On Georgian: A Linguistic Indulgence

I hold many memories of my days at the Linguistics Faculty of my old college. Some of these are joyous, given my inherent fondness for languages, whereas a couple others are a bit more… egregious. Mainly because the workload was unusually heavy for such an “apparently easy” degree. But, in addition to that, I must mention the lengthy and painstaking hours I had to spend refining my linguistic knowledge as well as my approach to the subject. Thus, from morphology to syntax, I employed my time learning anything and everything there was to acquire from this branch of science. 

However, I’ll admit that there was one topic in particular that caught most of my attention. And given that I like to claim that I am a multi-linguist, you can smartly guess which one this was: the process of getting acquainted with a language.

By the time I was an undergrad, I already had a couple of languages under my belt: my native Spanish, English, a “small family” of Romance languages (French, Italian and Portuguese),  Yiddish and bits of Latin and Greek. So I thought it would be interesting to study the ways in which I’d acquire a 9th language with the linguistic richness I already had. 

Therefore, without having a concrete idea of what I was looking for, I commenced my pursuit. My initial inclinations naturally favoured the selection of a fifth Romance language. I thought it would be pretty cool to have either Romanian or Catalan added to my personal catalogue. But I soon desisted from this notion after finding Romanian plurals exasperating and Catalan tenses simplistic. 

I then turned my gaze to the extensive index of Indo-European languages. I knew that any of these would represent a compelling challenge. Especially those coming from intricate linguistic regions, such as the Nordics or the Balkans. But no matter where I looked, no other place seemed to engage my desire as much as the Caucasus.

Renowned for its linguistic diversity by scholars and language enthusiasts alike, the Caucasus trapped me with its flirtatious variety. Plus, the geography, histories and cultures of the region captivated me through their uniqueness and unexplored brilliance, making me hope that one day I would be able to set foot upon these lands as I marveled at their beauty.  I was thus unable to deny such an intense provocation.  

My search would then leave me with three languages to choose from: Istanbul Turkish, East Circassian and Georgian. For each I had already measured the pros and cons. I supposed that Istanbul Turkish would be the most undemanding (based on my linguistic grasp) and that East Circassian would be the middle ground among the three. But Georgian. Boy, oh boy, Georgian. With this one I was 100% sure of the hardships I’d have to go through and I wasn’t confident that it would be worth it. 

Yet I decided to pick it up anyways. A little out of an impulse to get myself out of my comfort zone and a little more out of pure language conceit.

And so my exhaustive journey began. One which served as proof that all my presumptions and suspicions were true. 

So here’s the thing about Gerogian: Besides being the language spoken by Georgians (duh), it is one of the hardest languages anyone could attempt to learn. After all, we’re dealing with a language that has:

  • ejective consonants,
  • seven different noun cases,
  • prosody that involves stress, intonation, and rhythm,
  • a vigesimal numeral system,
  • and an ancient, Elvish-like writing system.

However, none of these aspects felt as difficult or as odd as the words I was to encounter within this devilishly gorgeous language. Terms like ცხრა (tskhra; tr. “nine”) and გააადვილებს (gaaadvilebs; tr. “will make it easier”) were the rule, not the exception, and the fact was that, if I wanted to properly learn the language, I had to understand how these were written, used, and pronounced. Which, trust me, is TRULY hard.

And this is where I came across the most complicated and strange term of my career as a linguist: გვფრცქვნი (ɡvprtskvni). A word whose literal meaning is “you peel us”

Now, I know what you are thinking: Ariana, are you REALLY sure that is a word? Or are you just typing gibberish to make Georgian seem worse than it actually is?

And to these questions I say: I wish.

This nightmarish term (and its equally frightening fellow inflected forms) is explicitly one syllable that has 8 consonants before landing on its sole vowel. A product of Georgian’s highly complex syllable structure.

Allow me to explain.

The syllables most of us are used to flow in a certain shape, usually going from restricted sounds at the edges to a more sonorous sound at the centre. This principle arguably makes it simpler to convey syllable after syllable. The word plank, for example, has its -a sandwiched in between a –pl and an -nk, which turn it into a nice-sounding term.

So what’s up with Georgian and its cumbersome clusters that violate basic syllabic sonority in unapologetic fashion?

Well, it all comes down to verbs. 

In Georgian grammar, many of the verbs start as really tiny morphemes. In fact, a verb root can be as lonesome as -rb (tr. “run away”) or as confusing as -tskh (tr. “to bake”). But when conjugated, these roots become poly-synthetic monstrosities, where each additional morpheme has a specific meaning that helps make up the final word. Yet that’s not the end of it, for these verbs are VERY selective. Only certain morphemes work for every verb and discovering which bit fits where is a major struggle. An example of this is found in the following:

  • მოიტანს  (moit’ans; tr. “will bring”)
  • შევჭამ (shevch’am; tr. “will eat”)
  • გავაკეთებ (gavak’eteb; tr. “will do”)

Where even though all words represent future tenses, none of them share the same structure.

It must be noted though that, despite its apparent irregularity, Georgian is quite regular in its constructs. So the whole deal with this abominable mashups is that they are only a nuisance to non-Georgian speakers, who are used to having vowels inserted everywhere. Yet, languages around the world have demonstrated that you can forsake vowels in words and still have a meaning to what’s been said. 

But, is this what makes Georgian such an unconventional language?

Not really. It gains that distinction, because its grammar lends itself to string together pieces that are heavy on consonants at the very beginning of syllables. And that, my friend, is both a beauty and a curse. 

So take it as you may with Georgian. Personally, I had many mixed feelings working with this language, crying many times and laughing at some others for nothing I had studied or known before prepared me for it. 

Thus, if you’d let me give you a piece of advice, it’d be this:

If you ever study Georgian, fear not the clusters. Instead, be afraid of the verbs, for these are the real masterminds behind this bizarre linguistic operation.  

Thanks for the read. (:

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