The Georgians’ Language

Posted on May 2, 2012 by


The Georgian language is old. It’s unrelated to other languages. It has an aorist tense, whatever that means. “Mankana” means both “car” and “machine”. These are things you can learn from books. But the first thing you really notice about the Georgian language, after the briar-and-burdock alphabet, is that it’s impossible to pronounce.

Until you hear the Georgian language — Kartuli– spoken by a native, and sometimes even afterward, you almost can’t believe they’re not playing a prank on you. When learning a foreign language, the key to good pronunciation lies usually in mastering the subtleties of the vowel sounds. The five Georgian vowels are the clipped European versions of our own familiar sounds, making them mercifully easy for English speakers: long and short e, long and short o and long u.

But with the consonants – usually the part of a new language where we can feel confident — we encounter the sheer obstinacy of individual consonants like k’ and t’ and p’, which are sort of half-pronounced versions of k and t and p. These sounds aren’t impossible to produce, just difficult. The most challenging one is probably ch’. It’s a sound that you probably won’t be able to pronounce right away and which you probably won’t be able to distinguish from ch when it’s spoken by Georgians. The difference between ch’ and ch is so small as to be nearly insignificant — until you say it wrong. Chiri (dried fruit) is not ch’iri (pestilence). And then there’s qkh, a deep guttural sound familiar to anyone who has used the Heimlich Maneuver.

At first, it seems like every word begins with ts’ (which is different from ts) and is full of hidden sounds like “kh” (as in German) and “gh” (slightly different from the French “r” Georgians will tell you, though a non-native speaker probably can’t hear the difference). But it’s not just that there are a lot of difficult sounds. It’s not unusual to find several of them in a single Georgian word, often right next to each other. “French r before Spanish r” comes up sometimes: “ghrublebi” – “clouds”. Ts’ followed by qkh is disappointingly common, and is featured in some fairly important words, like “ts’qkhali” – “water”.  Appropriately, when you try to ask for water in Georgia you end up sounding like some parched traveler who just crawled off the desert.

One friend tells a story about asking for the toilet. The Georgian word is “t’ualet’i”. Close enough to English, you’d think. But he made the mistake of asking for the “tualeti”, which apparently has no meaning whatsoever for a Georgian. After a minute of squirming and repeating, he finally stumbled, accidentally, on a correct pronunciation of the t’. The Georgian heard it as if my friend had just said it for the first time and quickly directed him to the little room. Why didn’t you just say so the first time?

When Georgians have borrowed words from other languages, they make small changes to fit the word into their system. “Parliament” becomes “p’arliament’i”, for instance, following the pattern seen in other borrowed words: take the basic shape and sounds of the original word, change p, t, k and ch to p’, t’, k’ and ch’ and then stick an “i” on the end to make it a noun. And although they have no trouble pronouncing f (which they don’t have in Georgian), they always change it to p when they write it – even though theyoften continue to pronounce it like our f.

Some words are difficult. But a lot of them can be made pretty easy. “Mts’vadi” looks at first like it could be tough but, again, you can say “mits” at the beginning or skip the “m” completely, say “w” for “v” and don’t worry much about ts vs. ts’ — they’ll get it with this word. “Tswadi” is not how it’s taught to Georgian schoolchildren, but it should work at a restaurant. Just don’t say it like one American did:

Him: (to waitress) Can I get some twattie?

Her: (in Georgian, not understanding, thankfully) Excuse me?

Him: (pointing toward the menu, but about 8 inches away and not at anything in particular) Twattie, twattie.

Me: I think it’s pronounced more like —

Him: (to waitress) You know, twattie?

Her: (trying a different approach) Khach’apuri?

Him: Twattie. It’s like meat? Twattie?

Me: Stop saying “twattie.”

Her: Khinkali?

Him: No, no. Twattie.

Her: Mts’vadi?

Him: Yeah, yeah. Twattie.

That’s Georgian hospitality: even when we’re wrong, we’re right (especially when we’re oblivious).

So Georgian is hard. But Georgian isn’t even the hardest language for native English speakers to learn. The Foreign Service Institute, the US State Department’s division for training diplomats, evaluates languages according to difficulty.  On a scale ranging from Category I to Category V (yes, like hurricanes) with V being the most difficult, Georgian ranks a Category IV. While that seems high, IV happens to be the largest category, including languages as diverse as Finnish and Hindi. But still, only 5 languages are labeled Category V: Arabic, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin and Cantonese.

For Georgians, though, their language is not only easy, it’s a fundamental part of their identity. When we say “the Georgian language”, we’re not simply identifying and naming a distinct grammar and syntax and vocabulary. We’re saying that this is the way Georgian people express what they’re thinking and feeling. It’s the language of a people; they all understand their language in a way that is different from the way we understand ours. It’s part of what makes them who they are. And they’ve had this exclusive mutual understanding for thousands of years. Contrast this with America, who are people from everywhere but America, and who have adopted most of their traditions and other cultural attributes from other places, and who speak a language borrowed from the British, who themselves used an alphabet borrowed from the Romans. And even the Romans took their language and alphabet from another people, the Latins. While all of that was happening, Georgians were in Georgia speaking Georgian, entertaining guests the whole time but otherwise not paying particular attention to anything going on outside their own neighborhood.

This fact magnifies the insensitivity of at least one Soviet policy. In 1978, Moscow tried to impose new constitutions on the empire’s constituent “republics”. In an attempt to forge a stronger collective Soviet identity across the 11 time zones across which the Union sprawled, local languages were to be demoted, leaving Russian as the sole official language. Normally slow to be rustled from an afternoon slumber, the Georgians found cause to get up and take to the streets in protest, their chosen slogan “ai ia” — a two-word palindrome which to properly translate into English uses three times the letters, three times the syllables, extra punctuation and a word borrowed from French. “Voila, a violet” – “ai ia” – the first words of Georgia’s first grammar primer, at the time still being used in Georgian schools. The demonstrators’ rallying cry represented the purity and elegance and fragility of their language and the uniqueness of their identity. Georgians would never allow their children to be put through school learning Georgian history and religion in Russian. Even local government had always been conducted in Georgian. Some in Moscow apparently wanted to send in the tanks, but with shrewd assistance from Georgia’s own Eduard Shevardnadze, the status of their language remained official. Even today, more than 30 years later, the normally unimaginative graffiti in Tbilisi includes first names, English-language obscenities and “ai ia”. And that’s it. Which says a lot.

If it seems like an impossible language, what you have to remember is that everything about Georgia is impossible, yet we who have visited the country can confirm that it exists exactly as described by earlier visitors and that its society functions, somehow. Nobody seems to work much, yet everything seems to get taken care of, even if only at the last minute. There never seems to be any food in the house, yet the table will suddenly fill with a full array of Georgian delicacies, including the meat dish that you never smelled cooking and the pickled flowers that you can’t believe taste as good as they do and the Jenga of bread that never falls.

So, yes, the language is impossible. But it works in Georgia if we’re willing once in a while to try to think like a Georgian. The Georgians like it when we try, but when we can’t get the words quite right, they like it even more because they know what it means when we fail: their language is still the secret handshake that has sustained them for so long.

Posted in: Culture, Languages