Current projects

LexCauc – A lexical database for the languages of the Caucasus

Project leaders:
Prof. Dr. Diana Forker & Dr. Oleg Belyaev

PhD Student:
Ilya Chechuro will be an associated PhD student. He will start in October 2019 as a member of the IMPRS at the MPI-SHH Jena

Research assistants:
Felix Anker
Tamar Khutsishvili
Elguja Dadunashvili

BMBF Kleine Fächer, große PotenzialeExternal link (2017–2020)

The preliminary database can be accessed hereExternal link

Cooperation partners and language experts

  • Department of Linguistic and Cultural Evolution at the MPI for the Science of Human History, Jena (DLCEExternal link)
  • Felix Anker (FSU Jena)
  • Ayten Babaliyeva, Baku
  • Viacheslav Chirikba (University of Suchum)
  • Marina Chumakina (University of Surrey)
  • Elguja Dandunashvili (FSU Jena)
  • Mikhail Daniel (National Research University Higher School of Economics, Linguistic Convergence Laboratory, Moscow)
  • Nina Dobrushina (National Research University Higher School of Economics, Linguistic Convergence Laboratory, Moscow)
  • Konstantin Filatov (National Research University Higher School of Economics, Linguistic Convergence Laboratory, Moscow)
  • Dmitrii Ganenkov (University of Bamberg & Humboldt University of Berlin)
  • Zaira Khalilova (Russian Academy of Science, Makhachkala & Moscow)
  • Solmaz Merdanova (Russian Academy of Science, Moscow)
  • Zarina Molochieva (University of Kiel)
  • George Moroz (National Research University Higher School of Economics, Linguistic Convergence Laboratory, Moscow)
  • Rasul Mutalov (Russian Academy of Science, Moscow)
  • Monika Rind-Pawlowski (University of Frankfurt)
  • Kristian Roncero (MPI-SHH & FSU Jena)
  • Nina Sumbatova (Russian State University for the Humanities)
  • Jesse Wichers Schreur (University of Frankfurt)

Project description
The Caucasus has been known since antiquity as the “Mountain of tongues” and as a unique area of linguistic, ethnic and cultural diversity. The investigation of this diversity through linguistic data is the goal of this project. We are building up a comprehensive lexical database of the languages of the Caucasus. It will contain the following information for every lexeme: transcription (IPA, standard orthography), precise English translation, grammatical information, audio recording, and metadata. The database will be open-access and presented by means of a website that will also contain maps of the region.

During the second stage of the project we will use quantitative statistical and phylogenetic tools for inferring the origins, dispersal and timing of the expansions of the Caucasian languages and evaluate the results in comparison with the existing literature (e.g. Nikolayev & Starostin 1994, Koryakov 2006). A key component will be to employ cutting-edge phylogeographic models to infer the geographic patterning of the underlying expansions through the region. In addition, our study will allow for a very detailed representation of linguistic data that allows us to apply pioneering techniques for sequence comparison, high-level annotation, including full and partial cognates inside and across the same concepts in our dataset, and will in this way also contribute to cross-disciplinary studies by integrating, for example, the names that the languages give to the physical objects to artifacts in archaeological records, or early attestations of domestication.

The project is conducted by Oleg Belyaev and Diana Forker. The project closely cooperates with the Department of Linguistic and Cultural Evolution at the MPI for the Science of Human History in Jena (DLCEExternal link), in particular with Prof. Russel Gray, Dr. Cormac Anderson, Dr. Mattis List and Dr. Simon Greenhill. In October 2019, Ilya Chechuro will join the team as an associated a PhD student from the International Max Planck Research School for the Science of Human History (IMPRS-SHHExternal link).

At the moment, an international consortium of experts is gathering data for East Caucasian and West Caucasian languages. In the first expert workshop on April 12–13, 2018, around 20 researchers from the Caucasus, Moscow, the UK and Germany participated. The second workshop took place June 5–7, 2019. Due to the current emergency related to Covid-19, the third LexCauc Workshop planned for May 14-15, 2020 is postponed for indefinite time. The new date will be announced in summer 2020.

Language contact in the Caucasus

Project leader:
Prof. Dr. Diana Forker

Cooperation partners:
Prof. Dr. Lenore Grenoble, U Chicago
Dr. Zaira Khalilova, Russian Academy of Science
Dr. Zarina Molochieva, Universität Kiel


Heisenberg-Fellowship by the German Research Foundation (DFG)

Project description:
Language contact is important for researching human history because languages can preserve traces of contact that even thousands of years later can give us hints about migration histories. The project focuses on the functional and structural constraints of language contact between pairs of languages in asymmetrical contact situations, more specifically between Russian and East Caucasian languages (in particular Hinuq, Bezhta, Sanzhi Dargwa and Chechen). The aim of the project is to systematically study language contact phenomena from a structural as well as from a sociolinguistic perspective. The project will draw on methods that have successfully been used for the study of contact and bilingualism between large speech communities such as English-Spanish or English-Russian. It consists in controlled questionnaire studies and experiments (translation tasks, story retelling) as well as corpus studies to ensure that we simultaneously investigate comparable data and data from natural corpora.

The project will have broader implications for language contact studies, historical linguistics and areal typology beyond the field of Caucasian studies. General research questions to be studied are:

  • Which features play decisive roles when diverse languages are in contact with the same dominant language (Russian)?
  • Is the outcome similar or do we find differences that can be explained by diverging sociolinguistic situations or typological and genetic differences?
  • Which areas of ancient and recent contact zones in the Caucasus can we identify through the systematic study of the core vocabulary?
  • What does this tell us about cultural and political developments?

Resilience in the South Caucasus: prospects and challenges of a new EU foreign policy concept. More information can be found here.

Caucasian narratives in the discourse of comparative fairy tale research

Project leader:
Dr. Elguja Dadunashvili

Project partners:
Prof. Dr. Diana Forker
Prof. Dr. Friedemann Eugen Schmoll


Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG)


Project description:

The astonishing similarity between fairy tale themes in different ethnic groups – often far apart both spatially and culturally – has been the subject of comparative fairy tale research for more than two centuries. Given the universal distribution of the phenomenon, the progress of comparative fairy tale research relies heavily on the representativity of the data made available to it. Each fairy tale repertoire, which is developed by means of coherent methods, helps answering the following questions with which the international fairy tale research is concerned:

  1. What are the authentic schemes of individual core stories or storylines in fairy tales?
  2. What are the backgrounds of the metaphorically depicted motifs of successive fairy tale episodes?

The initiated research project is supposed to close some gaps concerning these questions. For this purpose, the highly interesting narratives from the Caucasus are particularly suitable. The Caucasian narrative is particularly characterized by the remarkable geographical location of its area of origin. The region has always been considered a place of encounters: The relatively small area is home to speakers of more than 50 languages from five different language families who are in permanent and intensive contact with each other.

The Caucasus is seen as a meeting ground of political powers, rival cultures (Orient vs. Occident), contrasting ways of life (sedentary vs. semi-nomadic) and religions (Islam vs. Christianity, paganism vs. established religions). At the same time, the region is a homogeneous cultural space with shared values and institutions (hospitality, blood feud, swearing brotherhood, code of honour, etc.). All these factors shape the thematic, semantic, and structural characteristics of the oral folklore tradition of the Caucasus and make it particularly appealing for comparative narrative research.

The project has one main goal and three other sub-goals. The main goal is the comparative analysis and interpretation of Caucasian narratives. This broad main objective is divided into further sub-objectives:

  1. Digital indexing,
  2. Cataloging,
  3. Typological-comparative characteristics of ethnical-regional fairy tale repertoires (starting with Dagestanian fairy tales).

The overall goal is to be achieved successively and by using inductive research methods. This means that future subprojects will also be supported by the methodology and digital infrastructure developed within the framework of the present project. Although the present project is limited to the indexing of Dagestanian fairy tales, the core project will provide methodological and infrastructural tools for the fulfilment of the overall project goal.

Project Website