Language Appreciation

Reading Georgian informational essays produced by monasteries or national monuments is kind of a funny thing. I don’t know if this is peculiar to Georgia, or is true at historic landmarks in other countries as well. I don’t know what it is that I expect, or why I expect it, but I think that I probably expect something that sounds like a story. I would sort of hope that if I went to San Xavier Del Bac in Tucson and asked about the history of the church, and the person it was named for, someone would tell me about who San Xavier was, what he did, why he was important, and then something about the natives who live there, the people who founded the church, and so on. Last week I asked a nun in Gori what I might read to know more about Georgia and it’s people, and she gave me four nicely printed pamphlets with excellent pictures: Foreign Authors on Georgia and Georgians, Georgian Language and Script, The Georgian Apostolic Church, and A Short Essay on the History of Georgia. So far I’ve read part of the history and all of the one on language. What is most striking about these, along with the pamphlets I got from Zarzma, Chule, and Vardzia, is how straightforwardly academic they are, as though they expect to be writing for scholars. For example:

The fact that it is of utmost importance, first, to state norms of the Georgian literary language in the pre-Christian era and then to preserve them, is undoubtably preserved by ancient (4th-7th centuries) Georgian Christian inscriptions and manuscripts, the so-called corpus of khanmet texts. The term khanmeti, first identified in the 11th century, indicates that even then it was already vague and impossible to explain why a sound kh (“khan”) was found in old Georgian manuscripts as the indicator of the 2nd person subjective (eg: khar shen) and 3rd person objective (eg khertvis is mas) cases and was considered redundant. Though the fact discovered by specialists is particularly interesting: even in the pre-Christian period (4th-5th centuries) redundant use of kh was already a dead literary norm and mistakes made while complying to it undoubtably prove that this norm was really anachronic (a. Arabic) and so on.

There are two things I find interesting about this pamphlet. The first is that it’s is the kind of thing an educated Georgian nun would like a foreign stranger to read. I don’t know what would be analogous in America. Perhaps if one were to ask a respected native american person about his tribe? Not from Orthodox clergy, I think, and not concerning English.

The other thing I found interesting about this passage is the way it refers to “mistakes made while complying to an anachronic norm.” Isn’t the word anachronistic? In any event, I have no way to be sure how the historians are sure that whatever the ancient people had written was mistaken, but that they say that, and not something else, such as that the kh was there because of Arabic influences, is suggestive of differences between how Georgians and English speakers think about imported oddities in our respective languages. Also of interest was the history of Georgian as a literary and court language: according to the pamphlet (there is some disagreement among historians) King Parnavaz (4th century BC) both unified the language as part of the unification of the Karveli state, and created the alphabet (the old one used in church, not the modern one). He had to borrow somewhat from Old Persian to have sufficient administrative terminology for his newly expanded government. I had read elsewhere that ancient and medieval Georgians would often, rather than simply importing a word they didn’t have, as we do with Greek philosophical language (eschatology, philosophy, and so on), would often painstakingly assemble new native words using Georgian roots with words equivalent to the Greek meaning. (I can’t explain why I just used past perfect there. Georgian doesn’t have perfect and progressive tenses, exactly, so I’ve started noticing when I use them, and whether I could have used a different tense if I had wanted. I use them quite a lot, as it happens)

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