Mountains of Language

Dagestan is a little-known Russian republic in the Caucasus Mountains. It is also, arguably, the most ethnolinguistically diverse place in the world.

By / December 2011

The flight from Moscow to Makhachakala, the capital of Dagestan, takes two and a half hours. The ride is bumpy, the food trays defective. The space is, to make the understatement of the century, cramped. The aircraft, a Dagestan Airlines Tupolev 154, doubles as a time machine, something on the order of the Flux Capacitor from the movie “Back to the Future.” If you survive the journey, what awaits you on the other side is a new frontier.

I am on my way to meet with the esteemed ethnographer Dr. Sergei Abdulhalikovhich Luguyev, a veteran professor at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ campus in Makhachkala, a bustling capital city of 750,000 squeezed between the mountains and the sea. Like a Little League baseball player on his way to a hitting lesson with Albert Pujols, I am dizzy with anticipation. In addition to expressing my admiration for Dr. Luguyey, and perhaps forging a friendship, I hope to present a plan for future ethnographic research across Dagestan and get his buy in.

A Florida-sized region of southeastern Europe that stretches from the Caspian Sea to the Black along the Caucasus Mountains, the North Caucasus remains one of the world’s most exquisite ethnolinguistic mosaics. The region is comprised of seven semi-autonomous, Russian republics: Adyghe, Karachay-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria, North Ossetia-Alania, Ingushetia, Chechnya, and Dagestan.

Teeming with epic histories, outlandish languages, and mysterious peoples, these lands contain a trove of ethnographic wonders just waiting to be unearthed. Nowhere is the North Caucasus more complex than in Dagestan.

From Alexander the Great to the Silk Road’s ancient caravans, Dagestan has long been a strategic route between Europe and Asia, but a wily one, too. World conquerors from Tamerlane to Nader Shah all tried – and ultimately failed – to tame Dagestan’s mountain warriors. These numerous invasions, repulsions, and migrations spawned scores of new dialects, while the extreme terrain afforded certain mountain tribes the chance to escape historical cross-pollinations altogether.

Today, Dagestan boasts a kaleidoscopic culture. Sometimes dubbed the “Paupau New Guinea of Europe,” few places on earth rival Dagestan’s extraordinary cross-cultural diversity. The land is home to over thirty native languages, further complicated by dozens of mutually unintelligible dialects. Dagestan takes its name from a 19th-century Turkish word meaning “Land of Mountains.” It might be more accurately described by its 10th century Arabic honorific, “The Mountain of Languages.”

As I pore over the map spread across my lap and sip from a cup of lemon tea, I start feeling more like a European maritime explorer than a fledgling American ethnographer, but a quick descent and rough landing interrupts my reverie, snapping me back into consciousness. I join the other passengers in a round of spontaneous applause as the plane’s noisy breaks grind us to a halt.

Upon exiting the sleepy Caspian seaside airport (Dagestan’s lone airport for its three million residents) and hailing a cab, I am reminded all at once of the idiosyncrasies of this place, particularly in regard to how Dagestanis drive. Choking on the taxi driver’s cigarette smoke and suffering intermittent shock from a spate of near-death collisions, I nevertheless begin to feel the thrill of discovery, an invigorating onrush of Captain Cook wanderlust.

After ascending three unfriendly flights of concrete stairs at the academy, I’m ushered into a narrow Soviet-era office with high ceilings. A modest square desk sits perpendicular to a long table, with a few non-matching wooden chairs on either side. Dr. Luguyev rises to greet me. The 70-something year old reaches through a cloud of smoke for a vigorous handshake.

The office is covered with books, papers and un-emptied ashtrays, artifacts I take to be evidence of true genius.

Dr. Luguyev is a Lak, an ethnic group of 170,000 whose home turf is a huddle of isolated, arid mountainsides deep in south-central Dagestan. The Lak are among the largest ethnic groups in Dagestan, outnumbered only by the Kumyk (415,000), Lezghi (450,000), Dargin (520,000) and Avar (780,000). What has drawn me to Dr. Luguyev, however, is his passion for the smaller people groups of Dagestan.It is a passion I share. In recent months, he has published seminal works on the Akvhakh (7,000 population) and the Karata (8,500 population), two high-altitude ethnic groups in remote, western Dagestan.

The doctor lights another cigarette, refills our cognac glasses. Graciously, masterfully, he entertains my questions about various ethnic groups. I ask him how Dagestan could be home to so much diversity.

“Remember, it was the Great Horseman of Earth dispatched to distribute languages at the creation of the world,” Dr. Luguyev says, summarizing one of the region’s cherished legends. “When he came to the Caucasus, he accidentally ripped his big bag of languages on one of Dagestan’s mountain peaks.”

I nod my amusement. “That’s for sure what happened,” the doctor adds, chuckling. He raises his glass for another toast. Dr. Luguyev seems as fascinated by me as I am by him. “I see the sparkle in your eyes,” he booms more than once.

The meeting has surpassed all my expectations. The doctor can see that I share his love of ethnic discovery. He pours yet another shot of cognac (which I’m able to politely decline this time – after all, I do need to navigate my way back down those awful stairs!) before offering to lend his time and expertise to my research.

Despite the 40-year age gap, I can’t help but feel as if a Lewis & Clark bond has formed between us. As we exit the office together, he introduces me to a Kumyk colleague in the hallway, and then to an Avar and a Lezghi and a Tabassaran. With a staggering 48 noun cases, the Tabassaran language, Dr. Luguyev reminds me, is reputed to be the world’s most complex language in the noun category. By the time we exit the building, we’ve rubbed shoulders with a half dozen people who speak a half dozen different languages, all of them exclusive to the Caucasus.

As I prepare to flag down another taxi, I heartily thank the doctor. I praise the decades of research he’s done, the books he’s published, the ethnic groups he’s helped introduce to the world. There is so much I want to say to him, so little time. But he will not hear it. “No. You understand, don’t you?” he interrupts. “We have only touched the tip of the iceberg!”


Dave Hayton last piece for EthnoTraveler was about the perils of driving in Dagestan’s capital.