Georgian Consonants

Some readers will know that I am a linguistics enthusiast. So I am writing about Georgian linguistics. Since I know nearly nothing about its grammar, I will write about its phonology. Phonologically, Georgian is distinguished by its consonants, both by its range of them and its clusters of them. I’ll focus on the former, and in particular on a class of consonants that linguists call ejectives.

First, let’s look at some English consonants. Consider the sound t. When you make the t sound, you release some air while making a certain motion with your mouth and tongue. Now consider d. When you make this sound, you make about the same motion, but in addition, you use your voice. Try feeling your throat while saying the words dote and toad to see the difference. We say that d is voiced while t is unvoiced. Similarly, b is the voiced counterpart of p, and g is the voiced counterpart of k. For another illustration, imagine Apu saying the phrase “big dog”: it would come out as “pik tok.”

apu wedding

Indian people sometimes have trouble with the English voicing distinctions.

Georgian these three consonant pairs, and another, kh gh. For kh, think of that throaty sound stereotypical of Hebrew and Arabic. gh is the voiced version of that; it comes out sounding like the throaty French r. So Georgian has these four consonant pairs.

Georgian differs from English, however, in adding a third version of these sounds: ejectives. It is difficult to describe these sounds, and I’m still not very good at making them. They’re basically the unvoiced sounds, but popped. They’re the sorts of sounds someone might make if they were doing a vocal imitation of a funky drumbeat. Ejectivity is denoted by an apostrophe. So there are the triads t-t’-d, p-p’-b, k-k’-g, and kh-kh’-gh. The closest English approximation I can think of is the t combo in “bit torrent.” We could also try “bip porrent” and “bik korrent.” There is no way to get the kh’. I can’t say it right. I can barely even hear other people say it. You have to make the sound deep in your throat, but also hold the air there before releasing it. If I try to do it, I usually choke.

choking sign

This is what will happen if you attempt the uvular ejective.

Further, Georgian has several of what I call “mixed” consonants. We have at least two in English. One is tsh. You might know it better ch. The ch sound is a really a t followed by sh. We might say that it is a hard-start sh. Another is dzh, better known as jj is really a d followed by zh (i.e. the “s” in “measure”). dzh is the voiced counterpart of tsh. In Georgian, there is, besides these, an ejective version, tsh’. They also have a distinct consonant ts, as well its voiced and ejective versions, dz and ts’.

Here is what Wikipedia says about the occurrence of ejectives: “Ejectives occur in about 20% of the world’s languages…They are extremely common in northwest North America, and frequently occur throughout the western parts of both North and South America. They are also common in eastern and southern Africa. In Eurasia, the Caucasus forms an island of ejective languages. Elsewhere they are rare.”

So Georgian consonants are difficult for us Anglophones. But we get our revenge with vowels: Georgian has five vowels (the same ones as Spanish and Japanese), each of which is included in English, while English has 10-15 extra ones. Georgians can’t say most of these.

Update: Georgian Consonants Again

Exotic Fruits

The other day I tried a few fruits I had never seen before. The first is called a k’aralioki. It looks, tastes, and feels like a small, dense, sweet tomato, and it grows on trees.

persimmons karalioki


The second, the k’omshi, looks like a messed up apple, has the flesh of a pear, and tastes like a Now and Later. It grows on trees and is initially covered in a weird layer of fuzz that must be brushed off before eating.

quince komshi


The botanically-minded reader will, of course, recognize the first of these as the persimmon and the second as a quince. Although I had heard of both of these before, I never knew what they were, and only realized the connection after eating and then googling them. So in a sense I learned the Georgian words before the English ones. This case is of interest for the philosophy of language. And if you’ve never tried a quince before, I recommend doing so. The persimmon was forgettable.

But these are just the tip of the fruit iceberg around here. Fruit grows everywhere. Every house has grapes at least, and many of them (including mine) also have apples, tomatoes, and pomegranates. I love fruit, so this is good.

(You may have noticed that there are apostrophes in “k’aralioki” and “k’omshi.” I’ll explain the meaning of this later.)


I am now in exotic Norio. I have a lot to say about it, but I will try to meter things out over the next few days. This will create the illusion of more content in this blog.

Although I have internet access, there is no wifi. I am writing this on the wired family desktop. This means, first of all, that I have not figured out how to get pictures on here. I’m working on it. Second, I haven’t figured out how to skype yet. So if you want to skype with me, it might be a while.

Anyway, I’m living in a large rural villa. My host family has been welcoming. My host mother is the principal of the village school. She speaks very little English. The first thing she said to me when we met was “Do you speak Russian?” After I said no, we had a long car ride mostly in silence. Her husband is not around much. He works in forestry (whatever that entails here). They have two sons in their late twenties. They live here, but are also not around much. There is a twenty-year-old daughter. She doesn’t live in the house anymore because she recently got married, but she and her husband visit often. The grandmother and grandfather live here too (whose parents they are, I don’t know). They seem to be the most enthusiastic about my being here, and the grandfather constantly invites me to drink with him. Next door lives a woman (I don’t know if she’s married or not) and her two children, a boy of sixteen and a girl of fifteen. Again, I don’t know exactly what the family relations are, but those children are the second cousins of the children of this house (so they share some great-grandparents).

I’ll have more later, including details on the school and pictures. For now, since you’re all wondering, there is toilet paper in the squat toilet, and using that toilet is not a big deal at all. This is something of a letdown.

Quick Update

Since getting to Tbilisi a week ago, I have been staying in a hotel. In the days following my arrival, about sixty other English teachers arrived, and they are also staying here. For the past few days we have been undergoing training in the Georgian language, teaching methods, and Georgian customs. It feels like being at summer camp so far.

I have walked around quite a bit of Tbilisi, both by myself and with others. If I can think of anything interesting to post, I will do so. For now I will settle for two observations: 1) there are no traffic laws here, and 2) the people are much less white than I expected.

We leave for our towns and villages on Sunday. I found out that I will be placed in Norio, a tiny village about 20 miles northeast of Tbilisi. The mother of my host family is said to be the principal of the local school. The only available toilet is an outdoor squatter. I will certainly have something to say about this.

Flights and Warsaw

I am writing this in a hotel room in Tbilisi, the capital and largest city of Georgia. To get here, I first left home and flew to Chicago at 1 PM. From Chicago I left for Warsaw at around 10 PM. The flight was uneventful. I was sitting next to a Polish lady and I tried talking to her, but she no speaka da English, so we spent the whole flight in silence. Nevertheless I was glad she was there, since she crossed herself during takeoff. This was a real relief to me, as I knew that the plane would thereby not crash.

We landed in Poland about 2 PM local time, and I had a layover of eight hours. I had planned to use this time to go explore exotic Warsaw, but 1) it was raining, and 2) I didn’t get much sleep on the plane and I was tired and grumpy. Because of this, I was in no mood to deal with taxis or maps or anything involved in tourism, so I decided instead to just walk around the area outside of the airport and try to see if I could find anything interesting. I was chagrined but not surprised to find that I could not. The area around the airport was, as it is in most places, totally shitty.

Still, I tried to make the most of the situation, and was able to sample a delicacy for which Poland is famous: tequila-flavored beer.

They sold this at the airport for 6 zl, but I found a gas station a few blocks away that sold it for 4.50 zl.

The gas station clerk told me that I couldn’t drink it in the store, so I walked over to an under-construction highway and drank it there in the rain.

I told you this place was shitty.

While walking around I was shocked to find that Warsaw has a very active drug trade. There are even street signs that designate drug distribution areas.

I waited at this corner for twenty minutes hoping someone would give me some drugs, but nobody came. It must have been because of the weather.

After this, I went back into the airport and napped on and off until the flight to Tbilisi. That flight was also uneventful, and I arrived at 3 AM local time. A cab driver was waiting there to pick me up. He knew two English words: “Georgia” and “good.” From these two words he was able to construct one crude sentence, and he said this sentence to me several times during the ride to the hotel.

Georgia Q&A

Q: Where are you going?

A: Georgia.

Q: Cool, I have a cousin in Athens.

A: No, I don’t mean Georgia the American state. I mean Georgia the country.

Q: There’s a country called Georgia?

A: Yeah.

Q: Oh right, I think I’ve heard of that. Isn’t it, like, in Eastern Europe?

A: Not quite. It borders southern Russia, but it also borders Turkey, and it’s much closer to Iran than it is to any European country. But it’s not really Central Asian either. You could say it’s part of the Middle East if you didn’t care about being sloppy, or you could call it Near Eastern if you didn’t care about sounding like you’re from the 1800s. Take a look at this map if you don’t believe me.

caucasus political map

Georgia is in Europe, just like Iran.

Travel advertisers typically bill Georgia as being “at the crossroads of East and West,” which, while cheesy, might be accurate. All this generally holds also for Armenia, which borders Georgia to the south, and to a lesser extent for Azerbaijan, which borders Georgia to the southeast.

Q: But they must be European, since they play in the big European soccer league.

A: And the Rams play in the NFC West. So what?

Q: Fine, but it was part of Russia, right?

A: Yes. Having been conquered and destroyed several times over the centuries (by the Romans, the Persians, the Arabs, the Mongols, and the Turks), Georgia looked to Russia for protection and was annexed at the beginning of the nineteenth century. After the Russian Revolution, Georgia enjoyed a few years of independence, but was soon re-conquered by the (Soviet) Russians. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Georgia became independent again. That’s pretty much where things stand today.

Q: And they speak Russian there?

A: No.

Q: Some other Slavic language?

A: No.

Q: A language even distantly related to Russian?

A: Wrong again, idiot. The Georgian language is not related to any major language. It is not part of the Indo-European language family (which includes most European, Persian, and Indian languages, as well as Armenian), the Uralic language family (which includes Finnish, Hungarian, and some Siberian languages), the Afro-Asiatic language family (which includes Arabic and Hebrew), or the Turkic language family (which includes Turkish and Azerbaijani). Georgian belongs the Kartvelian language family (also called South Caucasian), which also includes Laz, Mingrelian, and Svan. However, none of these other languages have standardized written forms, all are spoken alongside Georgian, and the three combined have fewer than a million speakers, so practically speaking we can ignore them and say that Georgian is not related to any language anywhere at all.

south caucasian kartvelian georgian languages

Don’t worry, I had never heard of these either.

It has been proposed that Georgian might be related to Basque or some other language isolate, but this is just linguists’ fanfic.

Q: So the Caucasus is home, if I’ve counted right, to three distinct language families?

A: You did count right, but no. In fact there are two more. Georgian is spoken on the south side of the Caucasus mountains. To the northwest of the mountains are spoken the Northwest Caucasian languages, including Abkhaz, and to the northeast of the mountains are spoken the Northeast Caucasian languages, including Chechen. Neither of these families is related to the other, or to Georgian, or to anything else.

Q: The Caucasus sounds like a very linguistically diverse region.

A: I’m glad you asked. Take a look at this map, which gives a good idea of what a mess the whole place is.

caucasian languages

A mess

Q: Do they use the Latin alphabet or the Russian?

A: No. They use their own alphabet. It doesn’t look anything like either of those alphabets or the Greek alphabet.


This alphabet has two T’s, two P’s, two K’s, two TS’s, and two CH’s, which makes transliteration a crapshoot.

Armenian also uses its own alphabet, and it doesn’t look anything like the Georgian one.

armenian alphabet

Believe it or not, this is a real alphabet in use today.

To make things more confusing, there is an old form of the Georgian alphabet which does look like Armenian. Fortunately, it’s not in use anymore today except for decorative purposes.


There’s another alphabet that came after this one and before the modern one, but I won’t bore you with it.

Incidentally, the phrase “Russian alphabet” is a pet peeve of mine. Although the Russians do have an alphabet different from ours, many other languages also use that alphabet. Us saying “Russian alphabet” would be like Russians talking about the “French alphabet.” The proper name for their alphabet is “Cyrillic,” so-called because it was devised by ninth-century missionary and burlesque stripper Lili St. Cyr.

lili st cyr

St. Cyr and her brother Methodius are credited with inventing two alphabets for the Slavs.

In case you were wondering, Azerbaijani and the rest of the Caucasian languages generally use Latin or Cyrillic according as whether or not they hate the Russians.

Q: Good story. So are they Muslims over there or what?

A: No, for the most part. About 10% of Georgians are Sunni Muslims, and most of them are located in the southern “autonomous republic” of Adjara. The rest of the Georgians are Orthodox Christians.

Q: Oh, are they Catholic or Protestant?

A: Wow you’re stupid. Orthodoxy is distinct from both, and in fact Orthodoxy is older than Protestantism. It is exactly the same age as Catholicism, since the two resulted from a schism in what was one church. Basically, cultural differences and political problems led the Western and Eastern parts of the old Roman Empire to excommunicate each other around 1100. Orthodoxy is the church that resulted in the East and Catholicism is the church that resulted in the West (which would, of course, later splinter again with the Protestant Reformation). Georgia is in the East, so it’s Orthodox.

east west catholic orthodox schism map

Georgia is on this map, but it almost isn’t.

Q: So that’s why Greek and Russian churches look so weird.

A: Right.

Q: And Armenians too?

A: No. The Armenian church is part of Oriental Orthodoxy, as opposed to Eastern Orthodoxy. The Oriental churches (which today also includes the Christianity practiced in Egypt and Ethiopia) broke off from the rest of Christendom in the fifth century. Their separation was due not to any power struggles, but to a good old-fashioned Christological debate. The question was simple: is Christ human? divine? both? neither? or what? The Nestorians held that he had two natures, one divine and one human (the two-nature view is called dyophysitism). The Eutychians held that although Christ was both human and divine, his humanity was vanishingly small in comparison with his divinity, so that his nature was pretty much just divine (monophysitism). To settle this problem, the Council of Chalcedon in 451 came up with a compromise: Christ has two natures, but just one person, and the two natures are united perfectly in that person (this is the doctrine of hypostatic union). The churches that would eventually become Oriental Orthodox rejected this solution, arguing that it amounted little more than Nestorianism. Instead, they claimed that Christ had only one nature, but that this nature was itself both divine and human (they call this position miaphysitism), and they went on to establish their own church on this basis.


I bet you didn’t think you would learn anything about Christology on this blog.

Q: That is so boring that I can’t even finish the paragraph.

A: Well, that’s pretty much how theology goes. The take-away here is that the Armenians don’t belong to the same church as the Georgians.

Q: But there are Muslims near Georgia, right?

A: Yes. The Chechens and some other people to the north of the Caucasus are Sunni Muslims, and in Azerbaijan nearly everybody is a Shia Muslim (this is due to Persian conquest).

shia sunni demographics map

I leave it as an exercise for the reader to find Azerbaijan on this map, and also to figure out what the colors mean.

However, such self-identification is mostly nominal, Azerbaijan is one of the most irreligious countries in the Muslim world. Indeed, my understanding is that this is also true in Georgia, where being Orthodox is more of an national affiliation than a religious one (just as being nomincally Catholic is often considered an important part of being Italian or Mexican).

Q: How are the gender roles in Georgia?

A: I’ve heard it’s very patriachal, but I can’t say for sure yet. Expect a report on the matter.

Q: What about the food, scenery, weather, etc?

A: I’m there will be plenty of time to discuss that stuff when I get there.

Q: It sounds like you intended this Q&A to cover general cultural, historical, and geographical background, and not so much the concrete details of everyday life with which you have no experience.

A: Uh…yeah, that about sums it up.