URJHS Volume 7


Essay on the Cultural Preservation of the South Caucasian Language: Lazuri

Ozlem Yuksel-Sokmen
M. Chesin*
CUNY, John Jay College of Criminal Justice


The people of the world speak approximately 6500 languages, some on the verge of extinction. Experts say that up to two-thirds of them will be extinct in the middle of 21st century.1 Twenty-three living languages are spoken in Turkey; one language is already extinct--Syriac, and others are endangered, like Laz. Out of an estimated 90,000 Laz people, merely 30,000 speak it as their mother language (Gordon, 2005). Laz is a South Caucasian language spoken mainly at the coastal regions of Turkey and Georgia. Because Lazuri is traditionally passed orally to the next generation, it is a challenge to keep the language alive.


Famous for its saga and myths and bounded by the Black Sea and the Caucasian Mountains, the ancient region of Colchis spreads out from West Georgia to Northeast Turkey. The famous tale in Greek mythology of the Golden Fleece2 in which Jason and the Argonauts stole the Golden Fleece from King Aeetes, with the help of his daughter Medea, has brought Colchis into the history books. Yet little is known about the history, people, and language of Colchis .

Agathias or Agathias Scholasticus ( 536-582/594 AD) of Myrna, an Aeolian city in western Asia Minor, was a Greek poet and historian. Agathias wrote the history of his own times and contributed valuable documentation for the ancient people of Colchis with the following excerpt:

(1) The Lazi are a great and a proud people and they rule over other very considerable peoples. They pride themselves on their connection with the ancient name of the Colchians and have an exaggeratedly, though perhaps understandably, high opinion of themselves. (2) I certainly know of no other subject race with such ample resources of manpower at its command or which is blessed with such a superfluity of wealth, with such an ideal geographical position, with such an abundance of all the necessaries of life, and with such a high standard of civilisation and refinement. (3) The ancient inhabitants of the place were indeed completely unaware of the benefits of navigation and had not even heard of ships until the arrival of the famous Argo. Nowadays they put out to sea whenever practicable and carry on a thriving commerce. ( Agathias, c. 552-558 AD, cited in Histories, p 72 III.5, translated by Frendo, 1975)

The contemporary name for the traditional homeland of the Laz people is Lazona. The Laz language is an orally passed-on ancient Caucasian language spoken mainly in Sarpi and Batumi (Georgia) and in the provinces of Rize and Artvin, which are located at the Eastern Black Sea Coast of Turkey (Benninghaus, 1989a). The exact number of Laz speakers in Turkey is difficult to estimate because ethnic minorities are not included in the census data (Kutscher, n.d.). The Ethnologue's census estimation of the Laz speakers was around 90,000 in 1980s. Lazuri is a complex and morphologically rich tongue belonging to the South Caucasian language family whose other members are Mingrelian, Svanetian, and Georgian. Mingrelian and Svanetian are two minority languages spoken in Georgia. Georgina and Lazuri speakers hardly understand each other, whereas fluent speakers in Mingrelian and Lazuri are able to have a conversation. Because Lazuri is traditionally passed orally to the next generation, it is a challenge to keep it alive. When asked who the Lazi are, most people in Georgia, Greece, and Turkey seem to know the answer.

For example in Georgia, the Lazi are believed to be a Caucasian tribe related to the Georgians. And Lazuri, like the related Mingrelian language, is merely seen as a dialect of the Georgian language. Yet, the Greeks believe that the cultural origin of the Lazi comes from the Pontus Greeks and that the Laz language is related to the ancient Greek language. And in Turkey, all the inhabitants of the Black Sea are called falsely Laz. The definition of Laz is leading to an “endless source of confusion” (Beller-Hann & Hann, 2001, p. 12). But the “Who are they?” question is not properly answered by the scholarly research into the origin of the language (Ascherson, 1996, pp. 200-2001). Who are the Lazi people? And where do they come from?

Antique chronicles allude to the ethnic identity of the Lazi and show that Colchis and Iberia were independent and sovereign kingdoms. In narrations ( Beller-Hann & Hann, 2001, p. 240 ), the residents of historical Iberia—current East Georgia—were called Georgian. Whereas Colchis/Lazica had sporadic alliances with the Kingdom of Pontus in order to protect themselves from Iberian, aka Georgina, attacks. Hence, Lazi cannot be Georgian or kartvelian, which literally means "belonging to Georgia."  Furthermore, Lazi can't be Pontus Greek, because they had settled at the Black Sea before the Greeks. Moreover, it should be also clear that the Lazi do not come from Middle Asia and, hence, do not belong to the Turkic folk. Colchis was geographically in an area of conflict, constantly attacked and invaded by Iberian, Pontus, Persian, Ottoman, and Russian powers, so exchanges within the culture and language naturally occurred.

The exact founding of Colchis is not traceable. The Kingdom of Colchis has been mentioned in ancient chronicles at least since the middle of the 6th century B.C. (cited in Corpus fontium historiae byzantinae). Colchis was formed by diverse ethnic groups like the Lazi, Mingrelian, and Abkhazians ( Bowersock & Brown, 1999, pp. 465-466). In the 2nd century B.C., the ancient Kingdom of Colchis became an arena of long and devastating conflicts between major local powers before it emerged less than a hundred years later to the autonomy Kingdom of Lazica, becoming a successor state of Colchis (Gibbon, 2004, p. 197). In the first century, the Kingdom of Lazica had to fend off the Kingdom of Pontus. In 200 AD, the king of Lazica gained gradually more power, and in 400 AD Colchis expanded from Caucasia to Trabzon (province of Turkey).

Thereupon, the Lazi settled in the region between the Coruh River and the Black Sea Coast. In the following years of 500 and 600 AD, Lazica was confronted with the Byzantine-Persian war. Consequently, the Kingdom of Lazica collapsed in the 8th century AD. The number of the Colchian relapsed, and the Iberian (Georgian) annexed the North-Mingrelian region of Colchis into Rion-Delta at Poti.

The Lazi lived in the Southwestern part of Colchis that was Tzanica ( Bowersock & Brown, 1999), occupied by the Kingdom of Trapezunt, and in 1461 the Lazi region was occupied by the Ottoman Empire. Nevertheless, the Lazic Colchian formed a new state between Guria and Batumi, called Lazistan in 1851, which did not last long because Lazistan was between the Russian-Ottoman fronts. On August 28, 1878 the Russian army invaded Lazistan. During that period, Batumi symbolized the cultural center (stronghold) of the Lazi. The scenario changed when the Russian army was collapsing as a result of the October Revolution in 1917. On the basis of the Brest-Litovsk-Treaty in March 3rd 1918, the districts Kars, Ardahan, and Batumi were integrated into the Turkish Republic.

Subsequently, Batumi was assigned to Russia in a Russian-Turkish agreement. After the formation of the Turkish Republic on April 23, 1923, and the demarcation of the latter, according to the Treaty of Lausanne (July 24, 1923), the Colchian people were divided into Georgian and Turkish territories. Today, the Lazic Colchian who inhabit the Turkish part, live in Hopa (Hopa), Arhavi (Arkabi), Findikli (Vice), Ardesen, Pazar (Atina), Camlihemsin, Rize, and they also live among Turks and Pontus Greeks in Trabzon. There are still some Lazi on the Georgian side in Sarpi and Batumi. The Mingrelian Colchian live mainly in Poti, Zugdidi, and Kobuleti (Guria) in West Georgia.

Modern Laz Settlements

Today, the Lazi in Turkey identify themselves as Turks. This term does not relate to the ethnic background of each person but expresses that the person is a citizen of Turkey. Many Lazi are recognized by their fair skin and light hair. According to the linguist Hann, when the Lazi speak Turkish they have a distinctive Laz accent. The Laz minority is not militant like the PKK and has always lived peacefully at its remote villages in Turkey with no national claims so far (Wilson & Donnan, 2000). The Lazi are considered a friendly and open people of ancient Colchis.

Neil Ascherson (1996) wrote in his book Black Sea (pp. 203-204), about a German intellectual, Wolfgang Feuerstein, who worked in a little village in the Black Forest to rescue the Lazi from assimilation. Feuerstein, who first visited the Laz country in 1960, was fascinated by the distinctive unwritten Laz language and realized that the Lazi were what Germans call a Volk with a rich folk-identity, which was about to be lost forever (Ascherson, 1993). With the help of Lazoglu he learned the Laz language and has given the Lazi the first alphabet in Latin (in Georgia the Lazi use the Georgian script) and also worked on sourcebooks of Laz history and grammar. Unfortunately, this recorded enrichment had found few supporters or followers. Why? Because the older Laz generation kept their diversity to themselves, "like some ancestral wedding dress, which is of no interest to anyone outside the family" (Ascherson, 1996, p. 196). They have their own traditions, customs, cuisine, myths, and ways of dressing and living at the fog-covered and rain-drained Black Sea Coast. Wild animals like boar, bear, and deer live in the mountain valleys. The Lazi—or perhaps the older Lazi—in their isolated villages believe that the forest also inhabits monsters. A giant creature, human in form and akin to a hairy version of the boogieman, called the germakoci (germa meaning forest and koci meaning man in Lazuri), sometimes attacked the hunters in the highlands or was just curious about the humans and liked to imitate whatever they do (conducted through a telephone interview with my parents).

Officially, the Laz people are not recognized as a minority. Thus, many Turks do not even know about their diverse existence and falsely call the inhabitants of the Black Sea coast as the "Lazlar," Turkish for Lazi (Beller-Hann & Hann, 2001, p. 12). The formal language is Turkish and is used for education, administration, and public socializing. Even in the most remote villages with only Lazi speakers, Turkish mass media is available (Ascherson, 1996, pp. 220-221). Rapidly the village populations are shrinking due to family migrations to the towns for economic reasons.3 (The frontier district of Lazona was considered one of the poorest regions of Turkey 5 decades ago - interview with my father.) Practically all Lazi are either monolingual in Turkish or bilingual in Lazi and Turkish.

Thus, the future of the Laz culture is in jeopardy. If the Laz people remain passive and lack an interest of a formal education of their mother tongue, they will very soon lose precious intellectual value forever, and the identity of the Laz people will vanish into history. Within the last decade more and more intellectual Laz people realized that the disappearance of their language would lead to the disappearance of their identity and tried to preserve their inherited culture through political empowerment, linguistic education, and music and poetry.

With the legal lifting of the Turkish ban on spoken Lazuri in 1991, one can now not only purchase books on the Laz language but also magazines and literature completely in Lazuri--something that was unthinkable in the last century when sources on minorities were nonexistent (King, 2005, p. 246). Because of financial reasons only about six or seven issues appeared. In 2002, a journal in Laz culture and language called Mjora was published by some intellectuals in Istanbul. Only two issues have appeared because of financial reasons.

Now, the young Turkish-Laz living in diaspora surface and enquire, "Who are we really? Where did we come from?" When the English journalist Neil Ascherson introduced the Lazi to the Western World with his essay in the Independent on Sunday (November 8, 1993), he stated in reference to Feuerstein's prodigy work of cultural preservation that the Lazi "have eaten the forbidden fruit of an alphabet, and are beginning to see themselves with new eyes," thus marking the end of the unwritten Laz language and initiating a journey to the written Laz literature.

Two great additions to the published sources are Lazi Grammar by İsmail Avcı Bucaklişi and Goichi Kojima (Japanese linguist), and the Lazuri-Turkish Dictionary by İsmail Avcı Bucaklişi and Hasan Uzunhasanoğlu, two Laz speakers living in Turkey. This is the first dictionary of the Laz language. Apart from the above-mentioned publications on Lazi, there are some research activities at universities in Georgia (Tbilisi and Kutaisi) and Germany (Cologne—see http://www.uni- koeln.de/phil-fak/ifs/d_index.htm ->“Projekte”). In Turkey, so far there has been no research on the language of its own, except some work on Lazuri-Turkish code-switching at the University of Ankara.

Most recently in September 2006, at the World Music Festival in San Francisco, which brings international musicians and artists together for world peace, a film called "AnTEAcipation," directed by Ilkay Nisanci, was screened. The film portrays the socio-economy role of tea growing culture of the Laz people at the northeastern Black Sea in Turkey and reveals the gain and loss of tea growing. The story documents the present life and hardship of the Laz villagers on the mountains of Artvin, Turkey.

Birol Topaloglu, the foremost folk musician of Turkey, strives to remind the Lazi youth of their culture and preserves the rich heritage of the Lazi with his lyrics and compositions in Lazuri. First he started collecting the lullabies and ballads sung by his mother, and in 1997 he recorded the music of the Laz highlanders in Turkey. When he traveled to Georgia, he studied the Laz and Mingrelian music. For the first time, among the Turkish Lazi, he implemented a string instrument called the chonguri4 and a wind instrument called pilili along with voice. Birol developed a percussion instrument, called guni, based on the traditional beehive. Birol's US produced CD in 2002 "Heyamo & Aravani" is a collection of folk songs in Lazuri and his own compositions. Since 1999, Birol and his ensemble traveled through Europe giving concerts in Turkey, Germany, France, Holland, England, and Portugal ( http://www.biroltopaloglu.com ).

UNESCO (2006), which celebrated the world’s nearly 6,500 languages as the "International Mother Language Day" on 21 February 2006, aims to promote linguistic diversity and multilingual education. UNESCO and the Tbilisi State University in Georgia collaborated on a couple of projects: in 2003 the " Multimedia Lazi Literature & Audio Files (Text, Images & Audio/Sound)" and in 2005 the "Caucasian Languages Music and the Video Recording Library" with the goal to preserve and access endangered Caucasian languages, including Lazuri. The methodology of the project is founded on recorded interviews with elderly speakers of each Caucasian language by Georgian scientists. These recordings of significant aspects of communal life of Caucasia (e.g., tales, celebrations, songs, poems, and folk materials) serve as a source for further research material and scholarly work.


Andersen, A. (n.d.). Georgia: Early history (ca 600 BC - 650 AD). Retrieved on October 11, 2006, from the World Wide Web: http://www.conflicts.rem33.com/images/Georgia/geor_histr1.htm

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Ascherson, N. (1993, November 8). Journey to the end of an alphabet. Independent on Sunday. Retrieved on November 20, 2006, from http://www.independent.co.uk.

Benninghaus, R. (1989a). The laz: an example of multiple identification. In Ethnic Groups in the Republic of Turkey, R. Benninghaus and P. A. Andrews, eds. Wiesbaden, Germany: Ludwig Reichert.

Beller-Hann, I. & Hann, C. M. (2001). Turkish region: state, market & social identities on the east black sea coast. Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research.

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Gibbon, E. (2004). History on the decline and fall of the roman empire. Great Britain: Kessinger.

Gordon, R. G. (ed.). (2005). Ethnologue: Languages of the world, Fifteenth edition. Dallas, TX.: SIL International. Retrieved September 26, 2006, from the World Wide Web: http://www.ethnologue.com

King, C. (2004). The black sea: A history. New York: Oxford University.

Kutscher, S. (n.d.). Lazuri nena - The language of the laz. Retrieved September 26, 2006, from the World Wide Web:

UNESCO. (5/1/2006). ICT to preserve and access endangered caucasian languages. Retrieved November 20, 2006, from the World Wide Web:


Wilson,T.M. & Donnan, H.(Eds). (2000). Border identities: Nation and state at international frontiers. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

1. Numbers are taken from The Endangered Language Fund website, see Reference

2. Time of Homer, 8th century BC.

3. The little Lazi village, where my father was born and grew up, inhabits only 8 families. My aged grandfather lives in Istanbul and my father in Berlin.

4. Chonguri - Four stringed unfretted lute type. Pilili - wind instrument used almost exclusively for the accompaniment of singing.




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