The Thinking of Speaking
Issue #8 March / April 2014
Languages in Peril
Keeping Up With The Kartvelians
by Lucille Martin
March / April 2014 | 

The Kartvelian language branch is a small one, with only an estimated 5 million speakers of its languages worldwide, and most people have probably never heard of it. The dominant language of it is Georgian, and even that language is not commonly talked about. It is the official language of the European country and former Soviet Socialist Republic, Georgia.

The three lesser known languages are Svan, Mingrelian, and Laz. They are also endangered, having no official status, being only minority languages in Georgia and, in the case of Laz, in Turkey. They have lost their identities and population of speakers to dominant Georgian and Turkish.


Svan is the language spoken in the Western Georgian region of Svaneti, mainly by the Svan people. There are roughly 30 thousand speakers remaining, which has earned it the categorization of "definitely endangered" by UNESCO. It is rarely written, but when it is, it is done using the Georgian alphabet, although it has been written using Latin or Cyrillic alphabets in the past. Most speakers of it also speak Georgian, and Svan has no official status, although it is used in casual social communication. Of all four Kartvelian languages, Svan is the most different from the others and is not mutually intelligible with them.

The ancestors of the Georgian people have probably inhabited the west-central part of the southern Caucasus region for over five thousand years. One group of them may have moved to the northwest around three thousand BC, as there are place names that seem to be of Svanetian origin there. These ancestors later moved into what is now Svaneti. Artifacts and ruins dating back to the Bronze Era have been found there, showing that these people were doing metalwork as far back as two thousand BC.

Strabo, a Greek geographer and historian, living in 1st century BC, described that Svans as strong, warlike people of the mountains, and that they were ruled by a king and a council of 300 elders. Eventually they formed into a feudal system, similar to those found in Georgia, in which the nobility owned most of the land, but it was worked by the peasants.

In the 3rd century, Roman Lazicum was granted some level of autonomy which eventually allowed it to become fully independent as the Kingdom of Lazica.

During the 13th century, a series of invasions began in the lowland parts of Georgia. Armies of Mongols, Persians, and Turks took turns at devastating the region, but due to it's remote location, most of Svaneti was never invaded. Because of this, some of the finest works of Georgian heritage were preserved in the Svanetian churches. These items included precious icons, illuminated manuscripts, and various silver and gold objects. It also helped that the Svan people were very religious, so they took any theft of these items very seriously. Stealing an icon was an action that was punishable by death, most likely by stoning. Over time, other valuable artifacts made their way into Svaneti from other cultures, including Italian, German, Syrian and Persian, perhaps because the amount of trade the Svan people had with others.

When the Kingdom of Georgia fell in 1455, the land was broken into several smaller kingdoms and regions. Svaneti became under the rule of the newly created Kingdom of Imereti, which lasted until the 19th century. Then it became incorporated, along with most of western Georgia, into the Russian Empire in 1804. The Svaneti people resisted this rule for a while, but finally gave in around 1833. Under the Russians, the peasant serfs were given their freedom along with small parcels of land, thus ending the feudal time of the Svans.

Svan people from the Latali community

The Communist Revolution of 1917 changed many things, including Georgia's status. It declared itself independent from Russia, but that only lasted a few years, for in 1921, the Russian Red Army invaded Georgia and made it part of the new Soviet Union. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Georgia became an independent country again, with Svaneti being part of it.

Recently, improvements to the infrastructure of Svaneti have been made, most notably with new schools, fixed roads, and improved electricity services. The language, however, is not being passed on enough to the Svan youth, and it is being replaced completely by Georgian, which is the cultural, educational and legal language of Georgia. No official documents are written in Svan, further pushing its decline. Unless something is done soon, Svan may become extinct within the next few generations.


The second Kartvelian language in Western Georgia is Mingrelian, spoken mainly by the Mingrelian people. There is no definitive number of native speakers because it is a secondary language which is being replaced by Georgian, as is Svan. The estimate is between five and eight hundred thousand, and it is listed by UNESCO as "definitely endangered".

The primary land of the Mingrelians is the Samegrelo region of Georgia. This ranges from the Black Sea coast to the Svan Mountains and the Tskhenistskali River, encompassing the Odishi Hills and Kolkheti Lowlands. There are some other speakers scattered in other parts of Georgia, but most have remained in this area, which has helped the language survive for as long as it has because the compactness of the population helps promote the passing on of it to the next generation.

The Mingrelians have their origins with the Colchian tribes. They were the ancient Mingrelian-Laz people who lived in the west and southwest areas of the Transcaucasus region. The Kingdom of Colchis existed between the sixth and first centuries BC, and is believed to the be the first early Georgian state. It then fell under Roman rule for a few centuries. It finally became united with the Iberian kingdom of the southeast around the 7th century AD, becoming Christian in the process, and it would later become a new Kingdom of Georgia.

During the Middle Ages, the Mingrelian aristocracy and clergy of the kingdom adopted the Georgian language for literacy and culture, thus promoting it a place of prominence. The lived in a "golden age" of prosperity until the 13th century, when it was invaded by Mongols. It struggled to regain sovereignty, but was subjected to more invasions. The kingdom finally became fragmented, with many parts of it becoming independent state, including Mingrelia.

Mingrelian wedding party. Engraved by Y. Pranishnikoff. Published in 1884

Mingrelia remained autonomous for a few centuries before being annexed into the Russian Empire in the 19th century. There, the Mingrelian people were considered a separate group for historical, political, and cultural reasons from those of eastern Georgia. Later they were reclassified as "Georgian" in the 1930s, and today, most Mingrelians still identity themselves as a part of the Georgian nation while retaining many cultural features, such as their Mingrelian language. When Georgia finally became independent in 1991, the first president, Zviad Garnsakhurdia, was Mingrelian.

Mingrelian is written using the Georgian alphabet and, like Svan, has no written standard or official status. Most speakers also speak Georgian, and they mainly use Mingrelian informally. It is related closely to Laz, since both people and languages come from the same group of tribes, but it became differentiated from it during the Turkic and Mongol invasions. Mingrelian is not mutually intelligible with the other Kartvelian languages, being only slightly related to Svan and Georgian, but some speakers can recognize Laz words.

During the 1930s, several newspapers were published in Mingrelian, but now, there are no Mingrelian language schools, books, or newspapers. There have been some attempts to revive the language by publishing dictionaries and poetry books. Studies of Mingrelian folklore are also popular. A bigger effort needs to be made in some official capacity, however, in order to prevent the Mingrelian language from becoming extinct.


The third Kartvelian language is Laz, spoken by around 30 thousand people in Turkey with another 2 thousand in Georgia. The Laz people inhabit the Southeast shore of the Black Sea, in a region they call "Lazona", in northeastern Turkey. Those living in Georgia live mainly in Ajaria. There are also Laz people in Germany who have migrated there from Turkey.

As I mentioned before, Laz is closely related to Mingrelian and shares much of the same history. When the Kingdom of Colchis fell under Roman rule, it became restructured into the province of Lazicum and ruled by Roman legati (ambassadors to the empire). In the 3rd century, Roman Lazicum was granted some level of autonomy which eventually allowed it to become fully independent as the Kingdom of Lazica. This lasted for over two centuries, during which time it adopted Christianity as its official religion, before the kingdom became part of the Byzantine Empire in 562 AD. Under this rule, they had relative stability for 150 years until the Arabs moved in as the new regional power in the 7th century.

Laz newspaper from 1929

The Arab Empire covered much of Europe and Asia, and Lazica became known as Lazistan by the Persians. The Ottoman Empire, founded by Turkish tribes in north-western Anatolia in 1299, then took over the region, becoming one of the most powerful states in the world. It conquered Lazistan in 1578, and under its rule, the majority of Laz were converted to Sunni Muslims and ruled as the Lazistan _sanjak_ (a _sanjak_ being an administrative division of the Ottoman Empire). The eastern part of Lazistan became part of the Russian Empire in 1878, then in 1922, the territory was divided between Turkey and the Soviet Union. Three years later, the name "Lazistan", along with its sanjak, were removed by the new Turkish Republic in 1925.

Today, most of the Laz in Turkey are part of the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam. The Laz in Georgia are Eastern Orthodox Christians who adhere to the national Georgian Orthodox Church.

The Turkish people use the name "Laz" to refer to all inhabitants of Turkey's Black Sea provinces east of Samsun. The Laz themselves try to differentiate themselves from other inhabitants of these regions. Non-Laz also don't want to be called this, preferring the term _Karadenizli_, meaning "of the Black Sea region".

Historically, the Laz language is not written. The literary languages are normally Turkish and Georgian, depending on the country, with most Laz being bilingual. There were attempts at creating a literary language based on the Arabic alphabet by Faik Efendisi in the 1870s, but that got him arrested and imprisoned by the Ottoman authorities, and most of his works were destroyed.

An alphabet system based on the Turkish alphabet was created in 1984, and that has been used in a handful of publications that have appeared in Laz. The sounds of Laz are better represented by the Georgian alphabet, but most Laz live in Turkey and they use a Latin alphabet. Still, in 1991, a textbook called _Nana-nena_ ('Mother tongue') was published using both the Latin and Georgian alphabets. The first Laz–Turkish dictionary was published in 1999.

Laz people in the 1900s

While most Laz are bilingual, they are likely to use either Turkish and Georgian most of the time, even in areas with only Laz people. These is a major factor in the decline of the language. It is also being heavily influenced by Turkish vocabulary, so the purity is being lost. Families that still speak Laz only do so with other adults in informal situations, leaving the children with only a passive knowledge of it.

Laz has five major dialects: Art'aşenuri (არტაშენური) is spoken in Ardeşen. Atinuri (ათინური) is spoken in Pazar (formerly Atina); Çxaluri (ჩხალური) is spoken in the Düzköy (Çxala) village in Borçka; Vitzur-Ark'abuli (ვიწურ-არქაბული) is spoken in Arhavi and Fındıklı; Xopuri (ხოფური) is spoken in Hopa and Ajaria. These dialects only add to the decline, since speakers of different dialects often have trouble understanding each other, and with then use the local official language instead.

Much of their beliefs and traditions have been lost, but those that have survived have done so in the forms of folk poetry and civil customs, relating to birth, marriages, and death primarily. Little has been done to study the language or folk culture while a strong push for assimilation has occurred in Turkey. Very recently there has been a rise in attempts to revitalize the Laz language, but many fear it is too late. PT

Languages in Peril - Keeping Up With The Kartvelians
Writer: Lucille Martin
deguonis: Mestia (title)
ArnoldPlaton: Distribution of the Kartvelian languages
Kolkhianboy: A laz newspaper
Petey: Svan people from the Latali community; Mingrelian wedding party. Engraved by Y. Pranishnikoff. Published in 1884; Laz people in 1900s
• "Kartvelian languages" Wikipedia <>
• "Svan language" Wikipedia <>
• "Svan" Languages in Danger <>
• "Svan people" Wikipedia <>
• "SVANS" Svaneti Trekking <>
• "Svans - History and Cultural Relations" Every Culture <>
• "Mingrelian language" Wikipedia <>
• "Mingrelians" Wikipedia <>
• "Mingrelians - Orientation" <>
• "Laz language" Wikipedia <>
• "Laz people" Wikipedia <>

All images are Copyright - CC BY-SA (Creative Commons Share Alike) by their respective owners, except for Petey, which is Public Domain (PD) or unless otherwise noted.


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