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The Georgian Alphabet and Script



Among the Caucasian languages spoken in Georgia (Georgian, Megrelian, Svan, Abkhaz, Batsbi), only Georgian and Abkhaz have their own scripts. The Abkhaz literary (written) language dates from the 1920s and had used different scripts including the Cyrillic, Georgian and Latin.

The Georgian literary language has is one of the ancient languages in the world, and its scriptis one of world's 14 alphabets. The Georgain alphabet had gone through three stages of development:

  • Asomtavruli (or Mrglovani // Mrgvlovani)
  • Nuskhuri (Khutsuri) and
  • Mkhedruli. The script used nowadays in Georgia is Mkhedruli

  • Configuration and names
    Asomtavruli is the oldest type of Georgian script. All letters has 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 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 and after the size of letters four different groups are attested. "Nuskha" means written, writing, "Nuskhuri" means writing from, like in writing // handwriting. The name Khutsuri means for ecclesiastic. The term "Khutsuri" arose in the 13th 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. There are no capital letters in Mkhedruli.

    The famous Georgian linguist  and author of the Georgian Grammar Akaki Shanidze suggested to revive Mrglovani (Asomtavruli) and use it for capital letters in the Modern Georgian script (Mkhedruli), but this attempt did not give any result. One example of this attempt is a collection of linguistic works devoted to Akaki Shanidze printed with this principle (Orioni Akaki Shanidzes, Tbilisi, 1966).

    Chronology and spheres of use of the Georgian alphabet

    The most ancient Georgian inscriptions are Mrglovani (Asomtavruli) inscriptions. They date back to the 30s of the 5th century A.D., found in Palestine, near Bethlehem (C'ereteli 1960) and to the 90s of the 5th century, found in Georgia, inscriptions in the Bolnisi Sioni church, near Tbilisi. By the newest investigations the inscriptions from Bolnisi date from the 4-6th centuries (Sardzhveladze 1997; Danelia & Sardzhveladze 1997).

    The first inscriptions by Nuskhuri or Nuskha-Khutsuri date from 835, the inscription in the Sioni Church in Ateni near Gori, in the Eastern Georgia (Aleksidze 1983) and came into common use from the 10th-11th centuries. Mrglovani has been used in this script 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 by Mkhedruli is also found in the Sioni Church in Ateni in the Eastern Georgia and belongs to the 80s of the 10th century (Abramishvili & Aleksidze 1978, Aleksidze 1983). Mkhedruli has been the script for all non-ecclesiastic texts since the 12th century.

    Parallel use of Mrglovani and Nuskhuri (Khutsuri) was common in 10th-11th centuries. Some manuscripts are written with Mrglovani and some manuscripts with Nuskhuri in this period. In some works both scripts are attested. For instance, the part of Shat'berdis k'rebuli ("Collected works from Shat'berdi") from the 10th century is written with Mrglovani and another part of it  with Nuskhuri.

    Since the 12th century, when Mkhedruli became the common type of script, the main boundary between Mrglovani and Nuskhuri, on the one hand, and Mkhedruli, on the other hand, was that all ecclesiastic literature was written with Khutsuri letters and all non-eclesiastic literature --  the King's orders, resolutions of the court and other documents, as well as non-ecclesiaistic poems and prose -- with 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, 11th century) ascribes the creation of the Georgian alphabet to Parnavaz, king of Georgia in the 3rd century B.C.

    One part of the researchers maintains 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 the adoption of Christianity as the official religion in Georgia. The former argued that 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). Prof. Gamkrelidze (1989) has showed that the Greek alphabet seems to be an  organizing principle behind the oldest Georgian script.

    As for the widespread claim that Mesrop-Masthot (the creator of the Armenian script) as the "inventor" of the Georgian and Old Caucasian Alban scripts, this allegation has no scientific basis. The Armenian source claiming this is a later insertion made for certain religious and ecclesiastic purposes (Aleksidze 1968).

    Graphically the Georgian alphabet is independent. It is not a result of graphic development or evolution of any other alphabet. This does not exclude that creator of the alphabet from having seen the graphics of other scripts. The graphic form of the Georgian alphabet is based on the combination of right lines and circles (Tamaz Gamq'relidze, 1989:170).

    The order of letters in the Georgian alphabet follows the order of the Greek alphabet. This is the main argument to argue 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 in Mrglovani as well as in Nuskhuri. The alphabet is phonemic, which means that every phoneme had its corresponding letter in the alphabet. There are some exceptions that are explained by influence from the Greek alphabet as the original model for the Georgian alphabet. The order of the letters and the number expressed by letters in the Georgian alphabet are 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 the table above) that they have in Greek alphabet (Tamaz Gamq'relidze, 1989:129-157):

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

  • The 8th letter in the Old Georgian alphabet expresses a 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 eidiphthong in the 6th B.C.--3rd A. D. centuries), while there are not long vowels in Georgian.
  • The 22nd 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 sequence of two letters o and wi like in Greek. It did not correspond to any number meaning in the alphabet.

    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 15th letter in Georgian alphabet occupies the same place as  X  in Greek alphabet. There is no phoneme like Greek  X  in Georgian. In its place the creator of Georgian alphabet put the letter expressing the sound that has not been phoneme in Georgian but did existed in Georgian as a positional variant (allophone) of -i in some positions (these positions will be described in the part on phonology).
  • 4. To devise a letter that did not express any phoneme of the Georgian sound system:
  • The last 37th letter in Georgian alphabet corresponds the Greek w. It is created in order to end Georgian alphabet like 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 interjunction: 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 12 letters make some kind of symmetry where dz Z is a 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 sounds expressed by these pairs is gradually shifting at the back part of the mouth cavity. At the same time, glottalised and aspirated consonants are distributed in these pairs. Only one aspirated fricative sh S lacks a glottalised counterpart. The members of the last pair in this symmetry are backlinguals, one fricative and another occlusive. This order also proves the linguistic intuition and erudition in phonetics of the creator of the Georgian alphabet (Gamq'relidze, 1989: 155).

    Later changes made in Georgian alphabet

    Later, in the 11th-12th centuries, by influence from Greek, the letter f appeared in some loan words in works of some Elinophil Georgian philosophers and theologists. In the 18th century Antony I, Katholikos of Kartli and the author of the Georgian Grammar, added the letter expressing the sound w to the Georgian alphabet. In the 19th 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. After this reform the correspondence between pronunciation and spelling was restored. Nowadays, there are 33 letters in Georgian alphabet.

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

    The oldest Georgian literary monument "Tsamebai tsmidisa Shushanikisi, dedoplisa(Martyrdom of Saint Shushanik, the Queen) by Jacob Khucesi (the Priest) dates from the 5th century A.D.

    The oldest Georgian manuscript belongs to the turn of the 6-7th centuries. It is a palimpsest: a manuscript where the old text is 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 (11th century) -- Hebrew. The Georgian text contains a fragment from the Prophesy by Jeremy. The text is so called "xan-met'i" that means that some morphological markers are represented as x- instead of its 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 the  Oxford College library, two pages at the Cambridge University library.

    There are about 10.000 Georgian manuscripts kept in museums and libraries of Georgia, Russia, Germany, Austria, Great Britain, France, Italy, the USA and other countries. However, the major part of manuscripts are kept at the K'ek'elidze Institute of Manuscripts of the Georgian Academy of Sciences, and also at other libraries and museums in Georgia. An important part of Georgian manuscripts are also kept on the mountain of Sinai, in Jerusalem and in Greece. Considerable work has been conducted  at Georgian scientific institutions in order to find, collect, study and publish the Old Georgian manuscripts.
     

    References:

    Abramishvili, Guram and Aleksidze, Zaza. 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

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

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

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

    Gamq'relidze, 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