The Arabic alphabet is a script used as the basis for the writing systems of many languages, including Arabic, Persian, and, up until the 1920s, Turkish. Given that peoples speaking these languages have conquered various parts of Georgia many times, it’s somewhat surprising that the Arabic alphabet has never been used systematically to write the Georgian language. I would have thought that at least the Muslim Adjarans would have written Georgian in Arabic letters, but as far as I can tell, this has never been widely done.
So I considered this problem: how would I write Georgian using the Arabic alphabet? Here’s what I came up with:
The first thing to note is that “Arabic alphabet” is a misnomer*: this is actually the Persian alphabet, which features four characters not found in the original Arabic alphabet. These are circled on the diagram. The Persian alphabet is the most basic extension of the Arabic, and the alphabets of languages like Urdu are typically based on Persian rather than directly on Arabic. I’m using it here both for historical accuracy (most Georgians would have been exposed to the Persian alphabet) and because the missing letters are crucial, especially گ پ p g.**
The Arabic letters in the diagram are color-coded as follows:
- Black letters are straightforward transliterations.
- Light green letters ambiguously represent two different Georgian consonants, namely ejective and aspirated consonants. For example, ک is used for both of the k sounds კ and ქ. I don’t know how this can be fixed. Certainly the Arabic script doesn’t need any more dots floating around.
- The t sounds, however, are not subject to this problem. Shown in dark green on the diagram, ტ is represented by ت and თ is represented by ث .ث actually makes a th sound, as in thin. This is nice, since თ and th are both used to transcribe the Greek θ (e.g. μαθηματικά მათემატიკა mathematics).
- Blue letters are doubled vowels. Georgian has five vowel letters and Arabic has only three, so the Georgian vowels have to share. Specifically ი and ე are both represented by ي and ო and უ are both represented by و. Old Georgian didn’t distinguish between o and u either, so this isn’t too big of a problem. Maybe it could be fixed with Arabic’s vowel diacritic system, but I don’t understand how any of that works.
- The purple letter is ف. This is normally an f sound, but it is sometimes used in loanwords for v. ვ is somewhere between v and w sounds, but since و is already being used for two vowels, ف will have to suffice.
- The pink letters are extremely iffy. Despite lacking p and b sounds, Arabic has a horrifying plethora of consonants formed with the teeth***. Besides the basic consonant series ذ د ث ت t th d dh, there is also a series of so-called “emphatic” consonants: ض ص ظ ط. I can’t lie, I really don’t understand these sounds. All I can tell is that they’re in the neighborhood of t d s z etc. წ ც ძ are also in that neighborhood, so maybe they could be a match? I don’t know. My desideratum here was to give just one Arabic letter for a given Georgian letter (e.g. to avoid giving نینوتسمیندا for ნინოწმინდა or ساآکادْزِ for სააკაძე ), but maybe it can’t be avoided.
I’m open to suggestions about how this scheme can be improved.
Exercise: Transliterate the following Georgian conversation into Georgian script:
گامارجوبا بیچو. روگور خار؟ :A
ضالیان کارگی فار. دا شین؟ :B
میط. ساد میدیخار؟ :A
*Nerds will tell you that “Arabic alphabet” is actually a double misnomer, since the script is really an abjad rather than a true alphabet.
**Arabs generally can’t distinguish between b/p and k/g. For fun, try to get an Arab to say the following phrases: “Pack your bags”; “Bike spokes spin”; “Pass the black pepper, please”; “Pull-ups build big back and biceps”; “Porky Pig picks Big Gulp Pepsi cups”; etc.
***Arabs are unusual among learners of English in that they have no difficulty in distinguishing among the following words: tie, die, thigh, thy, sigh, [zy]. This is due to their native mastery of toothy consonants.
Anyway, I was brought to considering this problem (and to learning the Arabic alphabet in the first place) when I came across the following picture, a sign from the Batumi Mosque:
This sign features text in Georgian, Cyrillic, and Arabic scripts. The Georgian and Russian say the same thing, namely ქ(ალაქი) ბათუმის ორთა ჯამე and ОРТА ДЖАМЕ Г(ОРОД) БАТУМИ. Recognizing “orta cami” as Turkish for middle mosque, I assumed the top line would be in Ottoman Turkish, if not Georgian, and would say the same thing as the lower lines. I was curious to see how Batumi would be written in Arabic script, so I tried to parse it. Two hours later, I came to the infuriating realization that the line was in Arabic and said something completely different, with not a single word in common. In fact, it says:
الادارة الدينية لمسلمي آجارستان
aladara aldiniya lmslmi ajarstan
Religious Management for Muslims in Ajaristan
After deciphering that, I set out, unable to find any examples of Georgian written in Arabic script, to find more examples of Georgian script written alongside Arabic script. The obvious place to look for such a thing is among Muslims in Georgia. Sure enough, in the Pankisi Gorge, on the other side of the mountains from Chechnya, can be found Arabic-Georgian tombstones belonging to the local Kists.
(Pictures from Caucascapades)
On the other hand, Arabic has not always been associated with Islam in Georgia, at least not directly. There is another Georgian-Arabic tombstone in the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in Mtskheta. The grave is for a Queen Tamar (but not THE Queen Tamar; see below), who died in the 1680s. This paper gives transliterations and translations of the Georgian and the Arabic. According to that author, “The [Arabic] inscription cannot be classed as an example of refined calligraphy. There also are mistakes in the text, the craftsman evincing a poor command of Arabic.” She suggests further that the use of Arabic is due not to Islamic influence, but to an association between Georgians and Arab Christians in places like Antioch.
Arabic was also often used on Georgian coins. Here we have coins from THE Tamar, a David (but not THE David), and Rusudan. As on the gravestone above, the Georgian is in the old asomtavruli alphabet and all the names are truncated, adding extra layers of difficulty to deciphering. Tamar’s name, for example, is given as ႧႰ and ت ر .
More modern examples of Georgian script alongside Arabic script come from the short-lived governments of Transcaucasia. (Recall that until 1923, Azeri was still written using Arabic script.) Here we have a stamp and a bill from the Transcaucasian SFSR and a bill from the Transcaucasian Commissariat, one of the precursors to the Transcaucasian Republic.
So much for examples from Georgia. Examples from outside of Georgia are obviously rarer, but there are some. There is actually a sizable population of Georgians living in the Fereydan (فریدن, ფერეიდანი) region of Isfahan, Iran. These Georgians are descended from Georgians captured during a Persian raid in the 1600s. (Armenians live in that region too, and for the same reason.) As far as I know they are all Muslims now, but they still maintain the use of Georgian, and occasionally write it (usually alongside Persian).
(Pictures from a big collection on Wikimedia Commons.)
The three signs below exhibit some curiosities. The first two signs are for barber shops. The first has საპარიკმახერო, which is correct, while the second has საპარიპმახრო. Deleting the ე from the penultimate syllable is understandable (indeed, that’s something I tend to do when speaking Georgian, that is what is normally done in English), but why is the კ changed to პ? Maybe the sign-maker was confused by how similar the two letters look.
The third sign has ქაფინეთი. I don’t recognize this word, and in fact Google gives (as of this writing) zero results for it. It appears to be a transliteration of کافینت, kafi-net, as in “internet cafe”. Compare ქაფინეთი with the more normal Georgian ნეტ-კაფე.
Here are some maps of Georgia, one in Persian (گرجستان) and two in Arabic (جورجيا and أجاريا). There isn’t any Georgian writing on them, but when else will I be able to use these?
Besides Arabic, we can ask more generally whether Georgian has ever been written in any Semitic script. In fact, there does exist an example of Georgian being transcribed with the Syriac alphabet. It comes from a manuscript which gives a certain Eastern Christian prayer, namely the Trisagion, in a variety of languages. The Georgian section (in black) is highlighted below.
See Adam McCollum’s blog hmmlorientalia for general information about the manuscript as well as for details about the transliteration. McCollum writes
While the Syriac letters are hardly as fitting for Georgian as the Georgian alphabet itself is, even with Syriac one might have gotten closer than the orthography in this example. What is the source of the confusion? Did this scribe write these lines from something he heard or knew himself? Did he copy from another written source also in Syriac letters?
In another Syriac manuscript, someone copied down the Georgian alphabet (mxedruli, with obsolete letters), giving us an example of Georgian script alongside Syriac script. Again, see hmmlorientalia for details about the manuscript.
What about the Hebrew alphabet? Well, there have always been Jews in Georgia, and there are Georgian Jews in Israel today, so it’s certainly possible that Georgian has been written down in that script. Unfortunately, I haven’t found anything. If any readers know anything about it, I would love to hear.
We can also ask the converse question, whether Arabic or other Semitic languages have been written in Georgian script. I’ve heard that Arabs used the Georgian alphabet for Arabic when they conquered Tbilisi, but again, I haven’t found anything about it.