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4 posts categorized "Georgia"

10 July 2015

Basque and Georgian – are they related?

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Basque, the only non-Indo European language in Western Europe, is an isolate, a language unrelated to any other living or dead. Nonetheless attempts have been made to demonstrate a relationship with a variety of languages including ancient Iberian, Pictish, Etruscan, and Berber. The most consistently proposed kinship has been with the Kartvelian family of Caucasian languages, in particular with Georgian.

The origin of Basque has been bound up with theories about the origin of the Basque people themselves. Greek and Roman historians referred to the region corresponding to modern Georgia as eastern Iberia, as distinct from western Iberia, i.e. Spain and Portugal. The Greek geographer Strabo referred both to the Iberians of the Caucasus and to the ‘western Iberians’ (Geographica, bk. XI, ch. II, 19). Appian of Alexandria later wrote ‘some people think that the Iberians of Asia were the ancestors of the Iberians of Europe; others think that the former emigrated from the latter’ (Historia Romana, bk. XII, ch. XV, 101). However, he continued ‘still others think that they merely have the same name, as their customs and languages are not similar’. The Georgian language was also known, confusingly, as Iberian.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, Basque historians adopted the prevalent Spanish legend according to which after the Flood, Tubal, a son of Japheth, was the first settler in the Peninsula, but they added that he settled first in Cantabria, i.e. the Basque region. Esteban de Garibay (born 1525) found evidence for this claim in similarities between place names in northern Spain and in Armenia, e.g. Mount Ararat (in modern Turkey) = Aralar, the mountain range in Gipuzkoa and Navarra. He also links the Basque Mount Gorbeia  to an Armenian peak ‘Gordeya’. He considered Basque the first language of the whole Peninsula and, presumably, the language of Tubal. Other writers followed Garibay, notably Andrés de Poza and Baltasar de Echave. Garibay’s identification of similarities between toponyms, however fantastical, can be seen as a forerunner of the Basque-Caucasian hypothesis.

Garibay2Esteban de Garibay, Los XL libros del Compendio historial… de todos los reynos de España (Antwerp, 1571) British Library C.75.e.4.

In the early 20th century philologists developed more scientific arguments for a link between Basque and Caucasian languages. Typological similarities certainly exist between Basque and Georgian. For example both are ergative languages. Put at its simplest, this means that the subject of a transitive verb appears in the ergative case (or ‘agentive’), while the object is in the absolutive case and is unmarked. Thus, in Basque we have ‘gure aitak etxe berria erosi du’ (‘our father has bought a new house’) contrasted with ‘gure aita Donostian bizi da’ (‘our father lives in Donostia’).  In Georgian, ‘father’ in the first sentence would be rendered by ‘mamam’ and by ‘mama’ in the second. However, the ergative construction would not be employed in subject-direct object-verb constructions in all tenses and aspects. In Basque the ergative is more regularly employed.

Another notable similarlity is that the verb morphology of both languages is pluripersonal, i.e. the form of the verb may encode not just the subject of the sentence, but any direct or indirect objects present. In Basque this is illustrated in the examples:

Nere semeak kotxe berri bat erosi du = My son has bought a new car
Nere semeak bi kotxe erosi ditu = My son has bought two cars.

The infix it in the auxiliary verb in the second example agrees with the plural object bi kotxe. However, the verb morphology of Georgian is extremely complex and functions very differently from Basque.

Typological parallels are all very well, but ergativity and pluripersonal agglutinative verbal morphology are not exclusive to Basque and Georgian, and doubt concerning possible kinship between them arises when lexical coincidences are cited. According to Basque philologists today, the majority of those seeking similarities have cast their nets very wide, claiming cognate fish when most should have been thrown back. Cognates with Basque have been sought among several Caucasian languages, although a genetic relationship between the Northern and Kartvelian groups remains unproven. Furthermore, in many cases proto-Basque forms have not been matched with proto-Georgian forms; many coincidences are thus anachronistic. The philologist R.L. Trask also stressed that the Basque, in its hypothetical early form, had a vastly impoverished consonantal system in contrast to the wealth of consonants of the Northern Caucasian groups in particular. Today, Georgian has 28 consonants, Basque 21.

Georgian1 The 36 letters of the Georgian alphabet according to Alphabetum ibericum, sive georgianum… (Rome, 1629); 621.c.33.(1.)

The case for a relationship between Basque and other languages intensified in the early 20th century with the philologists Hugo Schuchardt, C.C. Uhlenbeck and Alfredo Trombetti. Much of the debate was conducted in scientific periodicals, particularly the Revue Internationale des Etudes Basques (P.P.4331.aeb.). We might add here the Georgian linguist Nikolai Marr who developed the so-called Japhetic theory linking Kartvelian with Semitic languages and subsequently the theory that all languages had a common origin. He also found parallels between Kartvelian languages and Basque.

MarrandBasquesMarr (third from right) with a group of Basques, reproduced in Nikolai Marr, Basksko-kavkazskie leksicheskie paralleli (Tbilisi , 1987) YA.1991.a.23022

The case for possible Basque-Caucasian cognates continued to be advanced in the second half of the last century by linguists such as René Lafon and Antonio Tovar. However, later scholars, notably Luis (Koldo) Michelena and Trask, firmly rejected the Caucasian link.  This has not stemmed the tide of speculation, which in fact has widened to include Basque in a macro-language family (Dené-Caucasian) and even beyond in the hypothetical single language of the so-called proto-world. This notion seems to bring us back to Nikolai Marr. These last speculations find approval also among those still hoping to prove a common ethnic origin for the Basques and the Iberians of the Caucasus. Given that the Basque language remains alone in a class of one, it is wisest to conclude that the case for a link remains unproven.

Geoff West, Former Curator Hispanic studies and Anna Chelidze, SEE Cataloguer Russian/Georgian


Itzia Laka, A Brief Grammar of Euskara ([Vitoria-Gasteiz], 1996); available at

Juan Madariaga Orbea, Anthology of Apologists and Detractors of the Basque Language (Reno, 2006). YC.2007.a.857.

R.L. Trask, The History of Basque (London, 1997). YC.1997.b.547

José Ramón Zubiaur Bilbao, Las ideas lingüísticas vascas en el s. XVI. Zaldibia, Garibay, Poza (Donostia, 1989). YA. 1993.a.5626.

La Prensa Iberica interview with Davit Turashvili:


29 October 2014

Language and the making of nations

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On 14 November the British Library will be hosting a study day  ‘Language and the Making of Nations’, organised by the Library's European Studies Department and examining the relationship between majority and minority languages in the countries of Europe and the creation of national literary languages

The creation of a unified language has been significant in the formation of the nations of Europe. Part of the process has been the compilation of standard grammars and dictionaries, an initiative often followed by linguistic minorities, determined to reinforce their own identity. This seminar will look at the relationship between majority and minority languages in the countries of Europe, the role of language in national histories, and the creation of national literary languages. Specialists in the history of the languages of Europe will explore these issues in relation to Czech, Georgian, Italian, Serbian and Ukrainian, as well as Catalan, Dutch, Frisian, Silesian and the Norman French of Jersey.



10:30  Registration; coffee

10:50  Welcome

11:00-12:00   Donald Rayfield (Emeritus Professor of Russian and Georgian, Queen Mary, University of London), ‘The tongue in which God will examine all other tongues — how Georgians have viewed their language.’

Marta Jenkala (Senior Teaching Fellow in Ukrainian, UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies), ‘Ukrainian language and nation: a cultural perspective’.


12:10-13:10   Mari Jones (Reader in French Linguistics, Cambridge University), ‘Identity planning and Jersey Norman French.’

Peter Bush (Literary translator), ‘Josep Pla and the making of contemporary literary Catalan.’


14:10-15:40 Giulio Lepschy (Hon. Professor, UCL, London, School of European Languages, Culture and Society), ‘The invention of standard Italian.’

Prvoslav Radić (Professor, Faculty of Philology, University of Belgrade), ‘The language reform of Vuk St. Karadžić and the national question among the Serbs.’

Rajendra Chitnis (Senior Lecturer, School of Modern Languages, Bristol University), 'We are what we speak. Characterizations of the Czech language during the Czech National Revival.’


16:00-17:30 Roland Willemyns (Emeritus Professor of Dutch, Free University, Brussels), ‘The Dutch Congress of 1849 and the Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal.’

Tomasz Kamusella (School of History, University of St Andrews), ‘Silesian: a language or a dialect?’

Alastair Walker (Emeritus Research Associate, Department of Frisian Studies, University of Kiel), ‘North and West Frisian: Two beautiful sisters, so much alike, but yet so different.’

The event has received most generous support from NISE (National Movements and Intermediary Structures in Europe), the Polish Cultural Institute, and the international publishing house Brill

Attendance is £25.00 Full Price;  £15.00 for under 18s. To book please email or call +44 (0)1937 546546

There is an additional free event, following the study day, from 18:15-20:00.  Maclehose Press and the Institut Ramon Llull will be launching Joan Sales’ novel of the Spanish Civil War, Uncertain Glory, translated from the Catalan by Peter Bush.  Professor Paul Preston (Historian, Director of the Catalan Observatory at the LSE) will be in conversation with Peter Bush.  A wine reception will follow courtesy of Freixenet.

As places are limited, please RSVP to  if you would like to attend the evening event.

11 November 2013

How the Georgian language first appeared in print

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After the fall of Byzantium, Georgia was broken into several kingdoms and was encircled by hostile Muslim powers and weakened by constant invasions and internal conflicts. Consequently, in the 16th-17th centuries Georgia was no longer a cultural meeting ground for east and west, but became a country squeezed between the difficult conditions of rivalry between Turkey and Persia for domination over Transcaucasia. The King of East Georgia, Teimuraz I, sent Niceforo Irbach to Italy and Spain as the Georgian envoy to seek allies and to ask for assistance in holding off the Turks and Persians. The ambassadorial mission did not have much political success, but it did bring about a significant cultural event – the printing of the first Georgian book.

During his stay at the Vatican, Niceforo Irbach collaborated with Catholic scholars and missionaries to produce a Georgian-Italian vocabulary, as well as a brief collection of prayers in colloquial Georgian.

The first Georgian books were published by the Propaganda Fide Press of the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith which was established in Rome in 1622 for the purpose of spreading Catholicism in non-Catholic countries.

Georgia adopted Christianity in the very early centuries and the resulting Georgian Orthodox Church, founded in the fourth century AD, has been in communion with the Eastern Christian Churches but has never been subject to the authority of the Roman Catholic Church.

A general idea of the political situation in Italy at that time and the status and purpose of the Vatican agencies happened to be of direct relevance to the activities of the Georgian king’s envoy during his stay in Rome. The newly-established Catholic missions required manuals of the foreign language and devotional texts for their operations.

In 1629 the Congregation managed to cast Georgian type in moulds and to issue a ‘Georgian  alphabet with prayers’ that was followed by the publication of the ‘Georgian-Italian Dictionary’.
Achille Venerio, a member of the ‘Propaganda Fide’, sent the printed dictionary with its Georgian alphabet to Pope Urban VIII  along with a ‘Dedication’ in which he described Georgian letters as ‘very refined and beautiful.’

Georgian-Italian 622.f.3.(1) tp2
The title-page of Irbach’s Georgian-Italian Dictionary

The missionaries were taught Georgian by Niceforo Irbach, who was responsible for the Georgian version of these present works. They accordingly provided a relatively easy first attempt at translation between the two languages.

Alphabetum ibericum, sive georgianum: cum Oratione [Iberian or Georgian alphabet with prayers] (Shelfmark 621.b.4. (12.)) is one of the first of two books printed in Georgian using moveable type. The book includes a table with the Georgian alphabet and the sounds signified by its letters and their Latin equivalents. The text begins with the thirty-six letters of the Iberian or Georgian alphabet, presented in four columns - formation, name (in both alphabets) and force. Some letters have additional italic comments at the side, referring to and giving the same phoneme in other languages including Arabic, Hebrew and Greek, entailing the use of type in 5 completely different alphabets on a single page. The second subsection explains the numerous ligatures when Georgian letters are combined. The third section exemplifies the use of Georgian by setting out the text of The Lord’s Prayer, Hail Mary, Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds, Corporal Works of Mercy, the Seven Sacraments, and the Ten Commandments, concluding with the Canticle of the Virgin Mary. The text is given in Georgian and titles are in both languages, Latin and Georgian.

Georgian alphabet 621.b.4-2
A page of the alphabet with Roman transliteration from Alphabetum ibericum, sive georgianum

Dittionario giorgiano e italiano [Georgian-Italian Dictionary] (shelfmark 70.a.4.), compiled by Niceforo Irbach and the printer Stepano Paolini, contains 3,084 entries written in Georgian letters. The text is printed in three columns: Georgian words in the left column, Italian transliterations (including stress) in the middle column, and an explanation of the meaning of each word in Italian in the right column. The Georgian alphabet and the Latin equivalents of each of its letters appear on pages 1–2.

Georgian-Italian 622.f.3.(1)
The first page of the Dittionario giorgiano e italiano

Anna Chelidze, Curator Georgian Studies

21 August 2013

The Georgian anarchist prince and his gift

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Musha (“The Worker”): a journal of the socialist- revolutionary party in Georgia [Or.5315]

Or.5315 titlepage 1-2

This is how Oliver Wordrop describes this Manuscript in his Catalogue of the Georgian Manuscripts in the British Museum [W 349].

This is a monthly hand-written journal by working men; the numbers are dated 1889-1891. It is apparently the work of one hand, including the illustrations, initials and borders.  The names of the authors of articles in prose and verse could be, for obvious reasons, fictitious.

Or.5315 titlepage 7

This journal obviously aimed to spread propaganda amongst peasants and workers, but when we look at it doesn’t give the impression of a revolutionary organ.  The handwriting is very neat and resembles that of  a diligent  schoolboy rather than an angry worker.

Or.5315 text

The articles are naive; some, especially those in verse, sound more like prayers or dreams of better times to come rather than fuming calls to revolution. It brings together a very interesting combination of different items including sermons.

This journal was presented to the British Museum on February 10 1898 by Prince Varlaam Cherkezishvili, quite a remarkable person.

Varlam Cherkezishvili (also known as Warlaam Tcherkesoff or Varlam Cherkezov in the Russian Cherkezishvilimanner) was a Georgian nobleman, intellectual, politician and journalist and a well-known figure in the International Anarchist Movement. He sensationally claimed that Marx and Engels plagiarized The Communist Manifesto and The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844. He was later also involved in the Georgian national liberation movement.

Varlaam Cherkezishvili

He was born in Georgia (then part of Imperial Russia) in 1846 and moved to St Petersburg for further education. There he joined the Socialist movement, was arrested, imprisoned and exiled to Siberia in 1874. Two years later, he escaped to Western Europe, where he stayed for most of his life, settling in Britain in 1907. A few times during his exile he managed to return to Georgia, both legally and illegally.

He worked with the Russian émigré press and with fellow anarchists. He was also prominent in his criticism of Marxist ideas. His pamphlets Pages of Socialist History (1896), which was translated into nine languages, and Forerunners of the International (1899), followed by his book The Doctrines of Marxism (Geneva, 1903) provoked discussions and disputes in Russian and European socialist circles. Cherkezishvili tried to prove that Marx and Engels based The Communist Manifesto on the ideas of Victor Considerant , while Engels in his book The Condition of the Working Class in England lifted the work of the French socialist Buret . Cherkezishvili’s s sharp attack on Marxist philosophy made the young Stalin dispute with him in his famous work  Anarchism or socialism? These polemics continued during 1905-1907 in  Georgian periodicals.

Actively involved in the Georgian national liberation movement, Cherkezishvili helped to found the Georgian Socialist-Federalist Party , which demanded national autonomy for Georgia; he wrote a series of articles for the Times to bring the political situation in Georgia to the attention of an English-speaking audience. He expressed his support for Georgian independence vocally and in print; in 1907 he delivered a special declaration on this question at the Hague Peace Conference.

Along with other Georgian anarchists he took part in the publication of the first legal anarchist newspapers in the Georgian language: The Call (1906), The Voice (1906), and The Worker (1906).  Georgian anarchism combined in a unique form ideas of freedom with those of national independence.

During his time in Britain he helped to found Anarchist Red Cross; in 1912-16 he became the acting editor of a proposed 10-volume edition of Bakunin’s collected works , writing a biography of Bakunin for the first volume (London, 1915) []. During World War I he endorsed “war to the end against German militarism” and signed in 1916 the so-called Manifesto of the Sixteen.

After the Russian revolution of 1917 Georgia gained its independence. Cherkezishvili returned to Georgia in 1918 and was offered a seat in the Constituent Assembly of the Democratic Republic of Georgia. The Soviet occupation forced him to leave Georgia in March 1921. According to eye-witnesses, “the Soviet victory was a great tragedy for him.” He returned to London where he would continue to fight again for Georgia’s independence until his death in 1925.

The biography of this extraordinary person could be the subject  of further research, as could the history of the manuscript donated by him to The British Library.

Or.5315 titlepage 6

His most important works are held in the BL's printed Collections:

Páginas de historia socialista; doctrinas y actos de la democracia-social (La Coruña, 1896)  [8285.bbb.80.(2.)]

Sociaal-Demokratie in haar leeringen en daden. Een stuck socialistische geschiedenis. (Amsterdam, 1899) [08275.g.12.(2.)]

Pages d'histoire socialiste. Précurseurs de l'Internationale. (Bruxelles, 1899) [08276.df.20.]

Doktriny marksizma. (Zheneva, 1903) [8247.bbb.51.]

Concentration of Capital. A Marxian fallacy. [From “Pages of Socialist History.”] (London, 1911) [X.0529/1082.]

La Géorgie, ses traditions et ses droits politiques. (Paris, 1919) [8095.g.29.]

Anna Chelidze, Curator Georgian Studies