Peculiarities of the Karachay-Balkar vocabulary

Why is the Karachay language special for Hungarians?

Similarly to all western Kipchak Turkic tongues, Karachay1 is derived from Cuman (Golden 1992: 47). Cuman merged with the Hungarian language by the end of the 17th century, which makes the Karachay-Balkar word stock particularly important for Hungarian. Below I compare this vocabulary with Hungarian in some cases and with Common Turkic in others.

Compared to the Turkish language, the Karachay lexicon includes a large number of loanwords from Caucasian languages, first of all Ossetian and Russian. In Karachay there are far more Middle Mongolic loanwords than in Turkish; these have developed large clusters of derivatives as their roots, and also live on in compound words.

Karachay has salient importance for the Hungarian language. Besides belonging to the same group in language typology, several similarly lexicalized phrases or linguistic aspects can be observed in the two. A part of the Turkic words in Hungarian dating prior to the settlement in the Carpathian Basin was borrowed more or less in the area where the Karachay-Balkars live today. Although Karachays entered the stage of history far later than Hungarians, the ethnic constituents who merged and the linguistic elements that were assimilated are worthy of attention.

Below I am presenting some findings of my examinations of the Karachay dictionary badly missed for a long time.

On numerals

Within the basic Turkic word stock, there are conspicuous differences in Karachay numerals in comparison to Turkish:

Karachay Turkish












duvardıs, ıshız






The system of numerals is also different: ǰïyïrma ’twenty’ is extended with ‘ten’ to produce ǰïyïrma bla on ‘thirty’; twice twenty is eki ǰïyïrma ‘forty’, eki ǰïyïrma bla on is then ‘fifty’, üč ǰïyïrma ‘sixty’, üč ǰïyïrma bla on ‘seventy’, tört ǰïyïrma (four [times] twenty) ‘eighty’ and tört ǰïyïrma bla on ‘ninety’.

On adjectives

Among adjectives, aruw ‘fair, innocent, pure’, Kumyk arū ‘beautiful, pleasant, clean, nice’ (Németh 1911: 97): Classical Mongolian ariγ ‘pure, clear’ (Lessing 52). It is known in Old Turkic arığ ‘clean, pure’ (Clauson 1972: 213), but it is rarely used in Turkish today. In Ottoman Turkish it is documented until the 14th century. The word has several synonyms in Karachay: asuwlu ‘convenient, fine, good, suitable’, ašhï ‘good, fair, pleasant’, čïraylï ‘fine, good-looking’ [čirailiγ Lessing 191], ǰahšï ‘good, pleasant’. Let us cite its occurrence in a Karachay folksong: Ariw sïfatïŋ es+im+den ketmey, ‘Your fair face can’t be erased from my mind... ’.2


I examined several semantic groups of nouns, e.g. the words of Karachay horse breeding (Csáki 2005: 169). Let me now pick a special group of words, those related to beliefs, which are wholly missing from Turkish. The listed words are documented from Tavkul’s dictionary published in 2000, page numbers given in brackets.

Adïham and ašham means ‘shaman’, but as I have not found it in any other Turkic language so far, it may as well be an areal Caucasian name, similarly to several of the words below.

Batča means ‘a young man/lad dancing at an old Karachay shaman ritual’, and there is a separate word for a young woman/lass dancing at such a ceremony: horur. In epic folk poetry sorcery often occurs: halmeš ‘magic’, hïynï or hïynï halmeš ‘charm’, aytuwtos ‘cursing, slandering’, kargïš ‘curse’, közbaw3 ‘magic, deception; hypnosis’, and dever ‘a worshipped idol of the Karachays at the time of the shamans’. Hamma-hïrsa ‘shamaness, sorceress’, kart-kurtha ‘witch, sorceress, cunning old hag’, hïynïčï ‘magician’, adïham ‘shaman, wizard’, tubulče ‘shamaness’, tüyürham ‘shaman, magician’ [< tüyür ‘circle, ring’], kïmsačï ‘shaman, sorcerer’ [< kïmsa ‘letter’], tabaltaycï ‘shaman, priest’, korgančï ‘man directing the dances at the old Karachay shaman ritual’, purčan-taralïk ‘tree or rock shrine of the Karachays at the time of shamanism’, Ravbazï ‘pear tree4 believed to be holy by the Balkars in the age of shamanism’. In earlier centuries the Karachays worshipped trees, mountains. Pulgura, ‘a tune played on the kaval so as to find drowned persons in the old Karachay tradition’ also belongs to this semantic group.

Other archaic nouns

In several cases Karachay appears to be more archaic than Turkish as it preserves older forms, e.g. the second part of the OT hendiaduoin yer orun ‘place’ (Clauson 1972: 233) survives in Karachay as ‘place’. The same word is used for ‘bed’. There are derivatives as well such as orunduk ‘resting place’, ornal- and orunlan- ‘settles’ and ornat- ‘makes sy settle’.

Nouns with dual meaning

Old Turkic ešik lives on in nearly every Turkic tongue (Clauson 1972: 260), in Chagatay also meaning ‘gate’ (Fazylov 1966: 175), similarly to Codex Cuman­icus. Middle Mongolian bosaga also means threshold in Karachay, e.g. in this example: Bosaġaġa ǰuwuk orun bolsa, Ašïgïb törge ozma. ‘When there is room near the threshold, don’t push into the main place.’ (Tavkul 2001: 87).

Ešik lives on in Karachay with two meanings:

  1. a) ‘door, gate’ e.g. Kıznı közü ešikde. ‘The girl’s eyes are on the gate.’ (Tavkul 2001: 164) or ešikni tart- ‘close the gate’. That is its meaning in neighbouring Kumyk: ešik ‘door’ (Gürsoy-Naskalı 1991: 72), in Middle Turkic: ešik ‘gate, entrance’ and in all sorts of Chagatay dictionaries. It is known in other Caucasian Turkic language, but in Azeri the threshold is astana or kandar. For further Turkic data see Ligeti (1986: 83).
  2. b) ‘external world, outside; threshold’. For example: Taza suwnu kişi ešikge tökmeydi. Clean water is not poured outward.’ (Tavkul 2001: 214) or Üy išlegen balta ešikde kalır. ‘The axe that has hewn the house must be left outside’ (Tavkul 2001: 234). The phrase ešikge čïk- ‘goes out (viz. to the toilet)’ is also used in Hungarian in the same sense.

The same duality can be seen in Kumyk in which there is another phrase ešikke bar- ‘yield to the call of nature, go out’ (Gürsoy-Naskalı 1991: 78).

The preservation of Old Turkic words gives rise to divergences in the Karachay and Turkic languages.

One example is the Turkic word terek ‘poplar’, too (Clauson 1972: 543). In Karachay it simply lives on as ‘tree’, and the same applies to Codex Cumanicus and the rest of the contemporary Turkic tongues (Kumyk, Noghay) of the Caucasus. The word for ‘tree’ in the rest of the Turkic languages is ağač: [OT ığaç (Clauson 1972: 79)], which means ‘wooded area, woodland’ in Karachay. Turkish ‘forest’ is orman, as against čeget ‘the woods’ in Karachay. In the latter tongue orman means ‘Slavic person’.

The word saban5 means both ‘stubble-field’ and ‘plough’, while it only means plough in all Turkic tongues. The word is Old Turkic (Clauson 1972: 790), and taking on a formative suffix +lIk ‘suitable for sg’ means ‘stubble-field’ and ‘land for sowing’.

A Balkar data from the Nart epic: Nartnï sabanlarï baš etmesinle ‘The ploughland of the Narts shall not yield corn’ (Kovács 2005: 166). Karachays have another word for the plough, too: goton ‘plough, wooden plough’, goton temir ‘plough-share’. Saban temir ‘plough-iron’ is also used. Related phrases include: ǰazlïk saban ‘land sown in spring’, küzlük saban ‘land left to rest in autumn’ (Tavkul 2000: 288), saban temir ‘plough-iron’, sabanïna taš at- ‘curses, (throws stones at the plough-share)’. In Kumyk saban means ‘sowing, plough-land, plough’.

In Karachay sal means ‘corps, carcass’, but in Turkic folksongs it occurs in the meaning of ‘board used for carrying corpses’.

Place names

The Karachays’ name-giving custom studied here with the help of Tavkul’s dictionary has special interest for Hungarians, too. E.g. ïndïr orun ‘place of harvest’, or the more concrete tonguzorun ‘place for pigs to stay’ (Tavkul 2000: 485). Orun means ‘place’ (see in the section above on archaic nouns), and as such, it reminds us of some sporadic phrases in the Deed of the foundation of the Tihany Abbey6, e.g. kerthel ’lit. garden place [for hay]’, petre zanaia hel ‘place for Petre’s hay’.

Similarly, Karachay place names with -baš ‘head, main, posterior member of sg.’ (e.g. Adïrsuwbašï, Alibekbašï, Čegetkarabašï, Garalïkolbašï etc.) are analogous with Hungarian Sar feu > Sárfő ‘lit. mud head’, Azah fehe > Aszófő ‘lit. head/beginning of the dry area’ (TA) as opposed to Krch. baš oram (310) ‘main street’.

It seems probable that under diverse foreign influences some elements of the lexicon assumed different meanings in different tongues. E.g. the Karachays, who are said to be good hunters, have three words – maral, kiyik, and buw – for ‘deer’7. The middle one means ‘deer’ in Turkish in the form geyik, while in Karachay this word stands for ‘game’, ‘forest animal’, thus an archaism is preserved in this word. From it a verb is also formed: kiyik+se- ‘grows wild’.


What lends calques special significance is that they allow an insight into linguistic coexistence or close neighbourhood of different ethnic groups. Without taking over another language’s phrase unchanged, we translate its morphological elements to gain a newly lexicalized unit.

Calques related to the family

The question – “What explains that the Hungarians borrowed the words asszony ‘married woman’ and özvegy ‘widow’ from Alan?” – was raised in the preface to the reprint edition of the Hungarian prehistory edited by Lajos Ligeti (1986:V).

The following question might also be posed: is it possible that the concept of marriage began in the life of the Hungarians when they were residing in the Caucasus? The ethnic name denoting themselves of the Karachay-Balkars living next to the Alans is Alan, used to address one another when they are among themselves. The Hungarian házas ‘married’ lit. ‘with a house’, ‘having a house’ is the translation of each morphological units of Turkic evli. In Karachay, the phrases ‘take a wife, go to sy. i.e. in marriage’ are used today just like their Hungarian counterparts.

Karachay kimge keterin (№ 235) ‘Who shall I go to as wife? Who shall I marry?, Krch. er+ge ber- (№ 3) ‘gives [a girl] to a husband’ [i.e. marries a girl off], Krch. er+ge bar- (№ 258) ‘goes to a husband’ [i.e. marries] are examples from our collection. The number in parenthesis designates the number of the song it appears in. Further examples Krch. Men da seni allıġem ‘I wanted to take you [as wife]’ (Ex.3.4), Kök Teyrisi Cer Teyrisin alġanda ‘When Sky God takes Earth Goddess [in marriage]’ (№ 164).

The phrase ‘tying up one’s head’ for ‘marrying sy.’ is used in both languages. Krch. Baš baylagan is the name of a special tax imposed on the peasants called karakiši. When the landowner’s daughter married, every villager had to donate a two- or two-and-a-half-year-old cow.

The idea that people get their children from God is alive in both language areas Krch. Allah berdi seni maηηa ‘Allah has given you to me’. Krch. kart ata/ana ‘grand [lit.old] father/mother’ (Tavkul 2000: 246) corresponds to the Hungarian counterparts: nagyapa/anya ~ öregapa/anya.

Other word-for-word translations

In the study of the old Turkic loanwords borrowed by the Hungarian language, an important role is played by literal, word-for-word translations, e.g. pl. saw+luk Hun. egész+ség ‘health’ [lit. whole-ness], saw+luk+suz : Hun. egész+ség+telen ’unhealthy’.

Hun. fő ~ fej ‘head, main, chief’ is a frequent element in place names as we have seen before. kútfő ‘source’ lit. well-head’, forrásfő ‘fountain head’, Aszófő, Disznófő etc. It is just as active in Karachay: Alibekbašï, Garalïkolbašï, etc. In Krch. qïlïč bla sermep, bašlarïn aladï ‘Striking with his sword he cut off heads.’ (Kovács 2005: 176) we also have a Hun. parallel fejét veszi ‘take one’s head’. Further examples:




has+as ‘fat-bellied’


hely+es ‘correct, right

ǰüregi ornuna kel-

helyre jön (kedv) ‘brighten up [spritis]’


hely+telen ‘incorrect, wrong’


hétfő ‘Monday’

kar kiši

hó+ember ‘snow-man’

Kün+bathan/ kün+batïš

nap+nyugat ‘sunset, i.e. west’

Ad+sïz barmak

név+telen ujj (régies kisujj) ‘nameless finger, arch. for pinky’

karka šabat kün

sohanapján kiskedden ‘when pigs fly’

sanaw+suz~ sansuz

szám+talan [< OT sanaw < san] ‘numberless’


szín+es ‘colourful’


szín+telen ‘colourless’

ǰürek+ge al-

szív+ére vesz vmit ‘take sg to heart’

ǰürek uruw

szívverés ‘heart-beat’

Bašïmï alïb ketgenem

fogom magam és elmegyek ‘I’ll get myself and go’

kim+ge keterin

kihez mész [hozzá] ‘who you will go to, viz. marry’

ïz+ïn+da bol-

nyom+á+ban van ‘be on his track’

közü …-de bol-

rajta van a szeme vkin/vmin ‘has an eye on sy/sg’

ǰuvab tab-

választ lel ‘finds an answer’

otnu ǰuklat

tüzet elolt ‘puts out [fire]’

nögerleri bla kelišmeydi

kijön a barátaival ‘gets on well with friends’

konakga bar-

vendégségbe megy ‘goes to visit’

The impact of the Caucasian languages upon Karachay-Balkar is very strong, not only in the numeric system and the names of days and months, but in the usage of the most frequent common words.

On archaic verbs

There are several verbs in Karachay known from Old Turkic, e.g. ayt- ‘to say’8 which also survives in Crimean Tatar. In Turkey, we only heard this word in Bektashi ritual songs in which its archaic character makes it fit for sacral hymns. Otherwise it is not used.

On adverbs

There are several parallels between Karachay and Hungarian adverb formation. I have already demonstrated it in the discussion of the ablative suffix +DAn.9 Further Karachay examples: baštïn ‘from above’, ǰangïrtïndan ‘again’.

The Caucasus Mountains influenced the Karachay’s definition of the south: since they live on the northern slopes of the mountain range, for them south means ogarï ǰan ‘upward’.

Karachay közüw Hun. köz ‘interval, space between’ is documented from a very early date in the Hungarian place-name Etel+köz (also Csallóköz, Ormánköz, etc.). Like in Hungarian, the word is active in Karachay in forming adverbs of place and time. For example: bir közüwde ‘in the meantime, sometimes’, közüw közüw ‘taking turns, one after the other’, kegeyle da közüw aylandïla ‘the spokes of the wheel turn one after the other’, köz baylangan közüw, ‘twilight, the interval of time when the eye is bound by darkness’, ǰangur ǰavgan közüwde men tavda em ‘while it was raining, I was on the mountain’ and Arbanï töngeregi közüw awnar. ‘The wheels of the cart turn one after the other.’ (Tavkul 2001: 47)

Research has not come to an end here, on the contrary further tasks are being clearly outlined. The early Hungarian place-names should be examined as important results may be in store there. We know little of the early Hungarian pre-Christian religious customs, ways of life, names of places referring to them. In the early Hungarian language records startling similarities have already been found.

Today, Hungarians living beyond the border have preserved several archaic features in their language, and therefore the vocabularies of their dialects should be examined. For instance, several early Kipchak loanwords are part of the lexicon of Moldavian Hungarians and in most cases they are living words in Karachay as well.

Éva Csáki with a Karachay woman in Turkey

1 I use Karachay as a short form for Karachay-Balkar. Where the peculiarity is only Karachay or Balkarian, I make special mention of it.

2 The Hungarian word ész mind, wit’ is es in Caucasian Turkic languages, while in the majority of Turkic tongues akıl of Arabic origin is used. Cf. also Krch. esge al- bear in mind’, Krch. es+li Hun. esz+es smart, brainy, witty’ etc.

3 For the Turkic etymology of the Hun. báj charm, gracefulness’ see WOT 83. Róna-Tas traces it to OT ba- to bind’ verbal root. In Karachay the anterior member of the compound köz+baw charm, witchcraft’ is the word eye’.

4 I wrote about the possible tradition of the pear-tree cult in Acta Orientalia (Csáki 2002).

5 Further data can be found among Central Asian Turks, also meaning ‘plough’ (Molnár 2001: 103-118).

6 A tihanyi apátság alapítólevele (1055) ‘Establishing charter of the Abbey of Tihany’ is the oldest written Hungarian document. It contains proper names of major importance in the region.

7 Kumyk bolan ‘deer’ (Németh 1911: 103) is most probably related to Hungarian bölény ‘bison’ (WOT 172). That word is possibly also retraceable to the original habitat in the Caucasus, borrowed by the Hungarians north of the Black Sea.

8 Middle Turkic forms of the verb ay- ~ ayd- ‘govorit’’ can also be found (Nadžip 1979: 129, 77).

9 In earlier periods of language history, Hungarian also used more verbs that went with the ablative case of the nouns. Later, the verbs attracted far more nouns in dative and locative cases (Csáki 2007).