Having now been in Georgia for about 5 months now, I think it would be enjoyable to share with you a bit about the Georgian language.
Whenever I talked about Georgia before I left or when I was home for the holidays the question of language was always in the top 3. Once we clarified which Georgia I was talking about (the state?) and where it is located, inevitably I was asked “What do they speak there?” And it was always sort of enjoyable to say “Georgian” because it’s the kind of answer which is not really an answer even though it’s the truth. (Like when people used to ask me where Azusa Pacific University was and I would tell them it was in Azusa.)
Yes, in Georgia they speak Georgian. Due to their history, many people of course also speak Russian, but Georgian is the language of the State, the media, and daily use.
This is the Georgian alphabet:
ა – A
ბ – B
გ – G
დ – D
ე – E
ვ – V
ზ – Z
თ – T
ი – I
კ – K’
ლ – L
მ – M
ნ – N
ო – O
პ – P’
ჟ – ZH
რ – R
ს – S
ტ – T’
უ – U
ფ – PH
ქ – KH
ღ – GH
ყ – QKH
შ – SH
ჩ – CH
ც – TS
ძ – DZ
წ – TS’
ჭ – TCH’
ხ – KH
ჯ – J
ჰ – H
It has 5 vowels and 28 consonants. Most of them are straight-forward enough.
However, there are the ejectives (ტ – T’, კ – K’, პ -P’, ჭ – TCH’, წ -TS’) and 2 other consonants that cause me some grief. Ejectives, which are not the same thing as aspirated sounds, are annoying because there are also non-ejectives that are the same sound other than the fact that one is an ejective and the other is not. So there is ejective T and non-ejective T, ejective CH, and non-ejective CH, etc. I’m not offended if you tune out at this part, but having suffered through a semester of phonetics I am going to take every opportunity to share my hard-won knowledge with (any) interested parties (John?).
Sometimes the difference is crystal clear to me when I hear it; sometimes it is not. My production of them can be pretty sketchy at times. I try, but it is apparent to me based on people’s reactions that I am not always doing as good of a job as I like to think.
The other two consonants that are difficult are the ღ and ყ. They are approximated in English as GH and QKH. The first, I am told, is similar to a Parisian ‘r’. Which explains my problems producing it. Patricia, you remember that wonderful phonetics project where I attempted to speak French, yes? The second feels like a deep click in your throat. If I think about it when I try to say it, I jinx it. Just gotta go on instinct.
The Georgian alphabet characters are just lovely, I think. So exotic. A pleasure to write. All rounded curves and smooth lines.
The following are the essential phrases for everyday life in Georgia:
გამარჯობათ – gamarjobat – hello – This is used on a near constant basis. Easy to say so no problem.
დილა მშვიდობისა – dila mshvidobisa – Good morning – This sent me into hysterics before I came to Georgia. It just sounded so fantastic. The pleasure has not really worn off. It means something along the lines of ‘peaceful morning’. ‘Dila’ is morning and some part of ‘mshvidobisa’ means peace.
როგორ ხარ? – rogor khar? – How are you? – Near constant use. Everyone who sees me will ask.
გმადლობთ – gmadlobt – Thank you – The additional ‘t’ on the end makes it more formal, same with ‘gamarjobat’.
დიდი გმადლობა – didi gmadloba – thank you very much – Rough translation is ‘big thank you’ as ‘didi’ means big. I tend to say ‘didi gmadloba’ more than just ‘gmadlobt’. Eager to please foreigner, I guess.
ნახვამდის – nakhvamdis – Good-bye
კარგად – kargad – Bye – The shorter way of taking leave. Also means ‘well’. So when asked “how are you?” this is the traditional response. Like saying “I’m good. I’m fine.”
მეტი არ მინდა – meti ar minda – I don’t want more – An essential for all eating situations. Even if you say this that doesn’t mean you won’t end up eating more, but all you can do it try.
გემბრიელია – gembrielia – It is delicious! – Also important for eating situations, but never say it if you don’t mean it as it could be taken as genuine. You might be served that item again and again and again and again.
არა მშია – ara mshia – I’m not hungry – Another essential phrase. It won’t necessarily get you off the hook, but sometimes it is an acceptable excuse. Will probably have to repeat it several times for you to be taken seriously.
Georgian has a very discouraging verb structure. There are 6 persons (1st, 2nd, and 3rd singular, 1st, 2nd and 3rd plural) and each one is conjugated differently. And all the conjugations are so LONG. English is nothing in comparison. There is, of course, structure to the tenses and persons, but there are also lots of irregular verbs. But it’s the length that gets to me. I’m reading it and it’s like trying to pick up a big stack of books or videos. I can pick up the first few syllables, but the longer it gets the more I am straining to try to hold the whole verb in my head. Half the time, just like with an armful of videos, everything just starts falling down and I lose it. Very dramatic mental image, I know.
Another fun little feature is that Georgian does not have PREpositions, it has POSTpositions. So it’s “I go schoolto” and not “I go to school”. They also seem to have fewer of them. It stresses them out a bit that English has 3-4 prepositions for a postposition that they only have one of. And the teachers, like most adult learners, really WANT to understand the difference between ‘at’, ‘in’, ‘to’, and ‘into’ even though I hardly think that is a good use of our time. Difficult to convince them of that though.
And no articles. Noooo articles in Georigan. So that’s another little something fun for my students to learn. A plus for me though in learning Georgian. And nothing in Georgian has a gender. No ‘el’ or ‘la’, ‘los’ or ‘las’. It’s great. And there is also only one word for 3rd person singular regardless of whether we are talking about boys, girls, or automobiles.
So there are some major pluses about Georgian in comparison with English or Spanish. There are also some drawbacks, of course. My Georgian has come along nicely to the point that I don’t really worry about having to communicate on anything that’s an aspect of daily life: greetings, pleasantries, family, plans, shopping, transportation, etc. Of course there are many, many things that I am completely INcapable of discussing in Georgian. Let’s be realistic here. But I am proud of what I can say even though in the grand scheme of things it is not much.
A quick anecdote in closing: One day my host sisters were having a little fun at my expense because I was working on my ყ and ღ sounds. I took it for awhile, but then decided it was time to turn the tables. “Okay, say ‘thirteen’ for me, or ‘the’, or ‘thirty.’” TH is one of the few sounds that English has that Georgian does not. As they were rendered helpless by this slippery sound that forever eludes them, tongues thrust between teeth, I laughed aloud. It’s nice that although my Georgian is not the best, the level of English in my village is not any better. We’re all in the same boat.