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28-07-2017, 13:22

Ferisch’ibze [ФэрыщIыбзэ]: One of the Secret/Encrypted Highfaluting Languages of the Circassians

Amjad M. Jaimoukha

The Circassian language is an isolate language (excluding the related languages Abkhaz-Abaza, spoken by less than 200,000 people in Abkhazia and Abazia in the Northwest Caucasus, and Ubykh, now extinct) that is particularly difficult to learn for non-native speakers. So much so, that during WWII, the Great Patriotic War of the Soviets, the Circassian language was used by the Soviet military as a code language for its inscrutability and rarity. Therefore, it would seem incomprehensible (at face value) as to why the Circassians would ever want to codify their already highly cryptic language. However, the fortune of the Circassian language was not always as dismal as it is today, for, prior to the Russian occupation of Circassia and mass expulsion of its population in the 19th century, the Circassian language had been the dominant language in the Northwest Caucasus, spoken not only by the Circassians themselves, but also by the other ethnic groups resident in Circassia, including the Armenians, Greeks, and Germans. Nevertheless, through the ages the Circassians devised secret and coded languages for the purpose of class and group exclusivity, and also to keep animals, as prey, unaware of the intentions of the hunters. Thus, linguistic dissimulation and dissembling was an internal Circassian matter, not directed towards non-Circassian speakers, but more intended towards keeping the lower castes in the dark as to the affairs of the upper classes.

Travellers to Circassia, ever since the account of the famous 17th-century Ottoman traveller Evliya ?elebi of his journey to Circassia in 1666, have informed us that the Circassian princes and nobility spoke languages, jargons, and cants that were not understood by the common masses, but were exclusively used and understood by the upper classes, and which were interdicted for the commoners to speak. European travellers to the North Caucasus were utterly fascinated by this aspect of Circassian culture and folklore, and to learn (about) the esoteric cant was the motivation of many a trip to Circassia. Some posited that, since the upper classes spoke a different language to that of the masses [and were of somewhat larger physical size and slightly different physiognomy], the princes and nobles of Circassia were foreign occupiers of the Circassian commoners and lower castes (e.g. F. Dubois de Montp?reux, 1839, Vol. I, pp. 141-142).

According to the 18th-century German (Saxon) adventurer and diplomat Jacob Reineggs (1744-1793; 1807, Vol. I, pp. 273-275):

...But they [the Kabardians] have a secret, or court language, which is styled Sikowschir, only spoken by the princes and nobility amongst themselves; for the common people dare not speak it, if they even understood it.

Jan Potocki (1761-1815), the colourful – not to say slightly eccentric – Polish travelogue who travelled to the North Caucasus in 1798 and instantly became infatuated with the secret languages of the Circassians and made efforts to learn some of their secrets, wrote that “in the first days of September Circassian prince leave their homes, and are removed to the mountains or in the forests, where they build huts made ??of branches of trees [пщыIэ; pschi’e]. Each prince is accompanied by his loyal nobles, but none of his family members dared to approach the hut, even his own brother. Here all participants stay in disguise, that is, they cover the face with masks, and did not speak Circassian; all conversations are in a certain jargon which they call ‘shakobza’ [«ЩакIуэбзэ»]. Only the prince knows the identity of all those present in the fraternity, and he is at the centre of all the mysteries… The masquerade lasts six weeks. I already know many words of the jargon ‘shakobza’ [“chakobza”, in French], and I intend to complete my lexicon in Georgievsk, where I was informed of a person who has the key to this jargon.” (J. Potocki, 1829, Vol. I, pp. 168-169)

Kabardian aristocratic septet on the hunt, donning fearsome masks.
Circassian aristocracy donned terrifying masks [ажэжьпыIэ (azhezchpi’e), in Kabardian;
ачъэжъпаIу, in Adigean; literally: ‘old-billy-goat-cap’] on their hunting expeditions,
apparently to confound the prey, and together with the esoteric
cant (щакIуэбзэ, schak’webze=language of the chase),
render the objects of the hunt unaware of the true purpose of the chevy.
Kabardian princes, up until the first part of the 19th century,
held secretive assemblies after the harvest that lasted for six weeks.
In such assemblies, masks were used to hide identity so that the binding article
in the code of chivalry on blood-revenge would not disrupt
the smooth running of the martial exercises.
[Russian Ethnographic Museum in St. Petersburg]

Potocki’s account of “chakobza” has inspired a cult interest in the Circassian cant in the West since the late 1990s, and a new argot “chakobsa” has been born.

After Russian occupation of Kabarda in the first years of the 19th century, the Russians interdicted the esoteric gatherings of princes and nobles, which contributed to the diminution in the use of secret languages in the country. Circassian researchers and academics only started to consider this aspect of Circassian linguistics in the 1970s. A number of works have been published on this arcane subject in Russian, and fewer in Circassian, but precious little in English. This article attempts to shed light on Circassian encrypted languages and the research that has been done on the issue.

The emergence of a secret language is caused by the desire of individuals within a particular walk of life to speak in a language that would be incomprehensible to others, not within their social group. The Circassians have produced a number of special languages in which they spoke only amongst themselves, and sub-groups developed their own esoteric cants. According to the Circassian ethnographer and anthropologist Beresbiy Bghezchnoqwe (Бгъэжьнокъуэ Бэрэсбий; B. Bgazhnokov), there are three kinds of “secret/special languages” of the Circassians, in accordance with structure and in contradistinction to the ordinary speech:

1. Lexical-semantic; e.g. Schak’webze [ЩакIуэбзэ], the language of the chase; Zeik’webze [ЗекIуэбзэ], the language of military/predatory campaigns; and Werqibze [Уэркъыбзэ], the language of the noble cavalry.

2. Syllabic; e.g. Ferisch’ibze [ФэрыщIыбзэ], the language of concealment and ostentation; and Farsibze [Фарсыбзэ], encrypted language based on the Farsi/Persian language Zargari, the secret language of Persian artisans and maidens.

3. Metaphorical. To this category belong the allegorical languages «щIагъыбзэ» [allegorical language; literally: the language underneath] and «хъуэрыбзэ» [language of parables], which belong more to the Circassian poetic and literary language, rather than being the cants of esoteric groups.

Here is a list of the names of some of the coded/secret languages that belong to the first two categories, produced/developed by the Circassians in the past few centuries:

1. Schak’webze [ЩакIуэбзэ]: The language of the chase. Lexical-semantic: The ordinary word is concealed and in its stead a lexical-semantic substitute that refers to its most salient characteristic is used.
2. Zeik’webze [ЗекIуэбзэ]: The language of military/predatory campaigns. Lexical-semantic.
3. Werqibze [Уэркъыбзэ]: The language of the noble cavalry. Lexical-semantic.
4. Ferisch’ibze [ФэрыщIыбзэ]: The language of both concealment (of intention) and ostentation. Syllabic. This is most probably J. Klaproth’s “Farschips?” [more on this below].
5. Farsibze [Фарсыбзэ]: Encrypted language based on the Farsi/Persian language Zargari, the secret language of Persian artisans and maidens. Syllabic. Thought by the researcher A. S. Kishev to be Klaproth’s “Farschips?” (1986).
6. Shu pschi’e [Шу пщыIэ]: Language of the riders’ base/training camp. This cant is associated with men’s houses and secret alliances [куей].
7. Schexwbze [Щэхубзэ]: Secret/coded language.
8. Fibze [Фыбзэ]: Language based on the instructions in religious schools developed in the 19th century, as Arabic is conceived to be replete with the “F” sound [“fee”, “fa”, “foo”].

We are most familiar with “Schak’webze”, the language of the chase, which is one of the more curious aspects of Northwest Caucasian culture. The “Hunting Language” used to be spoken by the princes and nobility during their hunting expeditions. Circassian aristocracy donned masks on their hunting expeditions, apparently to confound the prey, and together with the esoteric cant (ЩакIуэбзэ, Schak’webze = Language of the Chase), render the objects of the hunt unaware of the true purpose of the chevy. According to the Circassian language researchers Hezeishe Taw (Тау Хьэзешэ) and Marina Ghwch’e (ГъукIэ Маринэ) (2011), there are Circassian hunters in Kabarda who still use the ancient language of the chase on their expeditions.

However, there are no specific studies on the construction of the laws of the secret languages ??Circassians, nor on methods of decoding, and, as correctly noted by the ethnographer B. Bgazhnokov, over the past 200 years, “no one was able to find the key to these mysterious languages”.

In this article we attempt to shed some light on Ferisch’ibze.

Klaproth’s “Farschips?”

The German linguist and travelogue Julius Heinrich von Klaproth (1783-1835) was the first Western scholar to draw attention to and consider the Circassian secret language “Ferisch’ibze” [with Jan Potocki accredited with being first to study “Schak’webze”], referring to it as “Farschips?”. According to J. Klaproth (English edition: 1814, p. 328; French edition: 1823, pp. 381-382):

In their predatory expeditions they [the Circassians] use secret languages, founded on a pre-concerted arrangement. The two most commonly used are termed “Schakobsch?”, and not as Reineggs writes it “Sikowschir”, and Farschips?. The first of these seems to be a totally distinct language, as it bears no resemblance to the ordinary Tscherkessian [Kabardian].

The Farschips? language is formed of ordinary Tscherkessian [Kabardian], by the introduction of ‘ri’ or ‘f?’ between each syllable.


Schah [щхьэ]
Irisch’chari [ирищхьэри]

Tdl’e [лъэ or лъакъуэ]
Tl’arikquari [лъарикъуэри]

Ia [Iэ]
Iriari [ириIэри]

Takhuma [тхьэкIумэ]
Tarimariquari [тхьэримэрикIури]

Nne [нэ]
Irinneri [иринэри]

P?h [пэ]
Irip?hri [ирипэри]

Dshe [жьэ]
Iridsheri [ирижьэри]
Bbse [бзэ or бзэгу]
Iribbserigueri [ирибзэригури]

Dshake [жьакIэ]
Dsharikeri [жьарикIэри]

Kishev’s Reconstructed Codes

In a short article published in 1986, the researcher A. S. Kishev (Ch’isch) attempted to work out and decipher some of the methods of forming one class of the secret languages ??of the Circassians.

According to Kishev, unlike the hunting language “Schak’webze”, the secret language the Circassians (Farschips?) can be categorized as symbolic, slang, or secretive language only by tradition. Essentially, it is an artificial language constructed on the basis of the grammatical and phonetic systems of the native language and is formed by adding to each word certain “deforming argot prefixes, infixes, and suffix”, i.e. phonemes, key syllables, and sound combinations that do not have any intended/inherent meaning, but are inserted to deform and thus encrypt. This operation distorts the phonetic form of the ordinary word of the Circassian language beyond recognition, thus making of ordinary words and expressions a secret language of a particular group of people, and rendering them “gibberish” for the uninitiated.

Analysis of words and phrases published by researchers and collected field material allowed Kishev to come up with a few “easy” ways of forming/learning the secret language of the Circassians “Farschips?”. He used the expression «Сэ нобэ сыножьащ» [“Se nobe sinozchasch”; “I waited for you today”] to demonstrate the transformations in the normal language that would make the coded languages unintelligible to the non-initiated listeners. Here are Kishev’s encryption codes in ascending order of complexity. We have added a Latinized transcription for the encrypted sentences based on Amjad M. Jaimoukha “Latinized Kabardian Alphabet” (2001). Also, the English sentence is fed into each of the “encryption boxes”, for effect and perspective.

1. Before each word of the sentence/expression of the Circassian language a monosyllabic [meaningless] phoneme is inserted:

Фи-сэ фи-нобэ фи-сыножьащ.

[Fiy-se fiy-nobe fiy-sinozchasch.]

[Effect of encryption on English sentence: Fiy-I Fiy-waited fiy-for fiy-you fiy-today.]

2. After each syllable of the words of the sentence/expression a monosyllabic [meaningless] phoneme is inserted:

Сэ-фи но-фи-бэ-фи сы-фи-но-фи-жьащ-фи.

[Se-fiy no-fiy-be-fiy si-fiy-no-fiy-zchasch-fiy.]

[I-fiy wai-fiy-ted-fiy for-fiy you-fiy to-fiy-day-fiy.]

3. After each word of the sentence/expression a disyllabic [meaningless] word combination – a keyword – is inserted:

Сэ-рыфы нобэ-рыфы сыножьащ-рыфы.

[Se-rifi nobe-rifi sinozchasch-rifi.]

[I-rifi waited-rifi for-rifi you-rifi today-rifi.]

4. After each syllable a monosyllabic [meaningless] phoneme is inserted, and after each word – a disyllabic combination:

Сэ-рыфы но-фы-бэ-рыфы сы-фы-но-фы-жьа-фы-щ(ы)-рыфы.

[Se-rifi no-fi-be-rifi si-fi-no-fi-zcha-fi-sch(i)-rifi.]

[I-rifi wai-fi-ted-rifi for-rifi you-rifi to-fi-day-rifi.]

5. After each syllable and before the last sound in every word the dissyllabic sound combination «икын» [“yikin”] is inserted:

С-икын-э но-икын-б-икын-э сы-икын-но-икын-жьа-икын-щ.

[S-yikin-e no-yikin-b-yikin-e si-yikin-no-yikin-zcha-yikin-sch.]

[I wai-yikin-te-yikin-d fo-yikin-r you to-yikin-da-yikin-y.]

6. After each word is inserted a disyllabic or trisyllabic sound combination (эли, уэти, уэкIуи, уэри, уэфи, уэжьи, рыфы, икын, никы, никыны, лэхьи, уэтэхьи, уэкIуэхьи, etc.), then ??a permutation is made between the first consonants of the last syllable in the words and the last consonant of the applied sound combination:

Сэ-уэли нобэ-уэли сыножьащ-уэли. ? Лэ-уэси нолэ-уэби сынолащ-уэжьи.

[Se-weliy nobe-weliy sinozchasch-weliy. ? Le-wesiy nole-webiy sinolasch-wezchiy.]

[I-weliy waited-weliy for-weliy you-weliy today-weliy. ? I-weliy wailed-wetiy lor-wefiy you-weliy tolay-wediy.]

This fragmentation of the word, and the insertion and addition of monosyllabic phonemes and dissyllabic or trisyllabic sound combinations make the word of the native language incomprehensible, even to the most fluent of its speakers. When detecting the presence of the key syllable (word), two colloquists can go from one mode of codification to another. Thus, the same sentence of the native language can be transformed to several coded expressions. The level of complexity and encryption is virtually boundless.

For Kishev, the original Circassian name for the secret language “Farschips?” [Kishev’s «фаршибше»] remains undeciphered. During ethnographic expeditions in Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachai-Cherkessia and Adigea, he met with several names for the secret language – Farsibze (Farsi), Fibze (language of the sound "F"), and Ferisch’ibze (language of dissembling and ostentation). Kishev considers these names (and others) and analyses them. Kishev was inclined to decipher “Farshibshe” [«фаршибше»] as corresponding to the Circassian secret language “Farsibze” («Фарсыбзэ»; “Farsi Cant”).

Through 17th-century cultural ties of the Circassians with Persia (present-day Iran), Kishev traces “Farshibshe” to “Zargari” [or “Morghuli”], the secret language of Persian artisans [which had as its principle that after each syllable of the word the sound “z” was inserted, so that the ordinary word became completely incomprehensible], later adopted by young women of the Persian upper classes, and posits that the Circassians were influenced by this highfaluting cant and adopted it in their native languages – thus the name “Farsibze” [Farsi/Persian Cant] for this class of secret languages of the Circassians.

We tend to disagree with Kishev’s tendency to believe that “Farschips?” is connected to Farsibze, and think that an accomplished linguist like Klaproth would not use a “sch” to represent the Circassian sound “s” [because he actually represented the Circassian sound “s” by the letter “s”], but rather would use it to represent “щI”, and thus his “Farschips?” is more likely to be Circassian “Ferisch’ibze”, as opposed to “Farsibze”. Because in Russian “Farschips?” is rendered as «Фаршибше» (“farshibshe”) [as opposed to the more correct «Фарщибсе»], perhaps Kishev fell into the trap of interpreting the first «ш» as an “s” sound, same as the second «ш». In addition, the concept of a secret language amongst the Circassians precedes the 17th century AD, the time of importation of Farsibze from Persia, according to Kishev.

The subject of the secret/encrypted languages of the Circassians warrants further research by linguists, cryptographers, and ethnographers, not only in Circassia, but also in the West.


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