Monday, April 23, 2007
The Georgian Language, by Popular Demand
(If you have trouble viewing this image of the Georgian alphabet, please click on it to see it more clearly on a white background.)
There have been several requests for more information on the Georgian language (kartuli ena or ქართული ენა).
Georgian is spoken by 3.9 million people in Georgia itself and by another half million Georgians living abroad, mostly in Iran, Russia, Turkey, Europe and the US. The other South Caucasian languages (see below) are spoken by over 600,000 people.
The oldest example of Georgian writing is an inscription in a church in Bethlehem from AD 430. While the left-to-right direction of the writing, the order of the letters and many of the letters themselves all show Greek influences, the Georgian alphabet also has elements of the Persian and Syriac alphabets. Georgian tradition attributes the invention of the Georgian alphabet to Parnavaz I of Iberia in the 3rd century BC, though some scholars have suggested that the alphabet only came together as a result of the influence of Christianity. The modern version of the alphabet, called Mkhedruli (მხედრული, "military"), first appeared in the eleventh century; it was used only for non-religious purposes until the eighteenth century, when it completely replaced older variations. It has thirty three letters.
The oldest surviving text in Georgian dates from the 5th century AD, The Martyrdom of the Holy Queen Shushanik (Tsamebay tsmindisa Shushanikisi, dedoplisa) by Iakob Tsurtaveli. The Georgian national epic, The Knight in the Panther's Skin (Vepkhistqaosani) dates from the 12th century (pictured below).
Georgian is a member of the South Caucasian or Kartvelian family of languages, which also includes Gruzinic, a dialect spoken by Georgia's Jewish community, which is usually mutually intelligible to Georgian speakers; Megrelian, spoken in northwest Georgia; Svan, also spoken in northwest Georgia; and Laz, spoken on the southeast shore of the Black Sea.
The South Caucasian group has no known connections to other languages, not even the North Caucasian group. Some linguists have suggested that the South Caucasian group is part of the larger Nostratic language family, but the idea has not received widespread acceptance. Likewise, certain grammatical similarities with Basque, including the case system, have led some linguists to suggest a connection, though the resemblance is mostly superficial.
Of the other South Caucasian languages, Mingrelian has been written with the Georgian alphabet since 1864. The language has only flourished in written form in the period from 1930 to 1938, when the Megrelians enjoyed some cultural autonomy, and after 1989. The Laz language enjoyed similar flourishing in written form between 1927 and 1937, and today in modern Turkey, though now utilizing the Latin alphabet. As Laz speakers integrate into mainstream Turkish society, however, the language is dying out. Gruzinic, spoken by the Jewish community, is often written with the Hebrew alphabet.
There are a variety of online resources for those interested in further information on the Georgian language, among them an Online Georgian Grammar, a Georgian-English, English-Georgian Dictionary and good website on the Georgian Language & Alphabet.