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Do you speak Mingrelian?

A major language in western Georgia could struggle for survival  because it’s not considered one.

Dadiani Palace in Zugdidi, residence of the last princes of Samegrelo (Mingrelia). Photo CC-by-NC-2.0: Silber_Mel / Flickr. Some rights reserved.

When you raise a glass with Edemi Izoria, you can practice the fine art of toasting in Georgian or Russian, but he will be most pleased if you add his native language, Mingrelian.

Izoria, a short man with a white beard, is in many ways a typical host in Zugdidi, the quiet plains town that serves as the administrative centre of Samegrelo. After sitting down on his vine-covered veranda, it only takes a few minutes and he will convince his guest this western province of Georgia is not merely the cradle of Georgian civilisation, but of mankind as a whole. And while his wife will serve local delicacies like lamb stewed with tarragon and ghomi, steaming white polenta with chunks of cheese in it, the retired doctor will expand his theory that the ancient Egyptians spoke a proto-Mingrelian language when devising their hieroglyphs.

But Izoria is atypical in that he actually speaks up for Mingrelian, having established a small regional advocacy group called “Aia”. During an hour-long interview earlier this month, he argued that the ongoing “Georgianisation” of his homeland needs to stop. “We need Mingrelian in kindergartens and schools. Not as a subject but as language of instruction,” he says.

Mingrelian is a strange phenomenon, not only for linguists. Despite the fact that the language is probably spoken by probably more than 300,000 people, mostly in Samegrelo and the neighbouring breakaway state of Abkhazia, it remains to this day a largely unwritten language and enjoys practically no institutional protection in education or culture. It is hard to think of another language in Europe that has so many speakers and so little status.

Linguists point out that Mingrelian and Georgian parted ways in the eighth century BC – more than 2,700 years ago 

For centuries, speakers of Mingrelian have used their language as a vernacular for home and village, while Georgian was reserved for cultural purposes like reading, writing and praying. Georgian governments, both Soviet and post-Soviet, have taken pains to stress that Mingrelian-speakers are part of an indivisible Georgian nation. 

An explanation often heard among Georgian officials and intellectuals is that Mingrelian is a “dialect” – because it doesn’t possess a literature or writing system. While it is universally accepted that Mingrelian is part of the Kartvelian language group, which apart from Georgian includes Laz (spoken in northeastern Turkey) and the more distantly related Svan language, linguists point out that Mingrelian and Georgian parted ways in the eighth century BC – more than 2,700 years ago.

Edemi Izoria, a Mingrelian-language activist, displays one of his books on the local idiom. Photo courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.

Mingrelian certainly sounds different from Georgian — and speakers like to boast that it is richer or “purer” than its larger neighbour (Georgian has an estimated four million native speakers). For instance, the verb “to pluck” (from a piece of bread) has at least four variants, tskitskonua meaning “to pluck off lightly”, ts’k’its’k’onua “to nip off squeamishly while eating”, zgizgonua “to pluck off bigger pieces” and zhgizhgonua “to tear off brutally”.

But despite this precision, the use of Mingrelian appears to be declining. While there are no reliable figures available, teachers and parents in both Zugdidi and Senaki, the biggest Mingrelian-speaking cities, say that children no longer speak the language when they enter school. Nato Inalishvili, who teaches Georgian at Senaki’s fourth school, says that just 20% of first graders are currently fluent in Mingrelian. And Izoria, the activist from Zugdidi, admits that even his own grandchildren have “tragically” failed to learn the language.

When asked why, locals point to a lack of prestige. “People are ashamed of speaking Mingrelian, they are even ashamed of sounding Mingrelian,” sighs Zviad Pachkoria, a truck driver turned activist from Senaki.

This problem is not new. Back in the mid-nineteenth century, Niko Dadiani, a local nobleman, wrote to his Bishop that Mingrelian was a “despicable worm language” and that “even the peasants call Mingrelians worms”.

But it is hard to tackle, because Mingrelians have almost developed a habit of becoming great Georgians. The most famous example is Zviad Gamsakhurdia, the country’s first president after the Soviet break-up in 1991.

“People are ashamed of speaking Mingrelian, they are even ashamed of sounding Mingrelian”

Although Gamsakhurdia was of Mingrelian descent, he hardly spoke the language. His nationalist slogan “Georgia for the Georgians” triggered ethnic strife and ultimately led to war with separatists, backed by Russia, in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. As a result, Georgia lost control of both territories, which to this day remain largely unrecognised Russian protectorates.

Because of the situation in Abkhazia, promoting Mingrelian as a separate language has become intrinsically linked to separatism in Georgia. Most of the roughly 200,000 Georgians that were expelled or fled the Black Sea region in the early 1990s were Mingrelian speakers, and up to 60,000 remain in the southernmost Gali region.

The Abkhaz authorities there produce a newspaper in Mingrelian, Abkhaz and Russian. This small bimonthly, Gal, has been published on and off since the 1990s and may never had much impact on public opinion. But as of spring 2017, there are plans to make the new channel Gal TV broadcast in Mingrelian (link in Russian).

The “Gal” newspaper is published in the breakaway territory of Abkhazia, in the Abkhaz, Mingrelian, and Russian languages. It is partly due to these initiatives by the separatist authorities that many Georgians view Mingrelian language activism with suspicion. Photo courtesy of Iko / LiveJournal. Some rights reserved.

The first attempts to produce a standardised written Mingrelian came in the 1860s, when the Russian Empire had conquered the region and Tsarist scholars analysed local languages. Attempts to create a writing system, initially on the basis of Cyrillic, soon triggered heavy opposition from Georgian elites, who suspected the Russians of carrying out politics of “divide and rule”.

Then in the 1930s, authorities in Soviet Georgia experimented with a Mingrelian script based on the Georgian alphabet. The experiment, known as the “Mingrelian Question”, foundered after Lavrenti Beria won the upper hand in a political struggle. After becoming leader of the Communist Party Georgian branch in 1931, Beria, who was himself of Mingrelian origin, decided that it was better not to lobby for what would easily be seen as his own nationality.

That script was revived in the 1990s, when feeble attempts were made to publish Mingrelian texts.

Georgian suspicions that Moscow harbours plans to weaken their country by dividing up its titular ethnic group into smaller components were seemingly confirmed in 2010, when the Russian census listed Mingrelians as separate from Georgians (along with Svans, Adjarians, Ingiloys [Georgians from north-western Azerbaijan - ed.] and Laz). 

Even in Russia, most Mingrelian speakers reject the notion of an ethnic identity distinct from Georgian 

But the fact that almost 158,000 respondents stated that they were Georgians, while just 600 (less than 0.4%) identified themselves as Mingrelians (45 as Svans), shows that even in Russia, most Mingrelian speakers reject the notion of an ethnic identity distinct from Georgian.

While this shows that Mingrelian nationalism or even separatism is extremely weak, the Georgian government does not seem ready to change its official stance, which prevents Mingrelian and the neighbouring Svans, whose spoken language is even more distinct from standard Georgian, from receiving any significant assistance from state institutions.

Ketevan Jakeli, an adviser on minority issues to Georgian education minister Alexandre Jejelava, was adamant that while the government was doing everything necessary to protect national minorities, there was no way that speakers of Mingrelian and Svan should be included in these efforts. “These are not ethnic minorities. Therefore, they cannot fall under the provisions of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages,” Jakeli tells me at the education and science ministry in Tbilisi.

The Charter aims to protect minorities from discrimination and requires states to actively promote minority languages. It was adopted by the Council of Europe in 1998, one year before Georgia signed up to the European human rights watchdog. Yet Tbilisi has not ratified the Charter, which would give rights to 15 languages, including Armenian, Azerbaijani and Russian.

Giorgi Bobghiashvili, a project coordinator at the European Centre for Minority Issues, a German think tank, says that attempts to achieve ratification were stymied in 2013, when Patriarch Ilia II, spiritual leader of Georgia’s immensely influential Orthodox Church, issued a statement saying that the Charter was “unacceptable, because it will strengthen separatist movements and create new grave problems for the country.”

According to the Rosetta Project, some 457 or 9% of all living languages now have fewer than ten speakers. Language death appears to be accelerating - which will pass away in the South Caucasus? Globe statue in Zugdidi, Mingrelia, Republic of Georgia. Photo CC-by-NC-ND-2.0: Orientalising / Flickr. Some rights reserved.

When asked how Mingrelian and Svan could be protected, Jakelia, the Education Ministry adviser, warns against promoting these idioms formally in schools. “[In order to do so], you would have to tell these people that they are not Georgians. I do not advise you to do that,” she says. Jakelia was adamant that the only agency that could give such support was the ministry of culture. However the ministry’s spokeswoman Tiko Janjghava tells me that her colleagues did not have any such plans right now, referring all questions back to the education ministry.

When institutional support is lacking, perhaps modern technology can provide the answer. Although the internet often catalyses the usage of larger languages at the cost of smaller ones, it has also enabled Mingrelian speakers to publish more material than probably ever before in the language’s 2,700 year old history. The Mingrelian Wikipedia had more than 10,100 articles in mid-June. More and more Mingrelian posts are being published on Facebook.

However, there are shortcomings. Nona Kobalia, a journalist who writes a blog in Mingrelian on the website of Zugdidi’s Odishi radio and TV station, describes the Mingrelian Wikipedia as “terrible”. She complains of basic mistakes in vocabulary, syntax and grammar. “Some of it is so bad that it would be better had it been written in Georgian,” she concludes.

Kobalia added that the language urgently needs a state commission to standardise both spelling and lexicon. She believes that “currently there is absolutely nobody who cares about [Mingrelian].”

Nevertheless, the younger generation keeps publishing Mingrelian online. The Facebook group “Megrelian language” has garnered 24,000 likes since its inception in 2010. Mingrelian poems and songs by Gali-born performer Temur Eliava and Vienna-based jazz singer Teona Mosia have garnered tens of thousands of views on Facebook and YouTube. The Mingrelian learners’ group “Charga-Charga” has 14,000 likes. 

A like may not be much, but it is a start. And with an accelerating rate of global language loss, Georgians may need to reconsider institutional intransigence towards such an important part of their national heritage — whether they consider it a dialect or a language.


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