The New York Times recently put up a piece, Has ‘Caucasian’ Lost Its Meaning? Much of the analysis in the article has too much of a feeling of ethnographic ‘close reading’, but I still am excited that the middle-brow journal of record has started to weigh in on the ridiculousness of the whole situation. I’ve been arguing that people should stop using “Caucasian” when they mean white or European for years, because the use of the term in this manner has led to farcical but common instances of semantic muddle such as the below exchange:
****Whate race do GEORGIAN people belong to***? – well if you are georgian or armenian and you go to other country, it is very hard for people to believe that you are white, everyone thinks either you are hispanic or mix so i was wondering what is the name of the race georgians.armenian are?
[One of the answers] As more and more people move around and settle in different locations, it’s becoming more and more difficult to ‘racially’ identify people by regions. Now if it were a few hundred years ago, I would have said Caucasian…but then as time has gone by Middle Eastern seems more appropriate…
Obviously, unlike a few hundred years ago, Georgians no longer reside in the Caucasus mountains. Nor are they any longer the archetype of West Eurasian populations. I am not going to have one of those inane discussions about whether Georgians really are white, though any reader who believes such a thing is invited to start referring to Stalin as the Soviet Union’s only head of state of color in the future. My primary issue with the modern American usage of the term is two-fold:
If the Soviet Union was the “The Prisonhouse of Nations,” then the Caucasus region must be the refuge of the languages. Not only is this region linguistically diverse on a fine-grained scale, but there are multiple broader language families which are found nowhere else in the world. The widespread Indo-European languages are represented by Armenians, Greeks, and Iranians. The similarly expansive Altaic languages are represented by the Turkic dialects. But in addition to these well known groups which span Eurasia there are the Northwest Caucasian, Northeast Caucasian, and Kartvelian, families. These have only a local distribution despite their distinctiveness.
On the one hand we probably shouldn’t be that surprised by the prominence of small and diverse language families in this rugged region between Russia and the Near East. Mountains often serve as the last refuges of peoples and cultures being submerged elsewhere. For example, in the mountains of northern Pakistan you have the linguistic isolate of Burusho, which has no known affinity with other languages. Likely it once had relatives, but they were assimilated, leaving only this last representative isolated in its alpine fastness. The once extensive Sogdian dialects (Sodgian was once the lingua franca between Iran and China) are now only represented by Yaghnobi, which persists in an isolated river valley in Tajikistan. How the mighty have fallen! But the mountains are always the last fortresses to succumb.
But the Caucasus are peculiar for another reason: they’re so close to the “action” of history. In fact, history as we know it started relatively near the Caucasus, to the south on the Mesopotamian plain ~5,000 years ago. Therefore we have shadows and glimmers of what occurred on the south Caucasian fringe early on, such as the rise and fall of the kingdom of Urartu ~3,000 years ago. The ancient ancestors of the Georgians even show up in Greek myth, as the Colchis of Medea. And this was a busy part of the world. Hittite, Greek, Roman, and Arab, came and went. The rise of Turkic resulted in the marginalization of many of its predecessors. Some scholars even argue that the Indo-European and Semitic languages families issue from the north and south fringes of the Fertile Crescent, respectively. And it isn’t as if history has skirted the Caucasians. The Georgians faced the brunt of the Mongol armies, while the Circassians have famously been present across the greater Middle East as soldiers and slaves.