabard, Besleney and Abkhaz groups were settled in Karachay territory and the Karachay-Cherkess Autonomous Republic was established. Those living in the Bashan, Chegem, Bızıngı, Holam and Cherek valleys were united under the Balkar designation and together with the Kabards they were administratively subjected to the Kabard-Balkar Autonomous Republic. That was how the Karachay and Balkar people were artificially separated in 1922.

The fact that Pröhle published his research of 1915 in the Cherek valley under the title Balkarische Studien in Keleti Szemle, and that the dwellers of the Bashan, Chegem and Cherek valleys were given the name Balkar by the Soviets introduced the view of the Balkars and Karachays being two different groups in special literature.

The Karachay-Balkar Turkic language has two branches: the Karachay-Bashan-Chegem dialect and the Cherek dialect. The differences lie in the below phonetic and morphological phenomena:

Phonetic differences

č: ǰ phonemes: č of the Karachay-Bashan-Chegem dialect changed into a voiceless affricate [ts] in the Cherek dialect: bïčak > bïtsak ‘jack-knife’, ačhïč > atshïts ‘key’, üč > üts ‘three’, küčük > kütsük ‘puppy’. The Karachay-Bashan-Chegem ǰ turned into the voiced affricate [dz] in the Cherek dialect: ǰïlan > dzïlan ‘snake’, ǰaš > dzaš ‘young man’, ǰol > dzol ‘road’, ǰuġutur > dzuġutur ‘mountain goat’. One of the central mistakes of Turkish researchers concerns the initial ǰ- of Karachay-Balkar. Several studies in Turkey collate the Karachay initial ǰ- with Balkar dz-. These researchers nearly all refer to Pröhle’s dictionary published in Keleti Szemle. However, the initial dz- only appears in the dialect spoken in the Cherek valley and not in the whole Balkar area. Besides, in the Holam-Bızıngı valleys and some of the Chegem dialect ǰ- is sometimes replaced by ž-. Where the initial ǰ- is dominant, there the proximity of Kabards, where the initial ž- [dz] is typical, the influence of Ossetian and Georgian-Svan languages can be reckoned with. For instance, the Karachay-Balkar ǰanbolat and ǰanhot are Zanbolat and Zanhot in Ossetian. This phonetic change in Karachay-Balkar Turkic can be attributed to diverse other ethnic impacts beside the neighboring Caucasian groups, too.

B : p phonemes. b-p in the Karachay-Bashan-Chegem dialect often turns into a fricative close to f in the Cherek dialect: aǰašïb > adzašïf ‘surprised’, tapǰam > tafdzan ‘cedar’, tulpar > tulfar ‘champion’, köb > köf ‘many/much’. However, it is not a fast rule that in the Cherek dialect all b-p phonemes change to f.

k phoneme. While in Karachay-Balkar there is always a high k- before a palatal vowel, in the Cherek dialect a deep q-like sound is heard before a palatal vowel: kiyiz > qiyiz ‘felt’, keng > qeng ‘wide’, köz > qöz ‘eye’, küzgü > qüzgü ‘mirror’. The consonants k/g of the Karachay-Bashan-Chegem dialect sometimes becomes h in the Cherek dialect: ketgen > qethen ‘walking’, kengešgen > qengešhen ‘inquiring’.

Initial ǰ. In the Karachay-Bashan-Chegem dialect, particularly in the Chegem, Holam and Bızıngı areas the initial ǰ > ž also occurs: ǰangï > žangï ‘new’, ǰulduz > žulduz ‘star’, ǰarïk > žarïk ‘light’, ǰay > žay ‘summer’ or ǰol > žol ‘road’.


In the Cherek dialect the labial phoneme of the first syllable requires the vowel in the second syllable to become labial, too: ölgen > ölgön ‘dying’, üyge > üygö ‘home’, özden > özdön ‘of noble birth’ or süygen > süygön ‘dear’.


It can be amply exemplified in the Cherek dialect: ečki > ehči ‘goat’, eski > eksi ‘old’.

Morphological differences

The Karachay-Bashan-Chegem and the Cherek dialects are also separated by some morphological differences. The expression of a wish in first person singular has the suffix -ayïm/-eyim in the Karachay-Bashan-Chegem dialect, and -ayïn/-eyin in the Cherek dialect: barayïm > barayïn ‘let me go!’, aytayïm > -aytayïn ‘let me say!’, bere­yim > bereyin ‘let me give!’

The Karachay-Bashan-Chegem first person singular suffix -ma/-me
is -
man/-men in the Cherek dialect. Similarly, the second person singular is -san/-sen in the latter: alġanma > alġanman ‘allegedly I bought’, bolasa > bolasan ‘you exist’, keleme > kelemen ‘I am coming’. The Cherek dialect preserved the final n while the other dialect lost it.

The marker of the future tense in the Cherek dialect is -arlïk/-erlik, while in the Karachay-Bashan-Chegem dialect we have something different. A closer examination reveals that the former dialect preserved the original form, and the latter dialect diverged from it: öserikdi > öserlikdi ‘will grow’, ašarïkdï > ašarlïkdï ‘will eat’, turlukdu > tururlukdu ‘will get up’, minerikdi > minerlikdi ‘will fly up’.