LivingWithCaucasians is a blog describing the life of an American family in Caucasian Georgia, and it’s a great read if you happen to be interested in that part of the world. Some bits involving language (no permalinks—it’s Blogger):

Saturday, December 13, 2003
Consumer Culture in Georgia: Maybe You Should Rethink That Product Name
The desire to adopt Western consumer culture, as misguided as you and I might think that is, proceeds at a fair clip here in the former Soviet Union. Here in Georgia, there is a triple barrier: language. And not just language, alphabet, too. There are three distinct written languages here: mkhedruli (kartuli/Georgian), Cyrillic (Russian), and Latin (English). There are several other written languages that are around on a regular basis, depending on which consumer product you are dealing with: Armenian and Farsi, as well as the other languages that use Cyrillic—Ukrainian, Uzbek, Kazakh, etc.

Everyone (except the Armenians and Azeris and members of various isolated mountain tribes who live inside the borders of Georgia) speaks kartuli. Most everyone speaks at least some Russian; the younger folks are mostly learning English rather than Russian in school. TV is about half and half kartuli/Russian, so even if they aren’t taking it in school, the kids learn a bit of Russian by watching. The population is only about 4 million, so there’s clearly not a huge indigenous consumer product manufacturing industry. Russia is a LOT closer than the U.S., so as a trading partner, it’s obviously first in line. BUT English is cooler than Russian.
What all this means is that many products have to be labeled in at least two languages. Most of the imported food products we buy in the supermarket have a photocopied label in kartuli strategically scotch-taped over the only area where there might be any product information we might like to read. But hey, it’s their country…
And just as I feared, I am having to buy food in open air markets, with no prices posted, speaking none of the local languages. But many of the food names are cognates for something I’ve heard before: puri is bread, chai is tea, kave is coffee, rhvino is wine. And I have learned lots of the names of things that have cognates only on other planets: milk is rdze, butter is karaki, beer is ludi. And people in the markets are kind.

(Via No-sword.)


  1. Thank you for informing us that Georgians speak Kartuli instead of Georgian, as I had thought. Some of the conditions described remind me of the summer I spent in Ukraine (I almost wrote “in the Ukraine”) where everything was a challenge. I bought nothing until all my American supplies ran out. I taught English in a local high school and even took my own blackboard chalk, erasers and board-cleaning sponge with me. On Firdays students had to clean the classroom. This experience made me never complain about the lack of teaching supplies in the school district where I work. As far as language, I never learned any Ukrainian (except “ukrainski moba”, or “Ukrainian langauge,which was heard in a scene in “Sum of All Fears”). I remember from my linguistic classes a term called vehicular load. Russian’s got it, Ukrainina’s got less of it and Kartuli as spoken in Georgia, ain’t got none at all. As a foreigner, I used Russian as a lingua franca despite any political sensibilities.

  2. Blogger no what? What is that?
    Permanent links are these not some?
    Or not?
    Saying google and blogger in near proximity is fun.

    One time in Portland Oregon, at a moment I needed so much to hear or see something beyond the constricting boundaries of my immediate life, on the radio, randomly, I heard a choral group from the Ukraine. Mixed voices, transcendent, firm and strong and possibly all dogmatic and liturgical, but I had only the phonemic and emotional to go by, so it didn’t detract from the uplifting sound.
    It helped a lot.
    One of those times you just stare at the receiver or the speaker, or the amplifier’s little red dot, and go away.

  3. Invisibly secreted in that last post is the html for ‘strike’ which I in my naive innocence thought would show that I had mastered the difference between the and not-the Ukraine. But no.

  4. Toby: Georgian is the English name for the language that the Georgians call kartuli; she uses the latter in the blog presumably because she likes the sound of it and there’s no problem of comprehension (if you’re reading her blog, you can be presumed to know what it is). There would be no point using it in general English writing.
    msg: Yes, there are, technically, permalinks on Blogger/Blogspot. The only problem, minor perhaps from a philosophical perspective, is that they don’t work, at least for me. I was taken to the blog via such a link, but it deposited me at the top of the page just like the basic blog link, so I considered it more honest to give the latter and tell the reader how to find the desired item. When I follow what looks like a link to a particular entry and find myself somewhere else, I experience a moment of angst and confusion, a sense of atopia if you will, which I would fain spare others.

  5. I’m glad you posted this, I just saw an interesting (although flawed) documentary about an American power company that tried-and failed-to privatize Georgia’s power system. The movie, “Power Trip,” showed the Georgian script and I was meaning to look up more about the origins of this unique script. Thanks to your post I remembered to do so, and here is what I found.
    The reason I said the documentary was flawed is that it focuses too much on the point of view of the director’s friends who work at the power company, and gets some basic facts about Georgian history and society a little screwy. (According to my Georgian friend with whom I saw the film.) Nonetheless, it is a film that is well worth seeing, and a great introduction to a part of the world I know very little about.
    I’d like to know more about how closely modern Georgian is related to other languages. My friend was unclear about this, but suggested that Farsi might be related. I hope Language Hat, or one of your readers, an enlighten us.
    (NOTE: Blogger permalinks don’t work right – in this case you can only link to the day, not to the individual post. If you are using Blogger, please consider switching to Moveable type or Typepad!!!)

  6. Georgian is a Caucasian language, not related to any non-Caucasian language except in the grand and somewhat dubious Nostratic scheme. (L.H. would substitute “highly” for “somewhat”, IIRC),
    The Caucasian languages are divided into three groups. What I don’t know is whether these three groups are closely related to each other (like Scandinavian and Germanic languages) or whether they are more distant. That is, is “Caucasian” a large family like Indo-European, or is it three distinct families, each comparable to Indo-European? I’ve read both theories.
    Chechen is the only other Caucasian language most people have heard of. When I want to be pretentious I often speak of Mingrelian, about which I know nothing, mostly because the name sound sort of funny.
    There’s a similiar problem with the so-called “palaeo-Siberian” languages — non Finno-Ugric, non Ural-Altaic, non-Sino-Tibetan languages of Siberia. The question has been answered there — Yukagir and Nivkh, at least, are isolate languages with no apparent relatives, as is Burushaski in the Himalayas.
    My own understanding is that the history of languages proceeds by differentiation and decimation (terms from S. J. Gould). From one language come many languages, but a second process destroys many languages. Certain languages (Indo-European, Turkic, Semitic, Bantu, Malayo-Polynesian, Tibeto-Burman) have expanded and diversified over recent millenia at the expense of other languages (Basque, Caucasian, paleo-Siberian, Khmer, etc.) who survive mostly because of geography.
    I have read that the process of diversification can actually be observed in New Guinea, where language diversity is highly prized and small groups take steps to make their languages unintelligible to outsiders — like an argot except that it becomes the natural language of children. As a result languages evolve and differentiate faster than in other areas.
    EVERYTHING above is subject to discussion — I’m a complete amateur. For stylistic reasons I left out a lot of maybes and I-thinks.

  7. I understand there are two terms in the Georgian language that converge to “Georgian” when translated into English: “kartuli” and “kartveli”. I wonder if they are related in the same way as “russkiy” and “rossiyskiy”?

  8. Morning all,
    Following zizka’s comments, I’d recommend Joanna Nichols _Linguistic Diversity in Space and Time_ She argues that there are spread zones, where a language like indo-european will spread and assimilate/eliminate competitors, and residual zones where language diversity will remain and her primary example is the Caucasus. It fleshes out the notion zizka points to of geography affecting language diversity, backing up those ideas with statistical analyses of typological diversity. I haven’t followed where the research has led (the book was published in 92), but was really knocked out by the book when I read it.
    I think it would take issue with the notion that there is a faster evolution of languages which creates greater diversity, but rather that the diversity we find in places like New Guinea is a reflection of earlier diversity that is lost in spread zones. The question of the rate of change has been discussed in a few languagelog posts, but I can’t seem to get to the site right now to give a link.

  9. Joe: both factors may be at work — survival of existing diversity, and increasing diversity because diversity is prized. To me it stands to reason that if several generations of a small group make a point of keeping their language secret, that it will diverge from other languages more quickly. I talked awhile back to a guy named Vajda (U. Washington) who studies Nivkh (Gilyak), an isolate language which is said to be becoming even more complicated and difficult. I suggested that this was an anti-creolization process, since this language is never spoken except by native speakers. He seemed interested in the idea.
    One theory is that highland New Guinea, though agriculturally productive enough to develop state forms, never did so because the produce was not easily-storable (tubers rather than legumes and grain). States tend to impose a national language and go to war against foreign peoples. A lot of the linguistic diversity in the world today is in areas where the state couldn’t effectively reach until recently, mostly mountainous areas. (Caucasus, S.E. Asia, the Andes, Siberia a little.) Australia and the Americas are cases where state forms destroyed linguistic diversity, though of course there’s a lot more going on.

  10. Nice comments, Zizka & Joe. (Apologies in advance for going all academic on this!)
    There are two large groupings of languages in New Guinea, Austronesian (Malayo-Polynesian) along the coasts and islands (generally), which probably arrived less than 3,000 years ago; and Papuan (non-Austronesian), which were there long before the Austronesian speakers arrived, but then did some spreading of their own later. The Papuan languages don’t really form one unified group, more like several dozen. They’ve been in the NG area for maybe 30,000 years or more. In the Nichols model, they’re in a relic area, like the Caucasus or NE Siberia (or the Mandara massif in Cameroon & Nigeria–or Appalachia in a much shallower timeframe), while the Austronesian world is a vast spread zone, like the Bantu, Indo-European, or Sino-Tibetan zones. The diversity of the Austronesian languages in Melanesia appears to have a different dynamic: small, fragile populations subject to repeated cycles of fission and fusion with neighboring populations who may speak very different languages, as I argued in a paper entitled “The Population Kaleidoscope: Another factor in the Melanesian Diversity v. Polynesian Homogeneity” in the Journal of the Polynesian Society 106 (1997). A small taste of some of the issues involved in NG is online at

  11. Hey zizka,
    I don’t disagree with you, but there are a number of interesting threads to tease apart. Here they are, as they come to me.
    -The food observation goes to Jared Diamond in Guns Germs and Steel. He’s trying to answer one of the big questions, which is what accounts for European dominance of the world. Putting aside self-serving ethnocentric arguments that European stock is smarter, faster, whatever, Diamond argued for the initial difference in agricultural production, followed by a series of ‘lucky’ developments (including the increased possibility of diseases jumping the species barrier) gave Europeans built in ‘weapons’
    -Have to careful about using the notion of ‘state’, because in a language evolutionary context, the state is a latecomer. If, by state, you mean the transition from hunter-gatherer to pastoralist, Diamond has a number of interesting things about this.
    -the question of what changes in language and at what rate is a really thorny, but interesting question. Remember the big divide between philologists was whether phonological change was exceptionless or not. Now, linguists are trying to research the question of syntactic change, which is a lot more difficult because syntactic change does not present itself as Grimm’s law, so you see the increasing use of statistical argumentation.
    -Nivkh and the other Siberian languages are interesting, and seem to resist the notion of family tree. One huge problem is that the notion of dialects versus languages is a very fuzzy demarcation. Given their lifestyle, I’d be hesitant to draw any conclusions on general linguistic diversity from Tungusic.
    -I think that the pace of change has increased, and we can now have languages become moribund in the space of a generation. Though one could make the argument that identity has always played a role in delineating language varieties, my own feeling is that we are living in a time where social and technological change can create a hot house atmosphere that produces change, much like a hothouse can produce plants that would not normally survive, so we have to be careful applying these defaults to previous ages.
    Of course, following Joel’s comment, we also have to be careful applying defaults to all geographic cases. However, we want a model that is universally applicable because language is a common human heritage. Don’t know if we’ll get it though.
    Sorry, this has wandered a bit, battling a head cold. I’ll try and get some links up to some of these points later this evening.

  12. Farsi might be related
    Not related, but there are a huge number of Persian loan words in Georgian (eg, puri ‘bread’) that could confuse the situation.
    L.H. would substitute “highly” for “somewhat”, IIRC
    You recall quite correctly. As for Mingrelian (which is closely related to Georgian, and which indeed is a funny word), here’s a tip you can use to impress people at parties (if you hang out at the right kind of parties): Georgian names ending in -ia (like Beria) are usually Mingrelian.
    This is a great discussion, and Joe, don’t worry about wandering — that’s half the fun!

  13. “The State” was not a good choice. “Predatory political forms” includes the state, along with the forms of the Indo-Europeans, the Turks/ Mongols, and the Bantus. A lot of the Malayo-Polynesia expansion was into uninhabited territory. (The decimating expansions I’m thinking of occurred in archaoeologically recent times — about the last four or five thousand years).
    What I said makes more sense when I explain that I have assumed that “the State” is descendant from these pre-state predatory political forms. “The City” pre-existed “the State” (in Sumeria and Egypt) though all cities are now ruled by states. Versions of this theory have been advocated by Ernest Gellner, Ibn Khaldun, Duhring (whom Engels was anti-), Franz Oppenheimer, and others. It’s a minority theory but not a wacky one.
    Of course the New Guinea example (based on food storage) also explains the absence of the city there. The thing that has been thought to need explanation is that New Guinea’s agriculture is productive enough in calories-per-acre to support cities or states, but that that hasn’t happened.

  14. >Georgians speak Kartuli instead of Georgian
    And they call their country Sakartvelo, if I remember right.

  15. Quite right: sa…o is a collective-naming morpheme, so it’s ‘all the Kartvels taken together.’

  16. I see the problem: LWC’s template lacks “<a name&gt” tags, which give the browser something to look for. Plenty of Blogspot blogs (not to mention mine, which is Blogger-based though not hosted there) get it right.

  17. Here’s the links I mentioned
    For Tungusic Linguistics
    For an interesting discussion between Jared Diamond and William McNeill that (perhaps) imperfectly mirrors zizka and my comments (though I think McNeill is making it black and white, and zizka is not)
    Here is the LanguageLog post (by Mark Liberman) that discusses the dynamic of language change with an ultimately pessimistic conclusion

  18. By now I’m completely boggled about the supposed Altaic family, since elsewhere I’ve been told that the Mongol-Turkish relationship isn’t proven either.
    The Jurchen who ruled N. China until the Mongol conquest (~1235 AD) were a Tungusic people closely related to the Manchu. The three northeastern provinces of China, once once called Manchuria, supported agriculture; most of the other Tungusic peoples are forest hunter-gatherers.
    Seemingly historical linguistics is being violently revised, with the apparent loss of glottochronology (Liberman) and the new importance given to areal as supposed to genetic resemblances between languages — something which breaks up the neat family tree systems. Not to go all pomo on y’all, but what we have here is the rejection of essentialism again.

  19. Wow, I didn’t even know there was a controversy. Shocking.

  20. I knew there was a controversy but am delighted to find such useful summaries of the positions; thanks for the LINGUIST List links! When I ran across this:
    The main arguments used by the critics of the AH… to discredit the hypothesis are mostly based upon criteria used in Indo-European research, criteria they seem to assume to be universally applicable.
    I feared the worst, since such words usually precede special pleading designed to wave away real problems with data and method (as “nontraditional healers” try to wave away the requirements of medical science). But there followed a quite reasonable discussion (certainly it would be absurd to declare that number words must be similar if languages are related).
    (I have to say I have a hard time taking Russian linguists seriously; they tend to have a fatal attraction to overarching relationships and a corresponding willingness to overlook inconvenient data and lacunae.)

  21. The Dravidian-Japanese hypothesis is the most fun. I read translations of some Tamil poems once, and lo! — they seemed sort of like Japanese nature poems (tanka rather than haiku).
    Case closed. End of story. Japanese is a Dravidian language.

  22. Speaking of Russian linguists, I noticed Sergei Starostin(of the Tower of Babel project) is mixed up in all this LINGUIST list warfare. Interesting.

  23. Some fun terms
    lumpers (those who tend to group languages into larger groups)
    splitters (those who argue that there is no sufficient evidence to prove such relationships)
    long rangers (those who argue for languages before indo-european)
    Long rangers suggests a certain psychology of the scrappy outsider going against received knowledge.
    The rise of the internet led to a lot of really harsh comments and a lot of the fora were filled with (admittedly entertaining) invective. One of the interesting things to me was that the Russian linguists, because of their relative isolation, spent a lot of time using the same sort of comparative techniques to look past Indo European, while in the west, most of the long range comparativists rejected/gave up establishing sound correspondences and went with other techniques (such as comparing typological traits and linking arguments to DNA analysis) and the debate between these two groups are as heated as debates between those who say that long-range reconstruction is a crock.
    There’s back issues of a newsletter on the web, called Mother Tongue that gives some of the arguments and the flavor of the debate. One hot point of the debate was about Basque and Larry Trask, who is an expert on Basque, has really gone hammer and tongs with some of them. (btw, here’s a great article about Trask.)
    Also, related to the previous discussion about Sino-Tibetan, there is this article about a reworking of that group.

  24. Wow, that last link is great — I have zero competence to judge the issues involved, but I love reading about these massive realignments. The proposed new structure of Tibeto-Burman “dethrones” Chinese and divides the family into Western (Baric, Sal, Kamarupan) and Eastern groups, the Eastern being broken down into Northern (Sino-Bodic [Bodic = Tibetan]) and Southern (Burmic and Karenic on one side, Qiangic and Rung on the other). It reminds me of the earlier realignment of “Hamito-Semitic,” in which extremely minor languages of southern Ethiopia turned out to represent major divisions.
    Larry Trask, by the way, is a hero here at Languagehat.

  25. Hi, it’s Mary Neal from Living with Caucasians. To answer a couple of questions, kartveli means Georgian person, kartuli means Georgian language.
    Sakartvelo is a use of what they call a pre-verb, and “sa” means something like “for.” A really good restaurant in Mtskheta (pronounced … oh forget it) is called Salobio, a place to get lobio or baked beans. Yum. Anyway, Sakartvelo means “for the kartvelo” or land of the karts (the biggest Georgian tribe).
    There’s a great story about Mingrelian floating around. A guy who was from west Georgia was working in Siberia and wangled a job as a teacher. His field was actually history, but he told them he could teach English for some reason. As a gesture of misguided west Georgian patriotism, he taught the students, and in fact the whole village, Mingrelian. Picture if you will, a Siberian village full of Yakuts speaking Mingrelian. He got caught when one gifted student went on to MGU to study English and got there not knowing a word!

  26. Great story!

  27. Information about Georgia and caucasus. Beautiful site, many interesting links about language, tourism, business, hitory and more.

  28. Since this came up again, I’ll just mention I met a Hungarian anthropologist in Yakutia who claimed there was evidence for a Hungarian-Yukagir link, but then again he didn’t believe in Altaic, so I don’t really follow. Beautiful man, though, tall and with shampoo-commercial hair.

  29. hi everybody,
    here is the Georgian girl from Holland. Ask anything u wanna know about Kartveli/Georgian and sakartvelo/Georgia.
    Mary, i remember about Megrelian man teaching Megrelian in siberia and i laughed so much again…i always thougth it was a joke till i read the newspaper article about that man that was released after many years from prison for teaching Megrelian, a language spoken by Megrelians(a tribe of georgians)
    the story sounds like this: being in Siberia he could not find a job and after he found out that there was a job as a teacher of English language he accepted it..hahaaaa…he toughted Megrelian to siberian kids and they loved ‘English’ so much as they loved the teacher of it very dearly…it lasted many years till govement caughed him. a talented girl went to Moscow university to pass English exams and when she talked ‘English’ nobody would guess what kind of language that was till she named the name of her ‘English’ teacher and they came to get the story! hahaaaaaa
    he was sentenced to 15 years or smthing like that and the crazy thing is that the parents of kids collected money to prevent him from jail!!! they loved him dearly! this is real unbelievable story which i always thought was a joke till i read that article some 15 years ago written by the very man after he was released from jail.
    by the way do you people know that origin of all nations and civilizations(Iberains, Aryans, Sumerians, etc) is the Georgia, Caucasian Iberia? a white man still calls himself a CAUCASIAN! ( )
    it is also a cradle of wine!

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