The three lives of the Georgian alphabet

Georgian scripts were granted the national status of intangible cultural heritage in Georgia in 2015 and inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2016. The decision recognized the value of the three writing systems that live together in harmony and mark out the Georgian language.

The Georgian alphabet is very old and is used only by the Georgian language. Its origins lie hidden in the depths of the past and are the subject of several theories. According to the Georgian chronicles, King Parnavaz I was recognized as the creator of the Georgian alphabet. Among scholars, some suggest that the Georgian alphabet derived from Phoenician, while others propose Semitic and Aramaic origins. However, the majority of researchers consider that the Greek alphabet served as the basis for the Georgian one.

The evolution of Georgia’s written language has produced three scripts: Asomtavruli (5th-9th centuries), Nuskhuri (9th-11th centuries) and Mkhedruli (11th century onwards). The appearance of the letters at each stage is very different. Despite their obvious visual differences, all three scripts are closely interrelated and show a gradual evolution. Their letters share the same names and alphabetical order and are written horizontally from left to right. Originally consisting of 38 letters, Georgian today is written using a 33-letter alphabet, as five letters were dropped as a result of reforms proposed by Ilia Chavchavadze in the 1860s. All three Georgian writing systems are phonemic; every sound is represented by its corresponding letter and almost every written letter is pronounced in speech.

Asomtavruli (‘capital letters’) is a monumental script, and represents the oldest form of the Georgian alphabet. It is also known as Mrgvlovani (‘rounded’). The geometry of the Asomtavruli script is simple and plain. The first examples date back to the 5th century. From the 9th century, Asomtavruli was mainly employed for capital letters in religious manuscripts. Despite its name, this script is unicameral, i.e. it does not distinguish between upper and lower case, like the two later scripts, Nuskhuri and Mkhedruli.

The second Georgian writing system, which derived from Asomtavruli, was Nuskhuri (‘minuscule’). Nuskhuri was soon combined with Asomtavruli illuminated capitals in religious manuscripts. The combination was called Khutsuri (‘clerical’) and was largely used in religious writings.

These two scripts were followed by Mkhedruli, the modern Georgian script. It first appeared in the 10th century. The name Mkhedruli comes from the word mkhedari which means ‘knightly’. Mkhedruli can be seen as the product of the complex development of previous writing systems. It maintained the rounded design of Asomtavruli and, like Nuskhuri, facilitated faster writing. Letters, as in Nuskhuri script, can also be joined up. Due to its style and flexibility, it is also used for headlines and titles. Mkhedruli has changed very little since its arrival in the 10th century and has become the standard script of modern Georgian and related Kartvelian languages. Mkhedruli first appeared in print in two books published in Rome in 1629.

Tamuna Bichiashvili

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