მოგესალმებით! Dear linguistic fellow, welcome to <humbleness alert> the best guide to learning Georgian! </humbleness alert> Are you ready to embark on a journey to discover one of the world’s most unique and beautiful languages?
Georgian is the official language of the Southeastern state of the USA, which… kidding 😹 Okay, cough cough, now seriously.
… the official language of the country of Georgia, located at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. Its rich history, culture, and traditions make it a fascinating language to learn, and its unique alphabet and otherwordly sounds set it apart from any other.
It’s been a late discovery for me, but without a doubt, learning Georgian is more exciting than Money Heist. 🤩
Whether you fell in love with a Georgian person, you adore travelling far and wide, you’re eager to wine-taste in Tbilisi or get rich in Batumi, this guide will provide you with the tools and resources you need to start speaking Georgian with confidence. And if you’re merely curious, I’ll still provide enough to entertain. 😎
So, let’s get started!
Where is Georgian spoken?
Well well, guess where 😉 indeed, in Georgia, in the northeast of the Caucasus range, where bits of the West located in the Middle East starts blending with Asia.
If you have an atlas, take it out from the shelf and have a look at it. If you don’t, well:
- Buy one (no offence, Google Maps); 🗺️
- meanwhile, know that Georgia is bordered by Turkey to the southwest, Russia to the north, Azerbaijan to the southeast and Armenia to the south. No shores on the Caspian Sea but abundant ⎯ and lively ⎯ coast on the Black Sea.
Georgians like to say that they got this land from God. “Official versions” aside, it was told to me by Georgians this way: when portions of Earth were distributed by the Almighty to countless nations, Georgians were late because they were drinking wine and feasting. So when all lands were already given out, God gave them the piece of land he was keeping for himself. 😌
This curious myth exemplifies three things:
- The regard Georgians have for their motherland;
- the beauty of the place.
- Georgians are party animals. 🥳
Back to the language, Georgian is indeed Georgia’s official and it is spoken by approximately 3.7 million people worldwide. Besides there, Georgian-speaking communities are present also in other countries, including Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan, and Greece.
Who speaks Georgian, other than Georgians?
Sadly, not many outsiders learn the language, and historically it hasn’t been a lingua franca. So, apart from a few exceptions and the foreign communities traditionally settled in the country (most notably, Russians, Ukrainians, Azeris, Armenians), the vast majority of Georgian speakers are ethnic Georgians.
And who are the Georgians? Well well (rubbing hands)…
The Georgian people have a long and rich history that dates back many thousands of years. Their exact origins are not known, but it is believed that the region has been inhabited by various indigenous peoples for thousands of years: some of the earliest human settlements in the region date back to the Paleolithic period, around 40,000 years ago.
Over the centuries, various civilizations and empires have risen and fallen in the Georgian-speaking regions, including the ancient kingdoms of Colchis and Iberia, and later the Persian, Roman, and Byzantine empires.
The Georgian people have maintained their unique culture and language throughout this long history, despite being conquered and ruled by a series of foreign powers. Otherwise, we could not be able to taste khinkali (ხინკალი) nowadays, which would be terrifying.
Is the Georgian language then as ancient as its people?
We can say so 🙂
For one thing, it is a Kartvelian language with roots thousands of years into the Caucasus. The Georgian alphabet was created in the 4th century AD, with the earliest written records dating back to the 5th century AD. Allow me to show you this beauty:
Over time, the Georgian language has evolved, absorbed much from Greek, Persian and Russian, but ultimately developed its own unique characteristics.
We can identify a few phases in the evolution of the Georgian language. Bear with me, it won’t get too nerdy 😉
Old Georgian (4th to 11th centuries AD): This period is characterized by the earliest written records of Georgian, including the creation of the alphabet, as said above. During this time, the language was used in religious, literary works, and administrative documents.
Middle Georgian (12th to 17th centuries): This period saw the development of a more standardized form of language and the establishment of a literary tradition. During this time, Georgian literature flourished, and many notable works were produced, including poems, hymns, and historical chronicles.
Modern Georgian (18th century to present day): This period marks the transition from Middle Georgian to the Modern Georgian language. During this time, the Georgian language was influenced by Russian, as well as by European and classical literary traditions. This period also saw the development of a normalized form of language, which is still in use today.
At this point, if you’re like me, you’d ask: wait a moment, tell me more about the alphabet, please!
How is Georgian written?
Georgian is written in its unique alphabet, known as Mkhedruli. It’s the most recent script, out of the main three. Shall we see them briefly?
Asomtavruli is the oldest style of the Georgian alphabet, and it dates back to the 5th century AD. It was originally used for religious texts and inscriptions, and it has a highly stylized and ornate appearance. Asomtavruli is still used today in certain religious contexts, such as the headings of church books.
Nuskhuri is a later version of the Georgian alphabet, which was developed in the 9th century AD. It was used for secular texts, such as legal documents, and it has a simpler and more angular appearance than Asomtavruli. Nuskhuri is also still in use, such as the inscriptions on gravestones.
Mkhedruli is the most commonly used style of the Georgian alphabet today, and it has been in use since the 11th century AD. It is a more cursive and flowing style than the other two, and it is used for everyday writing and printing. Mkhedruli is the standard style of the Georgian alphabet used in modern-day Georgia, and it is the style that is taught in schools and used in official documents.
Mkhedruli, Nushkuri or Asomtavruli, the Georgian script lends itself soooo well for tattoos that I don’t get why I’m seeing around just Arabic and Chinese being used. 🧐
It consists of 33 letters, including 7 vowels and 26 consonants, and is written from left to right. The distinctive curved and peculiar ornamental shapes make it, in technical terms, supercool.
Despite having changed and evolved over the centuries, its basic form has remained relatively unchanged, as you can see. And just as unchanged is the appreciation Georgians show for their writing system.
Fun fact: Armenians jokingly state that their own alphabet’s creator, the clergy Mesrop Mashtots, after his geometric chef-d’oeuvre got cheerful, so he drank to celebrate, and once tipsy, he worked on the Asomtavruli, and that’s why it’s all curved. 🤪
Butttt okay, jokes aside, what are the most peculiar facets of this language? (rubbing hands again).
A few quirks of the Georgian language
#1 Inflection: Georgian has a rich system of inflexion, with a number of grammatical cases (seven, each with its own ending and usage), moods, and tenses, making it a complex language to learn – albeit beautiful.
#2 Polypersonal agreement: verbs must agree in person with all of their arguments, meaning that the verb must indicate the number of subjects and objects in a sentence. This way, with a single verb you can provide information about the whole sentence.
#3 Postpositions: Georgian uses postpositions rather than prepositions, which are words that come after the noun they modify. Allow me a bit of a nerdier explanation.
A postposition is a type of grammatical particle that is placed after a noun or pronoun to indicate the noun’s relationship to another element in a sentence. In Georgian, postpositions are used to indicate a wide range of grammatical relationships, including location, direction, possession and time. For instance, the postposition “საქართველოში” (sakartveloshi) means “in Georgia,” and the postposition “წინ” (ts’in) means “in front of.”
#4 Multiple noun classes: a complex system of noun classes, which is based on the final consonant of the noun. Nouns are classified into one of ten different classes based on this feature, and the class of the noun determines the form of various elements of the sentence, such as adjectives and pronouns.
#5 Aspirated consonants: Georgian has a number of aspirated consonants, which are pronounced with a burst of air, making them different from their non-aspirated counterparts. That is, perhaps, the most noticeable feature of spoken Georgian, alongside the next point.
#6 Ejective consonants: those made by a sudden release of air after the closure of the vocal cords. Fun fact, when I asked my girlfriend what she thought about Georgia, she mentioned in this order: nature is gorgeous, food is great, and the Georgian language is very throat-ish. 😀
#7 Complex verb conjugation: Georgian has a complex system of verb conjugation, with different forms for different tenses, moods, and aspects.
Verbs are divided into five classes based on their stem type, and each class has its own set of rules for conjugation and for the addition of prefixes and suffixes. For example, the first class includes verbs with a stem that ends in a consonant, while the second class includes verbs with a stem that ends in a vowel. Furthermore, each tense can be modified to indicate what’s the status of the action (ie, it’s ongoing or completed).
At this point, dear friend, there could be two types of you:
- The one that says: WTF? I struggle even with Spanish. But the post is cool, so I’ll keep reading;
- the one that thinks: Count me in! Where shall I get started?
Indeed, dear fellow linguophile: given its complexity, Georgian allows for a huge deal of flexibility and precision when expressing oneself. And for the complexity, let me tell you how to build good foundations.
Learning Georgian: how to get started from 0
I would keep things as simple as possible if I were you. Start from these two textbooks and, for a good while, forget about wasting hours commenting on Georgian language forums, reviewing PhD dissertations on the Mingrelian influence on contemporary Georgian or the like.
#1 Textbooks to learn Georgian on your own
This textbook is all you need when you start from zero:
Beginner’s Georgian, by Dodona Kiziria
This book is designed specifically for beginners, providing a step-by-step approach to learning the basics of the Georgian language. It includes dialogues, exercises and vocabulary lists to help learners practice speaking, reading, and writing in Georgian.
The book also comes with an audio CD, which is sooooo needed for practising pronunciation and listening comprehension. It’s also freaking cheap, so all the more reasons to stop indulging.
Georgian: A Learner’s Grammar, by George Hewitt
It’s a good continuation of the above, in the sense that it is still meant for beginners, but it’s denser and more theoretical. This textbook provides a thorough introduction to the Georgian language, covering the basics – and a bit further – of pronunciation, grammar, lexicon, explanations of the alphabet, and exercises of all sorts for a beginner.
Read through each chapter carefully, taking notes and practising what you have just learned as you go. Make sure to review each chapter several times to reinforce your understanding. Despite being slightly more expensive than the previous textbook, it’s worth every penny.
With these two textbooks, you have a plan for a few months. Bulky tomes aside, allow me a few words of advice.
#2 Alphabet, alphabet and more alphabet
It seems a no-brainer, but it’s not. Start with the alphabet, as it’s important to get a handle on the basics first, and in this phase, forget about getting familiar with all the fancy typefaces like BPG Glaho and Sylfaen and cool calligraphy stuff. They are lovely, but before running, let’s learn to walk.
Learn to read the standard alphabet and script given with the books. Learn, first and foremost, to read. Writing matters, but I’d focus on good handwriting only when reading is no longer an issue.
#3 A Georgian tutor
Once you’re done with the books, get a private Georgian tutor. If you can hire one while working on the textbooks, even better. Once a week at least, even if learn Georgian for passion rather than an obligation – otherwise it will take you so long that you will starve your linguistic neurons between one session and another.
#4 For learning Gergian, stay grounded
If you ask around or browse some of the countless language learning forums, they will suggest you use all sorts of online resources to supplement your learning, such as listening to Georgian music, watching Georgian films or TV shows, or rabbit-holing into the adverbial case on publications more obscure than the Voynich manuscript.
Before at least a lower intermediate level, all you will get will be frustration.
#5 Duolingo or not Duolingo?
Ehm, let’s see…
As you know, Duolingo is a popular language learning platform that offers courses in many different languages, but… not Georgian. It’s not even in the incubator. Nonetheless, I wouldn’t consider using this app for it even if it were available.
The platform uses a gamified approach to language learning, with lessons that are interactive and engaging. But… the truth of the matter is, it’s just a game with a slight educational flair. I would recommend you to use Duolingo, for learning any language, only if:
- You want to run a Second Language Acquisition experiment, at the same time;
- you have small chunks of dead time you can’t use otherwise.
#6 Memorizing lyrics
Why not harness the power of music also when learning Georgian? The lyrics of “Iare” (იარე) by Nino Chkheidze (ნინო ჩხეიძე), or “Is ak aris” (ის აქ არის) by Giya Kancheli (გია ყანჩელი) are a good start. Then, go in the direction of your musical preferences.
#7 Learn to write
After having made this mistake many times when learning many languages, now to me it’s clear: starting to learn the four key skills at the same time (reading, listening, writing, speaking) is normally a bad idea.
That’s why I advised you before to spend more time reading, in the beginning, than writing. But as soon as you have a reasonable grasp on reading, time to master writing. A few tips:
- Whatever your handwriting style, write big letters;
- Learn to write the way strokes are ordered in the textbooks;
- Whatever your handwriting style, write slowly;
- Copy the characters from one unique set, one taken from the textbooks above. There will be time to explore other scripts, add ligatures and fioriture;
- When you’re practising handwriting, BE THERE. Leave distractions in another room;
- After a few letters in isolation, write whole words.
#8 Beware of language exchanges
Again, before a lower intermediate level of Georgian, it’s unlikely that you will benefit from practising the spoken language with natives. We have to bust the myth that any native speaker of a language is by default a good tutor of it. It’s better to stick to a professional tutor for practising, right now.
#9 Keep georgianizing yourself
A journey to საქართველო would be the top, but there is no need to if you can’t. Other stuff would work: a documentary about the Gelati monastery; reaching out to the Georgian dude playing soccer with your brother for coffee and conversation; dabbling in calligraphy; reading Edge of Empires: A History of Georgia by Donald Rayfield or binging on khachapuri like the world is ending.
Does it serve you to improve your language skills? Maybe not a lot, but sure as hell it does not harm 😉
FAQ about learning Georgian
Can one understand where a Georgian speaker is from based on their accent?
Yes, it is possible to identify the region or area where a Georgian speaker is from based on their accent.
The Georgian language has several regional dialects and accents, and the way a person speaks can often reveal where they are from. For example, a person’s accent might reveal the area they grew up in, their level of education, or their social background. Some regional accents in Georgian are more pronounced than others and can be quite different from the standard accent.
However, it is important to note that the distinction between accents and dialects in Georgian is not always clear-cut and that different accents can sometimes overlap or coexist in the same area. Additionally, the presence of multiple dialects and accents in Georgian can sometimes make it difficult to identify a speaker’s origin based solely on their accent.
Where is the best Georgian spoken?
Are you looking for the equivalent of Spanish’ Valladolid or English’ Cambridge? Any urban place is OK, don’t worry, and accent is something that not only we all have, but it is also possible to correct if need be.
Is Georgian available as a language option on operating systems and software?
Yes, on Microsoft Windows, Apple’s macOS, iOS, Android, etc. In addition, many software applications, such as word processing programs and web browsers, offer Georgian as a language option for user interfaces and menus
Will I ever be able to learn the alphabet?
Ahahah! Of course! The Georgian alphabet can be mastered in a few days, or a few weeks if you take it slow. As it is with Greek, Armenian, Russian or other languages with non-Latin alphabets, learning their writing system is easier than one believes.
The (partial) bad news is that it’s achieving a decent fluency in them that takes longer than most expect.
Is there a book you’d suggest to get to know the culture better?
Hold my shot of Chacha! Here are a few tips:
Georgia in the Mountains of Poetry by Peter Nasmyth is a well-regarded book that provides an in-depth look at all things Georgia, especially the post-USSR part of history, art, music and literature.
History of the Caucasus: Volume 1: At the Crossroads of Empires by Christoph Baumer is a best-seller on the Caucasus bookshelf. It covers a wide range of topics on Georgia but also Armenia and Azerbaijan, including ancient and medieval history, interactions with neighbouring forces such as Persia, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire, and up to the more recent developments.
How can I use proficiency in Georgian, in a professional sense?
Woah, buddy, we are still away from that place, but since I am a long-term planner too, the short answer is: Georgian can be fabulous for working. A few ways you can use your Georgian-speaking skills:
1️⃣ Translation and interpretation: since automatic translation is nowhere close, bridging the gap between Georgian and other languages will be necessary for a long time. Consider that Georgia has strong relations with Europe, North America, Central Asia and, well, Russia. Any of the languages spoken in these areas will be a good combination with Georgian.
2️⃣ Tourism: fluency in Georgian can be so valuable if you work in the tourism industry, helping visitors navigate the country and its culture. Nature, ancient architecture, wineries, those charming hamlets perched atop lush hills… and I can go on for a long time 🙂 according to the Georgian National Tourism Administration, the number of international tourists after Covid-19 is fast recovering from the pre-pandemic levels. In 2019, 9.4 million visited the country.
3️⃣ Cultural exchanges: Georgia’s cultural scene punches way above its weight. The interest shown by the rest of the world in what’s going on in Georgia translates into exhibitions, conferences and workshops of all sorts.
4️⃣ Trade: money will always go everywhere, no matter the language hurdle, but it does tend to go where language opened a path. Corporate tax is particularly favourable here, manufacturing is doing great in fields such as agricultural transformation and textile, the real estate market is growing steadily. Some would tell you that English is common, in business settings, so no need for investing time in Georgian; others would go as far as to say Russian is a better option, for both business and non-business, as you can use it also outside of Georgia. I would argue that none of them is fully aware of how much is lost, by not being fluent in the language.
5️⃣ International relations: why not use your Georgian language skills to work in the field of global development, diplomacy, or politics, helping to build relationships between Georgia and your country? Keep in mind that Georgia is a hotbed of geopolitical activity.
So, fluency in Georgian can be an excellent asset in a variety of fields, because we should meet people where they are – also linguistically. 😉
Conclusions on learning Georgian
Learning a new language is always a worthwhile endeavour: in this brief guide, though, I hope to have shown that start learning Georgian offers a uniquely rewarding experience. Ever thought – for real – about it before? 🙂
If you haven’t, what held you back? 🧐
Whether you’re interested in post-USSR spaces, mesmerized by the Kutaysi-born gal next to you at university 🧡 or captivated by the chap from Imereti who smuggle tkemali for you every time he goes back home 😋, reading Tintin in Georgian or trying to secure an internship at the OECD, why not take the plunge and start learning Georgian today?
Don’t let the alien sounds and strenuous grammar scare you off! With some method and persistence, you can achieve a decent Georgian and proceed to more advanced levels 😀 and fluency in Georgian opens up a whole new world of possibilities.
I see you here in a while with some other tips about how to learn Georgian. For now, stay safe, stay well, stay ქართველი 😉
Your personal Caucasian language observer, 🇬🇪