Ubykh phonology

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Ubykh, a recently extinct Northwest Caucasian language, has the largest consonant inventory of all documented languages that do not use clicks, and also has the most disproportional ratio of phonemic consonants to vowels. It has consonants in at least eight, perhaps nine, basic places of articulation and 29 distinct fricatives, 27 sibilants, and 20 uvulars, more than any other documented language. Some Khoisan languages, such as ǃXóõ, may have larger consonant inventories due to their extensive use of click consonants, although some analyses (see for instance Traill (1985)) view a large proportion of the clicks in these languages as clusters, which would bring them closer into line with the Caucasian languages.


Below is an International Phonetic Alphabet representation of the Ubykh consonant inventory.

Labial Alveolar Postalveolar Velar Uvular Glottal
laminal apical
plain phar. plain lab. lat. plain lab. plain lab. pal. plain lab. phar. pal. plain lab. phar. phar. & lab.
Plosive voiceless p t k q qˁʷ
voiced b d ɡʲ ɡ ɡʷ
ejective pˁʼ tʷʼ kʲʼ kʷʼ qʲʼ qʷʼ qˁʼ qˁʷʼ
Affricate voiceless t͡s t͡ʃ t͡ɕ t͡ɕʷ ʈ͡ʂ
voiced d͡z d͡ʒ d͡ʑ d͡ʑʷ ɖ͡ʐ
ejective t͡sʼ t͡ʃʼ t͡ɕʼ t͡ɕʷʼ ʈ͡ʂʼ
Fricative voiceless f s ɬ ʃ ʃʷ ɕ ɕʷ ʂ x χʲ χ χʷ χˁ χˁʷ h
voiced v z ʒ ʒʷ ʑ ʑʷ ʐ ɣ ʁʲ ʁ ʁʷ ʁˁ ʁˁʷ
ejective ɬʼ
Nasal m n
Approximant l j w
Trill r


  1. Note the large number of basic series. Ubykh has basic consonants at nine places of articulation; some scholars group the palatal approximant /j/ with the palatalised velar series, which has been done here for concerns of space.
  2. The glottal stop [ʔ] is also noted, but only as an allophone of /qʼ/.
  3. Of the three secondary articulations:
    • Palatalization, abbreviated "pal.", is indicated with ⟨ʲ⟩.
    • Labialization, abbreviated "lab.", is indicated with ⟨ʷ⟩.
    • Pharyngealization, abbreviated "phar.", is indicated with ⟨ˁ⟩.
  4. The three postalveolar series have traditionally been called "postalveolar", "alveolo-palatal", and "retroflex", respectively, and have been transcribed with their associated symbols.
  5. The laminal and apical postalveolar series are more accurately transcribed as /ʃ̻/ and /ʃ̺/, respectively.
  6. There is no standard IPA notation for the laminal-closed postalveolar series. They are transcribed /ŝ/, etc. by Catford.
  7. The velar stops /k/ /ɡ/ /kʼ/ and the labiodental fricative /v/ are only found in Turkish and Circassian loanwords.
  8. Out of the labials, the fricatives /v/ /vˁ/ /f/ are labiodental, the others bilabial.

All but four of the 84 consonants are found in native vocabulary. The plain velars /k/ /ɡ/ /kʼ/ and the voiced labiodental fricative /v/ are found mainly in loans and onomatopoeia: /ɡaarɡa/ ('crow') from Turkish karga), /kawar/ ('slat, batten') from Laz k'avari 'roofing shingle'), /makʼəf/ ('estate, legacy') from Turkish vakıf), /vər/ ('the sound of glass breaking'). As well, the pharyngealised labial consonants /pˁ/ /pˁʼ/ are almost exclusively noted in words where they are associated with another pharyngealised consonant (for instance, /qˁʼaapˁʼa/ 'handful'), but are occasionally found outside this context (for example, the verb root /tʼaapˁʼ/ 'to explode, to burst'). Finally, /h/ is mainly found in interjections and loans, with /hənda/ ('now') the only real native word to contain the phoneme. The frequency of consonants in Ubykh is quite variable; the phoneme /n/ alone accounts for over 12% of all consonants encountered in connected text, due to the presence of the phoneme in the ergative and oblique singular and plural case suffixes, the third person singular and plural ergative verbal agreement prefix, the adverbial derivative suffix, the present and imperfect tense suffixes, and in suffixes denoting several non-finite verb forms.

Very few allophones of consonants are noted, mainly because a small acoustic difference can be phonemic when so many consonants are involved. However, the alveolopalatal labialised fricatives /ɕʷ ʑʷ/ were sometimes realised as alveolar labialised fricatives [sʷ zʷ], and the uvular ejective stop /qʼ/ was often pronounced as a glottal stop [ʔ] in the past tense suffix -/qʼa/, due to the influence of the Kabardian and Adyghe languages.

The consonant /pˁ/ has not been attested word-initially, and /pˁʼ/ is found initially only in the personal name /pˁʼapˁʼəʒʷ/, but every other consonant can begin a word. Restrictions on word-final consonants have not yet been investigated; however, Ubykh has a slight preference for open syllables (CV) over closed ones (VC or CVC). The pharyngealised consonants /mˁ/ and /wˁ/ have not been noted word-finally, but this is probably a statistical anomaly due to the rarity of these consonants, each being attested only in a handful of words.

The alveolar trill /r/ is not common in native Ubykh vocabulary, appearing mostly in loan words. However, the phoneme carries a phonaesthetic concept of rolling or a repeated action in a few verbs, notably /bəqˁʼəda/ ~ /bəqˁʼərda/ ('to roll around') and /χˁʷəχˁʷəda/ ~ /χˁʷəχˁʷərda/ ('to slither').

The Karacalar "dialect"

A divergent form of Ubykh spoken by Osman Güngör, an inhabitant of Karacalar, was investigated by Georges Dumézil in the 1960s (Dumézil 1965:266–269). His speech differed phonologically from "standard" Ubykh in a number of ways:

  • the labialised alveolar stops /dʷ/ /tʷ/ /tʷʼ/ have merged into the corresponding bilabial stops /b/ /p/ /pʼ/.
  • The labialised alveolopalatal fricatives /ɕʷ/ /ʑʷ/ have merged with their postalveolar counterparts /ʃʷ/ /ʒʷ/.
  • /ɣ/ seems to have disappeared.
  • Pharyngealisation is no longer distinctive, surviving only on the lexemes /abˁa/ ('to be ill') and /qˁʷə/ ('to bark'), and being replaced in many instances by gemination (standard /wˁa/ ('dog') → Karacalar /wːa/), and in at least one instance by ejectivisation (standard /tsaqˁapˁə/ ('roasted maize') → Karacalar /tsaqʼapʼə/).
  • Palatalisation of the uvular consonants is no longer phonemic, also being replaced in many instances by gemination (standard /qʲa/ ('to cough') → Karacalar /qːa/).
  • The voiced retroflex affricate /ɖʐ/ has, at least in some cases, merged with /dʒ/.


Ubykh has very few basic phonemic vowels. Hans Vogt's (1963) analysis retains /oː/ as a separate vowel, but most other linguists (Dumézil 1965) do not accept this analysis, preferring one with simpler vertical distinction: /ə/ and /a/. Other vowels, notably /u/, appear in some loanwords. The question of whether an additional vowel /aa/ should be retained is of some debate, since it differs from /a/ not in length but in quality. However, phonologically and diachronically, it is often derived from two instances of /a/.

Even with so few vowels, there are many vowel allophones, affected by the secondary articulation of the consonants that surround them. Eleven basic phonetic vowels appear, mostly derived from the two phonemic vowels adjacent to labialised or palatalised consonants. The phonetic vowels are [a e i o u ə] and [aː eː iː oː uː]. In general, the following rules apply (Vogt 1963):

/Cʷa/ → [Co] and /aw/ → [oː]
/Cʲa/ → [Ce] and /aj/ → [eː]
/Cʷə/ → [Cu] and /əw/ → [uː]
/Cʲə/ → [Ci] and /əj/ → [iː]

Other, more complex vowels have been noted as allophones: /ajəwʃqʼa/ ('you did it') can become [ayʃqʼa], for instance. On occasion, nasal sonorants (particularly /n/) may even decay into vowel nasality. For instance, /najnʃʷ/ ('young man') has been noted as [nɛ̃jʃʷ] as well as [najnʃʷ].

The vowel /a/ appears initially very frequently, particularly in the function of the definite article. /ə/ is extremely restricted initially, appearing only in ditransitive verb forms where all three arguments are third person, e.g. /əntʷən/ ('he gave it to him') (normally /jəntʷən/). Even then, /ə/ itself may be dropped to provide an even shorter form /ntʷən/.

Both vowels appear without restriction finally, although when /ə/ is unstressed finally, it tends to be dropped: /tʷə/ ('father') becomes the definite form /atʷ/ ('the father'). In fact, the alternation between /ə/ and zero is often not phonemic, and may be dropped root-internally as well: /maqʷəta/ ~ /maqʷta/ ('hoe'). This kind of allomorphy is called a zero allomorph.