The Georgian language stands out as the only language in its family with an ancient literary tradition. Despite centuries of foreign rule, Georgia has maintained its distinct literary and cultural identity, uniquely influenced by an interesting mixture of Asian and European traditions.
Classification of the Georgian Language
The Georgian language is classified as part of the South Caucasian or Kartvelian language family, along with Mingrelian, Laz and Svan. Spoken primarily along the Caucasus mountain range, the Kartvelian languages are all believed to have descended from a single common protolanguage.
Early History of Georgia: The Influence of Christianity
The earliest known evidence of a written Georgian language can be found in a number of inscriptions dating from the 5th century. This marks the start of the Old Georgian period of the language, which dates from the 5th to 11th centuries.
In the 4th century AD, Christianity was introduced to the region of present-day Georgia and the Georgian Orthodox Church was established. Since this time, the identity of ethnic Georgians has been closely intertwined with Christianity. A number of religious Georgian language documents were produced during the Old Georgian period, including a Georgian translation of the Bible.
Evolution of the Written Georgian Language
The written Georgian language has developed three different scripts since the start of the Old Georgian period, all of which were written from left to right.
The first, Asomtavruli, evolved into the ecclesiastical script of Khutsuri; both of these are now extinct. There is evidence to suggest that the Old Georgian script found its basis in the Greek alphabet. The order of the Georgian alphabet and the shape of some characters suggest a Greek-language influence.
A later script, Mkhedruli, is still commonly used in printing today. The modern Georgian script developed around the 9th century and is considered a direct descendent from the written Old Georgian.
The Middle Georgian Language
The start of the Middle Georgian period dates from circa the 12th to the 18th centuries. The new literary language that developed around this time was based on the dialect of East Georgia.
Throughout the 12th century, an increasing amount of secular literature appeared, establishing a Middle Georgian literary tradition that went beyond traditional religious writings. Meanwhile, the Old Georgian form continued to remain in use primarily for religious purposes until the early 19th century.
Iranian and Ottoman Influences
In 1553 the Iranian and Ottoman empires invaded Georgia and partitioned the territory, Iran taking the eastern areas of present-day Georgia and the Ottomans taking the western areas. The two powers fought for total control of Georgia until the late 1500s, when the Iranian power succeeded in driving out its Ottoman foes.
The Kingdom of Georgia: Transition to Russian Rule
In the late 18th century, a new Georgian kingdom emerged under the rule of Erekle II. Established in 1762, the kingdom covered much of modern-day Georgia. Seeking protection from Iranian forces, King Erekle turned to Russian powers for protection, and a Russian suzerainty was subsequently established.
In 1801, however, Russian forces deposed the Georgian king and annexed the eastern part of the kingdom to the Russian Empire. By 1878, Russia had annexed the majority of Georgian territory.
Georgian as an Official Language
Georgian first became an official language in 1918 when Georgia gained independence from Russia. Although Georgia came under Soviet rule shortly after and Russian was the primary language of communication with the central government in Moscow, the Georgian language was permitted to retain its official status during this time. In 1991, the Georgian Supreme Soviet legislature declared Georgian independence from the USSR.
Conflict in Post-Independence Georgia
In accordance with the surge of post-independence nationalism in the country, the new Georgian government emphasized the teaching of the Georgian language and history in schools. Such nationalistic actions caused friction with minorities in the regions of Ossetia and Abkhazia who wanted to maintain a distinct identity from the Georgian nation.
Agitation for regional autonomy by Ossetia and Abkhazia clashed with growing Georgian nationalist sentiment in the rest of the country. Violence between Ossetian and Georgian forces erupted in 1989 and continued after independence. In 1992, Abkhazia declared itself independent from Georgia and heavy fighting broke out when the Georgian government sent troops in to reclaim the region. Some peace finally came to the region with a UN-sponsored cease-fire was initiated in 1994, but tensions again reignited between South Ossetia and Georgia as recently as 2008.
Georgian Literature: A Vibrant History
The Georgian language has an extremely rich literary tradition dating as far back as the 5th century. Linguistic developments in the middle period of the Georgian language helped to usher in a golden age of Georgian literature in the 12th and 13th centuries.
One notable work from the time was the Georgian national epic “Vepkhistqaosani” (“The Man in the Tiger’s Skin”) by Shotha Rusthaveli. In later centuries, Georgian writers took inspiration from the cultural movements of Western Europe, notably Romanticism.
The late 1800s and early 1900s saw another surge in Georgian literature; however, this era of literary production was cut short by Soviet rule, which restricted Georgian writers and artists to themes of glorified socialist ideals. In some cases, authors who did not comply were executed. Nonetheless, Georgia’s vibrant literary past survived and is still remembered today. The State Literary Museum in the capital of Tbilisi includes a history of Georgian literature.
Georgian Dialects and Language Today
The many dialects that exist within the Georgian language are generally grouped into two categories: East and West Georgian.
The modern Georgian language is spoken primarily in the Republic of Georgia, where it serves as the official language and is spoken as a first language by approximately 75 percent of the population. Georgian can also be found in areas of Azerbaijan, Turkey and Iran.
Georgian Quick Facts
Alternate Names & Spellings: Kartuli, Gruzinski, Common Kartvelian
Language Family: Kartvelian
Official Language of: Georgia
Spoken by Approximately 4,179,000 people
Also Spoken In: United States
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