Monday, April 11, 2016

Country Profile: The Languages of Georgia

Our last few country profiles have looked at the languages of countries all over the world, from New Zealand to the Republic of the Congo to Ireland. This week, we're heading to the Caucasus Mountains to learn about the linguistic diversity of Georgia.

The Official Language

Georgia's sole official language is Georgian, which is the native language of the vast majority of the country's population. It is a member of the Kartvelian language family, a small group of languages that are indigenous to the areas in and around the Caucasus Mountains.

There's actually one other language with official status within Georgia, and that's Abkhaz, which is the native language of about 100,000 people in Abkhazia. The Georgian government and most of the world consider Abkhazia to be an autonomous republic of Georgia, but a few countries (including Russia) recognize it as a separate state, and it is controlled by a separatist government.

In any case, Abkhaz is a fascinating language that belongs to the Northwest Caucasian language family. It is written using Cyrillic script.

Svaneti, a region in northwestern Georgia.
Other Languages

Georgia is home to several other languages, most notably Armenian, Russian, Azerbaijani, Mingrelian, and Ossetic. Nearly 450,000 Georgians speak Armenian, the official language of Armenia, which borders it to the south. There are also over 350,000 speakers of both Russian and Azerbaijani in Georgia.

While you've likely heard of those three languages before, Mingrelian and Ossetic are probably new to you. Mingrelian is a Kartvelian language like Georgian that is primarily spoken in western Georgia. At last count it had about 500,000 native speakers, but that was way back in 1989. Due to its consistent decline in number of speakers, UNESCO considers it to be an endangered language.

Ossetic, on the other hand, is a member of the Indo-Iranian language family. There are about 100,000 speakers of Ossetic, also known as Ossetian, in South Ossetia, which declared its independence from Georgia in the early 1990s. As with Abkhazia, most of the world still considers it to be a part of Georgia. However, Russia recognized its independence in 2008, and the area remains a major source of political conflict.

About a dozen other languages are also spoken in Georgia in smaller numbers. Urum, a Turkic language, is spoken by nearly 100,000 Georgians, while Kurdish is used by about 40,000 people. There are also about 20,000 native speakers of Judeo-Georgian, a Georgian dialect used primarily by Jews that contains many loanwords from Hebrew and Aramaic. Svan, another endangered Kartvelian language, is spoken by about 15,000 Georgians.

Finally, there are several languages with between a few hundred and a few thousand speakers. They include the closely related Assyrian Neo-Aramaic and Bohtan Neo-Aramaic languages, a Kartvelian language named Laz, and four Northeast Caucasian languages: Bezhta, Avar, Hunzib, and Bats, the language of the Bats people.