The Origin of the Georgian Alphabet

The origin of the Georgian alphabet is controversial. Whereas the Roman and Greek alphabets are the results of slow and gradual transformations of older scripts (rather than of deliberate creation), the Georgian alphabet shows up in history pretty much out of nowhere. This makes it plausible that it was invented, either by one person or several. So the obvious question is: who did it?

Historical tradition gives two conflicting answers. The first comes from a medieval Georgian chronicle called “The Lives of the Kings of Kartli.” It tells of Parnavaz, the first Kartlian king, who reigned in the third century BC. Among other exploits, the chronicle has it that Parnavaz devised the Georgian “script” (მწიგნობრობა, mtsignobroba). Some have interpreted this to mean that he developed the Georgian alphabet, but mtsignobroba can also mean “literacy” or simply “writing.” This writing could have been writing in the Georgian alphabet, but more likely it was writing in the Aramaic alphabet, which at the time was the script of the Persians. This is confirmed by archeology, which has found pre-Christian traces of the Aramaic alphabet in Georgia, but none of the Georgian. Georgian schoolchildren are taught this story.

georgian alphabet mug

The gift shop of the Georgian National Museum sells coffee mugs depicting the old Georgian alphabet. The mugs state that the alphabet was created in the 3rd century BC. I tried explaining (in Georgian) to the gift shop worker that this is not correct, but I don’t think I convinced her.

The second traditional answer is that the Georgian alphabet was invented in the fourth century AD by an Armenian priest named Mesrop Mashtots, the same guy who invented the Armenian alphabet. This oft-repeated claim, found in a fifth-century hagiography of Mashtots, is supported by graphical similarities between several characters of the Armenian and Georgian alphabets. However, it is suspect for several reasons. For one thing, the entire passage containing the story may well have been added at a much later date, in which case it would certainly be made up. Supposing the story is part of the original history, it is not independently corroborated by any other historical source, Armenian, Georgian, or otherwise, and this is a problem when dealing with a story which the author has motive to make up (for instance, to make Mashtots and thereby Armenia seem more glorious). Besides this, the story also has it that Mashtots needed an interpreter to spread his newly-created alphabet to the Georgians, but it’s unrealistic to imagine that an alphabet with such a tight letter-to-sound correspondence as the Georgian one could have been created by someone without a masterful command of the language. All of this is to say that there’s very little reason to believe that Mashtots was the inventor of the Georgian alphabet.

[Update 7/13/15: Apparently my opinion is not clear enough for stupid readers, so I’ll make it plain: I don’t believe that Mesrop Mashtots invented the Georgian alphabet. That story is Armenian propaganda.]

mesrop mashtots statue akhalkalaki

Mesrop Mashtots, showing me the hot new alphabet he just invented

Legend also has it, by the way, that Mesrop Mashtots invented an alphabet for the Caucasian Albanians (the former inhabitants of what is now Azerbaijan, who have nothing to do with modern Azeris or European Albanians). This alphabet was not known until the 20th century, when somebody found a page of it in an old Armenian book. Not surprisingly, it looks similar to both the Georgian and Armenian alphabets.

caucasian albanian alphabet

Maybe it’s just as well that this was forgotten. I mean, did Transcaucasia really need another writing system?

So if it wasn’t him and it wasn’t Parnavaz, then who was it? Here things become speculative. It could be that the story about Mashtots is not a lie but an exaggeration, and Mashtots was a part of or a consultant to the team of scholars that created the Georgian alphabet. The alphabet almost certainly came about in connection with the spread of Christianity in Georgia, but that doesn’t narrow things down much. Georgian Christians could have made the alphabet to bring religion to their compatriots, or it could have been made by foreign missionaries, the way Cyril and Methodius and their followers made alphabets for the Slavs. We can safely assume that whoever invented it was fully literate in at least one major foreign language, but experts can’t even agree on whether it was Greek, Aramaic, or something else. In short, very little is known.

georgian armenian sign

Armenian meat is fresh, but Georgian meat isn’t.

Actually, all of this bears only on the ancient Georgian alphabet (asomtavruli), which is distinct from the modern one (mkhedruli). The question of how the modern alphabet came about is much less speculative than the question of how the ancient one came about, but it is also much less interesting. It will suffice to say that the modern alphabet ultimately derives from a cursive form of the ancient.

For some examples of Georgian alphabet, see The Georgian Alphabet: A Gallery of Specimens.

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29 thoughts on “The Origin of the Georgian Alphabet

  1. Hi. keen to use the photograph you have of the Georgian alphabet and it’s equivalent in latin script.. do you have copyright on that? thanks, Adrian (adrian.brown@bbc.com)

  2. The third Georgian alphabet, nuskhuri, is even more visually similar to the Armenian alphabet, than asomtavruli.

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  10. Your full of shit! How did he create the Georgian alphabet when there is no proof that he spoke Georgian? He didn’t speak the Georgian language but he made a whole alphabet for it’s people?? Give us a break..

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  13. Very nice article. But there must be some kind of connection with Sumerian alphabets. I don’t know why I’m keep believing in this. One day it will be discovered .

  14. Legend or call it what you want that Georgian alphabet was created in the fourth century AD is a big lie. I also appreciate that you mention that it is as a propaganda. Even more there are enough proof that in 1 A.D. Georgians had already had their own alphabet. If anyone wants to get more information about it just google in English The Bilingual Inscription from Armazi or in German Die Armazi-Bilingue and you will found out that it is dated to 1. century A.D.

  15. While this article is non-ambiguous about Mashtots(h), one line is still confusing me: “Georgian schoolchildren are taught this story.” What exactly is “this story”? Is the previous sentence (“This is confirmed by archeology…”) a part of “this story”? If I read the paragraph straight, what they’re taught should be: “Legend has it that the Georgian alphabet was invented by P(h)arnavaz, but this myth is poorly supported by archeological evidence.” But then, the article implies that the Georgian National Museum is “lying.” If so, perhaps Georgian children are not taught the scientific facts either?

    Also, calling the Aramaic alphabet “the script of the Persians” is misleading. Maybe you’re referring to the Imperial Aramaic alphabet, used officially and widely in the Persian Empire until about 330 BCE. However, the Persians themselves did not use this writing system to write their own language (Old Persian); they had their own script. As such, the Imperial Aramaic alphabet was not the script of the Persians in the normal sense. Or maybe you’re using the term “the Aramaic alphabet” vaguely, referring to various writing systems derived from the Imperial Aramaic alphabet, collectively. But the “Aramaic alphabet” in such a collective sense is certainly not the script of the Persians — it was used mainly by Aramaic-speakers, most notably Jews and Syrians. To be fair, there exist Aramaic-based scripts used by the Persians, namely Pahlavi. However, Pahlavi scripts are not usually called “the Aramaic alphabet”!

    Random thoughts/observations:
    (1) Only one L
    The Armenian alphabet has two L’s. Apparently, Mashtots(h) was a guy who thought there should be two separate letters to write a Light L and a Dark L (Book Pahlavi was also like that). If the same guy had created an alphabet for the Georgian language, probably there would have been two L’s in it as well, given that Georgian also has a Light L and a Dark L (allophones). In reality, each of the Georgian alphabets has only one L. I consider this is another fact that suggests that the Georgian alphabet was NOT created by Mashtots(h), but it was designed by someone else — someone with a “phonemic-not-phonetic” mindset. The design is “tight,” as the article states.

    (2) P-J-R not P-Q-R
    While the letter order of the Georgian alphabet is basically Greek, one thing is definitely not Greek-like, but Aramaic-like. That is, we have ჟ (jh) between პ (p’) and რ (r)! If it were Greek-like, there would be Qoppa (Koppa) in this position (π-ϙ-ρ). Aronson does say ჟ is the Georgian version of Qoppa (A Reading Grammar, Table 1.2), but that’s questionable, as Qoppa would be obviously ყ or ჴ in Georgian. Now, the Aramaic alphabet has two letters between “p” and “r”: one is “q” just like in Greek, the other is Ṣade. The position of the Georgian ჟ makes much more sense if it is seen as a kind of Ṣade (or the ancient San in Greek). This fact alone is not very convincing, as it might be something accidental, but the exact same thing happens also in the Armenian alphabet! They have ջ (j) between պ (p) and ռ (r)! This P-J-R (instead of P-Q-R), seen both in Armenian and Georgian, may be betraying the influence of Aramaic, hidden deep in much greater Greek influence.

    (3) Peshitta influence?
    It seems that both the Armenian alphabet and he Georgian alphabet were created because churches wanted to translate the Bible into Armenian/Georgian respectively, perhaps in the first half of the fifth century. I always think this may have been partially stimulated by Peshitta — the standard (but not the oldest) Syriac version of the Bible, completed around 400. Though, this would not necessarily mean that Georgians were inspired by Peshitta in a friendly manner. The thing is, the Council of Ephesus (431) and the Council of Chalcedon (451) concluded that the Syriac churches were “heretical”. So, at that time, Georgian priests might have been thinking: “We need to have our own Bible translation ASAP, so that we won’t be influenced by those heretical neighbors. We need a new alphabet, not an Aramaic-based one, because Aramaic is heretical!” If so, that’s rather sad, especially given that Jesus himself spoke Aramaic.

    • What exactly is “this story”?

      I can see the ambiguity. I mean the schoolchildren are taught the Parnavaz story. I doubt they are told the doubts about that story, at least not at an early age, but I don’t know enough to say for sure. Is the story a “lie”? I wouldn’t say so. I mean, it’s not obviously false, like those dumbass stories about George Washington that American schoolchildren are taught.

      As far as the “Aramaic alphabet”, I confess that I don’t know nearly enough to get into specifics. I think what we can say is 1) the Persians were the major regional power at the time, and 2) they used some form of the Aramaic alphabet in some official capacity, so 3) literate people in the Caucasus would very likely have some knowledge of it. I don’t think the details beyond that are especially important for this topic (but then again, I don’t know the details, so maybe I’m wrong here).

      • Maybe it would have been clearer if you’d put the sentence “Georgian schoolchildren are taught this” somewhere in the middle of the paragraph, not at the very end. Currently, it sounds like Theory #1 is SO questionable that even Georgian children are taught to doubt it, which would suggest that Theory #2 is relatively better, hence angry complaints from confused readers! 😀

        I think I understand what you’re saying about the Aramaic alphabet, except “at the time” doesn’t make sense. The Persian Empire had already fallen in the fourth century BCE, and they were not the major power *at the time* (the Greeks were), if you’re talking about the third century BCE. I would imagine: “In the third century BCE, Georgian may have been written in a script (possibly their own script) derived, directly or indirectly, from the Imperial Aramaic alphabet — the alphabet which had been widely used in the Persian Empire until the previous century; OR, it may have been simply written in the Greek alphabet.”

        At least superficially, a few of the Asomtavruli letters look like Parthian or Pahlavi. Could you post some pictures or links, showing examples (maybe inscriptions or coins?) where Georgian words are written in an Aramaic-based script?

  16. Hi, I was drawn suddenly to the georgian script by its similarity to the family of Brahmi scripts originating out of india (two of them being languages I (only) speak as my mother tongue. I am not a scholar and do not have the time to investigate this but it mesmerizes me how similar these are given they are on opposite sides of the world. Since you are obviously involved and researching this so much I thought I could bring this to your attention and perhaps give you some possible leads. This could very well be a non-starter but I would personally be very much interested to know if there is any connection.

    Here are the links to the scripts I mention:
    Brahmi Family: – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brahmic_scripts
    Tamil Script:- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tamil_script

    Please let me know what your opinion on the matter is and if you wish to pursue this line of enquiry.

    Happy Research,
    Subbu

    • Brosset make a few comments about this in his Eléments de la langue géorgienne (available online on uni-halle). Example: Ⴃ (Georgian ancient letter D) looks like ठ (Devanagari ṬH).

    • I mean, he makes a similar comment in his book: “A great number of their letters have notable resemblance with those of Devanagari and their child scripts.” is what he says (page 6, rough translation), followed by more detailed comments on a letter-by-letter basis.

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