Turkey, Summer of 1974

In the summer of 1974 I had the opportunity to spend some weeks in the Anatolian village of Demir Kapı (near Balıkesir) in the family-home of the late Cemal and Shaziye Cangül, speakers of the Abzakh dialect of Circassian. This sojourn had been arranged by Peter Kent (Fahry Yaman), then working for Mobil Oil in London but originally from Demir Kapı. The purpose of the visit was to gather material in Abzakh (and any other Circassian dialects whose speakers I might encounter) to be the basis for possible future research into this representative of the North West Caucasian language-family. I had a number of sentences of my own as well as an elicitation-sheet drawn up by Ed Keenan translated into Turkish (courtesy of Vanessa Shepherd, later Bowtell, who for part of my stay acted as my interpreter, and Michael Riccioli, then a student at the Sorbonne but at the time visiting his parents in Istanbul, with whom I spent my final days in Turkey). I was provided with a cassette-recorder and some 20 Scotch cassettes by the Linguistics Dept. of Cambridge University for the purpose. I made recordings of vocabulary, my elicitation-materials and stories in Abzakh with the Cangüls, including their daughter Hacer and their neighbours, brother and sister Temel and Meral Kafa. Stories were also recorded with the village’s story-teller Recep Gelir and with a variety of other speakers, including Hasan Cangül, brother of Cemal, and Mahmed Erpek, both speakers of Abzakh, Ishak Baysan and Nurten Çelik, speakers of Shapsugh, and Hamit Kuru, a speaker of Kabardian.

During my time in Anatolia I was keen to explore the possibility of visiting the hamlet of Haci Osman Köyü (near Manyas), which was one of the last places where Ubykh speakers were reputed to be still locatable. The person who was the first to welcome us to Demir Kapı when we arrived at the café on the main highway, Hidayet Demiz, said that he could arrange such a trip. My time in Demir Kapı was fast coming to an end, and I had given up hope of visiting the Ubykh hamlet when, quite unexpectedly one morning (I think it was my last Sunday), Hidayet arrived at the Cangüls and asked if I was ready! We travelled up the main road as far as the turning to Manyas, where we changed buses, and then took a third bus from Manyas to the hamlet. An elderly man, Hasan Çare happened to be outside his home and took us inside, where I switched on my recorder and started taping some Ubykh words. Hasan was not in a position to offer me and Hidayet a bed for the night, and so we moved over the road to the house of inn-keeper Fuat Ergün. That evening Hasan came over, and I recorded sentences translated by him and Fuat together. After breakfast the following morning as we waited in the inn for the bus to Manyas, I recorded Hidayet counting in Abzakh. An elderly Ubykh called Sadettin Hunç had come along at this stage and recited the numbers of Ubykh for me to record. Before I boarded the bus, I was given a contact number in Istanbul for one of the sons (it was either Erol or Zeki, but, since we never met, I can’t now recall which one it was) of the last fully competent speaker of the language, Tevfik Esenç. A photograph was also taken, which has been on the Net for some time. There are 6 men and three young boys. Hasan Çare is wearing the black shirt, Fuat Ergün is wearing the green shirt; Sadettin Hunç is on the far right; next to him is Sadettin Çirik (apparently son of Mészáros’ informant in the early 1930s). According to my records there was one other Ubykh speaker in the photo, namely Cemil Eshen, who is (I think) the man on the far left. [My notes also indicate that I met, possibly not in Haci Osman, two other people of Ubykh descent, Sadettin and Sabahattin Ergun, who spoke only Circassian apart from Turkish, though their family’s Caucasian surname, Gumba, would suggest an Abkhazian origin].

I arrived back in Istanbul on the Friday. That evening Michael Riccioli and I went down to the post-office to phone Tevfik’s son. He said that he would let his father know that an English researcher would like to meet him. The following day the doorbell rang at the Riccioli flat in Shishli, and there stood the immaculately dressed and smiling Tevfik Esenç, quite unlike the stern photo of him that appears in Hans Vogt’s Dictionnaire de la langue oubykh (1963). My hope of making recordings with him was explained, and he generously agreed to come from his home on the Asian side of Istanbul to work with me every day of the following week from 9 am to midday. Michael Riccioli had to return to Paris the following day, and it was hoped that his father would be able to interpret for me during our recording sessions. However, Mr. Riccioli was suffering great pain from terminal cancer, and it quickly became clear on the Monday morning that he was unable to sit and speak. And so, I was faced with a dilemma: should I painstakingly try to transcribe items when unable to communicate directly with the informant, or should I simply record as much material as possible in the hope of being able to analyse it later? I opted for the latter. And so, during our sessions (and it should be stressed that, true to his promise, Tevfik arrived promptly at 9 am every day that week) I asked him to translate the following: a word-list plus my phrases and sentences from the Turkish translations I had prepared for Demir Kapı. Since Tevfik also spoke Circassian, I asked him to listen to a selection of my Abzakh tales from Demir Kapı and render them into Ubykh. A great raconteur in his own right, Tevfik told me that he would also give me one story which he had not related to anyone else — it concerned two Englishmen who were said to have landed on the coast of Ubykhia 500 years ago and to have made notes for a grammar of the language, which, it was hoped, might have survived in some archive back in England (clearly this must have been a legend based on the visits to the country in the late 1830s of James Stanislaus Bell and John Longworth). From Tevfik’s own Turkish rendition an English version was produced for me by Laurent Mignon, who was at the time teaching Turkish (and studying Georgian with me) at SOAS; Laurent also produced a translation of one of the other stories — his translations are appended below. After receiving copies of my Ubykh recordings some years later, Rohan Fenwick worked on part of this tale and produced a translation, which can be found on pp.201-4 of his A Grammar of Ubykh (Lincom Europa, 2011).

With time left for further recordings and having no prepared materials, I decided to ask Tevfik to go through my volume of Teach Yourself Turkish and translate the Turkish sequences. I also bought a copy of Romeo & Juliet and asked if he could translate selected passages. He said he would take the book home and think about the passages I had chosen. When he appeared the next day to give me Ubykh (and Circassian!) translations, I noticed that he had prepared some notes for himself, and they were written in the Ottoman script. One further request was that he record a little personal message for the person back in Cambridge who had first introduced me to the languages of the Caucasus, Emeritus Professor of Sanskrit, the late Sir Harold Bailey. It had been in Sir Harold’s flat that we both met Peter Kent, whose visit to Cambridge had been arranged by his former colleague at Mobil Oil, Geoffrey Horrocks, who subsequently became Professor of Comparative Philology at Cambridge. When Peter made the offer to arrange for me to visit his native village, Sir Harold kindly offered to finance my trip, though a travel-grant from my college (St. John’s) meant that I did not need to take up this offer. Tevfik produced a short message, which I brought back for Sir Harold, who had long been fascinated by the languages of the North West Caucasus. I sent a copy of the recording to Georges Dumézil, who had worked with Tevfik since the 1950s. He sent back his analysis; his transcription, along with an English translation, can be found on pp. 31-2 of my edited volume The Languages of the Caucasus 2: North West Caucasus (Caravan Books, 1987).

Tevfik Esenc

Dumezil's transcription

Dumezil's transcription

Greeting to Sir Harold Bailey

When our working sessions came to an end at noon on the Friday, Tevfik said that he would return the following day and take me on an excursion to his home across the Bosphorus. He duly did so, and, once on the Asian side, he pointed out the hotel where Dumézil used to stay on his own research-trips as we walked to the restaurant, where he hosted my lunch; finally, he took me to his house, where I met his wife and an elderly visitor who was introduced as a speaker of Abaza. I took the opportunity to record his speech, with Tevfik acting as prompter, though at that time I was not particularly interested in, or informed about, that branch of North West Caucasian. After all this, Tevfik ended my excursion by accompanying me back to Shishli, where we bade each other farewell. Fate would, of course, determine that in 1976 I would marry an Abkhazian in Tbilisi, and, when she eventually arrived in the UK in early 1977, I asked if she wanted to hear an example of Turkish Abaza. I played the recording only to be told that the language was not Abaza at all but Abkhaz, the North West Caucasian language on which I subsequently worked (and still work) the most…

After spending the academic year 1975-6 in Georgia, I left by taking the train to Istanbul. I stayed again with Michael Riccioli and his widowed mother Marcella. Before I returned to England, we thought it would be interesting to try to find Tevfik’s home so that he could learn about my marriage to an Abkhazian, but, search as we might, we could not locate his house. He did, however, subsequently learn of the hand that destiny had dealt me via a letter sent to him by Dumézil.

I might add that, during my week with the Ricciolis, I also made recordings of the Armenian spoken by their neighbours, Ara Simsar and his wife.

I should like to take this opportunity to put on record my gratitude to all who helped in any way to make my 1974 trip possible, as it proved one of the most formative experiences of my life.


  1. A long time ago, two Englishmen travelled on a ship. They passed over three seas and via Istanbul and finally reached the Black Sea. But there was a great storm, and their sailing boat sank. They had no other choice but to swim. While they were swimming in order to reach the coast, the people of the country saw them. They went to the coast, took them to their village and invited them to stay. They stayed there for two years. According to what is being told, they wrote down and studied the Ubykh language. After two years, the Ubykh people and the “Kahki” bade farewell to them. The English returned to their country. They had been the guest of the Çizhemukadar tribe. This is why whenever a member of the Çizhemukadar tribed starts to work, people joke and say: “You are like the English. You work quickly, just like the English.” This happened some 500 or 600 years ago. I do not know to what extent this story is based on facts. But, if there is such a book, it can probably be found in the English archives. I would be very pleased if someone could find it. But I do not know the truth. I am sorry for that.

  2. A long time ago, there was a woman who had three daughters. An Arab wanted one of her daughters, and so she gave the eldest daughter to him. The Arab took the girl home. In the evening, he came in order to be together with her. He cut off half of his moustache and gave it to her. He told her that she should keep it. The following evening, the Arab came back and wanted his moustache. He wanted the girl to put the moustache back on his face. This was obviously impossible, and so he became angry and killed the girl. Now he went to take the second sister. He took her home, and he cut the other half of his moustache off and gave it to her. He told her to keep it. The girl put it under the cushion she was sitting on. The following evening, the Arab came and wanted his moustache back. The girl couild not glue the moustache on the Arab’s face. He told her that she could not be his wife and killed her. Time passed, and he took the third daugher and brought her back home. The girl was distressed and cried because she knew what had happened to her sisters. The Arab came. He cut off his nose, gave it to her and told her to keep it. There was a fire in the room, and so the woman put the nose into the fire in order to roast it. However, a cate came, took the nose and ran away. The following evening, the Arab came and asked for his nose. But the cat had taken it. The girl could not possibly give it back to him. She implored God, and God put the nose back on the Arab’s face. The Arab was pleased. He told her that she could be his wife, since she was not like her sisters. He gave her forty keys. He told her that these forty keys would open the forty rooms of the house. She ought to visit all the rooms. The Arab left. The woman took the keys and started to visit the various rooms. There was gold in one room, silver in another and precious stones in a different one. Finally she reached the last room. There was a trunk. The trunk was locked. She wondered what was inside the trunk and opened it. There were a few tinkers who had been locked in the trunk. Of course they were pleased when the trunk was opened, and they got out of the trunk. They took as much gold and silver as they could and escaped. The woman was afraid that the Arab would kill her now and hid in the trunk. The Arab came back in the evening. He looked for her but could not find her. He did not know that the woman was in the trunk. The woman stayed in the trunk for some time. She became hungry. She wanted to eat. Where could she find food? The lord of the house had a son. They used to take food to him. The girl secretly used to get out of the trunk and eat some of the food when they were preparing it. But on one day, they caught the girl. When they caught her, they told her that she had behaved in a bad manner, and they threw her into the fire. They threw out her ashes. The spot on which her ashes had been thrown started to become green again. On one day, God resurrected her. A moaning could be heard under the ashes. Passing children started to gather because of the moaning. The woman used to have a fiancé. By chance, he was also passing by and, when he saw the gathering, he went to have a look. A woman’s moaning could be heard. When he looked at the ashes, he could see her fingers. He saw the ring he had given to her on one of her fingers. “Oh, this is my old fiancée. She was lost. So, this is her!” He released her. He took her home and married her. And they lived happily ever after. That is the end of the story.

  3. The greeting to Sir Harold Bailey reads (roughly) as follows: ‘My dear friend Bailey. Though I have not seen you, I know you, having heard your name. I am greatly pleased that you work on languages and heartily value that. I send you my best greetings, and, taking your hand, clasp you to my bosom.’

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