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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Thailand, Cambodia, Qatar

I could give a complete run-down of all the details of my Thailand / Cambodia trip, but I’ve seen enough travel blogs to know that such a post would be boring. Instead, I’ll give a brief overview of Southeast Asia and then give the highlights of my itinerary.

thai car

Bad credit? No credit? No problem! Come on down to Prasong’s Used Car Emporium and take home the used car of your dreams today!

Southeast Asia consists of the stuff east of India and south of China. It can be conveniently divided into two parts: the islands — Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei, East Timor, and Singapore — and the mainland — Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. I don’t know nothin’ about the islands, so I’ll stick to talking about the mainland (though I don’t know much about that either).

east asia

Languages: Burmese is related to Tibetan, and ultimately to Chinese. Thai and Laotian are both members of the Tai language family, and are to some extent mutually intelligible. Vietnamese and Cambodian both belong to the Austro-Asiatic language family. Cambodian is by far the ugliest language I have ever heard. It has a very harsh start-stop pattern, with the result that all conversations between Cambodians sound like they are taking place over a bad cell connection. I didn’t hear all that much Thai, since everyone involved in tourism in Thailand speaks an unrefined but surprisingly fluent sort of English. This includes the young children who try to sell knick-knacks on the street. This showed me that I really need to step up my English-teaching game, since even the teenagers at my school can barely speak English. This may be because there’s no urgency for them to learn, whereas the Thais’ livelihoods depend on it.

Alphabets: The Burmese, Thai, and Cambodian scripts (yes, each country has its own script) are not alphabets; rather, they are abugidas, meaning that vowels are mostly indicated by diacritic markings on the consonants (alphabets like Greek mark vowels explicitly; abjads like Arabic and Hebrew mostly don’t mark them; and syllabaries like Japanese combine vowels and consonants into unique letters). They are distantly related to the scripts of India. I have no idea how to read any of them.


Khmer is the Cambodian word for Cambodian. “Khmer Rouge” just means “Red Cambodian,” but it sounds more exotic.

Vietnamese used to use a modified version of Chinese, but since French colonial times they have used the Latin alphabet.

Religion: Most people in mainland Southeast Asia are Buddhists, but in Vietnam they are Mahayana (the Buddhism of China, etc) and in the other countries they are Therevada (what used to be the Buddhism of India). This is because Vietnamese culture is mostly spillover from China, and Thai, Cambodian, and Burmese culture is mostly spillover from India (as we saw, their writing systems are evidence of this). In Cambodia, many of the old Angkor temples were originally dedicated to Vishnu, but were later converted to Buddhist temples.

History: I don’t know much that you don’t already know or can’t look up yourself.

Enough of that. Here’s where I went:

1) Flew from Tbilisi to Doha, Qatar (judging by what I could see from the window, a very ugly place), and then to Bangkok;

2) Immediately took a long, filthy train ride to Cambodia;

3) Spent a day looking at the Angkor temples, including the Indiana Jones-looking Ta Prahm;


Ta Prohm has been reclaimed by gigantic trees. I bet some people stupidly take this to be evidence of the futility of man’s labors.

4) Immediately took a long bus ride back to Bangkok;

5) Spent a few days screwing around in Bangkok;

6) Took a long bus ride down to the beach (Phuket and Ko Phi Phi);

7) Spent about a week screwing around on and by the beach;

8) Went back to Bangkok and took the same route back to Tbilisi.

The whole trip was about two weeks. Lots of fun, but very tiring.

I should add that on three of our four flights, we were on planes which gave each person their own personal TV screen. This may not be new to others, but it was new to me, and I was amazed.


This meant that instead of being bored, I was able to watch: The Day of the Jackal, The French Connection,  the first third of The Dark KnightThe Bourne Supremacy, the intro of The Bourne Identity, and maybe eight Simpsons episodes. If I ever go to that part of the world again, I’m definitely flying Qatar Airways.

This post brought to you in part by Qatar Airways. Qatar Airways: booking online is free and easy. When you think Qatar, think Qatar Airways.

Georgian Consonants

Some readers will know that I am a linguistics enthusiast. So I am writing about Georgian linguistics. Since I know nearly nothing about its grammar, I will write about its phonology. Phonologically, Georgian is distinguished by its consonants, both by its range of them and its clusters of them. I’ll focus on the former, and in particular on a class of consonants that linguists call ejectives.

First, let’s look at some English consonants. Consider the sound t. When you make the t sound, you release some air while making a certain motion with your mouth and tongue. Now consider d. When you make this sound, you make about the same motion, but in addition, you use your voice. Try feeling your throat while saying the words dote and toad to see the difference. We say that d is voiced while t is unvoiced. Similarly, b is the voiced counterpart of p, and g is the voiced counterpart of k. For another illustration, imagine Apu saying the phrase “big dog”: it would come out as “pik tok.”

apu wedding

Indian people sometimes have trouble with the English voicing distinctions.

Georgian these three consonant pairs, and another, kh gh. For kh, think of that throaty sound stereotypical of Hebrew and Arabic. gh is the voiced version of that; it comes out sounding like the throaty French r. So Georgian has these four consonant pairs.

Georgian differs from English, however, in adding a third version of these sounds: ejectives. It is difficult to describe these sounds, and I’m still not very good at making them. They’re basically the unvoiced sounds, but popped. They’re the sorts of sounds someone might make if they were doing a vocal imitation of a funky drumbeat. Ejectivity is denoted by an apostrophe. So there are the triads t-t’-d, p-p’-b, k-k’-g, and kh-kh’-gh. The closest English approximation I can think of is the t combo in “bit torrent.” We could also try “bip porrent” and “bik korrent.” There is no way to get the kh’. I can’t say it right. I can barely even hear other people say it. You have to make the sound deep in your throat, but also hold the air there before releasing it. If I try to do it, I usually choke.

choking sign

This is what will happen if you attempt the uvular ejective.

Further, Georgian has several of what I call “mixed” consonants. We have at least two in English. One is tsh. You might know it better ch. The ch sound is a really a t followed by sh. We might say that it is a hard-start sh. Another is dzh, better known as jj is really a d followed by zh (i.e. the “s” in “measure”). dzh is the voiced counterpart of tsh. In Georgian, there is, besides these, an ejective version, tsh’. They also have a distinct consonant ts, as well its voiced and ejective versions, dz and ts’.

Here is what Wikipedia says about the occurrence of ejectives: “Ejectives occur in about 20% of the world’s languages…They are extremely common in northwest North America, and frequently occur throughout the western parts of both North and South America. They are also common in eastern and southern Africa. In Eurasia, the Caucasus forms an island of ejective languages. Elsewhere they are rare.”

So Georgian consonants are difficult for us Anglophones. But we get our revenge with vowels: Georgian has five vowels (the same ones as Spanish and Japanese), each of which is included in English, while English has 10-15 extra ones. Georgians can’t say most of these.

Update: Georgian Consonants Again