Alpha Bravo Charlie

Posted on September 7, 2012 by


Have you ever had this conversation?

You: “Which kuh is it?”
A Georgian Person: “Kuh.”
You: “Kuh?”
Georgian: “Not kuh, kuh.”
You: “Kuh?”
Georgian: “No! Kuh! Kuh!”
You: “Kuh?”
Georgian: “Vaime!”

I bet you have. For kuh or tuh or tsuh or chuh or puh.

I first set foot in Georgia exactly two years ago today (I’m writing this on August 31st). After two years, my ability to recognize the difference between regular and ejective Georgian consonants is still highly unreliable and I’ve had the above conversation more times than I can stand. I can pronounce the sounds just fine – that ability came around month 17 or 18 – but differentiating them when a native speaker uses them is still anywhere from tough to impossible.

I’ve been working on word lists and translations for school this year, and it’s faster and more reliable to get help from a Georgian who speaks English than to try to look the words up on one of the terrible online translation sites or in one of the terrible print dictionaries I happen to have. The only problem is that spelling the word becomes problematic because I never know if my translator is saying ტ or თ (unless I listen real hard and get real lucky).

I found myself coming up with ad hoc solutions. At first I tried asking “big T or little T?” – to me, the ტ is clearly the “big T” and the თ is clearly the small one, but Georgians don’t seem to see it that way. Then I tried asking “Tbilisi T?” – but this seemed to also cause confusion and ultimately got me nowhere – plus there are four other sets of paired letters that are nearly impossible to distinguish plus a couple of odd characters that give me trouble depending on the speaker’s accent. It was clear that the ad hoc approach was causing more frustration than it was avoiding.

Anyway, I have finally come up with a system that seems to work – and work wonders.

Basically, it’s a “spelling alphabet” like the kind pilots and military people use. But it’s in Georgian and it’s used exclusively for hard-to-hear letters. Here are the letters and the words I chose to represent them, in Georgian and in transcription (note – capitals represent ejectives), and translations:

ქალი k kali woman
კაცი K Katsi man
ყავა Q Qava coffee
ფარდა p parda curtain
პური P Puri bread
თეთრი t tetri white
ტორტი T TorTi cake
ჩაი ch chai tea
ჭაჭა CH CHaCHa moonshine
სახე s sakhe face
ცივი ts tsivi cold
წიგნი TS TSigni book
ღამე gh ghame night
ხელი kh kheli hand

Basically, the words are all simple, reasonably common, two syllables long (chai is like one and a half because of the diphthong, but the others are two), and relatively easy to say and to understand even for us foreigners. I chose them for ease of remembering, pronouncing, and comprehending unambiguously.

To use this system I basically wrote these words up on the whiteboard (yeah, I have my own whiteboard at home, it’s insanely useful and I highly recommend it) but a piece of paper stuck on a desk or something would work) and now when I want to know what letter to use to spell a word, I ask using one of the above words. Essentially I’ve just renamed the letters.

I suspect that using this system a lot will also draw your attention to which letters are used in which words, which will in turn help in recognition. If I know I’m hearing a ქ every time someone says “ქალი” maybe I’ll start to hear the difference between ქ and კ more readily. Or maybe not.

Anyway, it seems to be highly effective, at least at helping me spell, so I figured I’d share.