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.

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