Myths about the Georgian Alphabet

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.

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13 Responses to Myths about the Georgian Alphabet

  1. Anonymous says:

    i will be honest, i did not make it all the way to the end of your post – it is a bit long – but i will do a nit-picky jabs at some claims you make. Ask any person fluent in Russian how to pronounce “замок”, both variations: a lock and a castle. It is far from predictable. აი ია is not pronounced I ee-ah; there are a large number of Georgians who do not pronounce things properly, and pronouncing აი as I, is probably one of them. Properly pronounced, it is ah-ee ee-ah. If properly pronounced, Georgian is phonetical, it is just that most people take shortcuts. 14 alphabets is definitely a myth…

    • panoptical says:

      Thanks for the feedback on Russian – like I said, I am not an expert. Is the deviation you point out limited to one word, or does it relate in some way to a larger pattern?

      As for Georgian, I do not recognize any authority on the “proper” pronunciation of Georgian. If most people take shortcuts, then the shortcuts are the pronunciation.

      Think about learning Georgian as a foreigner. We are told there are no diphthongs and there is no sound equivalent to English “I”, and then the first time we go out into Georgia we *constantly* hear “kai” and “vaime” and other words which very clearly exhibit this sound that we have been told Georgians do not use. Maybe others are more charitable than I am, but my first thought was that my Georgian teachers had no idea what they were talking about vis-a-vis vowels. That does not fill one with confidence regarding other aspects of the language they have learned.

      To be fair, the teaching of English is also full of these kinds of rules of “proper” English that do not reflect usage by fluent native speakers – both in the US and internationally. Once a non-native English speaker actually complained to me that Americans don’t know when to use “who” and when to use “whom.” I replied that we know perfectly well: we use “whom” when writing a formal letter in the 19th century, and “who” otherwise. The fact is in 21st century spoken English almost no one uses “whom” and trying to teach it to language learners as anything but a rare artifact that they might encounter in books is silly. And in 21st century spoken Georgian many vowel clusters blend into one syllable. “Proper” or not, that’s just how it is. And I am about telling it like it is.

      • Anonymous says:

        No, it is not about one single word. There are a number of them. Here are a few: я плачу, виски, белки, орган, духи. In some it is about placement of accent, in some that accent causes the sound to change. Just by looking at белки, you cannot say whether e is eh or i – squirrels or protein. It is simply about context.

        There are Georgians who use F in Georgian, does not mean it is part of Georgian. Goga Khachidze was suggesting couple years back to either add F to the alphabet or have Margvelashvili taught to pronounce it properly. Same goes for v vs w. Just because some people use it does not mean it is there.

  2. That article makes an interesting variation of the usual 14-alphabet claim. The usual claim is, as you’ve put it, that “there exist exactly 14 alphabets in the world which are currently used to write currently existing languages”. It’s a bizarre statistic, certainly, and also a false one.

    The article, however, doesn’t say that; instead, it says “Georgians are among 14 lucky nations in the world who can be proud of their unique writing system”. This is a claim about nations, not alphabets. So which nations are they? Well, any nation without a “unique” writing system is disqualified. I take it that an alphabet used to a significant extent by more than one “nation” (or maybe, for more than one language) is not “unique”. By this criterion, no nation employing the Latin alphabet is included, since that alphabet belongs to many nations. You might think that Arabs would be such a nation, but their alphabet is used for Persian, Urdu, and other languages.

    I leave two questions: 1) What are the “14 lucky nations in the world who can be proud of their unique writing system”? 2) How likely is it that the author of the article actually intended to pose the 14-alphabet claim in this unusual form?

    • panoptical says:

      Right, I don’t know what’s up with this weird phrasing. They didn’t even use the word alphabet, so that ushers in all the abjads and abugidas and semanto-phonetic systems and everything else you can write language as. On the other hand they also stipulated that there were 14 nations who can be proud of their writing system – so perhaps there are other nations who have unique writing systems too but they aren’t anything to be proud of?

      I mean the whole thing is ridiculous right from the premise.

  3. Tony Hanmer says:

    Thank you for tackling these here. It’s about time someone did!

  4. If you think Russian has straightforward and predictable pronunciation, then I’m guessing you never studied it. I still can’t even spell ‘please’ correctly, let alone hundreds of other words with surprise letters. It’s not as bad as English, but a short viewing of comedy show’s ‘kavkas alphabet’ can show you some of the more common difficulties.

    As for the w and v, I don’t think Georgians can even hear the difference, as they often confuse the sounds in English as well. Like how we don’t really hear their variations of k. And it seems like certain classes of people use it differently, like vake princesses usually say wake.

    As for marshrutka, even Russians are often guilty of dropping the second ‘r’.

    The diphthong thing also annoys me, as they are clearly there.

    • panoptical says:

      Well I’ve done one level of Rosetta Stone on it and I can read Cyrillic with some degree of proficiency, but I have never studied it seriously.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Hello,

    When they say one in 14, they mean 14 alphabets that are not a variation but unique. So they do not include any alphabets that are based from Latin in that list for example. And the church alphabet is not considered as it is not the alphabet of any particular country’s language.

    I am not sure whether it is true that it is the only alphabet that has this but when they say it is pronounced exactly the same way as it is written, they mean that every sound that the language has can be written down using a single letter. For example you don’t need two letters to write the sound “sh” or “ch”.

    It would be great if you try to talk to professional Georgian linguists on this to avoid misinforming your audience based on just your suspicions.

    Georgians love boasting about a lot of stuff, but on this they are relying on the linguistic books that were written by respectable professors who did a lot of research.

    I don’t remember the names now, but if I do, I will let you know.

    All the best,
    Tamila

    • panoptical says:

      This is a case where American and Georgian ways of knowing differ. From my point of view, if someone makes a claim that they cannot back up except to say that they read it in a book written by a respectable professor, that claim (and that person) should be viewed with skepticism. The more extraordinary the claim, the more skepticism I have.

      If you are claiming that Georgians have discovered a unique and authoritative way of counting the alphabets in the world – a quite extraordinary claim – you should at the *very least* be able to explain what that way is, why that way should be taken as authoritative, and what the results of the count are. No person who has made this claim to me has ever been able to enumerate which 14 alphabets meet their criteria and which are excluded and on what basis, or to refer me to anyone else who can provide any kind of answer. So I am inclined to believe that this is not any kind of academic result at all, but merely a rumor that Georgians repeat but never question.

      In addition, linguistic knowledge has progressed a great deal in the last century. It is entirely possible that this claim is simply outdated – that Soviet Georgian linguists did not have access to enough information to actually count alphabets, due perhaps to slower communication or political isolation. If anyone could cite any kind of source for this claim we would be able to find out if that were the case, and then correct the record officially based on the original authors’ criteria but using the knowledge amassed by all the world’s linguists over the last few decades.

      “It would be great if you try to talk to professional Georgian linguists on this to avoid misinforming your audience based on just your suspicions.”

      It is ironic that you are directing this criticism at me considering that I am basing my claims on research and examples that a reader can independently verify whereas you are basing your claims on hand-waving and the supposed good reputation of unknown third parties who may or may not have authored books on the topic. Again, this is partly a cultural difference on how we assess the reliability of information. Still, it would be great if *you* tried to talk to professional Georgian linguists on this to avoid misinforming my audience based on just your suspicions.

  6. Babdus says:

    Thank you very much for posting this article! Besides its real value, now I’ll have an source where to redirect those with Georgian pride and save lots of time not telling all the time the same thing.

    Although, I would also like to say a word or two about some issues that you’ve pointed out (And sorry for my poor English). The myth about 14 alphabets perfectly reflects reality and I can not add much. The strange thing about this myth is that somehow someone counted to 14 alphabets and not more or not less. I mean why 14, not 12 or 9 or 20? (I suspect because of this numbers having more symbolic references) Anyway, we all agree on not having 14 alphabets in the world (not counting some respectable Georgian linguistic authorities who do not quite recall who they are).

    About Georgian being pronounced exactly in the same way as it is written I have some minor disagreements. First of all, no alphabet can be absolutely phonetic. I mean that if you pronounce letters one by one separately and than join them (for example, with audio editing software) you will not have the same result as being pronounced this letters in the word undivided, and this is for all languages. I do not claim that I know all languages 🙂 but I know that for articulation corresponding organs could not pronounce adjacent sounds discretely, i. e. every sound has influence on its neighbors, is it an assimilation, dissimilation, reduction or some other phonetic process. So, you can never predict absolutely precisely how to pronounce a letter not knowing its neighbors. What I want to say is that when an alphabet is considered to be phonetically predictable, that means that there are ranges of sounds that represents each letter, so that, when you read you can choose a sound from this range depending on its neighboring sounds.

    All of that stuff I wrote in upper paragraph I believe you already knew, and I apologize for that, but it will help me to show some more specific examples.

    The issue about ვ:
    It may easily appear that ვ has most wide range of sound realization in Georgian speech. What I have found out that it could be written with IPA in 12 or more distinct ways: it can be bilabial or labiodental, fricative or approximant, voiced or unvoiced, aspirated or even ejective. But still it does not mean that ვ represents separate phonems, it is one phonem with wide sound realization. It is because the fact, that in Georgian there are no f and w as distinct phonems, so ვ occupied their sound ranges also. And when speaking about how to find out which ვ to pronounce, it all depends on sound context.
    Let’s take your examples: ბავშვი. It should be pronounced [baʍʃβi] where /aʍ/ is diphthong with unvoiced end, because of unvoiced /ʃ/ succeeding it and /β/ is bilabial approximant (not labiovelar approximant w), because it is preceded with consonant (and in all cases, ვ is bilabial approximant after consonant and before vowel or liquid consonant). Here, we have two cores, first ბავ and second შვი. The შვ cluster expresses one semantic unit and etymologically is connected to შვილი, შობა, შვება, გამოშვება, საშვი, შუა, and is not dividable. So, ვ here is not distinct phoneme, or more accurately, it was not. Like in many North Caucasian languages there in Proto-Kartvelian might have been more phonemes than we have today and this phonemes (like in some Avar-Andic languages) were labialized ones. So, there was such phoneme შვ, which could have been pronounced as /ʃʷ/ or more exactly /ʃᵝ/ (just labialized, not labiovelarized). That’s why შობა does not have ვ in it, because ო is already rounded or labialized, so შ is pronounced as /ʃᵝ/ already (one problem is that ო and უ make disappear the difference between /ʃᵝ/ and /ʃ/ and other labialized and nonlabialized phonemes). And first ბავ was either ბავ or ბო, because ავ and ო, as well as ვა and ო, are interchangeable in Georgian, only if ავ or ვა are diphthongs. This means that phoneme ო had wide realization also: from /o/ to /wa/ or /aw/. That is why in some regions of Georgia ბავშვი is pronounced ბოვში, ბოშვი or ბოვშვი, but all three of them are really [boʃᵝi]; because /ʃᵝ/ is labialized, it means that from the beginning of this consonant the lips are already rounded, this is why when written (and not knowing that there is no ვ phoneme, but only labialization) some think that there is ვ before შ, some think that there after, and some think that both. But still, if someone writes ბავშვი, they pronounce it as [baʍʃβi] not with /o/ sound. That means that in standardized Georgian (which include in itself ბავშვი, not ბოვში) even if the same letter represents different phonemes, it is always 100% predictable how to pronounce it. You can easily test it: just give the clusters of random letters to any native Georgian and they without doubt will pronounce it and there would be no ambiguity. I do not mean, that everybody would pronounce it in the same way, but I mean that anyone within their own idiolect would have no ambiguity. On the contrary, can you, for example, pronounce English word girough knowing that that is only possible pronunciation?

    If you think that your examples like კიდო, is counter-evidence to my claim, ask anyone who pronounces it to write down: they will either write down კიდო or კიდევ, but after asking them to read what they have written, they will read [kidev] not [kido] (And they will shift on კიდევ, because many would think, you are actually checking their knowledge of standardized Georgian. Bur I am sure, when someone says კიდო they are thinking written კიდო).

    Yes, კიდო is very interesting form and I am very pleased to know from someone else that ბარო is from Armenian barev. I was all the time arguing to my friends from Kutaisi, that they were using Armenian word for greeting. Yes, the other words, that come to my mind ending on ევ do not tend to become ო, but all of them are verbs, with sign of theme ავ; so it is creator grammatical form and thus it it is more tend to preserve its form, maybe not to be confused with some other types of grammatical forms (e.g. გაძლევ vs გაძლო). What I have noticed is that, that all the words like კიდევ, I mean the adverbs that are not produced from other part of speech are more vulnarable ones; as many I recall, they have their very common mispronunciation (or regional counterpart). For example:

    ოღონდ -> ოღონც, ოხონდ
    წეღან -> ძოღან
    ხვალ -> ხვალე
    ზეგ -> ზეგე
    მაზეგ – მაზვეგ
    მაშინ – მაშვინ
    წუხელ -> წუხელი
    ბარემ -> ბარე

    The reason I think lies in not knowing real meanings of the parts of this words by native Georgians. I mean, when someone constructs a form of verb, it has thousands of analogues and the inner sense of language paradigm does not allow to make mistakes (when you hear all this words: ართმევ, არქმევ, ასმევ, აჭმევ, იჭმევ, ისმევ, აძლევ, ურჩევ.. and feel the grammatical identity, you can not think that even if hear არქმო, it is არქმო, because you have logical analogues with different ending), but with კიდევ or other adverbs you have nothing to compare with – they are almost as exceptions.

    Let’s come back to ვ, and I would like to share my opinion that there are 4 kind of ვ in Georgian. One is already discussed just labialization of some consonant, second is the start or end of diphthong, third is an distinct phoneme, like in ვირი, and the fourth is grammatical affix or part of affix. The first two ones are never labiodental, their range is anything bilabial fricative (in its wide meaning, I mean approximant is also fricative). The third one is almost always /v/ or /ʋ/ (labiodental approximant) or something in between them, and depends on speaker, for example, if you always say /v/ in this case, you are 100% right. And fourth one varies between /v/ /fʰ/ /fʼ/ /β/ /ɸʰ/ /ɸʼ/ and their approximant counterparts. But still there is always logical pattern which to use. If ვ is word initial and has consonant next to it, it always takes the airflow of this consonant. For example: ვთლი [fʰtʰli], ვყრი [fʼχʼɾʼi], ვრთავ [ɸʰɾʰtʰaβ̞], ვმღერი [vmʁe̞ɾi], ვუშენებ [β̞uʃe̞ne̞b]. In the case of ვრთავ there was თ which made ვ voiceless, because რ (as well as მ, ნ and ლ) are also weak consonants and tend to take strong consonant’s airflow. (Also, ს and შ may become /sʼ/ and /ʃʼ/)

    There are more “rules”, but actually what I was writing was only phonetic investigation. In reality, if you know that ვ is wide-ranged consonant, that means that you do not force yourself to keep mouth in the position of articulating only /v/ when reading ვ, the phonological processes automatically transform your ვ into what is needed there, not even thinking about this.

    Now about diphthongs:
    Main thing I want to say is that you can never make clear difference between two adjacent vowels and diphthong. If you think that two vowels is when in the first half is heard first vowel and from the certain point it is heard second, this never happens, if you have no stop in the middle. I am speaking about acoustics, not phonology, phonologically we know that there are separate vowels in მოიცა or მაია, but when you say that it is heard as diphthong, you are acoustically right, but not linguistically. Every adjacent pair (or triplet or more) of vowels are slightly gliding in one another, some within their whole life, some during only some dozens of microseconds. But you can not place a marker from where to name them as diphthongs or separate vowels. In Georgian to differentiate a diphthong from separate vowels (now I mean phonologically) there is a way according to syllables and their accent. Georgian accent has four characteristics: 1. length of vowel, 2. pitch, 3. loudness, 4. centralization (how far or near is it from schwa). When making wave analysis, based on this 4 characteristics, vowels differ in the different syllables (I mean the number of syllable). All you want to know is how many syllables are in word and which one of it is the vowel you are examining. So if you want to know, is ოი in მოიცა diphthong or not, you have to record audio of three words, for example: ნიცა, ბოლიცა, მოიცა; and then compare these 4 characteristics of the final ა. If it occurred, that the ა from ნიცა is equal (in terms of these 4 characteristics) to ა from მოიცა, that means that ოი is diphthong, because ა is heard like second vowel of the two-syllabic word, but if it was equal to ა from ბოლიცა, than ოი are separate vowels, because ა was third vowel in three-syllabic word. I’ll say in advance: I have made wave analysis of the speech of several native Georgians and there was no diphthongs (still meaning the thing I have stated in this paragraph). I can not claim there are no diphthongs throughout whole Georgian speaking population, and more, I suppose there will be (according to historical changes in regional Georgian, for example: შუაში -> შვაში), but I suspect there are more in regional variations.

    The vowels ე and ო, which you have rendered differently in different words, I doubt you were not quite right. As I have examined, these vowels do not change their sound; they change from one syllable to another, but in the same position, they are equal (their main 3 formants, that generate vowel (formant of being closed-opened, formant of being near-far, formant of roundness) are the same in all the words I have analysed (about 4000))

    One sound that I would like to add to your article is ყ, that has also very wide range of pronunciation. Didn’t you heard it being pronounced sometimes as velar fricative or sometimes as uvular affricate or uvular trill or even glottal stop? Only thing that is preserved is that it is always ejective. I think of this phoneme not being one phoneme historically. As there was ჴ /qʰ/ in old Georgian and is now preserved in mountains like Khevsureti, it could have its ejective pair /qʼ/ (traditionally ყ is written as /qʼ/ but it is not always this case) and ხ /χʰ/ could have it’s ejective pair /χʼ/, but they diffused in one another. The interesting thing is that in Megrelian and Svan there are two distinct phonemes that are etymologically connected to Georgian ყ.

    In the conclusion I would want to agree with you that Georgian alphabet is not phonetic, because it consists of much more than 33 phonemes, but, at the same time, I want to disagree with you, that Georgian pronunciation is not predictable and ambiguous. In any individuals speech there is always paradigm, according to which they pronounce given word, and this paradigm does not involve in itself knowledge about words, it’s only about letters and their possible pronunciation.

    P.S. this does not make Georgian unique (yes, Turkish, Armenian and Azerbaijani are in this set also and I believe German also), and, moreover, someone who is proud of having such featured language is tend to become more ethnocentric and, thus, more eager to oppression.

  7. Anonymous says:

    While I agree with all your statements about the nationalism I feel like your criticism goes a bit overboard on this issue. It’s true that there are probably more than 14 unique alphabets no matter how you count it; It’s true that Georgian’s often make stupid, unjustified and boarderline-shovinistic claims about how/why Georgia is the greatest country/nation in the word. It’s also true however, that (at least in some sense) Georgian alphabet is one of few unique alphabets currently in use.

    There are about 7000 spoken languages in the world and about half of them have a developed writing system. I have no idea how many unique alphabets are out there currently in use, definitely more than 14, maybe 19, or 27, or 32, but definitely much less than 7000.

    Many of my non-Georgian friends have mentioned to me how surprised they were to find out that the Georgian alphabet was so different, I’m guessing they expected it to be some version of Latin, Cyrillic, or Arabic. I think there is nothing wrong in telling this trivia fact to your non-Georgian friends over a pint of beer.

    P.S. I realize that “Uniqueness” of an alphabet is not a well defined property, but there are some obvious cases. Unlike you, I feel comfortable claiming that English, Spanish, and German aren’t quite as unique, they all you the same latin symbols with odd tilde and accent here and there. They are very different in the way match phonetics to those latin symbols, for sure, but claiming that Georgian is a “unique” alphabet in a way English-Spanish-German aren’t is I think a common-sense statement.

    • panoptical says:

      You make a good argument but there is still a fundamental problem in the mismatch between how linguistically interesting it is that Georgian has a unique writing system (not super interesting, especially since it was clearly derived from neighboring alphabets, judging by letter order) and how interesting it sounds to a layperson to claim that Georgian is one of only 14 (or 19, or whatever) alphabets in the world.

      Again, the average friend over beers in a bar will not make the distinction between “alphabet” as a precise linguistic term and “alphabet” as a general nebulous term for a set of written characters. They will not know that extremely popular writing systems that they have encountered – like Arabic and Hebrew – are not counted in this number because of a minor linguistic technicality. You’ll be like the kid who holds up his hand and asks you how many fingers he is holding up, and when you say “five” he says “No! Four! The thumb is not a finger!” Is there some definition of finger that does not include thumb? Sure. But that kid is still pulling a bait-and-switch, because conventionally we regard ourselves as having ten fingers, not eight fingers and two thumbs. According to the most commonly understood lay definition of alphabet, 14, or even 32, is lowballing it – by a lot. 70 would be closer, and that’s, again, discounting a lot of systems that are still used to a limited extent, and not even considering scripts which are variations on Latin, Cyrillic, Arabic, etc.

      Somehow I don’t think “Georgian is one of only 70 widely-used unique alphabets” is much of a trivia fact.

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