US, French and other western political leaders who have expressed sympathy or support for Georgia in its recent conflict with Russia may not be aware of certain linguistic factors which complicate the dispute. Language is often a root of strife in the Caucasus – an area home to 40-50 indigenous tongues.
No other region of comparable size has such a dense collection of ethnic groups, apart from Papua New Guinea and certain parts of the Amazon where jungles are so thick that small but nearby tribes rarely encounter one another. In the Caucasus, big mountains serve the same purpose, offering small ethnicities a natural refuge against more powerful or aggressive ones.
Painstaking research has enabled scholars to divide the Caucasian languages into three broad categories, though hardly any of them are mutually intelligible. Moreover, they seem to be unrelated to any other languages on earth, though a few linguists, in some desperation, have suggested that Georgian has some links with Basque. While the Basque intelligentsia have shown little enthusiasm to embrace this hypothesis, there is even less liking for the Georgian tongue among the immediate neighbours, particularly South Ossetia. Although Georgians and South Ossetians have co-existed in the valley around Tskhinvali for many centuries, the language divide between the two groups is a source of perpetual friction. Both sides claim to have arrived there first. South Ossetians regard it as their country and the home of the Ossetian language, which is related to Farsi (Iranian). The Georgians who live in South Ossetia speak of course Georgian, but until the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1990 both sides had a common lingua franca in Russian.
After 1990 Georgians stopped using Russian and expected the South Ossetians to learn Georgian for the purpose of communication. Here comes the rub: Georgian is one of the most difficult tongues to learn in the world, with a fearsome array of diabolically irregular verbs, ridiculous consonant clusters such as “gvprtskvni,” an archaic base-20 counting system and an alphabet differing from any other on earth. South Ossetians hate learning Georgian just as English schoolchildren would revolt against Chinese. How they envied North Ossetians, who could go on being comfortable in Russian with the Russians who live among them!
Political commentators may not realise to what extent the visceral tug of one’s mother tongue will affect the choice of regional political allegiance. While many ex-Soviet satellite states are relieved to be free of the Russian Bear, South Ossetians, on the other hand, may instinctively wish to assert their national identity and culture through their Indo-European language rather than mingle with surrounding tongues such as Svan, Ubykh, Udi, Tsova-Tush, Bzyb and, yes, Georgian.
by Richard D. Lewis