Fähnrich’s recent book on Georgian   1 comment

While (Old) Georgian is generally thought of as one of the big six languages of eastern Christianity — considered, that is, apart from Greek and Old Church Slavonic — it seems to have fewer researchers than the other five languages: Arabic, Armenian, Coptic, Gǝʿǝz, and Syriac. Those of the Semitic family have a long history of research in Europe from the 16th century on and knowledge of one naturally builds toward knowledge of another. Athanasius Kircher and others before and after him worked on Coptic, the study of which was rejuvenated in the mid-20th century with the discovery of the Nag Hammadi codices (in quite a more lasting way, we can be sure, than that due to the recent hullabaloo-accompanied discussion of the so-called Gospel of Jesus’ Wife). Armenian, while still a language and a tradition apart, is nevertheless an Indo-European language and so not really so foreign linguistically as it may seem to most American and European scholars. But, compared with these languages, Georgian stands furthest away, both for its linguistic uniqueness and perhaps for the distinct Caucasian stamp it shares with Armenian. Scholars writing in Georgian and in Russian have published extensively on the language and its literature, but aspiring students who can’t read those languages have much less to work with. That which is available in the commonly read European languages is mostly in French and German (some of which was translated from Russian or Georgian), and only recently has anything appeared in English.

Map of Georgia from Marr-Brière

It is well known that Lord Byron had a strong interest in Georgia and its culture. More substantively in the 18th century, Marie-Félicité Brosset (1802-1880) wrote Éléments de la langue géorgienne (1837), a grammatical guide giving attention both to the literary language and the “vulgaire,” including some reading exercises at the end, only one of which might be surely classified as Old Georgian: The Martyrdom of David and Constantine (pp. 268-283); it has the text in Georgian, Brosset’s (now idiosyncratic) transliteration, literal phrase-by-phrase or word-by-word French translation, and a more fluid French translation. More recently came Zorrell’s brief (handwritten!) grammar for reading the Georgian version of the Bible and then N. Marr and M. Brière, La langue géorgienne (Paris, 1931), at the end of which are reading selections in all three scripts (the majority being in mxedruli). The author of the tome considered in this post, Heinz Fähnrich — see on him auf Deutsch here, and in Georgian here; at the latter is a picture of him with renowned Georgian scholar Ak’ak’i Šaniże (1887-1987; see here, very brief, in English and more here in Georgian) — earlier penned a 100-page survey of the language in English (mostly made up of paradigms), and in English we also have the recent, short treatment by Kevin Tuite. Longer than the latter, but still very compendious (and in German), is the little book by R. Zwolanek, with J. Assfalg’s assistance. (See the bibliography below.) This is decidedly not a complete list of grammars for Old Georgian, but it suffices to show the context into which Fähnrich’s new work comes.

This new book is hardly the first grammatical work by Fähnrich on Georgian, even in addition to the translation of Šaniże’s grammar and Fähnrich’s survey in English (see the bibliography below); these works are not closely compared with the new book here. That book appeared in 2011 (or 2012, see below) in Brill’s Handbuch der Orientalistik series. Including bibliography and index, it finishes at 856 pages. The book treats Old and later Georgian separately (15-498 and 511-828), but there is a handy discussion of main differences between the two at pp. 499-510. Most of what I have to say here has to do only with the part on Old Georgian; I studied the second half of the book in much less detail. There is some confusion concerning the book’s publication details: the copyright date in the copy I studied is 2012 (also on the title page), but the ISBN there leads one to an Introduction to Altaic Philology (2010)! The ISBN on the back cover of my copy leads one to the correct book, it seems, but the stated publication date for that one is 2011, and in any case, that is the only appropriate volume that comes up when you look at the author’s books at Brill’s site. Not surprisingly, the cost is exceedingly prohibitive: €217/$298 from Brill, and used copies available through AbeBooks are only moderately cheaper.


Now, I point out the book’s strengths. Such judgements are, of course, at least partly subjective, but even so they will serve to give a more precise idea of the book than one might glean from the blurb of a bookseller.

At the outset, it is worth stressing that, while the majority of the book really is a presentation of the linguistic behavior of Georgian (i.e. a grammar), it is not exclusively so. The macrosection called “Lexik,” which covers “Bedeutungsänderungen,” “Normierung von Lautformen,” “Homonyme,” “Synonyme,” “Fachwortschatz und wissenschaftliche Terminologie,” “Wortgut kartwelischer Herkunft” (classified topically), and “Lehnwörter” (classified by origin), is the most interesting. We might justifiably ask whether such a section belongs properly to grammar stricto sensu — I think not, but it is well to recall that the book’s title lacks Grammatik! — but at the same time, its interest is almost undeniable. I wish more lexica included sections like these, and easily navigable. (Cf. R.M.W. Dixon, Basic Linguistic Theory, vol. 1, ch. 8.)

Another not strictly grammatical topic, but one especially important for a non-current literary language, that Fähnrich covers is the corpus, i.e. Old (15-46) and later (514-528) Georgian literature. While serviceable as surveys, these sections would be all the stronger with full references to editions and at least a few textual and literary studies, where they exist.

The fact that the book covers both Old and Modern Georgian in one volume will be appreciated by some linguists, both Kartvelologists and others, and especially worth highlighting here is the aforementioned concluding part of the first main part of the book: “Veränderungen vom Alt- zum Neugeorgischen” (499-510).


I turn now to some complaints I have about the book. One of the biggest problems with the book is that the sources of text citations are not given. Those from the Bible might be easily identified, but not so with the rest of Georgian literature! Supplied references would be of use not only to those who want to check the further context of a particular word form or syntactic usage, but also to those who are struck by the content itself of an example sentence and who wish to see more. Supplied references also confirm without a doubt the genuine existence this or that form, that it is not a mere contrivance of a grammarian.

A quibble: Why is the section “Stammwechsel bei Verben” (370-371) classed under syntax? This is simply suppletion, and not really a feature of syntax, even though it may the case that “[i]n der altgeorgischen Sprache sind Morphologie und Syntax eng miteinander verflochten” (328). (Whether this is really more characteristic of Georgian than other languages is another question.) While a language’s grammar (understood in the fullest sense) is in fact “an integrated system” (cf. § 1.8 in Dixon, Basic Linguistic Theory, vol. 1) — sections on “morphosyntax” that are sometimes found in grammars bear some witness to this recognition — and so suppletion touches aspects of both morphology and of syntax, in a work ranged according to that traditional tripartite structure of phonology, morphology, and syntax, which Fähnrich’s is, questions of “Stammwechsel bei Verben” are to my mind misplaced if they appear under syntax.

Some long spans of the book consist almost entirely of paradigm after paradigm after paradigm. We expect this in books with titles like 501 [insert language adjective here] Verbs or [Language] Grammatical Tables, but in a bald form such as here it is not an advantageous characteristic of linguistic description. (The same criticism might be raised against Fähnrich’s English survey of Old Georgian.) These paradigms will, to be sure, find some occasional use by certain users in certain circumstances, but more description and explanation, less enumeration, would have better made up what purports to be a fairly comprehensive guide to Georgian as a language.

As for the arrangement of the book, in rather non-Teutonic fashion, sections are not numbered and subnumbered ad nauseam. While we may appreciate not being brought ad nauseam, some demarcation and clear marking of divisions with an easy system of reference would certainly have made the book more navigable.

The typography of individual letters, words, and lines (in German or in Georgian) leaves little to be desired, but the same cannot be said for the mise-en-page. There is almost no space in the margins, which not only makes the reading experience itself less pleasant, but also leaves little room for notes (only 1/2 inch outer margins). Indeed, a quick glance at one of this volume’s pages reminds one unfortunately of a document produced using the default settings of Word! (With which contrast the default for a document in LaTeX!) In addition, straight (rather than curved) quotation marks are used, which lends an overall cheap appearance to the book, something hardly appropriate for a book the personal possession of a hard copy of which will devour a few hundred dollars or euros from one’s bank account!

I praised above the inclusion of the section on lexicon. The part on loanwords includes a few remarks particular to each case that touch on historical or sociolinguistic factors of language contact thought to have been conducive to linguistic influence, and it is classified according to language (or, at least, family) of origin, but Fähnrich does not actually gives the words in those original languages. Perhaps he assumed that scholars familiar with the source languages could come up with the original words easily enough themselves, but such scholars are not the only people who might find the data of interest.

The upshot

The appearance of Fähnrich’s new book is not unwelcome. With the paucity of materials on Georgian available in widely read European languages, we might welcome almost any attention to the language, especially one with the kind of detail given here. But the $300 price tag certainly limits its distribution and therefore its use, scans of the book notwithstanding. From the perspective of Old Georgian, the one from which I am writing here, the book takes its place among the detailed grammars of Šaniże(Schanidse)-Fähnrich and Marr-Brière, but what does it add to what has been available in them for decades? The strengths that I indicated above — and there are probably more — do make the book stand out, but we do not yet have before us a reference grammar of Old Georgian that will stand for decades as the main go-to resource for students and scholars of the language. Such a work must be not only authoritative in analysis and explanation, it must also be comprehensive in linguistic and textual scope, based on clearly defined sources, preferably with examples from those sources clearly indicated, easily navigable, accessible (i.e. widely distributed), and at least relatively affordable (I would say under $150 or so). And it would not be a bad thing for its author, where needful, to break out of the traditional tripartite mold of grammatical presentation mentioned above and well-known to all of us by bowing to linguistic common sense and being well-versed in up-to-date — I acknowledge the constant movement of this adjective and thus the frequent evolution of its meaning! — linguistic theory. Finally, while the great majority of scholars, but not necessarily students, who might be interested in a Georgian reference grammar can work with German, it is, for better or worse, probably the case that this wished-for book will garner broader readership with English than with German. In the meantime, we can spend our efforts studying those easily available Georgian texts — there are some published in Georgia that are unfortunately very hard to find — in CSCO, PO, Le Muséon, and elsewhere, publishing new texts, making translations, and studying the language itself more closely, and as we do we have the aforementioned grammars, including the one here under review, whose author (with Surab Sardshweladse) has also given us a monumental dictionary.

Some amusing or otherwise memorable phrases and sentences, or, the beginnings of The Quotable Old Georgian

There is very often something amusing in the vocabulary, phrases, and sentences taken out of context that one meets in grammars, whether they are intended for pedagogical or reference purposes, and dictionaries.[1] Here listed from the Old Georgian part of Fähnrich’s work are but a few phrases or sentences useful not only for remembering particular grammatical forms, but which will also serve us well at the next cocktail party we attend. Because Fähnrich fails to cite his sources, I cannot easily give them (although the places of some can be guessed), but I do give the page in his book where these occur.

  • მაქსიმიანე ეშმაკთმსახურისა მეფისა ზე “zur Zeit des Königs Maximian des Teufelsdieners” (305)
  • უდაბნოსა ზედა “in der Wüste” (305)
  • ენასა ზედა ეგჳპტურსა “in die ägyptische Sprache” (305)
  • მწიგნობართა თანა და ხუცესთა “mit den Schriftgelehrten und Ältesten” (308)
  • აჰა, ესერა, სიმრავლც მოაწია ჯინჭველთაი! “Siehe, es ist eine Vielzahl von Ameisen gekomen [sic]!” (323)
  • ვაგლახ მონაზონსა ვეცხლისმოყუარესა “Weh dem geldliebenden Mönch!” (323)
  • თურე ვარა ხარ? “Bist du denn ein Esel?” (327)
  • მატლ ვარ და არა კაც “Ein Wurm bin ich und kein Mensch.” (329)
  • და იყო პირსა შინა ჩემსა, ვითარცა თაფლი ტკბილ “Und es war in meinem Mund wie Honig süß.” (329)
  • ეტლები რკინისა იყო მათი “Sie hatten Wagen aus Eisen.” (335)
  • მამით ნუვის ჰხადით “Nennt niemanden Vater!” (341)
  • ავაგენ ატენი სახლნი “Ich habe in Ateni Häuser gebaut.” (365)
  • ეპისკოპოსმან აღმკუეცნა თმანი “Der Bischof beschnitt mir die Haare.” (366)
  • დასაბამად ქმნნა ღნერთმან ცაჲ და ქუეყანაჲ “Am Anfang schuf Gott Himmel und Erde.” (368)


[1] Cf. Ullendorff’s remarks on the curious presences and absences in Armbruster’s English-Amharic Vocabulary (An Amharic Chrestomathy, 5).

Fähnrich, Heinz. Grammatik der altgeorgischen Sprache. Hamburg, 1994.
——–. Kurze Grammatik der georgischen Sprache. Leipzig, 1987.
——–. “Old Georgian.” In Alice C. Harris, ed., The Indigenous Languages of the Caucasus, Vol. 1, The South Caucasian Languages. Delmar, N.Y., 1991. Pp. 129-217.
Marr, N. and M. Brière. La langue géorgienne. Paris, 1931.
Schanidse, A. Altgeorgisches Elementarbuch, 1. Teil, Grammatik der altgeorgischen Sprache. Trans. H. Fähnrich. Staatsüniversität Tbilissi Schriften des Lehrstuhls für Altgeorgische Sprache 24. Tbilisi, 1982.
Sardshweladse, Surab and Heinz Fähnrich. Altgeorgisch-Deutsches Wörterbuch. With the collaboration of Irine Melikishvili and Sopio Sardshweladse. Handbook of Oriental Studies, Section 8, Uralic & Central Asian Studies 12. Leiden and Boston, 2005.
Tuite, Kevin. “Early Georgian.” In Roger D. Woodard, ed., The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the World’s Ancient Languages. Cambridge, 2004. Pp. 967-986.
Zorell, F. Grammatik zur altgeorgischen Bibelübersetzung mit Textproben und Wörterverzeichnis. Scripta Pontificii Instituti Biblici. Rome, 1930.
Zwolanek, Renée. Altgeorgische Kurzgrammatik. With the collaboration of Julius Assfalg. Orbis biblicus et orientalis, Subsidia didactica 2. Freiburg and Göttingen, 1976.


One response to “Fähnrich’s recent book on Georgian

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Indeed, a quick glance at one of this volume’s pages reminds one unfortunately of a document produced using the default settings of Word! (With which contrast the default for a document in LaTeX!) In addition, straight (rather than curved) quotation marks are used, which lends an overall cheap appearance to the book, something hardly appropriate for a book the personal possession of a hard copy of which will devour a few hundred dollars or euros from one’s bank account!

    I have seen this in several recent books from Brill; like you, I get the distinct impression that they are simply printing Word files, at least for books such as these with relatively small audiences. This sort of thing doesn’t bother me at all in spiral-bound texts distributed by the author for printing + postage, of course, but as you say given Brill’s truly astronomical prices you would think that they could pay some attention to readability. They could at the very least hire a designer to spend a day or two creating a few non-hideous Word templates to apply to the manuscripts they receive — it’s the use of the default Word settings that really stings…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: