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While the Turks and Azeris speak Turkic languages, and the Armenians, Ossetians and Russians speak Indo-European languages, Georgian is the most important of the Caucasian group of languages. This is divided into three families: the South Caucasian or Kartvelian - comprising Georgian (Kartuli), Megrelian, Laz and Svan, spoken by 3.5 million people in all - and the relatively similar northeastern and northwestern Caucasian families, spoken by about a million people each. These comprise about 40 languages in an area the size of France, although Strabo recorded that in the 1st century вс the Romans needed no fewer than 70 interpreters in the Dioscurias (Sukhumi) area alone. Just in Daghestan there are 14 ethnic groups and 29 languages, and it's no surprise that the name Caucasus derives from the Arabic for 'mountain of languages'.

Efforts have been made to place the Caucasian languages in a 'super-group' with the Indo-European, Turkic, Semitic, Finno-Ugric and even Chinese languages, but no links have been proved. Nor has it been possible to prove links with Basque, although some scholars speak of an Ibero-Caspian group.

The three related languages of the Georgian people-Georgian, Svan, and Mingrelo- Taz-are not part of the Indo-European, Finno-Ugric, or Semitic families but belong to the Ibero-Caucasian or Kartvelian (Southern Caucasian) language group.

Although many theories link these languages to Basque and even Etruscan, most scholars derive their origins from an indigenous proto-Georgian language called Old Kartvelian. Because of various tribal migrations within Georgia and the resuling divisions, and the loss of contact due to geographic barriers, Old Kartvelian evolved along different lines. Tzanic, the ancient language spoken in Colchis, from which Megruli (Mingrelian) and Chanuri (Laz) ultimately derived, split around the 19th century ВС. Classical Georgian, which eventually evolved into modern Georgian-the official language of the country-developed parallel to Tzanic until the eighth century ВС, after which it followed patterns of its own. Svanuri, the language of the Svans who live in the Enguri basin of the Caucasian highlands and around the upper part of the Tskhenystskaly River, seems to have split directly from Old Kartvelian around 2000 ВС.

The Caucasian languages are all grammatically complex; the northwestern languages have verbs with a huge variety of inflections, while the northeastern ones have simple verbs, but complex nouns, with up to eight grammatical classes (such as male, female, animal and mass noun), and up to 46 cases. The southern languages, ie: Georgian, have both a large case system for the noun and complex verbs.

Likewise, they all have complex sound systems. The northwestern languages have only two distinct vowels, but highly complex consonant systems. The northeastern languages have fewer consonants, but large numbers of vowels. The southern languages are simpler but still have enormous clusters of consonants, 'back-of-the-throat death- rattles' that utterly baffle foreigners. Georgians love to test foreigners with tongue- twisters such as 'Baqaqi tskalshi kikinebs (the frog is croaking in the water), and a similar one about the duck (ikhwi) going quack (khaadha) in the water. Just to make things even harder, there are no capital letters.

Modern Georgian is used throughout the country, but the other languages are spoken "domestically" in their regions. Although all three languages derive from Old Kartvelian, it is interesting to note that a native oа Tbilisi, for example, cannot understand the Megruli spoken by a native of Zugdidi. In addition to these three languages, there are, of course, regional dialects: in the west, the Imeruli dialect of Imereti, the Rachuli dialect of Racha, Guruli in Guria, and the Acharuli of Ajara; in the east, there are the Kartluri of Kartli, and the Kakhuri and Kiziquri of Kakheti. The mountain people communicate in Pshauri, Khevsuruli, Tushuri, Mokheuri, Mtiuluri, and Gudamakruli.

The mountainous topography of Georgia has for centuries made it a safe haven for persecuted peoples. The multiplicity of languages found has been a hallmark of the country since antiquity. According to Pliny, the Romans needed 130 interpreters to do business in this land. Strabo records that in the Black Sea coastal town of Dioscuris (Sokhumi), 70 tribes gathered daily in the market: "All speak different languages because of the fact that by reason of their obstinacy and ferocity, they live in scattered groups and without intercourse with one another."

Georgian is a difficult language to learn. Though it shares the same basic parts of speech as most Indo-European languages, it uses distinctive word formations with morphemes, and a complex set of rules governs its verbs. Foreigners are most struck by the tongue-twisting cluster of consonants that are present with dazzling variety, e.g. Mtkvari, the Georgian name for the Kura River; brtskinvale meaning "brilliant," and the sentence that foreigners are often asked to pronounce for the amusement of their Georgian friends: Baqaqi tskalshi kikinebs (The frog is croaking in the water). If you can say this you'll probably have no trouble learning Georgian.

The Georgian alphabet probably evolved around the fifth century ВС with characters possibly derived from a variety of eastern Aramaic. It is one of 14 world alphabets and consists of 33 letters. With the advent of Christianity in Georgia in the AD 300s, the alphabet underwent some changes due to Greek influence. The oldest known inscriptions in Georgian script were found in the Judaean desert in Palestine (c. AD 433) and at the church at Bolnisi (c. AD 493). The oldest known manuscript (AD 864) is from St. Catherines Monastery on the Sinai peninsula. The durability of the Georgian language throughout the country's turbulent history is perhaps the single greatest factor in the survival of the Georgians as a people. Of the more than 70 Caucasian peoples (excluding the Armenians), only the Georgians had a written language of their own before Russian colonization in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The Georgian alphabet has five vowels and 28 consonants, and looks like nothing else on earth, except the Armenian alphabet. An alphabet may have existed in the 3rd century вс but was supplanted by Greek and Aramaic; the present alphabet may have begun to evolve with the arrival of Christianity, and was certainly in use by AD450; after the 10th century a more cursive script was adopted that was smaller and easier to read. There's a variety of forms of many letters, but at least there's no upper or lower case. The Abkhaz language uses an extended Cyrillic (Russian) alphabet.

The following is Professor Howard I. Aronson's suggestion for a workable and popular transliteration.

Georgian alphabet



English will not get you very far in Georgia. You should hire an interpreter if you speak no Georgian or Russian. Georgians are very proud of their language and cul-ture so even if you speak some Russian, using Georgian words like gmadlobt (thank you) and gamarjobat (hello) will earn you bonus points wherever you go.