Some features of speech behavior of abkhazians


The greatest possession of both the traditional and modern culture of a people is their native language. The creation of writing, the development of literature, national schools, press and radio have all considerably advanced the development of the Abkhazian language and its public functions. The richest tradition of Abkhazian oral literature is as an untouched fund of native culture which, according to academician N.Marr, was a source supporting the public role of archaic Abkhazian speech, and a material for the exceptionable development of oratory in the country.

The presence of considerable dialect distinctions, even apparently in the early feudal epoch, did not interfere with mutual understanding between the main developed parts of the Abkhazian ethnos. At the heart of the language lay the unity of a grammatical system and a general fund of basic dictionary words from Abkhazian dialects.

D.Gulia, recollecting his childhood, speaks about how his father, thanks to his love of and ability to perform speech, had become a public figure, and in the evenings in the bosom of his family in front of the fire, in detail he told about all he had heard and seen.

‘Wherever he had been, after returning home he collected the family, put me near to him and in detail told us about all that had happened. He spoke at length, clearly described all events, and made us laugh with humorous catchphrases and jokes.’

Unfortunately, that unique material about the exceptional development of oratory by Abkhazians, as told in the words of Marr and Gulia given above, is still collected and studied insufficiently. Suffice it to say that now we have not one record of any performance by remarkable national tribunes, of which there were quite a few in each Abkhazian community. Therefore our representations of the glorified eloquence of Abkhazians, which are based mainly on the short and often casual remarks of pre-revolutionary authors who, as a rule, did not know the Abkhazian language, can certainly neither be complete nor exact enough.

For all that, as far as it is possible to judge from the available data, the speech of an Abkhazian national orator consisted of three sections: some kind of an introduction which began with a traditional reference to the audience ‘People, I would be willing to give my head instead of yours!’, the main section giving the most detailed merits of his argument, plentifully garnished with proverbs, aphorisms and legends corresponding to his topic, with questions and appeals to his listeners calling for their approving reaction, and a short conclusion. The ending of the conclusion had the style of an extremely compressed standard form of thanks: ‘I have tired you with my words, forgive me! Gods blessings be with you!’

Let us recollect, for example, a national tribune who was an illiterate peasant named Osman Shamba from the village of Eshera. Speaking at a historic glade in Lyhny on 26th July 1866, he gave a passionate speech to a crowd of seven thousand which lasted for eight continuous hours. It appears from documents that three men took turns to translate his words, but all of them became totally hoarse and could not speak further, and the well-known orator strode around the platform, by tradition addressing a question from time to time to those on whose behalf he was speaking: ‘So have I transferred your thoughts correctly?’ In reply, the crowd invariably expressed their enthusiastic approval, and gave loud exclamations of agreement.

A 115-year-old inhabitant of the village of Atara in the Ochamchira region of Abkhazia, Kuat Kvitsinia, whom I visited in January 1984, told me a lot of interesting facts, in particular on the subject of the alabashia in relation to the oratory of Abkhazians. According to his information, a stick-staff alabashia was an indispensable accessory not only of hunters, but also was an essential implement for the orator, and a performance with an alabashia in hand was given the special term ‘adowara’.

‘They say’ he continued, ‘that old Dzhalachy Kvitsinia, who lived in the second half of the XIX century, had the ability to make a speech skilfully, and he could speak non-stop 24 hours a day.’ Give us a speech!’ People asked him and handed over an alabashia. In particular, he was once sent by relatives to Sukhumi to appear as a witness in a court case. His namesake, peasant Dawei Kvitsinia, was accused of beating well-known Abzhui prince Grigory Shervashidze. In the heat of polemic this national tribune unintentionally stuck an alabashia into his foot, but he did not interrupt his speech for a minute and, eventually, despite pressure from the authorities, won a difficult case: the courageous peasant, compelled to apply force to protect his honour and property, was justified.’

The extraordinary development of oratory was promoted by certain conditions of public life, such as the long history of some patriarchal feudal institutes, including national meetings and national legal proceedings based on tradition. At these frequently convoked and populous forums where everyone could act in the protection of his own or another’s interests and show his eloquence so valued by people, major questions regarding the mutual relations of separate people and of whole social groups were solved.

Abkhazians have always greatly appreciated the power and emotional influence of the spoken word, understanding its miraculous capability to heal deep wounds, defeat seemingly unapproachable fortresses - in a word, to do the almost impossible. They say: ‘The language of the people is a remedy’.

Listen to Abkhazian language: how much heart-felt warmth and parental caress is in the Abkhazian words ‘dad’ and ‘nan’ by which seniors address their youngers, how much is ennobled in the words ‘ashhia’ - mountain, or ‘ahira’ - a steep rock? There is even a special national ‘Song of a rock.’ And how much cosmic greatness, force, nobility and glow is in the unique Abkhazian definition of unlimited daring and heroism - the term ‘af’irkhatsa’, which N.A.Lakoba translated brightly and colourfully as a hero of heroes, born of thunder and lightning . To be called as such is the dream of any Abkhazian man or woman. Ancient word combinations like ‘Uhatsky stseit!’ are often heard in traditional Abkhazian speech. Such expressions are difficult to translate, but that one means approximately: ‘Yes, I will take your death upon myself!’ which, having lost its original religious and magic sense a very long time ago, is now used to indicate great respect for a person.

For communication over a long distance Abkhazians used a wireless telegraph: they transmitted necessary information by shouting from a top of a hill to a neigbouring peak.

For example, it was said that Prince Golitsyn, the governor-general of the Caucasus, whilst passing incognito along theBlack Sea coast, was extremely surprised to be met by a deputation in Lykhny. To his question on how they learnt about his arrival, he was answered: ‘through an Abkhazian telegraph!’