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Georgian Citations   Georgian Links   Select a New Language

Number of Speakers: 4 million

Key Dialects: Western, Eastern

Geographical Center: Republic of Georgia

Georgian is spoken by approximately four million people, mainly in the Republic of Georgia where it is the official language. Approximately 98 percent of the population speak Georgian as their first language. A significant number of Georgian speakers also live in Iran (1,000 to 10,000) and Turkey (40,000). A small number of Georgian speakers live in the United States. Since Russian was the official language of the former Georgia Soviet Socialist Republic, a great number of Georgian speakers are also fluent in Russian.

Georgian is a member of South Caucasian (or Kartvelian) branch of the Caucasian language family which is spoken in the area between the Black and Caspian Seas. It is not demonstrably related to any other language family. There are other subdivisions of the Caucasian family, but the exact division and their membership is debated by researchers. The term "Georgian" is sometimes used as a cover term for all South Caucasian languages. Some scholars maintain that Basque, a language whose affiliation is often hotly debated, is related to Caucasian languages (Ruhlen 1987). Georgian is the most widely spoken Caucasian language.

Georgian is made up of a number of dialects that fall into two major groups: Western and Eastern. Among the Western dialects are what some scholars call mountain dialects. The standard language is based on the Eastern dialects of Kartlian and Kaxetian (Vogt 1971). At least one scholar (Hewitt 1985) claims that standard Georgian is based only on the prestige Kartlian dialect of the capital city Tbilisi.

The variation between the Georgian dialects is reflected at all levels of the language. Some of the dialects are isolated geographically--existing as enclaves in the mountains, for example, Xevsurian, or cut off from other Georgian dialects by other languages (Harris 1984). This explains why the so-called mountain dialects are considered linguistically conservative (Vogt 1971). These dialects, in some cases, retain features of Old Georgian that have been lost in standard Georgian.

Until 1989, Georgian was the only written language among the South Caucasian languages. A unique Georgian alphabet was devised following the country's conversion to Christianity in 337. The script does not differentiate between upper- and lower-case forms and consists of thirty-eight characters.

Georgian is an inflected language. The language distinguishes eight nominal cases (nominative, ergative, accusative/dative, genitive, instrumental, adverbial, ablative, and locative) in one declension, and marks singular and plural by a suffix on nouns preceding the case marker. There is no grammatical gender. Pronouns are declined and display number and case for subject, direct object, indirect object, and possessive forms. Verbs can show agreement with the subject, object, and indirect object. The verbal system is very complex; the language makes two distinctions, between stative or action verbs and transitive or intransitive verbs. Tense/aspect divides into three series (present-future, aorist, and perfect), and the form of subject, object, and indirect object agreement marked on the verb varies by series.

Word order is relatively free; Subject-Verb-Object, Subject-Object-Verb and Object-Subject-Verb all occur.

Georgian has five vowels and a consonant inventory of twenty-nine phonemes, including ejectives. (Ejectives are sounds made with the air pushed out by the vocal cords instead of the lungs.) Consonants can occur in clusters of up to six sounds, for example in the word mcvrtneli 'trainer'.

As the official language of Georgia, most newspapers and journals are published in Georgian. In 1989, 128 of 149 officially registered newspaper titles were published in Georgian, as were 61 of the 75 periodicals in the country. Radio Tbilisi broadcasts in Georgian and five other languages and the Tbilisi Television broadcasts in Georgian and Russian.

The education system of Georgia was an integrated part of the larger Soviet system until the late 1980s, when extensive changes placed more emphasis on Georgian language and history. In 1988, two-thirds of all pupils were taught in Georgian language-medium schools, and most of the rest in Russian language schools.

For fifteen centuries, Georgian has been the only written language within the South Caucasian family. The most ancient inscriptions of the language date back to the fifth century AD. Its rich literary tradition has remained uninterrupted from then to the present. It is also the liturgical language for all members of the Georgian Orthodox church. The conventional view dates the start of modern Georgian to about 1700.

Georgian language development may be divided into three main periods. The Old Georgian period, which extends from its beginning in the fifth century to about the twelfth century, was rich in literary material, mainly religious works. The Medieval Georgian period, which began during the eleventh century and continued to the eighteenth century produced notable epic works. The Modern Georgian period started in the eighteenth century with a renaissance of Georgian culture. At the time, attempts were made to salvage historical materials that had survived the Mongol conquest.

The first printing press was established in Tbilisi. The 1860s saw a revitalization of the literary language led by three important writers: Prince Ilia Chavchavadze, Akaki Tsereteli, and Vazha Pshavela. Archaic literary standards were replaced by a more vivid and realistic style.

Aronson, H. I. 1989. Georgian: A Reading Grammar. Columbus, Ohio: Slavica Publishers, Inc.

Bright, W., ed. 1992. International Encyclopedia of Linguistics. New York: Oxford University Press.

Campbell, G. L. 1991. Compendium of the World's Languages. London: Routledge.

Europa Publications. 1993. Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States 1993. London: Europa Publications.

Grimes, B. F., ed. 1992. Ethnologue: Languages of the World. Dallas, Texas: Summer Institute of Linguistics.

Harris, A. C. 1984. "Georgian." In W. S. Chisholm, ed. Interrogativity: A Colloquium on the Grammar, Typology and Pragmatics of Questions in Seven Diverse Languages, pp. 63-112. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Benjamins.

Hewitt, G. B. 1985. "Georgian: A Noble Past, a Secure Future." In T. Isabelle Kreindler, ed. Sociolinguistic Perspectives on Soviet National Languages: Their Past, Present, and Future, pp. 163-179. New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Hewitt, B. G. 1987. The Typology of Subordination in Georgian and Abkhaz. New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Hewitt, B. G. 1989. "Aspects of Language Planning in Georgia (Georgia and Abkhaz)." In M. Kirkwood, ed. Language Planning in the Soviet Union, pp. 123-144. London: Macmillan Press.

Linguistic Society of America. 1992. Directory of Programs in Linguistics in the United States and Canada. Washington, DC.

Vamling, K. 1989. Complementation in Georgian. Lund, Sweden: Lund University Press.

Voegelin, C. F., and F. M. Voegelin. 1977. Classification and Index of the World's Languages. New York: Elsevier North Holland.

Vogt, Hans. 1971. Grammaire de la Langue Georgienne. Oslo, Norway: Universitetsforlaget.

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