An insatiable appetite for ancient and modern tongues

Classification. Caucasian, South Caucasian (Kartvelian). Caucasian languages are those native to the Caucasus excluding, thus, those of Indo-European and Turkic origin present in the area. Georgian belongs to the South Caucasian family (known also as Kartvelian) which doesn't have any obvious genetic relationship with the North Caucasian languages.

Overview. Georgian is the largest of the indigenous tongues of the Caucasus region and the only one among them to have an ancient literature. It is not related to any other language except to those of the South Caucasian family (Svan, Mingrelian and Laz). It served as a vehicle for the spread of Christianity in the area, particularly when Georgia was a powerful medieval kingdom, influencing neighboring languages.

Distribution and Speakers. There are about 4.6 million speakers of Georgian, the vast majority of them living in Georgia (including Abkhazia). Some 200,000 live in the Russian Federation, 24,000 in Ukraine, 16,000 in Azerbaijan (district of Zakatala), 40,000 in NE Turkey and 60,000 in Iran (Fereydan and Fereydunshahr provinces, Isfahan). In Israel live about 60,000 speakers of Judeo-Georgian, a dialect of the language with many Hebrew loanwords.


Status. Georgian is the official language of the Republic of Georgia.

Varieties. Georgian has about 17 dialects belonging to an eastern or western group, which have important differences  between them. They also differ from the literary standard that is based on the dialect of Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia.


5th-11th c. Old Georgian

12th-18th c. Middle Georgian

19th c.-present. Modern Georgian

Oldest Documents

  1. 430.Inscription found in Palestine, near Bethlehem.

  1. 483."The Martyrdom of Saint Shushanik", by Iakob Tsurtaveli, is the oldest surviving work of  Georgian literature.

  1. 493.Inscription in the Bolnisi Sioni cathedral, near Tbilisi.

5th c.    Translation of the Bible.

  1. 864."The Sinai Polycephalon" is the oldest dated manuscript in the language.


Vowels (5). Georgian, like all South Caucasian languages has a simple vowel system. There is quantitative vowel gradation in noun and verbal stems.


Consonants (28): stops and affricates have a three-way opposition between voiced, voiceless aspirate and voiceless  glottalized. Long consonant-clusters in initial position are not infrequent.


  1. The apostrophe indicates glottalization.

  2. v fluctuates in its pronunciation between v, w and f.

  3. h occurs almost only in word-initial position and, mostly, in foreign words.

Stress. Is very weak and without effect on vowel quality.

Script and Orthography. Nowadays, Georgian is written, from left to right, in the Mkhedruli ('military') script. It is a wholly phonemic alphabet with 33 characters of which 28 are consonants and 5 are vowels. It doesn't have upper-case letters. Below the alphabet, the official transliteration is shown and underneath the International Phonetic Alphabet symbols.


Georgian was written first (between the 5th and 9th centuries CE) with the Mrglovani ('rounded letters') alphabet. It was later replaced by the Kutkhovani ('angular') script which from the 11th century was, in turn, progressively phased out in favor of the modern Mkhedruli. However, religious texts retained the older alphabets combining them in the Khutsuri ('ecclesiastical') script and renaming them as Asomtavruli ('capital letters') and Nuskhuri ('lowercase') because the first was reserved for the majuscules while the second was employed for the minuscules.


Georgian is an agglutinating language adding suffixes to nominal stems, and prefixes as well as suffixes to verbal stems.

  1. Nominal. Nouns, adjectives and pronouns are inflected for number and case.

  1. gender: there is no distinction of gender (male/female) or class (animate/ inanimate).

  1. number: singular, plural. The plural marker is the suffix -eb which is placed immediately after the stem and before the case endings. The plural suffix is not used when the noun is preceded by a quantifier of some kind.

  1. case: nominative, ergative, dative, genitive, instrumental, adverbial, vocative.

  2. Cases are marked by specific suffixes attached directly to the stem if there is no plural marker or after it if there is one. The case suffixes are the same for the singular and plural. The ergative case marks the subject in the aorist tense of transitive verbs. The dative case marks both the direct and indirect objects.

  3. The declension of a noun depends on whether the noun stem ends in a vowel or a consonant. Vowel stems are unchanged in the nominative and vocative, in contrast to consonant stems. Besides, in stems ending with -e or -a its last vowel is lost in the genitive and the instrumental cases. For example, the singular declensions of k'ats (consonant-ending stem), mama (a-ending stem) and Sakartvelo (o-ending stem) are:


  1. The plural is made by inserting the plural marker -eb between the stem and the case markers e.g. nominative plural k'atsebi, instrumental plural k'atsebit, etc.

  1. articles: Georgian doesn’t have definite articles. The numeral one (erti) may be used as an indefinite one.

  1. pronouns: personal, possessive, demonstrative, relative, interrogative.

  2. Personal pronouns have independent, subject marker, direct object marker and indirect object marker forms. The independent forms are declined like nouns. The non-independent forms are affixed to verbs. Possessive pronouns derive from the genitive form of independent personal pronouns suffixed with -i.


  1. Demonstrative pronouns distinguish three deictic degrees: es (‘this’), eg (‘that’) and is/igi (‘that yonder’) and are declined in all cases but have the same forms for singular and plural.

  1. The interrogative pronouns are: vin ('who?'), ra ('what?') and romeli ('which?'). Relative pronouns derive form the interrogative ones by adding -ts (vints, rats, romelits).

  1. Verbal. Georgian has four verb classes: transitive, intransitive, medial, and indirect. Medial verbs are mainly intransitive but are conjugated like transitives. Indirect verbs denote feelings, sensations and wishes. Verbs can agree with up to three personal arguments: subject, direct object and indirect object.

  2. There are four series of conjugations:

  1. a)Present series: present indicative, imperfect, present subjunctive.

  2. b)Future series: future indicative, conditional, future subjunctive.

  3. c)Aorist series: aorist, optative.

  4. d)Perfect series: perfect, pluperfect, perfect subjunctive.

  1. Besides, there is an imperative mood.

  1. The verbal complex has prefixes and suffixes attached to the root in a precise order. Most of them are optional and some, like different subject markers, cannot coexist at the same time:

  1. (1)preverb - (2)1st person subject marker - (3)preradical vowel - (4)root - (5)stem suffix -

  2. (6)TAM markers - (7)3rd person subject marker - (8)plural marker.

  1. Preverbs indicate direction or aspect and serve to differentiate the future from the present.

  1. The preradical vowels indicate what in Georgian linguistics is called “version” i.e how a participant is affected by an action: zero-marking is neutral, i- denotes action for oneself (“subjective version”), u- denotes action for a third party (“objective version”), a- action on something (“locative version”). In passive constructions version may indicate the presence or the absence of a participant.

  1. If the first person is the subject of the verb it is marked by a prefix, if the second person is the subject it is not marked (zero-marking), if the third person is the subject it is marked by a suffix. Plurality of the 1st and 2nd persons is indicated by the plural suffix -t placed at the very end of the verbal complex, but the third person has specific singular and plural suffixes.

  1. The stem suffix varies in different verbs and some don't have one. In the aorist series it is dropped. Thus, the combination of preverb with this suffix serves to differentiate the first three verbal series: the present has stem suffix but no preverb, the future has both preverb and stem suffix, the aorist has preverb only.

  1. TAM (tense-aspect-mood) marker(s) are called "screeve(s)" in the technical literature, a neologism coined by a Georgian linguist to highlight the fact that tense is often inseparable from aspect and mood.

  1. The perfect series uses indirect object markers instead of subject markers.

  1. As an example we show the conjugation of the verb shen ('to build') in the basic tense of each series:


  1. black: preverb; brown: person and number markers; orange: preradical vowel, green: root;

  2. red: stem suffix; light blue: TAM marker

*Transitive verbs mark not only the subject but also the object person. However in the most usual circumstance, when the object is a 3rd person, singular or plural, it has zero-marking (it is implicit).

*In the present and future series of transitive verbs the subject is in the nominative case while the object (direct or indirect) adopts the dative case.

*In the aorist series of transitive verbs the subject is in the ergative case while the direct object is in the nominative (split ergativity). The indirect object is, as usual, in the dative case.

*In the perfective series of transitive verbs and in all indirect verbs the subject is in the dative case and the direct object in the nominative case.


Word order is quite free in Georgian. The order subject-indirect object- direct object-transitive verb (SOV) is typical but other constructions are permissible. For ergative constructions and dative logical subject see above. Attributive adjectives precede their nouns and agree with them in case (but not in number) if the adjective ends in a consonant; in contrast, vowel-final adjectives are  invariable. Negative and interrogative words and phrases precede always the verb. There are no articles and postpositions are used instead of prepositions.


Georgian has many old loanwords from Greek, Armenian, Arabic and Turkish, and more recent ones from Iranian, Russian and English.

Basic Vocabulary

Key Literary Works

  1. 476-83    C’amebay C’midisa Shushanikisi Dedop’lisay (The Passion of St. Shushanik). Iakob

  2. Tsurtaveli

  3. The earliest and greatest hagiographical work from a period dominated by ecclesiastical literature. Shushanik, the daughter of an Armenian hero, was married to a Georgian duke. When he abandoned his Christian faith in order to be in good terms with the Persian court she refused to follow suit and was imprisoned and tortured by him during seven years until she died.

  1. c. 1050    Amiran-Darejaniani (The story of Amiran, son of Darejan). Mose Khoneli

  2. Opening the path of secular literature, it is a cycle of prose tales, divided in twelve episodes, whose protagonist is the champion Amirani as well as other knights involved in battles and fantastic adventures in an Oriental setting.

  1. 12th c.    Visramiani (Vis and Ramin). Sardis Tmogveli

  2. An adaption of a Persian romance, originally written by Fakhraddin Gorgani in the 11th century, probably, based on a Parthian narrative. Vis is married against her will with the king Mobad but falls in love with Ramin who had been brought up by the same wet-nurse. There is a constant atmosphere of danger, intrigue and romance and, contrasting with other medieval works of the same genre, a celebration of physical love. Visramiani resembles Tristan and Iseult in many particulars but differs in its happy ending.

1190-1210    Vephkhis-tqaosani (The Knight in the Panther's Skin). Shota Rustaveli

  1. A long epic poem of love and adventure unfolding across exotic countries (Arabia, India), composed in rhymed quatrains, displaying great technical virtuosity. Their protagonists are ideal knights who value loyalty, friendship and pure love without lust. The author alternates dramatic episodes with interludes of humor and is able to recreate vividly court ceremonial, battles and the life of great cities while showing an acquaintance with Persian poetry, astronomy and Greek philosophy.

  1. 1705    Davitiani (The Book of David). David Guramishvili

  2. An autobiographical collection of strongly musical poems, based on folk songs and religious hymns, combining somewhat incongruously the erotic and the religious.

  1. c. 1720    Tsigni sibrdzne-sitsruisa (Book of Wisdom and Lies). Sulkhan Saba Orbeliani

  2. Authored by a member of one of the Georgian leading families, it is a collection of stories, fables and proverbs influenced by Sufism and linked by a complex narrative frame.

  1. 1859-63    Katsia-adamiani? (Is He Human?). Ilia Ch'avch'avadze

  2. The first esthetically successful Georgian novella, a satyrical portrait of the rural Georgian gentry infused with black humor. The prince Luarsab was coerced into marriage with an ugly woman but remained faithful to her. They live in a ramshackle house amidst rubbish. They bully their servants and the only concern of the prince is the menu of his next meal.

  1. 1901    Gvelis mchameli (The Snake-Eater). Vazha-Pshavela (Luka Razikashvili)

  2. A tragic narrative poem whose central subject is the conflict between morality and the imperatives of society and whose form combines folklore with European literary traditions. Its hero, Mindia, is a kind of Georgian Faust. He is captured by wizards who eat snake-flesh to maintain their powers. He reluctantly eats it only to find he has acquired a magic understanding of animals and plants. He escapes and becomes the village shaman but is unwilling to fell trees or kill game. The needs of his family force him to break his vows and to the loss of his powers. He, finally, commits suicide.

  1. 1933–36    Arsena Marabdeli (Arsena of Marabda). Mikheil Javakhishvili

  2. A novel based on the life of a brigand, a favorite hero of Georgian folklore, who is viewed sympathetically by Javakhishvili. Out of necessity, this gallant peasant fights against the gentry but is tragically doomed.

  1. 1973-75    Data Tutashkhia. Chabua Amirejibi

  2. In the same vein of Javakhishvili's novels, its protagonist the outlaw Data Tutashkhia is forced to lead a life of brigandage against the Russian authorities because of oppression.

  1. 1995    Avelum. Otar Chiladze

  2. An account by a Georgian intellectual of the conflictive years of 1989-1991 in novelistic form.

  1. © 2013 Alejandro Gutman and Beatriz Avanzati                                                                               

Further Reading

  1. -The Indigenous Languages of the Caucasus, vol 1: The Kartvelian languages. A. C. Harris (ed). Caravan Books (1991).

  2. -Grammaire de la Langue Géorgienne. H. Vogt.  Oslo, Universitets Forlaget (1971).

  3. -Georgian. A Reading Grammar. H. I. Aronson. Slavica (1990).

  4. -Georgian. A Structural Reference Grammar. B. G. Hewitt. John Benjamin (1996).

  5. -The South Caucasian languages’. W. Boeder. In Lingua 115, 5-89. Elsevier (2005).

  6. -The Literature of Georgia. A History. D. Rayfield. Curzon Press (2000).

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