Since I first began studying Georgian language three years ago, the first question I get from people is, “So is that related to Russian?” While that almost makes sense given the two centuries of Russian hegemony in the region, one can say confidently that Georgian is not really related to anything—neither Russian, Turkish, Arabic, nor anything Indo-European. Georgian, spoken by about 4 million people, belongs to the “Paleocaucasian Ethnolinguistic Family.” This family is divided into three branches:
1) Western Caucasian, or Abkhaz-Adygean, which encompasses modern Abkhazians, Abazians, Adygeans, Circassians, and Kabardians
2) Eastern Caucasian, or Chechen-Dagestanian, which encompasses the Chechens, Ingushs and Dagestanis (Avarians, Lezgians, Darguelians, Laks etc.)
3) Southern, or Kartvelian, which encompasses three main ethnic groups: Karts (modern-day Georgians), Mingrelians, Laz, and Svans
Here is a map of South Caucasian languages, but if you really want your mind blown, check out this full map and article on Geocurrents:
The first recorded reference to spoken Georgian was made by a Roman in the 2nd century AD, but of course Georgian language probably extends much further back into history before it was identified by a foreign writer. The evolution of Georgian into a written language was largely a consequence of the conversion of the Georgian elite to Christianity in the mid-4th century. The new literary language was constructed on an already well-established cultural infrastructure, appropriating the functions, conventions, and status of Aramaic, the literary language of pagan Georgia, along with the new national religion.
The early Georgian alphabet (known as Asomtavruli, or “capitals”) looked like this:
Today, you can find Old Georgian engraved on the surfaces of Orthodox Cathedrals, on old monuments and markers, or on Orthodox icons. Unlike the relationship between Old Church Slavonic and modern Russian, or Ancient Greek and modern Greek, the connection between Ancient and modern Georgian is actually quite strong. Most Georgian high schoolers can get through an Asomtavruli text without even as much trouble as it takes the average American high schooler to get through Shakespeare. The modern Georgian alphabet is known as “Mkhedruli” (“military,” from the word for knight or horseman), and looks like this:
The Armenians like to say that it was created when someone threw a bowl of noodles at the wall and proceeded to pick out their favorite shapes. Unlike in English, where one letter can have multiple sounds (a can signify “ah” or “ay”), Georgian letters correspond exactly to their sound. This is helpful, because the rest of Georgian language is decidedly…not helpful. In addition to learning the alphabet, getting Georgian grammar and pronunciation down is also difficult.
Consonant clusters are perhaps the trickiest part, for example:
მწვრთნელი (mtsvrtneli): trainer, coach
გვბრდღვნის (gvbrdghvnis): he’s plucking us
If this hasn’t been enough to scare you away from Georgian forever, go to my Resources page to find Georgian language learning materials.