Description by Tamari Lomtadze & Reuven Enoch
The Judeo-Georgian language, along with religion, traditions, and customs, has been considered a key identity marker of Georgian Jews. Georgian Jewish speech tended to be distinct from that of their non-Jewish neighbors. The differences from standard Georgian can be seen in phonetics, prosody/intonation, grammar, and lexicon. These linguistic peculiarities are gradually disappearing due to the influence of the standard language, on the one hand, and the rapidly increasing social and educational status of the Jews, on the other.
Jews living in Georgia have been referred to as ‘Georgian Jews’ or ‘the Jews of Georgia’ for many years. Since their return to Israel they often refer to themselves as ‘Georgians’ or ‘Georgian Jews’ to emphasize their unique communal identity. The term is used to denote both Jews still inhabiting Georgia as well as those who have emigrated from Georgia. The language they speak is commonly referred to as the “Jewish variety of Georgian” or “Judeo-Georgian.”
Georgian-speaking Jewry is one of the oldest surviving Jewish communities in the world. The Georgian Jews have an approximately 2600-year history in the region: today the most popular view in Georgia is that the first Jews made their way to the country in the 6th century after escaping from Babylonian captivity. Georgian Jews follow Sephardic traditions and consider themselves Sephardim.
By the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries, the traditional Jewish way of life was influenced by growing social integration with the non-Jewish milieu and the transition from small communities to larger towns. The Jews of Georgia engaged in commerce, agriculture, and crafts, but their main occupation was petty trade until the second half of the twentieth century. They preferred to live in cities and towns, i.e., urban areas where there were favorable conditions for trading. They built compact settlements referred to as ‘Jewish neighborhoods’ by the non-Jews. From this period on Ashkenazi Jews also appear in Georgia.
Beginning in the late nineteenth century, there were large Jewish communities in Kutaisi (the economic and cultural center of Western Georgia), Tskhinvali (Shida Kartli, the South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast), Tbilisi (the capital of Georgia), Oni (Racha), Lailashi (Lechkhumi), Kareli, Gori, Surami (Kartli), Batumi (Adjara), Kvareli, and Ulianovka (Kakheti), Akhaltsikhe (Samtskhe-Javakheti), Vani, Khoni, Samtredia, Zestaponi, Kulashi and Sachkhere (Imereti), Senaki, Bandza, Sujuna, and Poti (Megrelia), Sukhumi (Abkhazia). In addition, there were relatively small Jewish communities in almost all parts of Georgia (Zugdidi, Borjomi, Svaneti, etc.). There was a synagogue in nearly every densely populated city and village.
In 1939, Jews made up 1.1 percent of the overall population of Georgia of approximately 4 million, and their percentage had increased to 1.3 percent by 1959. A large number of Georgian Jews had already arrived in Israel during the immigration wave of the 1970s. In the 1990s, the vast majority of the remaining Jews of Georgia immigrated to Israel, Russia, Europe, and America. According to the 2014 census, the number of Jews was so low that they were included in the “other ethnic groups total” category.
Names of language:
Judeo-Georgian, Jewish Georgian
Territories where it was/is spoken:
-today: Georgia, Israel, Russian, United States, Belgium, Austria, etc.
Estimated # speakers:
- 1900: 30,534
- 2019: 80,000
Georgian writing system
Periodicals, liturgical translation
There is no historical documentation for the language the Jews spoke when they arrived in Georgia. Having lost their homeland, they scattered all over the world. Historical sources point out that St. Nino (ca. 296 – ca. 335) easily established contacts with the Mtskheta Jews by communicating with them in Hebrew. However, this question requires further investigation, since prior to the 6th century CE, Hebrew had already become restricted to liturgical use, being replaced in everyday usage by Aramaic as the lingua franca in the region.
Exactly how many Jews could speak Hebrew, their heritage language, remains unknown. From materials recorded by Tamari Lomtadze within the framework of the “Sociolinguistic Situation in Modern Georgia” project, it is clear that only one of the ten Jews interviewed considered Hebrew his native language, and the person in question did not even know the language. The rest named Georgian as their native language. (Earlier, in the 1960–1970s, they had mentioned Russian as well.) The native languages of Ashkenazi Jews living in Georgia were primarily Yiddish and Russian. It is noteworthy that the respondents mostly belonged to the middle- and older-age groups. Under the Soviet regime (1921–1991), studying Hebrew was banned, and Yeshibas ‘Rabbinic schools’ were shut down. As a matter of fact, even before the Soviet period, very few people could speak Hebrew, and it was mainly studied by rabbis or their family members. However, even in such cases we do not know for certain which tongue these people regarded as their native language.
After World War II, Jews who affiliated with synagogues began to study Hebrew secretly. They also taught it to their family members and attempted to gain the right to return to their homeland. At the end of the Pesach Haggadah (‘Passover Telling,’ a Jewish text that sets forth the seder ‘order, arrangement’ of the Jewish ritual Passover feast), every Jew would pronounce hopefully: “Next year in Jerusalem,” and would keep repeating the phrase: “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.”
Language was one of the characteristics that distinguished Georgian Jews from the rest of the population. Judeo-Georgian is a variety of the Georgian language (more precisely, it is based on Georgian) which does not entirely match either standard Georgian or any of the regional dialects of the Georgian language. It is a kind of conglomerate of various phonetic and grammatical dialectic forms combined with Hebrew lexical units. These linguistic features were systematic in their essence, so that Judeo-Georgian was the verbal manifestation of ethnolinguistic cognition, the language in which specific ethnic identity was to be expressed.
Hebrew, which centuries ago lost most of its communicative value in Georgia, has nevertheless retained something of its symbolic value. The linguistic identity of Georgian Jews was inseparable from their religious identity, since the Hebraisms preserved in the prayers and customs of the Georgian Jews were the primary markers of their linguistic identity.
Judeo-Georgian varied considerably in various situations. For instance:
1. In official/formal communication the upper-middle class would use standard Georgian.
2. Everyday speech was based on the dialect of the region they inhabited but contained specific phonetic, grammatical, and lexical forms as well (as will be discussed below).
3. As far as religious and tradition-related topics are concerned, the Jews used a kind of Georgian-Jewish mix, in which even Hebrew words had Georgian grammatical markers.
It is an undeniable fact that the Jews used a large number of Hebraisms to denote their traditions and religious customs. Hebrew had maintained its symbolic value and was used in prayers and religious rituals.
Generally speaking, lexical borrowings penetrate any language much more easily than phonetic and morphological ones. The history of Georgian-Jewish linguistic contact provides a clear example. The Jews of Georgia had an oral translation of the Torah that was transmitted by the rabbis from generation to generation. This translation, the so-called Tavsili, must have originated in the 11th–12th centuries by Georgian Jews.
Tavsili is a Georgian cognate of the Arabic term tafsir, the term used in the 10th century by Saadia Gaon for his translation of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) into Judeo-Arabic. In the 8th–11th centuries Georgia was invaded by Arabs and, consequently, Georgian Jews had close contact with Arabic-speaking Jews. The linguistic analysis of the Tasvsili shows that it was written in a combination of old Georgian, vernacular Judeo-Georgian, and Hebrew. As a matter of fact, almost all phonetic, grammatical, and lexical peculiarities of the old Georgian language and Judeo-Georgian speech can be found in the Tavsili. In addition to the instances of direct translation of Hebrew phrases, the Tavsili also includes many Hebrew loanwords, which is rare in translations of Hebrew texts. For instance: nederi (Hebrew נדר) ‘pledge’ (in Judaism, a neder is a declaration, using the name of God, of the acceptance of a self-imposed pledge); bexori (Hebrew בכור bəḵōr) ‘firstborn (son).’ Nominal sentences, uncommon in standard Georgian, are found in abundance in the Tavsili.
Phonetic and Grammatical Variation
Judeo-Georgian speech varies according to region. Along the borders of Samegrelo it was influenced by different factors than in Adjara, Samtskhe-Javakheti, Shida Kartli, or urban zones. For example, such words as dagenacvle/degenacvle (untranslatable word of endearment; lit. ‘may I be your substitute’ as a ‘victim’ of some misfortune) and k’lavs/k’lams ‘kills’ are frequently used in the Georgian spoken by Jews in Western Georgia, where da is assimilated into de and av into am. The term dagenacvle/degenacvle is used exclusively by Jews. Non-Jews would say genacvale, which is common in standard Georgian as well as in dialects. It should be noted that dagenacvle/degenacvle is defined as a colloquialism in the explanatory dictionary of the Georgian language. At the beginning of the 20th century dagenacvle could be found in the speech of non-Jewish Georgian (especially Imeretian) fictional characters/protagonists; see, for instance, Davit Kldiashvili’s stories in Samanishvili’s Step-Mother; Solomon Morbeladze, The Misfortunes of Kamushadze. Yet since the 1940s it can be found only in Jewish Georgian speech. Therefore, it can be considered an archaic feature. In addition, in some cases phonetic-grammatical processes confirmed in Judeo-Georgian speech differ from local dialect forms and are characteristic of the dialects of other regions. These cases can be described as ‘migrated/displaced dialectalism,’ resulting in a situation in which disparate Jewish communities within a language territory speak more like each other than like their non-Jewish neighbors, or in which features from one region are used in a different region.
The intonation of Judeo-Georgian uses elements of standard Georgian, on the one hand, and those of local dialects, on the other, and at the same time differs from both of them depending on the situation and social milieu.
Since Jews lived in almost every part of Georgia, their pronunciation was influenced by standard Georgian intonation as well as the intonation of the Kartvelian languages and dialects.
It should also be noted that the intonation of Judeo-Georgian can only be observed in everyday informal communication. In formal communication Georgian Jews are inclined to use standard Georgian intonation.
All the phonological, grammatical, and lexical processes that were characteristic of Judeo-Georgian speech took place against this specific intonational background. However, we should also note that intonation varied depending on geographical location, and the peculiarities of the pronunciation of the Jews was generally observed by the locals only. For example, inhabitants of Kutaisi could distinguish between the intonation of Jewish and non-Jewish Kutaisi speech while non-Jews from other regions were unable to do so. Intonational peculiarities of Judeo-Georgian speech are most clearly expressed in interrogative sentences, less clearly in declarative sentences, and least of all in imperative ones.
Syntax and Pragmatics
Jewish speakers mainly use syntactic constructions characteristic of the dialect they speak, i.e., the syntactic order of their constructions is almost identical to those used by non-Jewish speakers of the relevant Georgian dialect, with few exceptions.
Lexical peculiarities of Jewish speech can be divided into two overarching categories. The first one, consisting of Georgian lexical units, can be further subdivided into several subgroups:
Semantic differences: Georgian words used with different meanings by Jews. For example, jamaati means ‘a mass gathering/crowd’ in Georgian, while in Judeo-Georgian it is used to denote ‘a minyan’ (the number of men necessary for prayer, at least ten), but it can also be used as a collective noun denoting all the persons praying taken together.
Frequency: Georgian words used more frequently by Jews than by non-Jews: damadlianda ‘was blessed,’ danatrebulia ‘is longing for/is missing,’ damdƔevnebulia ‘too old-aged.’
Words/terms with special relevance for Jews, such as toponyms: uriatubani ‘Jewish neighborhood,’ uriak’ari ‘Jew’s gate,’ locvisk’ari ‘synagogue entrance,’ etc.
Folk etymology: toponyms associated with Jews or Hebrew through folk etymology: Zanavi, alleged to be from Hebrew זנב zanav ‘tail;’ Lailaši, popularly linked to Hebrew לילה laila ‘night.’
The second group of lexical differences consists of borrowings from Hebrew and consists of two large subgroups:
Hebrew (or Aramaic) vocabulary used with its original meaning and rarely acquiring a new one; for instance: xupa ‘huppah, a wedding canopy raised upon four posts, which represents the temporary wedding tent of ancient times’ (cf. Hebrew חופה ḥuppa); xaxami ‘rabbi’ (cf. Hebrew חכם ḥaxam ‘wise(man)’), pesaxi ‘Pesach, Passover’ (cf. Hebrew פסח pesaḥ ‘Passover), etc.
Words that have been transformed. This group can be further subdivided into several subgroups:
Phonetic transformations: for example, maca (Hebrew מצה maṣṣa) ‘matzah, i.e., unleavened flatbread that forms an integral element of the Passover festival,’ ketuba (Hebrew כתובה ktuva) ‘marriage contract’ > ‘marriage.’
Morphological transformations: for example, coanimebi ‘priests’: the plural form of the Hebrew word כהן kohen ‘priest’ (Judeo-Georgian singular coen) is כהנים kohanim, but Georgian Jews mark it with a redundant plural, adding the Georgian plural suffix eb to the already-plural Hebrew form. The same can be said of the term אגורה agora denoting ‘the smallest monetary unit of Israeli currency’—its plural form is אגורות agorot, but Georgian Jews use a double plural in this case as well: agorotebi. It is interesting to note that sometimes a new singular form is derived from it, i.e., agoroti.
Semantic transformations: for instance, zaq̣eni in the speech of Georgian Jews means ‘bad,’ in contrast to Hebrew זקן zaq̣eni ‘old-aged.’ Georgian Jews call the elevated platform used for Torah reading during synagogue services teva, while the word bema or bimah (cf. Hebrew בימה) is used in other Jewish communities.
The meaning of some Hebraisms was known to the population of other ethnic groups living in Jewish neighborhoods due to their frequent use.
Jewish Names and Surnames
Another identity marker of Georgian Jews is their personal names and surnames, which make up a special stratum in the Judeo-Georgian vocabulary system. This segment of the vocabulary, with its abundance of diverse forms and specific semantic and grammatical structures, is a very interesting object of inquiry for linguistic analysis.
The Jews who lived in Georgia were frequently given first names that were widely known in Georgia. They also had Hebrew names for Jewish ritual participation that were only known to family members. Before that, and in some cases even in the last decade of the previous century, they were given biblical names, e.g., Moshe, Isaac (Itskhak), Shamuel, Rebecca, Abraham, Aaron, Sarah, Fani (Hebrew פני), etc.
In some cases, both Georgian Jews and non-Jewish Georgians were given biblical names. As a rule, Jews were given names common in the Torah, while non-Jews used names common in the Old as well as in the New Testament. In such cases, non-Jews preferred Greek forms (Isaac, Moses, Samoel, etc.), while Jews used Hebrew versions (Itskhak, Shemuel/Shamuel, Iakob, Bachibaki, etc.) for self-identification purposes.
Jargon and Slang
The main occupation of Georgian Jews was petty trade. Over time the Jews had adopted their own secret trading language. This language was widely used by Jewish merchants at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. It penetrated the everyday speech of the Jews, and some words from this jargon were used by a narrow circle of non-Jewish Georgians. This professional jargon of Georgian Jews did not disappear without leaving traces; its vocabulary can be found today in everyday/colloquial Georgian speech, especially urban slang. Examples include ga-a-suxar-a (Hebrew סוחר) ‘sold it,’ dalal-i (Hebrew דלאל) ‘dealer,’ naša ‘girl’ (cf. Aramaic נשא nǝša), goimi ‘non-Jew’ (cf. Hebrew גוי goy), ksiva ‘letter’ (cf. Hebrew כתיבה kǝtiva ‘writing’), and baiti ‘house’ (cf. Hebrew בית bayit).
During the long period when Hebrew was not used as a ‘normal’ vernacular, religion provided a sheltering home for it. The frequency of the use of Hebraisms by Georgian Jews is proportional to their religiosity. This seems natural since they still pray in Hebrew in the synagogue. If Hebraisms used in everyday interaction were understandable for non-Jews living in a Jewish neighborhood, narrow religious terminology was used only for religious purposes and was generally understandable only for Jews.
The majority of Jews in Georgia were illiterate until the early 20th century. During the Soviet period (1921–1991), Russian became the dominant language in the country. From the 1960s onward, Georgian Jews were educated mostly in Russian high schools in Georgia, and they continued their studies at Russian institutions of higher education in Russia. In addition, the high social prestige accorded Russian encouraged them to use as many Russicims as possible to showcase their level of education. Many Jews studied medicine in Russia: Russian medical schools were more prestigious than those in Georgia. The use of Russicisms in their speech indicated their Russian medical education, a guarantee of reliability and high professionalism for patients. Almost all Ashkenazi Jews in Georgia spoke Russian as their first language.
Educated Jews became integrated into the Georgian community. They tried to overcome the strangeness of their pronunciation. Although most were unable to get rid of their accent and intonation peculiarities completely, it gradually became less noticeable to the majority of the non-Jewish population. They also tried to avoid using distinctive grammatical and lexical forms. Representatives of this social group sometimes tried to use Georgian equivalents to convey Hebrew religious notions shared by all Jews living in Georgia. For example, they use the Georgian word aƔdgoma ‘Easter,’ instead of the Hebrew paseki ‘the Pesach/Passover,’ the Georgian jvrisc’era ‘Christian marriage’ instead of the Hebrew huppah, etc. These examples indicate the difficult situation of the Jews employed in public services under the Soviet regime, since they were forced to observe their religious practices covertly.
Current Situation and Problems
It should be noted that the linguistic phenomena discussed above were prevalent in Judeo-Georgian until the 1990s. In the 1970s and later in the 1990s, the vast majority of the Jewish community (approximately 80,000) migrated to Israel. Georgian Jewry is also represented in New York, Moscow, Vienna, Antwerp, and other cities. The small communities remaining in Georgia, mostly in Kutaisi, Tbilisi, Gori, Poti, and Batumi, are losing specific elements of Judeo-Georgian speech under the influence of standard Georgian, which poses a serious threat to their transmission to the next generation.
As we have seen, the Jewish community of Georgia is distinguished by its long history. The centuries-long story of the Jews in Georgia can be assessed as an extended and successful coexistence of an ethnolinguistic and religious minority with the dominant indigenous population. The analysis of the existing databases confirms that the linguistic identity of Georgian Jewry was tightly intertwined with their religious identity.
On the basis of the above, it can be concluded that Georgian Jewry never lost its mother tongue completely and that Hebrew always retained its symbolic function. The use of Hebraisms was one of the key identity markers of the Jews scattered over all parts of Georgia. As for the phonetic, grammatical, and prosodic features used by Jews, they varied to different degrees from one region to another, but there were also some linguistic features shared by all regional speech varieties. Thus, the variety of the Georgian language spoken by Georgian Jewry can be said to be one of the key markers of their ethnolinguistic identity.
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