May 16, 2008


Those of you who have read Frank Herbert's Dune will remember the Fremen language Chakobsa, described by Wikipedia as "a mixture of Roma (or gypsy) language..., one sentence in Serbo-Croat and various Arabic terms." Imagine my surprise when I was reading Lesley Blanch's absorbing if overheated The Sabres of Paradise (1960), about the Russian-Chechen conflicts of the nineteenth century, and hit this on page 21: "They laughed derisively, speaking among themselves in that mysterious tongue, Chakobsa, 'the Hunting Language', which the rulers and Princes used when they wished to converse in secret, and of which no more than a few words have been discovered." I found a further allusion to it in Twelve Secrets of the Caucasus by "Essad Bey" (one of the pseudonyms used by the remarkable Lev Nussimbaum, whom I discussed in this post), first published in 1930 as Zwölf Geheimnisse im Kaukasus (my quote is from page 16 of the first translated edition, Viking 1931, which has been newly republished with a preface by Tom Reiss):

So the princes have a special language of their own, a language that is understood only by the prince and his peers. This is the famous hunting language. It was contrived by the inhabitants of the knights' citadels, the princely palaces, and the robbers' strongholds. The secret of it is strictly guarded, and no outsider has hitherto succeeded in becoming familiar with it though it is current throughout the whole of the mountains and among all the members of the caste. It is said to be the language of an extinct line of knights; but only within the last few decades has it come to be known about at all, so secretive were the princes. All important business is discussed in this language, secrets that no man must hear, and enterprises which affect the fate of the mountain people. Only five words of it are known to science, and they resemble no single word of any other known language. Shapaka—a horse, amafa—blood, ami—water, asaz—a gun, and ashopshka—a coward. The name of the language itself is Chakobsa.
(You will note that Nussimbaum/Essad is even more overheated than Mrs. Blanch, and I have no idea how much of that is to be taken seriously, including the "five words known to science.")

As you can imagine, the Frank Herbert hits swamp the Google results, but I was able to turn up one precious find from Google Books (a damnable "snippet view," but one of those rare ones where you can actually see the bit you need), from page 75 of George Thomas's 1977 The Languages and Literatures of the Non-Russian Peoples of the Soviet Union: "Presumably the Circassian Hunting language, also called Chakobsa or Sikowschir (Reineggs 1796, 248), (Bzhedukh /šhə-k'oa-bza/" (the snippet cuts off there). Reineggs is Jacob Reineggs (1744-1793), who went from serving Erekle II of eastern Georgia to being Russian Resident in Tiflis (Tbilisi) and wrote an Allgemeine historisch-topographische Beschreibung des Kaukasus that was published posthumously in 1796. Bzhedukh is a dialect of Adyghe. "Sikowschir" gets only four Google hits, all from nineteenth-century German sources, three of them books by Friedrich von Adelung and one an article by one of the great monosyllabic linguists of that century, A. F. Pott. While Adelung simply reproduces the word as found in Reineggs, Pott writes: "Die beiden [geheime Sprachen] gewöhnlichsten heissen Schakobsché und nicht, wie Reineggs schreibt, Sikowschir, und Farschipsé. Die erste derselben scheint eine ganz besondere zu sein, weil ihre Worte mit der gewöhnlichen Tscherkessischen Sprache keine Aehnlichkeit haben." ('Both [secret languages] are most commonly called Schakobsché and not, as Reineggs writes, Sikowschir, and Farschipsé. The first seems to be quite exceptional, since its words have no resemblance to the common Circassian language.')

I'm guessing Herbert got it from Blanch, since he was working on Dune in the early '60s, when her book was published (and, I gather, popular); I wonder if anyone has noticed before that it wasn't original with him? At any rate, the Circassian secret language should be rechristened something like Shekabza or Shekobza [or, to take into account the labialization, Shekwabza] (my attempts to provide a readable English equivalent of the Bzhedukh form cited by Thomas), since the Reineggs/Nussimbaum/Blanch version has been firmly appropriated by the Fremen.

Posted by languagehat at May 16, 2008 07:04 PM