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.


15 thoughts on “Georgia Q&A

  1. Pingback: Do They Speak Russian in Georgia? | georgiasomethingyouknowwhatever

  2. This post is absolutely hilarious and accurate. As a fellow linguist and kartvelophile, I’ve come to really enjoy your blog and have shared it with all my ever patient friends. Keep up the great writing! Drop me a line, would you? I have some questions for you. fam37(at)

  3. great and funny! i have been reading your articles for a few months now and i enjoy them, very informative. thank you

  4. First off, great blog; been checking it out over the years, always enjoy it. Glad to see a new post was made recently (2017) after a long hiatus. Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to ask a question.

    I saw in a post of yours that you read “Discordant Neighbours” by George Hewitt. The price is normally ludicrous for me (about $150 USD), but as of right now, it’s on sale for $38 USD at Barnes & Noble. At that price, I’m willing to buy it. However, I can’t find a single review of it. (Technically there is a short review at, but for obvious reasons, I’m not going to take their word for it.) And that brings me to my question: Should I take Hewitt’s word for it? Did you find it to be an illuminating, scholarly work, or is it a blindly pro-Abkhaz-and-the-refugees-be-damned screed? I suppose I can take Hewitt’s typical foaming at the mouth if at least the information is reliable, but I’m not sure I should even trust him at this point not to massage the facts to arrive at the conclusions he wants. Everything of his I’ve ever read has come across as completely unacceptable in tone for an academic. I feel like I can find more balanced portraits of Adolf Hitler than I can of Georgia when it comes to Hewitt.

    But now I’m engaging in a screed of my own. I’d just like to know if you found it reliable, or if Hewitt’s bias leads one to lack confidence even in the seemingly factual information contained within it. Hopefully you see this message and respond–and hopefully before the sale is over, because after it goes back to $150, this question will be academic since there’s no way I can afford that! Thanks in advance.

    • That price is insane, right? I was lucky to be living near a library that had a copy. My short recommendation is that if you’re willing to pay ~$40 for a book in general and you’re interested in the Caucasus, then it’s worth buying.

      I actually didn’t read the whole thing, but what I did read seemed reasonably balanced. Here are some of parts I remember (and it’s been a few years, so this may not be completely accurate):

      1) Hewitt’s main proposal is that Georgia should adopt a federal structure which would give limited autonomy to Georgia’s various minority regions: Adjara, Mingrelia, Svanetia, Javakheti (Armenians), Borchalo (Azeris), and Abkhazia and South Ossetia if they can be reconciled.

      2) He also argues that if nationalism in the late Soviet period had been tempered, the Abkhazians would have probably agreed to some kind of federal structure, and the war could have been avoided altogether.

      3) One of his conclusions is that although Abkhazia might succeed on its own, South Ossetia cannot plausibly exist as an independent state, and will either rejoin Georgia or forever remain a Russian puppet.

      Now, I’m not an expert, so I can’t say if all his history is correct, but I would say the book does not have a propagandistic tone. He quotes extensively from Georgian newspaper articles from the late 80s. Unless he was outright fabricating quotations, it seems more or less reliable. I mean, people say he’s a Russian stooge or whatever, but then commenters have said on this blog that I’m a Russian stooge as well. (Of course, now that the Russians have the fucking president of the United States in their back pocket, who gives a shit about some piddly little Georgia blog?)

      Certainly the tone of Hewitt’s writing is often sharp, and if you know some of his backstory you’ll know that he’s not without personal involvement. On the other hand, I’ve actually emailed a few times, and he’s always responded back with helpful information, which is more than can be said for some other academics. So I can’t say that book won’t irritate you, but I would say again that it’s worth taking a look at.

      • D’oh, how did I miss this response? You should get a commission, because you just helped sell the book, heh. The points you listed sound much more reasonable than I would have imagined, given what I’ve read of Hewitt’s. I actually don’t disagree with any of them, at least given my current understanding of the situation. I was just really put off when I saw one of the subheadings for the book was something like “ethnic cleansing” or “ethnic flight”, quotation marks Hewitt’s. It smacked of gargantuan assholery at best, academic dishonesty at worst. I was also worried I couldn’t find a single review by an academic. But your description of what you read sounds fine. Maybe my current position on the matter isn’t that much different than his after all.

        Timely comment re: Дональслав Трампов. His National Security Advisor just resigned in disgrace due to his own “I cannot recall” moment involving a Russian ambassador, and of course there’s a hilarious photo of him (and Jill Stein) sitting at a table with President Putin himself. Interesting times to be alive, for sure.

        Anyway, I’m going to buy that book ASAP before B&N changes the price on me. That’d be my luck.

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