History of the Georgian Language

John Henry Jorgensen

Linguistics 450

Inquiry # 1

Jan 26, 2000

History of the Georgian Language

"The Georgian Language expresses everything that a any human language is capable of expressing. The Georgian language is so rich that by its peculiar intricacies it is a language of worldwide significance."
-- N.Y. Marr

The Georgian language is one of the oldest continuously spoken languages on earth with a rich literary tradition. It is a member of the Caucasian Language Family-which has long been renown for its position as a language family with no apparent relatives. The Georgian language boasts some 3,000,000 speakers residing in the present day Republic of Georgia as well as sizable communities of speakers in Iran, Russia, Turkey, Azerbaijan, France, Germany and the United States (Crystal, 305). As a literary language, it has had an enormous impact on all of the surrounding languages of the area including Ossetic, Abkhaz, Armenian, Chechen, Dagestani, and Azerbaijani. Interestingly, The Georgian language finds itself in one of the most linguistically diverse regions of earth. It finds itself at the crossroads of the Indo-European, Altaic, and Afro-Asiatic language families. With so much diversity, there is evidence of borrowing that has occurred from all of these language groups. This paper will discuss how this language has evolved from its earliest origins, and how contact with other languages have affected its writing system, phonology, morphology and syntax. Indeed, Georgian is a complex language with many series of borrowings from other languages.

Where does Georgian Come From?

The Georgian language has its roots in the Caucasian language family. As far as scholars and linguists have been able to deduce, this language family has resided in the Caucasus mountain range and in the Kura river valley between the Greater and Lesser Caucasus for several millennia (Grozdetski, 1018). Unlike many other language families who have embarked on mass migrations, such as Indo-European or Altaic, the Caucasian family has remained relatively static in its place of residence on the earth. This evidence supports the theory that the previous two language families held onto their vitality because of conquest or migration. In contrast, The Caucasian languages have maintained their vitality because of its geographic isolation. 

The languages indigenous to the Caucasus stem from a Proto-Caucasian language also referred to as Paleo-Caucasian (Chikobava, 5). From there, there is some controversy as to how this language evolved-but most scholars agree that its progenitors branched off into three main language groups:  the Nakho-Dagestanian (Northeast Caucasian),  Abkhazo-Adyghian (Northwest Caucasian) and Kartvelian (the South Caucasian) Language groups.  It is from this latter group, the Kartvelian group,  from which Georgian evolved.  The major characteristics of this Katvelian Language group that distinguishes it from the other groups is that "(a)  it possesses a reasonable proportion of consonants to vowels and (b) a comparative complexity within both nominal and verbal morphology" (Hewitt, 4). 

How did its writing system develop?

Georgia is intriguing as a language in that it is the only one of the 38 identified Caucasian languages to have an unbroken literary tradition of some 15 centuries. (Hewitt, 4) To this day it is still uncertain as to how and when the Georgian script originated but two legends predominate. The first is that it was created by the Georgian King Parnavazin the 3rd/4th centuries B.C. The second legend is that it was created by the Armenian bishop Mesrop Mashtots in the 4th century A.D. along with the Armenian alphabet. Whether either of these legends are true remains to be proved. Virtually all scholars agree, however, that it was created in the fourth century A.D. on the model of the Greek alphabet, and that its purpose was to facilitate the spread of Christianity and its literature which came to Georgia in 330 A.D. 

The earliest recorded evidence of the Georgian alphabet comes from a plaque which was found in Palestine that dates back to the first half of the fifth century A.D. (Dzidziguri, 8). Although, no date was officially found on the plaque, scientific and archeological evidence both support the fact that it was the first evidence of the printed language. How it ended up in Palestine still remains unclear. In the last half of the same century another stone was found with slight differences in the letters already apparent (see appendix 1). This stone plaque was found in Bolnisi, in the territory of modern-day Georgia, confirming the evidence which supports the Georgian language's longtime predominance in the area (Baramidze, 10). An archeological gem, this stone dates the inscription to 493 B.C. (Chikobava, 7)

It is postulated that the Georgian script was derived mostly from an ancient form of the Aramaic alphabet with "the order of the alphabet and the shape of some of its characters [deriving] from the Greek alphabet." (appendix 2) (Gamkrelidze, 1011). This first written form as appears on these tablets looks very different from today's cursive-like script. However with a close analysis of the intermediary forms one can see how the relation is apparent. The First written script is referred to as xucuri (pronounced khu-tsu-ri) which means 'ecclesiastical' in Georgian. This script which appeared on the Bolnisian plaque was used primarily for the dissemination of Georgian church literature and to educate the clergy. The first manifestation of this alphabet was one which contained purely capital letters. This variety of the xucuri script is known as asomtavruli, 'capital'.

In this variety the relationship to both the order and form of the Greek alphabet is apparent. (see appendix 3). After some centuries another form of the xucuri script known as nusxuri or 'lower-case' emerged. It is apparent that this latter form of the alphabet more closely resembles the Armenian script in that it possesses a lower-case; it is written in the same stylization; and seven letters are identical in both alphabets. By the time the eleventh century came to pass, these ecclesiastical forms of the alphabet were replaced by a single "new" alphabet called mxedruli (pronounced mkhe-dru-lee) meaning 'military.' As the Georgian kingdom began to grow a new, simpler script was needed to more closely reflect the languages phonology and ease of writing. Thus the use of upper and lower case letters was eliminated and a fluid, new alphabet was created for military communication.(see appendix 4). In modern times, the alphabet has been slightly modified to exclude certain letters whose phonemes have disappeared from the language. Thus, the mxedruli alphabet has changed from 39 to 33 letters (mostly dropping dipthongs). The current Georgian alphabet has five vowels and 28 consonants.

What historical factors affected Georgian phonology?

Throughout its history Georgian has had several factors which have influenced its phonology. Primarily its geographic location on the crossroads between Europe and Asia certainly had a large impact. It was influenced by the ancient Indo-European Speaking peoples of Asia Minor, the more recent Slavs and Mongols to the North, The Turkic speaking peoples to the west and east, the Armenians, and Iranians to the South. Although many Georgian sounds seem distinctly "Georgian" there is striking evidence that there was borrowing from other phonological systems of surrounding languages. The First example is the presence of a voiced- semi-voiced- aspirated system of consonants (Aronson, 29). In other words, for any place of articulation, there are three phonemes capable of being produced (i.e. p-p=-b) . In English there are only the phonemes /p/ vs. /b/. However, other Indo-European languages such as Armenian have the three levels of consonantal voicing as opposed to only two. Whether Georgian borrowed this phenomena from Armenian remains unclear, but the fact that a three voiced consonantal system exists in other Indo-European languages suggests that the Georgians borrowed this consonantal system from them. 

The Georgian Language also has some extremely rare phonemes such as the /q/, a post velar voiceless stop found in Afro-Asiatic languages such as Arabic (Rudenko, 27). Assuming that the Georgian peoples had contact with these Arabic speaking traders along the silk road, a borrowing of this phoneme from Arabic seems highly likely. 

During the mxedruli (medieval) period of the language, there is clear evidence that suggests that the Georgians borrowed the phoneme /f/ from the Greeks (Aronson, 31). They in fact even used the Greek symbol for that letter in their language. However, the phoneme did not spread into wide usage by the Georgians. It is still only used in foreign words. Even today, there is a trend to "Georgianize" the words by using the aspirated /p/ phoneme instead of the Greek phoneme /f/.

Finally, in modern times, the effects of Western European languages have affected Georgian phonology. For example, floods of foreign names with the /f/ phoneme (such as California, Sofia, and Frankfurt) are often times preferred over the Georgian aspirated /p/. Also the French phoneme / / has crept into the language because of its prestige in higher concentration. An example of this is the word /urnalebi/. It is apparent that Georgian has had a phonological infiltration over the last hundred years.

How did language contact affect morphology and syntax?

Georgian is a highly agglutinative language-one of the most agglutinative on earth. Because of this characteristic, it is hard to create a dictionary for the language only because it would be a dictionary of roots instead of complete vocabulary words! Other Caucasian languages exhibit this high amount of agglutination in the verb systems. It is likely that the Turkic speaking peoples which surrounded them had some influence on this matter (as they are also highly agglutinative.) Although the Indo-European verb is very different, the Indo-European noun is very similar. The Georgian noun declines much like the Armenian noun (the ending for the Armenian Genitive case is virtually the same). Georgian also has a vocative case which occurs in many Slavic languages-it in fact is identical to the vocative case that exists in Czech. Most likely this passage occurred by the means of the Old Church Slavonic language which would have come in contact with the mediaeval Georgians. 

Syntax in Georgian is also similar to the Indo-European languages which surround it. It has a "free" word order structure which exists in both Russian and Armenian (because of their agglutination), but has the additional component of having the subjects and objects built into the verb structure (Harris, 7). From this example it is apparent that Georgian adopted some aspects of the surrounding languages while, other aspects of the language remained unique. It is also apparent that Indo-European languages affected its appositive sentence construction (Harris, 12). An example of this would be the word order in the phrase 'this is my book' or 'es aris chemi tsigni'. The word order of Georgian and English is the same. Thus, it is evidence that there has been Indo-European influence on Georgian syntax.


The Georgian language is indeed unique. It has phonemes and syntactical structures which are extremely rare for a human language. Nevertheless, there are very many similarities that it shares with its surrounding language families: Altaic, Afro-Asiatic and Indo-European. They have influenced the development of Georgian's writing system, phonology, morphology, and syntax. No doubt that their long coexistence with each other has brought about this change and has also made for an interesting history of the Georgian language.


1. Aronson, Howard I. 1982. Georgian: A Reading Grammar. Columbus: Slavica Publishers, Inc.

2. Baramidze, A. 1952. Istoria Gruzinskoi Literaturi (Russian). Moscow: State Uchebno- Pedagogical Press.

2. Chikobava, Arnold. 1971. Kartuli Ena: Mokli Tsnobebi (Georgian and Russian). Tbilisi: Ganetleba Press. 

3. Crystal, David. 1987. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

3. Dzidziguri, S.V. 1968. Gruzinski Yazik: Kratkiy Obzor (Russian). Tbilisi: Tbilisi University Press. 

4. Gamkrelidze, T.V. 1983. The Caucasian Languages. The Encyclopaedia Britannica Vol. 3, 1010-1014. Chicago: Benton. 

5. Gvozdyetski, N.A. 1983. Caucasus Mountains. The Encyclopedia Britannica Vol. 3, 1015-1018. Chicago: Benton. 

7. Harris, A.C. 1981. Georgian Syntax. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

6. Hewitt, B.G. 1995. Georgian: A Structural Grammar. Amsterdam: John Benjamin's Publishing Co. 

7. Rudenko, B. T. 1940. Grammatika Gruzinskogo Yazika (Russian). Moscow Academy of Sciences Publishers.


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