Georgian is spoken by approximately four million people, mainly in the Republic of Georgia where it is the official language. A significant number of Georgian speakers live in Iran (1,000 to 10,000) and Turkey (40,000). A small number of Georgian speakers live in the United States. Since Russian was the official language of the former Georgia Soviet Socialist Republic, a great number of Georgian speakers are also fluent in Russian.
Georgian is a member of South Caucasian (or Kartvelian) branch of the Caucasian language family which is spoken in the area between the Black and Caspian Seas. It is not demonstrably related to any other language family. There are other subdivisions of the Caucasian family, but the exact division and their membership is debated by researchers. The term "Georgian" is sometimes used as a cover term for all South Caucasian languages. Some scholars maintain that Basque, a language whose affiliation is often hotly debated, is related to Caucasian languages (Ruhlen 1987). Georgian is the most widely spoken Caucasian language.
Georgian is made up of a number of dialects that fall into two major groups: Western and Eastern. Among the Western dialects are what some scholars call mountain dialects. The standard language is based on the Eastern dialects of Kartlian and Kakhetian (Vogt 1971). At least one scholar (Hewitt 1985) claims that standard Georgian is based only on the prestige Kartlian dialect of the capital city Tbilisi.
The variation between the Georgian dialects is reflected at all levels of the language. Some of the dialects are isolated geographically--existing as enclaves in the mountains, for example, Xevsurian, or cut off from other Georgian dialects by other languages (Harris 1984). This explains why the so-called mountain dialects are considered linguistically conservative (Vogt 1971). These dialects, in some cases, retain features of Old Georgian that have been lost in standard Georgian.
Georgian is the only written language among the South Caucasian languages. A unique Georgian alphabet was devised following the country's conversion to Christianity in 337. The script does not differentiate between upper- and lower-case forms and consists of thirty-three characters.
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