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The South Caucasian languages (also known as Iberian or Kartvelian) are spoken primarily in Georgiamarker, with smaller groups of speakers in Turkeymarker, Azerbaijanmarker, Iranmarker, Russiamarker and Israelmarker. There are approximately 5.2 million speakers of this language family group worldwide.

It is not known to be related to any other language group in the world. The first literary source (the inscription of Abba Antoni, composed in ancient Georgian script at the Georgian monastery near Bethlehemmarker) of the South Caucasian language dates back to 440 A.D.


  • Georgian languages
    • Georgian (ქართული, kartuli) with 4.1 million native speakers, including 3.9 million in Georgiamarker, and about 50,000 each in Turkeymarker and Iranmarker, as well as a diaspora of unknown true size (but presumed quite large) in Russiamarker.
    • Judaeo-Georgian ( , ebrauli, ), with about 80,000 speakers, of whom 60,000 are in Israelmarker, and 20,000 in Georgia. It may be considered a dialect of Georgian.
  • Zan languages
    • Mingrelian (მარგალური ნინა, margaluri nina), with some 500,000 native speakers as of 1989, mainly in the Samegrelo (Mingrelia) region of Western Georgia and (at the time) in the Gali district of eastern Abkhaziamarker. Many Mingrelian refugees from Abkhazia now live in Tbilisimarker and elsewhere in Georgia.
    • Laz (ლაზური ნენა, lazuri nena), with 220,000 native speakers as of 1980, mostly in the Black Sea littoral area of Northeast Turkeymarker, and with some 30,000 in Adjara, Georgia.
  • Svan language (ლუშნუ ნინ/შკა̈ნ, lušnu nin/šḳän), with approximately 15,000 native speakers in the north-western mountainous region of Svanetimarker, Georgia.

These languages are clearly related, and Laz and Megrelian are sometimes considered dialects of a single language, called "Zan". The connection was first reported in linguistic literature by J. Güldenstädt in the 18th century, and later proven by G. Rosen, M. Brosset, F. Bopp and others during the 1840's. They are believed to have split off from a single proto-Kartvelian language, possibly spoken in the region of present-day Georgia and Northern Turkey in the 3rd to 2nd millenniums BC.

Based on the degree of change, some linguists (including A. Chikobava, G. Klimov, T. Gamkrelidze, and G. Machavariani) conjecture that the earliest split, which separated Svan from the other languages, occurred in the second millennium BC or earlier; while Megrelian and Laz were separated from Georgian roughly a thousand years later, and split from each other roughly 500 years ago. However, these figures were derived using the controversial glottochronology and should be taken as tentative at best.

Judaeo-Georgian is sometimes regarded as a variant of Georgian, modified by the inclusion of large numbers of Hebrew and Aramaic loanwords. Its divergence from standard Georgian is comparatively recent.

Higher-level connections

No relationship with other languages has been demonstrated so far, not even with the North Caucasian languages, due to the lack of sound correspondences between the South and North Caucasian families. Some linguists have proposed that the Kartvelian family is part of a much larger Nostratic language family, but both the concept of a Nostratic family and Georgian's relation thereto are in doubt.

Certain grammatical similarities with Basque, especially in the case system, have often been pointed out. However, these theories, which also tend to link the Caucasian languages with other non-Indo-European and non-Semitic languages of the Near East of ancient times, are generally considered to lack conclusive evidence and must therefore be deemed purely hypothetical.

Any similarities to other linguistic phyla may be due to areal influences. Heavy borrowing in both directions (i.e. from North Caucasian to South Caucasian and vice versa) has been observed: therefore it is likely that certain grammatical features have been influenced as well. If the Dene-Caucasian hypothesis, which attempts to link Basque, Burushaski, North Caucasian and other phyla, is correct, then the similarities to Basque may also be due to these influences, however indirect. It is now known that the Proto-Kartvelian vocabulary was also influenced by Indo-European languages to some extent, probably due to contact at an early stage between Proto-Kartvelian and Proto-Indo-European cultures.

Social and cultural status

Georgian (kartuli) is the official language of the republic of Georgiamarker (Sakartvelo) (spoken by 90% of the population of this country), and the main language for literary and business use for all Kartvelian speakers in Georgia. It is written with an original and distinctive alphabet, and the oldest surviving literary text dates from the 5th century AD - the only Caucasian language that does possess an ancient literary tradition. The old Georgian script seems to have derived from Aramaic, with Greek influences.

Mingrelian has been written with the Georgian alphabet since 1864, especially in the period from 1930 to 1938, when the Megrelians enjoyed some cultural autonomy, and after 1989.

The Laz language was written chiefly between 1927 and 1937, and now again in Turkey, with the Latin alphabet. Laz however is disappearing as its speakers are integrating into mainstream Turkish society.
English Georgian Mingrelian/Laz
cat kata katu
friday paraskevi paraske
wine ğvino ğvini
bride nusaida nusa
plow gutani gutani
cherry bali buli

English Laz Mingrelian Georgian Svan
seven şk(v)iti şkviti şvidi işgwid
"i weighed it" p- oni dov- oni a-v- one on- on
blow/whiff bar- (m)bar- ber- bēl-
walking stick biga biga biga biq'
write (n)ç'ar- (n)ç'ar- ç'er- ēr-
leg uçx-e uçx- urcx- waçx-

See also


  1. Reported Discourse: A Meeting Ground for Different Linguistic Domains, by Tom Güldemann, Manfred von Roncado, p 3
  2. Ethnologue entry about the Kartvelian language family
  3. Language in Danger, Andrew Dalby, p 38
  4. The Georgians, David Marshall Lang, p 154
  5. A Guide to the World's Languages: Classification, Merritt Ruhlen, p 72
  6. The Georgians, David Marshal Lang, p 154
  7. Ethnologue entry about Judeo-Georgian
  8. Encyclopedia Britannica, 15th edition (1986): Macropedia, "Languages of the World", see section titled "Caucasian languages".

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