The Kartvelian (South Caucasian) Language Family

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.

kartvelian languages south caucasian

The current distribution of Kartvelian langauges

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).

early georgian state colchis and iberia

Recall that Caucasian Iberia has nothing whatsoever to do with Spain.

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.

Numbers:

  • 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

Kartvelian_languages_genesis

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.

kartvelian languages french

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15 thoughts on “The Kartvelian (South Caucasian) Language Family

  1. It is unfortunate to note that Svan and Laz are endangered languages and will likely not be around for much longer.

    About many Georgians thinking that Megrelian and Svan are dialects of Georgian – this sort of paradigm is fairly widespread around the world and might have to do with subconscious fear that recognition of anything else might inadvertently lead to separatism. In China, Yue (Cantonese), Min (Hokkien), Wu (Shanghainese), and others are often seen as dialects of the the Standard Chinese (commonly known as Mandarin in the West, though this term is offensive to some), even if the difference between these languages is greater than that between Spanish and Portuguese or even Spanish and French.

    I would add that quite a few (if not many) Tbilisians of Svan and Megrelian origin also subscribe to the idea that these are merely dialects. Whenever I’ve argued with such Tbilisians they typically stress that they can be better judges (as to whether these are languages or dialects) since they speak both languages fluently.

    • I think you’re exactly right to compare the Chinese and Georgian situations (indeed, I was going to discuss this in a future post!). As with Mingrelians and Svans, I’ve had speakers of the regional Chinese languages tell me that everyone in China speaks the same language, even right after talking about how Mandarin-speakers can’t understand their regional speech.

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  9. Hello,

    I am doing a research for my novel that is set in Medieval Georgia (1237-1270). I was wondering whether you would be happy to assist me.

    My protagonist is a Georgian woman living in Tblisi. I would like to name her, ‘Natela’, meaning ‘light’ based on the information I gathered from http://www.behindthename.com/names/usage/georgian

    However, I am not sure whether this name dates back to the Medieval era. Could you please advise me as to whether this name dates back to the Medieval era? Is there any sort of link/information on Medieval Georgian names that you could suggest me to go to?

    Also, it says up there that ‘Kart’ is a part of Kartvelian language, would that be what is called ‘Kartuli’ in other references? If so, would people in Tblisi in the medieval era have spoken Kartuli? If not, what language would have they spoken?

    Thank you and I am looking forward to hearing from you.

    Kind regards,

    Subhan

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