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University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Georgian Language

History of Georgia: Overview

The Georgian language

UCLA Language Materials Project:


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.

Linguistic Affiliation
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.

Language Variation
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.

Linguistic Sketch
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'.

Source: University of Duisburg-Essen and UCLA Language Materials Project

 Also see this brief overview of the Georgian Language

Georgian National Centre of Manuscripts E-Resources