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

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The Ingilois (Georgian: ინგილოები, ingiloebi) are an ethnic subgroup of Georgians who live in Azerbaijan. They are distinguished from other Georgians by their dialect and by being Shia Muslims instead of Orthodox Christians.

[“Ingilois” rhymes with “noise”, not “Illinois” or “Galois”.]

georgian writing azerbaijan ingiloi

Georgian writing, Azeri flag — Photo by Archil Kikvadze

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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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Do They Speak Russian in Georgia?

Early in my Georgia Q&A, the following exchange takes place:

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.

I intended for the Q-idiot to be asking about the native language of the Georgians, and indeed Russian is not it. However, a loyal reader pointed out to me that the question “Do they speak Russian in Georgia?” is ambiguous, and could easily be interpreted to mean “Do they speak Russian at all in Georgia?” And in that sense, the answer is yes, many Georgians do speak Russian. Georgians speak so much Russian that I (who know very little Russian) often have trouble getting them to speak to me in Georgian, no matter how much Georgian I use with them. Here is a typical exchange between me and a fruit vendor in the street:

Me: Portukhali ramdeni ari? [How much is the orange?] Vendor: [something in Russian] Me: Rogor? [What?] Vendor: [the same Russian as before] Me: Kartulad? [In Georgian?] Vendor: [the same Russian as before, but holding up five fingers and visibly irritated] Me: Ormotsdaati tetri? [Fifty cents?] Vendor: Da, [same Russian as before].

This is a common experience among non-russophone-foreigners in Georgia, but it is perhaps worse in my case because I look vaguely Slavic.

russian georgian sign

Is this the face of someone who knows Russian? You decide.

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The Georgian Alphabet: A Gallery of Specimens

The Georgian alphabet is an alphabet used in Georgia and (with minor exceptions) nowhere else. To most people, it looks like a fake alphabet, like something invented for a movie. Actually, most people don’t know that the Georgian alphabet exists — they assume (as I myself once did) that Georgia, like Kazakhstan and other former Soviet countries, uses Cyrillic. But if they did know about it, they would find it to be a headache-inducing jumble of squiggles.

georgian transliteration

The Georgia alphabet with my preferred Latinization scheme

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The Names of Georgia, Part 2

That’s right, I’ve written another post on the TLG blog called “The Names of Georgia.” But it’s not the same thing. This time it’s about Georgian first names. Get it? The names “of Georgia”? Here’s an except:

Doesn’t Vakhtang sound like a funny name for a little boy? It seems me – and several Georgians have agreed with me here – that native Georgian names, like Vakhtang, Gvantsa, Nugzar, and Emzar, tend to sound like names for old people. The situation is exactly the same in English: Greek and Hebrew names like Katherine and John sound young, but native English names like Alfred, Edith, Edmund, and Mildred sound very, very old.

Fascinating stuff, right? I bet that really makes you want to read the whole thing.

For readers who don’t know, my full first name is Nicholas, and I mostly go by the shortened form Nick. That English name, with its short i sound, is extremely difficult to say for many people around the world. This includes Georgians, who are unable to say or even hear the short i. They always say it with a long e, so that it rhymes with “peek.” I find this intolerable, and so here I go by Niko. This name, I have discovered, is almost always identified with the painter Niko Pirosmani.

niko pirosmani

He is also known as Pirosmanashvili. I have no idea why.

Sometimes I am called Nika, the more common Georgian version of Nick, or Nikala, a diminutive form. Both of these sound to me like girl names, but whatever.


Some people, instead of calling by my preferred Niko, call me a name that sounds like Neekee, which comes from mispronouncing my English name in the Georgian manner and then adding to the result the Georgian nominative case ending. This Georgianization process is stupid because there is already a Georgian form of my name.

The Names of Georgia (Reprise)

Two months ago I made a post called The Names of Georgia about the names Georgia has in different languages. It wasn’t very well-written. Recently I became a guest blogger for the official blog of Teach and Learn with Georgia, the program of the Georgian government by which I am employed as an English teacher. For my first post, I decided to revisit this topic and do a better job at it. Although there aren’t any pictures of maps in foreign languages, I’m happy with it.

For the benefit of readers of this blog, here’s the post in its entirety:

Every TLG volunteer has had the horrible experience of hearing someone say, upon being told about teaching English in Georiga, “What, you mean like Atlanta or something?” Subsequently we’ve probably all had the thought, “Seriously, why do Georgia the country and Georgia the American state have the same name?” Well, to answer that question, we need only answer the two separate questions “Why is Georgia (the American state) called Georgia?” and “Why is Georgia (the country) called Georgia?”

The first question is easy: Georgia was founded by English settlers during the reign of King George II of England, and so it was named after him. Might this answer the second question as well? Georgia (the country) had twelve kings named George (Giorgi). Of them, the most remarkable was George III, whose reign marked the beginning of medieval Georgia’s golden age. But the name “Georgia” dates from around the First Crusade, which took place about half a century before he became king, so the country couldn’t have been named after him.

The next most obvious suggestion is that Georgia was named after Saint George. They do seem to love him here. There are hundreds of churches dedicated to him, there are pictures of him in regular people’s houses, and most of the boys at my school are named Giorgi. It’s quite possible that the Georgians loved him just as much one thousand years ago, and this might have impressed the Crusaders enough for them to name the country after him. According to another (much less likely) theory, “Georgia” comes from the same place as the names “George” and “Giorgi,” namely the Greek word for farmer, georgos (literally, earth-worker). Supposedly this name was given to them (probably by the Romans) because they, unlike the nomadic herding peoples of the North Caucasus, were settled farmers.

However, another theory suggests itself when we look at the names other languages have for Georgia. “Georgia” and variations thereof (Géorgie, for instance) are used in most European languages – Latin, Germanic, and Celtic languages, plus Greek, Albanian, Finnish, and Maltese – as well as in most languages of peoples conquered by Western Europeans (Hindi, for example).  The rest of the world generally uses one of two names. In Slavic languages, Georgia is called something like Gruzia. Because of Russian influence, this name is also used by Hungarian and Estonian, Yiddish and Hebrew, and the Baltic languages, as well as most languages in East Asia (notably Mandarin, Japanese, and Korean) and some languages in Central Asia (like Kazakh and Turkmen). In most languages of the Islamic world (most Persian and Arabic languages, plus Turkish and Azeri) Georgia is called something like Gurjistan, formed by adding the usual -stan suffix to the root gurj.

So the most widely-used names for Georgia are based on three roots – george, gruz, gurj – which are fairly similar. This fact raises two problems for the Saint George theory of etymology: 1) Why don’t the Slavs use the name “Georgia” (or Giorgiya or whatever), especially considering that some of them also love Saint George? 2) Why would the Islamic languages use a name so similar to George when that name is not native to those languages?

Indeed, to explain the similarity among the names, a proponent of the Saint George theory (and similarly for the georgos theory) would have to say that the name George came first, and was subsequently transformed into gurj and gruz. But this makes no sense historically, since the Persians dealt with the Georgians long before the Western Europeans did. So the more plausible explanation  is that the name gurj came first, probably from a Persian word for “wolf” (the founder of Tbilisi was given the name Gorgasali, meaning “wolf’s head”), and that “Georgia” came about through some crude process of rationalization. That is, when Europeans heard Georgia referred to as “Gurjistan,” they thought “Hmm, Gurjistan…Gurj…George…They love Saint George…Georgia!”

So the next time you have to endure an inane conversation in which you explain that Georgia is a country near Russia, blame the Crusaders.

By the way, this is not the only idiotic geographical mix-up with which Georgia is involved: the ancient Greeks called Georgia “Iberia,” even though it has nothing whatsoever to do with Spain or Portugal. Where that name came from is not clear. It may be related to the Armenian name for Georgia, Vrastan, or it might be related to an old Mingrelian name for eastern Georgians.

Of course, none of this has anything to do with what the Georgians call their country. The name they use is Sakartvelo, which is derived from the endonym kart. This in turn is supposedly derived from Kartlos, the mythical founder of the kingdom on which modern Georgia is based (of course, it’s more likely that the reverse is true, and Kartlos was named after his tribe). The Georgians are not the only ones who use this name; names based on kart are used in the Northwest Caucasian languages. In particular, the Abkhaz name for Georgia is Kirtwila.

Finally, we should note that, although it would be hilarious, the Georgians do not call the American state Sakartvelo – they just call it Jorjia.

Update 10/23/13: The Mingrelian name for Georgia is Sakortuokort being the Mingrelian version of kart.