The Georgian Alphabet

The Georgian alphabet -- an introduction
Configuration and names
Chronology and spheres of use of the Georgian alphabet
The origin of the Georgian alphabet
The order of letters in the Georgian and Greek alphabets
Later changes made in Georgian alphabet
Georgian manuscripts
References


The Georgian alphabet -- an introduction

Among the Caucasian languages currently spoken in Georgia (Georgian, Megrelian, Svan, Abkhaz, Batsbi, Udi), only Georgian and Abkhaz have their own scripts.

Until recently the Georgian language was considered to be the only language among the Caucasian languages to have a lengthy documented history, back to the fifth century C. E. other Caucasian languages having been documented only since the nineteenth century. However, recent investigations by the Georgian scientist Zaza Aleksidze have estabilished that another Caucasian language, Albanian, also has documented texts from so far back as the fifth century C.E.

The first attempt to create a script for the Abkhaz language dates from the 1860s. The Abkhaz literary (written) language dates from the1920s.Since its creation the Abkhaz script has during different periods been based on the Cyrillic, Georgian, Latin, on the Georgian once more, and then again on the Cyrillic script.

The Georgian literary language has one and a half millennia of documented history. Recent archeological excavations have unearthed Georgian inscriptions dating from the frist to the third C. E. in Nekresi in eastern Georgia. These inscriptions are now being closely examined, but the Georgian alphabet is still dated from the fifth century C. E.

The Georgian alphabet has had three main stages of development.

  • Asomtavruli (or Mrglovani // Mrgvlovani) (the 5th-9th centuries)
  • Nuskhuri (Khutsuri) (the 9th-11th centuries)
  • Mkhedruli (the 12th century until now)
The script used nowadays in Georgia is Mkhedruli.


Configuration and names

Asomtavruli is the oldest type of the Georgian script. All letters have one and the same size in Asomtavruli and are written between two lines. The name Asomtavruli means Capital. Another name for this script is Mrglovani // Mrgvlovani, meaning Round.

The next stage in the development of the  alphabet-- Nuskhuri or Khutsuri (Nuskha-Khutsuri) -- has more squared forms.The letters are written between four lines. Depending on the size of the letters, four different groups are attested. "Nuskha" means written, writing. "Nuskhuri" means writing from, like in writing // handwriting. The name Khutsuri means for ecclesiastic purposes. This term ("Khutsuri") arose in the thirteenth century and involved both Mrglovani and Nuskhuri as ecclesiastic scripts in opposition to Mkhedruli as a non-ecclesiastic script. Nowadays the term "Khutsuri" usually means the same as "Nuskhuri".

Mkhedruli has developed from Nuskhuri (Khutsuri). The name Mkhedruli means for men of the world. The squared configuration of the Nuskhuri letters has changed into more rounded forms in Mkhedruli. Four groups according to the size of the Nuskhuri letters are maintained in Mkhedruli:

1. ა, ი, თ, ო...
2. ბ, ზ, ნ, მ....
3. გ, დ, ე, ვ....
4. ქ, ჭ....

For example, a word containing letters of all four sizes is quTaisi Kutaisi (a town in west Georgia).

There are no capital letters in Mkhedruli.

The famous Georgian linguist  and author of Georgian Grammar, Akaki Shanidze, suggested reviving Mrglovani (Asomtavruli) and using its letters for capital letters in the Modern Georgian script (Mkhedruli),but this proposal was unsuccessful. One example of this effort, printed along these principles, is a collection of linguistic works devoted to Ak'ak'i Shanidze  (Orioni Akaki Shanidzes, Tbilisi, 1966).

Chronology and spheres of use of the Georgian alphabet
The most ancient Georgian inscriptions are in the Mrglovani (Asomtavruli) script. Found in Palestine, near Bethlehem (Tsereteli 1960), they date back to the 430s C. E. and the inscriptions, found in the Bolnisi Sioni church, near Tbilisi, have been dated from the 90s of the fifth century. Recent investigations suggest the inscriptions from Bolnisi date from the fourth and sixth centuries (Sardzhveladze 1997; Danelia and Sardzhveladze 1997). New archeological excavations have discovered Georgian inscriptions dating from the first to the third centuries C. E. in Nekresi, in eastern Georgia.

The first inscriptions in Nuskhuri, or Nuskha-Khutsuri, date from 835; they are in the Sioni Church in At'eni near Gori, in eastern Georgia (Aleksidze 1983), and came into common use in the tent and eleventh centuries. Mrglovani was used for capital letters in titles and initials. Nuskhuri (Khutsuri), with Mrglovani letters for capitalisation, is still used in the Georgian Orthodox Church.

The first inscription in Mkhedruli is also found in the Sioni Church in At'eni in eastern Georgia and belongs to the period c.980 (Abramishvili and Aleksidze 1978; Aleksidze1983). Mkhedruli has been the script for all non-ecclesiastic texts since the twelfth century.

Parallel use of Mrglovani and Nuskhuri(Khutsuri) was common in the tenth and eleventh centuries, with some manuscripts written in Mrglovani and others in Nuskhuri during this period. In some works both scripts are attested. For instance, one part of Shat'berdis k'rebuli ("Collected works from Shat'berdi") from the tenth century is written in Mrglovani but another part in Nuskhuri.

Since the twelfth century, when Mkhedruli became the common script, the main functional distinction between Mrglovani and Nuskhuri, on the one hand, and Mkhedruli, on the other, has been that all ecclesiastical literature has been written with Khutsuri letters and all non-eclesiastical literature -- the King's orders, resolutions of the court and other documents, as well as non-ecclesiaistical poems and prose -- written in Mkhedruli.

The origin of the Georgian alphabet

Different hypotheses have been put forward concerning the origin of the Georgian alphabet. The Old Georgian tradition (in particular, Leonti Mroveli, the eleventh-century historian) ascribes the creation of the Georgian alphabet to Parnavaz, the king of Georgia in the third century B.C.

Some researchers maintain that the Georgian alphabet was created before Christ (Dzhavakhishvili 1949; Pavle Ingoroq'va 1941; Ramaz P'at'aridze 1980...), while others (K'orneli K'ek'elidze, Ak'ak'i Shanidze...) argue that the Georgian alphabet was created after Christianity was adopted as the official religion in Georgia. The script used in the Georgian state  before the creation of the Georgian alphabet must have been Greek and Aramaic (inscriptions have been found in Armazi, near the old capital of Georgia, Mtskheta). T. Gamkrelidze (1989) has shown that the Greek alphabet seems to be an  organizing principle behind the oldest Georgian script. According to the newest sources, the oldest Georgian inscriptions from Nekresi precede Christianity as the official religion in Georgia.

The legend about Mesrop-Masthots (the creator of the Armenian script) as the "inventor" of the Georgian and Old Caucasian Alban scripts does not have a scientific basis. It is a later insertion made for certain religious and ecclesiastic purposes in some Armenian sources (Aleksidze 1968), and even this insertion mentions that Mesrop-Mashtots did not know the Georgian and Albanian languages.

Graphically the Georgian alphabet is independent, based on a combination of perpendicular lines and circles (Tamaz Gamq'relidze, 1989:170). Zaza Aleksidze has published the tables for comparison of Ethiopian, Georgian, Armenian and Albanian scripts (Aleksidae 2003: 106-113) but he stresses that further investigation is necessary before drawing any final conclusions (Aleksidze 2003: 167). Finally, a hypothesis about the Ethiopian alphabet as a graphic source for the Georgian, Albanian and Armenian scripts has also been proposed (Sevak 1962: 42-54).

The order of letters in the Georgian alphabet follows that of the Greek alphabet supporting the argument that the initial model for the creator of the Georgian alphabet must have been the Greek alphabet (Tamaz Gamq'relidze, 1989:129-157).

The order of letters in the Georgian and Greek alphabets

There are 37 letters (or 38 letters if we count a letter for the vowel u as a separate item as it is presented in the chart above) in both Mrglovani and Nuskhuri, and both alphabets are phonemic, which means that every phoneme (vowels and consonants) has its corresponding unique letter in the alphabet. There were some exceptions in Mrglovani and Nuskhuri writing, explained by the influence from the Greek alphabet as the original model for the Georgian alphabet. The order and the numerical value of the letters in the Georgian alphabet were the same as in the Greek alphabet. The letters expressing specific Georgian sounds have been added at the end of the alphabet.

The following  exceptions in the Old Georgian alphabet were made in order to maintain the same order of letters as in the Greek alphabet and, consequently, to maintain the same meaning of letters as the signs expressing the numbers (see table above) as they do in the Greek alphabet (Tamaz Gamkrelidze, 1989:129-157):

1. To devise letters expressing a sequence of two sounds (two phonemes):

  • The eighth letter in the Old Georgian alphabet expresses the diphthong ej, which contradicts the phonemic principle of the Georgian alphabet. To devise a letter expressing two sounds (e and j) was a way of overcoming the difference between the Georgian and Greek sound systems, as the eighth letter in the Greek alphabet expresses the long vowel h (alternating with ei diphthong in the sixth century B.C.E.-- through the third C.E.), an improvisation made necessary by their being no long vowels in Georgian.
  • The twenty-second letter in the Old Georgian alphabet expresses the diphthong wi and corresponds to the letter u in the Greek alphabet.
2. To use two letters for expressing one sound (phoneme): the Georgian vowel u was written as a sequence of the two letters o and wi as in Greek. It does not name any numerical value.

3. To devise a letter for a positional variant of a phoneme in order to fill in the "empty" place of the Greek alphabet:

  • The fifteenth letter in the Georgian alphabet occupies the same place as  X in the Greek alphabet. Georgiann has no phoneme corresponding to the Greek X, so in its place the creator of the Georgian alphabet put a letter expressing a sound that had not been a phoneme in Georgian but did exist in Georgian as a positional variant (allophone) of -i in some positions (These positions are described in the part on phonology).
4. To devise a letter that did not express any phoneme of the Georgian sound system:
  • The thirty-seventh letter in the Georgian alphabet corresponds to the Greek w. It was created in order to end the Georgian alphabet like the Greek one and, at the same time, to complete the alphabet as the system of numbers. It does not express any phoneme. It is used very seldom as a transliteration of Greek w in some loan words (osana, kleopa) and in one interjection: oh!
Specific Georgian letters are grouped at the end of the alphabet, but not without order. One letter expressing the "specific" Georgian sound  zh J is put in the same place (after p' p) as the "specific" Greek letter q is in the Greek alphabet. The remaining twelve letters are symetric with dz Z as the center of this symmetry. Letters to the left and to the  right (resp. over and under) from this center form pairs. The place of articulation of the sounds expressed by these pairs gradually shifts to the back part of the mouth cavity. At the same time, the glottalised and aspirated consonants are distributed in these pairs, with only the aspirated fricative sh S lacking a glottalised counterpart. The members of the last pair in this symmetry are backlinguals, one fricative and another occlusive. This order also testifies the linguistic intuition and erudition in phonetics of the creator of the Georgian alphabet (Gamkrelidze, 1989: 155).

Later changes made in Georgian alphabet
Later, in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, under Greek influence, the letter f appeared in certain loan words in the works of some Elinophil Georgian philosophers and theologians. In the eighteenth century, Antony I, Katholikos of Kartli, the author of Georgian Grammar, added the letter expressing the sound w to the Georgian alphabet. In the nineteenth century Ilia Ch'avch'avadze, the Georgian writer and prominent public figure, removed the letters which expressed sounds that had disappeared from the literary language, thereby restoring the correspondence between pronunciation and spelling and leaving thirty-three letters in the Georgian alphabet.

Georgian manuscripts
For the oldest Georgian inscriptions, see Chronology and sphere of use of the Georgian alphabet

The oldest Georgian literary monument "C'amebaj c'midisa Shushanik'isi, dedoplisa"  (Martyrdom of Saint Shushaniki, of the Queen), by Iak'ob Khucesi dates from the fifth century C. E.

The oldest Georgian manuscript comes from the turn of the 6-7th centuries. It is a palimpsest: a manuscript where the oldtextis partially removed and the same page of skin is used for new handwriting in order to save skin. The oldest text on this palimpsest is Georgian,the newer (eleventh century) is Hebrew. The Georgian text contains a fragment from the prophet Jeremiah. The text is written in so-called "xan-met'i" which means that some morphological markers are represented as x- instead of by their later and modern variants, e.g., the second-person marker was x- in any position (x-it'q'ui instead of the modern it'q'vi).One page of this palimpsest is kept at Oxford College Library, two pages at Cambridge University Library.

There are about ten thousand Georgian manuscripts kept in museums and libraries of Georgia, Russia, Germany, Austria, Great Britain, France, Italy, the USA and other countries. However, the majority of manuscripts are kept at the Kekelidze Institute of Manuscripts of the Georgian Academy of Sciences, and other Georgian libraries and museums. Important collections of Georgian manuscripts are also kept on Maunt Sinai, as well as in Jerusalem and in Greece. Considerable work has been conducted at Georgian scientific institutions in order to find, collect, study and publish numerous Georgian manuscripts.
 

References:

Abramishvili, Guram and Zaza Aleksidze, 1978: Mkhedruli damc'erlobis sataveebtan, At the beginning of Mkhedruli script,Tbilisi,Cisk'ari N5: 135-144; N6: 128-137

Aleksidze, Zaza. 1968: Ep'ist'oleta c'igni. somxuri teksti kartuli targmanit, gamok'vlevita da k'oment'arebit. gamosca Zaza Aleksidzem, Tbilisi, Mecniereba

Aleksidze, Zaza. 1983: At'enis sionis otkhi c'arc'era, Four inscriptions from Ateni Sioni,Tbilisi

Aleksidze, Zaza. 2003: K'avk'asiis albanetis damc'erloba, ena da mc'erloba, Caucasian Albanian script, language and literature, Tbilisi,  Biblical Theological College

C'ereteli, Giorgi. 1960: Udzvelesi kartuli c'arc'erebip'alest'inidan The oldest Georgian inscriptions from Palestina.Tbilisi

Danelia, K'orneli and Sardzhveladze, Zurab. 1997: Kartuli paleograpiis sak'itxebi, Questions of Georgian Paleography, Tbilisi

Dzhavakhishvili, Ivane. 1949: Kartuli damc'erlobatmcodneoba anu p'aleograpia, Georgian Palography, Tbilisi, Iniversity Press

Gamkrelidze, Tamaz.1989: C'eris anbanuri sistema da dzveli kartuli damc'erloba, The alphabetic system of writing and the Old Georgian script, Tbilisi, Mecniereba

Ingoroq'va, Pavle. 1941: Kartuli damc'erlobis dzeglebi ant'ik'uri xanisa, Moambe of the Institute of Language, History and Material Culture: X: 411-427

P'at'aridze, Ramaz. 1980: Kartuli asomtavruli Georgian Asomtavruli, Tbilisi, Nak'aduli

Sardzhveladze, Zurab. 1997: Dzveli kartuli ena, The Old Georgian language, Tbilisi, Tbilisi State Pedagogical University Press

Tchilashvili, Levan. The Pre-Christian Georgian Inscription from Nek'resi, in "Kartvelologi" (Ed. Elgudzha Khintibidze), No7 2000