Agenda.ge appears to be a mildly nationalistic, pro-regime English-language news site in Georgia. They often write feel-good pieces promoting Georgia to English readers, and there’s really nothing wrong with that, and so even though the faint whiff of propaganda rises off every Agenda.ge article I read, I have had no actual cause for complaint with their news coverage up until now.
This week, they published an article which espouses a few myths about the Georgian alphabet. The first of these is the 14 alphabets myth, which goes something like this: “Georgians are among 14 lucky nations in the world who can be proud of their unique writing system.”
TLG said this too – that there exist exactly 14 alphabets in the world which are currently used to write currently existing languages. As far as I can tell, there is no reasonable counting method under which this claim is true. I would like to know where it came from, but oddly enough no one ever cites a source.
Omniglot.com lists 16 alphabets as “currently in use”, and this is under the most restrictive possible understandings of the terms “alphabet” and “currently in use”. It excludes alphabets like Coptic and Old Church Slavonic which are currently in use but only in a limited context, for example for religious writings and ceremonies. It also excludes alphabets that do not mark vowels with their own letters (instead they use diacritics, or nothing – called abugidas and abjads, respectively) such as Hebrew and Arabic. It also counts all the different Latin alphabets as one alphabet, even though, for example, the English, German, Spanish, French, Polish, Slovenian, and Turkish alphabets (among many, many others) all use the “Latin” alphabet but all with their own distinctive variations, including differing pronunciations, diacritics, and added characters.
So okay, if you don’t count the Hebrew alephbet as an alphabet and you don’t count Old Church Slavonic as “currently in use” and you don’t count the Spanish alphabet as different from the English one, then you can get down to a number that is at least close to 14. If you understand “alphabet” and “currently in use” as a member of the general public ordinarily would, the claim that there are only 14 alphabets currently in use in the world is inarguably both false and misleading – it’s not even close to accurately conveying reality to a reader.
Georgians were apparently taught this 14 alphabet thing during Soviet times and never thought to actually check to verify this claim, so it gets repeated and repeated in nonserious contexts, like on a pro-Georgia-puff-piece-mill like Agenda.ge or in a hastily implemented and underfunded language exchange program like TLG. I occasionally ask Georgians I meet if they’ve heard of the 14 alphabet thing and most of them have. I wonder what it would take to dislodge this meme from the Georgian collective mind.
The next alphabet myth is that Georgian “is the only alphabet in the world that is pronounced exactly the same way it is written.” This is not even close to true for a number of reasons. It contains a few grains of truth – just enough to be annoying to someone who actually cares about getting language facts right – but not enough to withstand even a moment’s thought.
Consider Georgia’s four neighboring countries: Azerbaijan, Turkey, Armenia, and Russia. Consider what you know about their alphabets. Turkish pronunciation is 100% predictable based on the Turkish alphabet leaving basically no room for error, and it is also particularly straightforward (for instance, there aren’t letters that change pronunciation depending on their place in a word). Correct me if I’m wrong. Azerbaijani is a bit more problematic because of its “k”, which has some range of pronunciation, but as we will see Georgian also has at least one consonant with a range of pronunciation. Armenian has letters pronounced differently in its different dialects but I believe consistently within dialects. And finally, Russian, which has some entirely predictable variation in pronunciation of some letters based on their place in words and sentences – meaning that spelling absolutely determines pronunciation in Russian, just perhaps not entirely straightforwardly. Contrast that to Georgian, in which variations from spelling-sound correspondence rules are often unpredictable and idiosyncratic. (Again, I am not an expert in any of these languages, so it is possible I myself have consumed some bad information – you can consider my claims about Georgian somewhat authoritative but my claims about the neighboring languages are based only on a superficial understanding and some basic research).
In short, not only is Georgian not pronounced exactly the same way as it is written – it is actually worse at this than literally any of its neighbors. Many Georgians at least know Russian, if not Armenian or Turkish, and so it is hard to imagine how Georgians can make this claim with a straight face. It’s like a Radio Yerevan joke: “Is Georgian the only alphabet in the world that is pronounced exactly as it is written?” “In principle yes, but there are many alphabets in the world that are pronounced as they are written, and Georgian is not one of them.”
I suppose you’ll want examples.
Let’s start with ბავშვი – bavshvi. This word has a range of pronunciations (like many Georgian words) but the most common seem to be “bow-shwee” (rhymes with “cow-shwee”) and “bow-shwi” (rhymes with “show-shwee”). (Incidentally, it is interesting that the word “bow” in English has two pronunciations corresponding to the two alternate pronunciations of this Georgian word.) I think the “show” pronunciation is more typical of West Georgia, but I’m no expert.
The reason I bring up this example is that the letter “ვ” is supposed to be pronounced like English “v” and the letter “ა” is supposed to be “ah” (or like the o in not). So in IPA the word would be [bavʃvi] if the Georgian alphabet were phonetic, but it is in fact [baʊʃwi] in its most common realization. In five years I have never heard a Georgian pronounce this word as it is spelled, and it is an extremely common word (especially in schools – I basically hear it every day).
I cannot think of another context in Georgian in which the “ავ” is shortened to an “aʊ” sound, and it is a very common cluster (it is one of several standard verb-forming suffixes, for example). There do appear to be other examples of the “ვ” disappearing itself while turning the preceding vowel into a different sound entirely – like “კიდევ”, which should be “kidev” (key-dev), but is often pronounced “kido” (key-dough). I also theorize that the slang “baro” for hello is actually a reduction of Armenian “barev” (also meaning hello) following the same phonetic pattern, but this is unconfirmed and I can’t think of any other Georgian words ending in “-ევ” to test the theory.
In addition to that, the letter “ვ” in Georgian is problematic in a whole host of other situations. It normally varies between /v/ and /w/, and I have not been able to find a way to predict this. When I compare notes with other students of Georgian their observations are different from mine – for instance, I’ve never heard “Vake” pronounced with a /w/ but several friends say they have. Or maybe I just didn’t notice. Variations appear to differ both by word and by speaker. Sometimes, like with “bavshvi”, it seems to always be a /w/. Other times it seems to always be a /v/. This would be a good area for a research paper, because my personal experience has not led me to be able to determine what, if any, rules or patterns are at work here.
Moving on, we have the word “marshutka.” This is a loan word from Russian. Georgians decided to drop the second “r” out of the original word – “marshrutka” – in spoken language. I have met one or two Georgians who pronounce this second r, but the vast majority do not. However, the spelling of the word varies much more freely – on Google the one-r version gets 109,000 hits while the two-r version gets 22,500 (or 35,500 depending on which “t” you use). I have met many Georgians who spell the word “marshrutka” but pronounce it “marshutka”, which would not be possible if Georgian were spoken exactly as it is spelled.
The vowels are actually much more complicated than the consonants. The “ე” (e) and “ო” (o) vowels are the most unstable and are often strongly colored by their surrounding letters. The “ო” changes before an “რ” (r) in much the same way it does in English (contrast “so” and “sore”). The “ე” goes from what we would call a “long e” (c.f. “way”) to a “short e” (c.f. “wet”) based on whether it has a vowel or consonant after it – and perhaps also changes with the voicing of the consonant as well. This also has some variation from speaker to speaker. For examples, compare the “ე” in “თეკლა” (“Tekla” – [tɛkla]) with the “ე” in “მეორე” (“meore” – [meɪɔreɪ]), or the “ო” in “ბატონო” (“batono” – [batono]) with the “ო” in “ორი” (“ori” – [ɔri]).
Also, there are diphthongs that traditional Georgian language pedagogy says don’t exist. These are most noticeable when an “ი” (“i”, pronounced “ee”) follows another vowel. The famous Georgian alphabet primer is called “აი ია” (ai ia, but pronounced more like “I, ee-ah”) and of those two vowel combinations, the latter is very clearly segmented into two syllables while the first is very clearly merged into a diphthong. “აი” doesn’t always form a diphthong – sometimes the syllables remain distinct, but it depends on the word and the situation. A word like “დაიბანე” (“da-ibane”, or “go wash yourself”) seems more likely to maintain separate syllables – perhaps because the “da” and the “i” are distinct morphemes (that is, units of meaning: the “da” is a fixed verb prefix used to mark what you might think of as tense, and the “i” indicates that it is an animate object being washed). Another example is the name “მაია”, or “Maia” – this is essentially always pronounced with two syllables, similar to the Slavic name “Maja” or its English respelling Maya. I think Georgians would agree that it would be extremely weird to hear this name pronounced with three distinct syllables, but I could be wrong.
Contrary to the example verb above, some verbs do seem to form diphthongs even across morphemes. Consider “მოიცა” (“moitsa” – meaning “wait”). In high-prestige Georgian, this word contains the diphthong /ɔɪ/ (the “oy” in “boy”). Occasionally this is cut short at one syllable but it is often lengthened at the end so it sounds like the diphthong plus the long i – I would render it [ɔɪi] or /ɔɪ:/. Imagine Flavor Flav saying “Yeah boy” – the “oy” in his “boy” is the “ოი” in “მოიცა”.
In some West Georgian dialects, “moitsa” is changed to “meitsa” (pronounced like “May-tsa”. In practice this means that Georgians are spelling a word “moitsa” but saying “meitsa”, except when they dare to actually spell the word in dialect (indeed, you can google “მეიცა” and see almost ten thousand of these brave souls). But furthermore, they aren’t saying “meh-eetsa”, they’re saying “may-tsa” – two syllables where Georgian spelling rules dictate there should be three. This also happens with a number of “ეი” combinations.
To summarize the diphthong issue, there does not appear to be a single consistent paradigm under which some vowel pairs become diphthongized and there is also considerable regional variation, and so if we want to know how native Georgian speakers produce any give vowel pair ending in “ი” we have to admit that we cannot find out through an examination of the spelling of the word. This fact alone – although minor – probably puts Georgian behind all four of its neighbors when it comes to the ability to predict pronunciation based on spelling. Add in the problems with “ვ” both alone and after a vowel and you have an alphabet which unambiguously does not unambiguously describe the pronunciation of the language.
In conclusion, this Agenda.ge article reproduces two very common misconceptions that Georgians have about the Georgian alphabet. These misconceptions probably stem from two problems. One, lack of contact with the outside world – if Georgians studied their language in the context of other global languages they might have a more accurate idea of what actually makes their language unique rather than focusing on superficial and ultimately incorrect aspects of their alphabet. Two, nationalism – these language myths are nothing if not self-serving, and they are repeated ad nauseam to feed the paper tiger that is Georgians’ national pride.
I would like to see these myths eradicated. They are part of what makes it difficult for foreigners to learn Georgian – the dogmatic approach most Georgians take to their own language is incredibly frustrating when an outside observer can immediately and clearly see that the native-speaking teacher is constantly breaking the rules he or she is claiming to follow. Repeating these canards also reflects badly on Georgians, and I would like to see Georgians put their best face forward when dealing with the world. Also, I just dislike anything that smacks of nationalism, since nationalism is unseemly at best and genocidal at worst.
Unfortunately, I don’t have much of a say in the matter. Georgian journalists and philologists tend to be too insular and stubborn to listen when bloggers point out their mistakes.