Baron Pyotr Karlovich Uslar: Inventor of the First Abkhaz Alphabet, by Stephen D. Shenfield

Peter Uslar

Stephen D. Shenfield | Special to Abkhaz World


Prior to the Russian conquest of the Caucasus, Abkhaz and the other languages of the mountain peoples existed only in oral form. They acquired writing systems as a delayed side effect of the conquest. This process was initiated by Baron Pyotr (Peter) Karlovich Uslar1 (1816 – 1875), a military engineer who became a pioneer in European studies of the Caucasus, especially the North Caucasus, and its peoples and languages.

I have been unable to locate any literature about Uslar in English. Historians of the Caucasus may mention his name, but only in passing. There is, however, a substantial literature about him in Russian that I have been able to use in preparing this article. Nevertheless, I have only skimmed the surface of this literature. Uslar is clearly a key figure in the history of the Caucasus and in the development of linguistics as well as Caucasus Studies. So a fuller English-language account of his life and work should be made available.

After a brief description of Uslar’s background and military career, I show how he became involved in study of history and languages of the Caucasus and discuss his work as a linguist and educator. I append information about the first three Abkhaz alphabets.

Uslar’s background and military career

Like many other members of the tsarist military and administrative elite, Baron Pyotr Uslar was of German origin. His grandfather, a native of Hanover, entered Russian military service in 1765. The family was given a country estate by Alexander I in the village of Kurovo in Tver province; it was later expanded to include two other villages. His father fought in the war against Napoleon.

Pytor was the second oldest of seven children and the oldest of three brothers. As a young child he had a German home tutor, who inspired him with a love of classical Latin. Later he attended a grammar school in St. Petersburg and then the Chief Engineering College, graduating as a military engineer.

Uslar began military service in 1837 in a sapper battalion in the Caucasian War. In 1839 he took part in an expedition to southern Dagestan. Then he left the Caucasus to marry Sofia Grabbe, the daughter of a general. In 1843 – 1844 he served in the “Kyrgyz steppe” (the term then used for an area that is now mainly in Kazakhstan), describing the experience in an essay that was published in the journal Otechestvennye zapiski (Fatherland Notes).

Uslar’s literary talent evidently impressed his superiors sufficiently for them to assign him more intellectual tasks. In 1845 – 1849 he was busy compiling “military-statistical descriptions” of his native Tver Province and then of Vologda Province. These were detailed accounts of terrain, resources, population and economy, focusing on aspects of military significance. In 1849 he participated in suppressing the Hungarian uprising – a favor extended by the tsar to his fellow autocrat, the Austro-Hungarian emperor.

In 1850, after almost a decade away, Uslar returned to the Caucasus. He was to remain there for most of the remaining 25 years of his life, leaving only to spend short periods on his family estate, usually in the summer. His first assignment was to write another military-statistical description – this time of Yerevan Province in Armenia.2 He served in various places in the Caucasus (first Guri, then Kutaisi) and rose in the army hierarchy, reaching the rank of major general in 1862.

Uslar’s studies of the history and languages of the Caucasus

In 1858 Uslar was given the task of writing a history of the Caucasus since ancient times. He worked on this history for many years: it was finally published only after his death. But his main interest was the languages of the region – an interest that he reconciled with his official status as a historian by arguing that a people’s language is the most reliable source of information about its history.3

Uslar began his linguistic studies with the West Caucasian group of languages – Circassian, Ubykh and Abkhaz.4 However, he made only brief notes about Circassian and Ubykh, which were published only after his death. He studied Abkhaz in much greater depth, starting in Sukhum in 1861 and continuing in Tiflis (present-day Tbilisi) in 1862.

In 1862 Uslar also started to study Kabardinian, but in 1863 he settled in Dagestan, in the village of Temir-Khan-Shure (now the town of Buinaksk), and embarked on the study of several Dagestani languages. Over the course of the following decade, he studied in succession Avar, Lak, Archin, Dargin, Lezgin and Tabasaran.5 In 1865 he visited Chechnya and studied Chechen. In 1868 he was made a corresponding member of the Historical-Philological Division of the Academy of Sciences.

Uslar’s main legacy as a linguist was a series of seven books that systematically described the Abkhaz, Chechen, Avar, Lak, Dargin, Lezgin, and Tabasaran languages. Each book contained an analysis of pronunciation, using an alphabet specially designed for the language in question, an account of the language’s grammar, vocabulary, and sample texts in the form of proverbs, songs, and short stories.

As a creator of alphabets, Uslar might be compared to the Armenian monk Mesrop Mashtots (c. 361 – 440), who also specially designed alphabets for a whole series of languages, including Georgian as well as Armenian itself.

Uslar as an educator

Uslar did not just study languages and create alphabets. He also undertook the first efforts to establish schools to spread literacy among the mountain peoples. In all these activities, he relied extensively on local indigenous informants and collaborators, some of whom continued his work after he left a given area.

Thus, Uslar’s work on a Kabardinian alphabet was completed by Kazi Atazhukin, who issued a Kabardinian spelling book in 1865. A Chechen spelling book was produced by Uslar’s Chechen collaborator Kedi Dosov. Also in 1865, another Chechen collaborator, the mullah Yangulbai Khasanov, taught Chechen writing to 25 students in a temporary school in the Grozny Fortress: it achieved its purpose in seven weeks, even though none of the students had ever held a pen in his hand before.

Uslar’s Avar collaborator Aidemir Chirkeyevsky published a collection of Avar songs and stories in 1867, before fleeing to Turkey in 1871. Uslar also valued highly a Lezgin collaborator by the name of Ganazfer.

A pioneer of modern linguistics

Russian scholars have called Uslar “the spontaneous founder of the methodology of linguistic field research.” Although the basic concepts of modern linguistics had yet to be formulated, Uslar intuitively invented research methods that would later be justified in terms of those concepts. For example, although the very concept of “phoneme” – a subset of vocal sound that has distinct significance in a given language – did not yet exist, Uslar listened closely and patiently to native speakers until he fully grasped the phonemic structure of their language. Uslar was able to overcome the Eurocentric assumptions of nineteenth-century philology and adopt the more objective and analytical approach that would characterize twentieth-century linguistics.

Much of Uslar’s literary legacy was long neglected. After his death in 1875, some of his papers (rough notes, uncompleted manuscripts, etc.) ended up in the hands of his colleague Academician Shifner, who made little use of them before himself dying in 1879. Other papers were taken into the safekeeping of the Russian military administration of the Caucasus. Only in 1953 did the linguist Alexander Magometov begin preparing Uslar’s Tabasaran grammar for publication, and it was finally published with his annotations in 1979 – over a century late!

The first three Abkhaz alphabets

The alphabet that Uslar created for Abkhaz in 1862 consisted of 37 letters. Most of these were based on Cyrillic letters, with various diacritical marks and squibbles attached. But a few Latin letters were included (h, i, j), and also the lower-case Greek letter nu (in two variants).6

The second Abkhaz alphabet, created in 1909 by Alexei Chochua, was a modified and expanded version of Uslar’s alphabet. It consisted of 55 letters, again mostly based on Cyrillic letters but with a few Latin letters (I, q, h) and the Greek nu.7

The third Abkhaz alphabet was the so-called Abkhaz Analytical Alphabet of 77 letters, devised by Academician Nikolai Yakovlevich Marr in 1926 on the basis of the Latin script with abundant use of diacritical marks (and a few letters based on Cyrillic, e.g. sh).


1. Sometimes spelled Uzlar.

2. It was presumably as a result of this work that in 1851 he became a member of the Caucasian Section of the Imperial Russian Geographical Society.

3. One example pertaining to the Caucasus that was already known by Uslar’s time concerned the Ossets, whose language revealed their Iranian origin. Uslar also argued that only the linguistic proximity between European and Indian languages in the Indo-European family revealed the common origin of European and Indian peoples.

4. At this period he also made a brief study of Svan.

5. These are the names by which these languages are currently known; at that time some of them were known by other names. Uslar studied Archin for a much shorter period than any of the other languages, producing only a few notes.

6. Uslar’s alphabet as it appeared in a book published in 1888 is shown atФайл:Abkhaz_Uslar_alphabet.JPG

7. Chochua’s alphabet, as published in a 1925 textbook, is shown atФайл:Abhaz_alphabet_chochua.JPG


Abkhazskaya pis’mennost’.Абхазская_письменность

Ganich, Anastasia Alexeyevna, Musul’manskoe prosveshchenie v Kabarde vo vtoroi polovine XIX v.

Uslar, Pyotr Karlovich.Услар,_Пётр_Карлович

Vorob’yov, Vyacheslav. Tverskoi dvorianin – sozdatel’ chechenskogo alfavita.

Zagurskii, L.P. Pyotr Karlovich Uslar i ego deiatel’nost’ na Kavkaze. Sbornik svedenii o kavkazskikh gortsakh. Vypusk X (1881).




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