The Georgian language is not genetically related to any major language anywhere. But it is related to a few minor languages: Mingrelian, Laz, and Svan. Together, these four comprise the Kartvelian language family (from ქართველი, kartveli, the Georgian word for “Georgian”). Kartvelian is also known as the South Caucasian language family, after the region in which its members are spoken.
Common Proto-Kartvelian was spoken around 5,000 years ago. Svan, spoken deep in the mountains of western Georgia, was the first to diverge. About 1,000 years later, Georgian and Zan (the precursor to Mingrelian and Laz) split. These two languages would be represented in ancient Georgia by the kingdoms of Colchis (western Georgian) and Iberia (Eastern Georgia).
Starting about 1,500 years ago, wave upon wave of invaders drove the Iberian Georgians west, with some settling in what are today the regions of Guria and Adjara. This split the Zan-speaking Colchians into the Mingrelians in the north and the Laz in the south (present-day northeast Turkey), leaving Georgian-speakers the dominant Kartvelian group.
- Georgian: around 4,000,000 speakers
- Mingrelian: perhaps as many as 500,000 speakers
- Laz: estimates vary wildly, from 50,000 to 500,000 speakers; the latter number probably includes people of Laz descent who don’t speak Laz
- Svan: no more than 50,000 speakers, probably more like 30,000
Since Christian times at least, Georgian has been the literary language of nearly all Kartvelian-speakers (of course, since nearly all Kartvelian-speakers were illiterate prior to Russian conquest, what this really means is that Georgian was known by priests and royalty in Georgia). It is the only Kartvelian language with a written standard, and attempts to write down the others are often met with hostility or amusement (though when they are written, they are usually written using the Georgian alphabet). Here is a Georgian talk show discussing the existence of Mingrelian Wikipedia:
Notice that at 1:17 in the video there is an uncomfortable discussion of whether Svan and Mingrelian are languages or dialects. Many Georgians (that is, people who speak Georgian natively) think that Mingrelian and Svan are regional dialects of Georgian, like Adjaran or Ingiloan, albeit especially corrupted ones. This is stupid and wrong. Mingrelian and Georgian are more different than Spanish and Italian, and Svan and Georgian are about as similar as English and Icelandic. A Georgian with no previous exposure would not be able to speak intelligent Mingrelian or Svan without special study. Mingrelian and Laz are the only Kartvelian languages with significant mutual intelligibility, and indeed they are sometimes considered to be dialects of a single (Zan / Colchian) language.
Nowadays, there are virtually no monolingual speakers of any Kartvelian language besides Georgian. Most know Georgian (which is taught in schools throughout Georgia), but not all of them. In particular, many Mingrelians who lived in Abkhazia during Soviet times learned only Russian as a literary language, and the Laz use Turkish as their literary language.
- Etymological Dictionary of the Kartvelian Languages
- Deda Ena (Mother Tongue) – a much-beloved book used throughout Georgia to teach children how to write, letter by letter, in Georgian
- Nanashi Nina – like Deda Ena, but for Mingrelian
- A description of the Svan language
- Georgian phonology