Thursday, February 21, 2008

Better Know A Georgia, Part Whatever - The Alphabet. Or: Fun weekend films for the whole family.

Hello there. Normally, while apologizing for not actually posting this entry two days ago, as I promised, I would use the clever rhetorical device of giving you "zero" guesses to determine the cause of the delay. However, it occurs to me that you would all likely guess the reason to be that I am lazy and uninterested in your edification. This is not, actually, the correct reason. The correct reason is that I have been without internet for two days as a bunch of partially frozen water particles, none identical to any other, decided to make their way down from the sky at a torrid and sustained pace. But today it is clear (so far), so, without further ado:

Wait! There is an ado! An important BREAKING urgent advertisement-style PIECE OF ADO. Tomorrow, the most important piece of film in the history of cinema is being released, and you are not to come back to this blog until you have taken five or fifteen friends to go see it.

Yes, friends, Be Kind Rewind, the delightful comedy starring Jack Black, Mos Def, and about two seconds of footage worth of giant black and white photographs that I took of old cars unlesstheycutthatpartoutsinceilastsawascreeningalmostayearago, is coming out tomorrow, and I expect you all to go see it, because I have an ENORMOUS profit percentage in my contract as "Additional Production Assistant." So. There's that. And now for our feature presentation (that's a Hollywood term):

The Georgian Alphabet Entry for the G8 Future Volunteer Alternative Handbook
So, this is something I wrote for an informational CD, composed by current volunteers, that gets sent to the NEW batch of volunteers who are still in America (Flee, future volunteers! Flee while you still can! Ha ha! Just kidding! Maybe!). I thought it might be fun to post it here for a few reasons. Foremost, the Georgian language/alphabet is an ancient, historic language/alphabet, but one that almost nobody has ever seen or heard of, because of the relative closedness of the Georgian society, the small number of people who know it (estimated by Wikipedia to be only about 4-5 million, making it approximately the 120th most common language in the world -- with the caveat that it's almost impossible to have accurate numbers for such a ranking), and the fact that this country doesn't have a diaspora that does a lot of college-campus-marching, like Armenia has (there also, sadly, is no Georgian equivalent to System of a Down). So I thought it would be interesting for those of you who read this blog to see a description and an explanation of its alphabet, since, if you read this blog, it's possible that you may come into contact with this alphabet at some point. Perhaps you have received a Georgian-language postcard from me, or perhaps you are planning on VISITING HINT HINT HINT HINT. Or, perhaps you're just interested. Or, perhaps you're an actual Georgian, who has stumbled upon this blog after searching for "pictures of shakira concert," in which case this entry will perhaps have ENGLISH language educational opportunities for you (example: in a chart below, I use the word, "burrrrrrito." This is the proper spelling of this word. All other spellings are wrong.). So, without any further ado (I swear):

The Georgian Alphabet Entry for the G8 Future Volunteer Alternative Handbook

Congratulations on accepting your invitation to serve in Peace Corps Georgia! I am sure that, while you were making your decision, you thought of many benefits to serving in the Peace Corps. “Learning a new language” was probably among the benefits you thought of. It was certainly one of mine. “I will be able to use this new language that I learn, later in life, to great benefit and acclaim from my peers!” you are probably thinking to yourself. You will be tickled and delighted, then, to discover that Georgian is approximately the 120th most widely used language in the world! There are perhaps five people in the entire world, outside the borders of Georgia, who can speak this complex, ancient, and fascinating language! But do not fret, volunteer-to-be; there will be rewards for your seemingly meaningless toil. For instance, I just wrote a bunch of postcards in Georgian to my friends back in America, because I know that they will be very impressed to see something in the mail that they cannot read. “What the hell is this?” they will say, when they receive my postcard. “Did he accidentally sneeze ink? Are these words?” Friends, the Georgian alphabet can be as confusing to look at as a parrot wearing mittens. If you have ventured to find it already, perhaps on the internet, you have already discovered this. If you have not, please consult this chart, before reading on:

Now, now. Put the sharp implements down, and take a deep breath. We will get through this together. You can now probably see why the Armenians say that the Georgian alphabet looks like someone threw a plate of spaghetti against the wall. Some volunteers prefer to say that it looks like “Elvish.” But it’s not as difficult as it looks at first. It just takes practice. It’s much easier, for instance, than remembering the hundreds of different versions of each verb. Stop! Please put the implements down. Thank you. Anyway, you will get to verbs in due time, but it is the opinion of most volunteers here that, language-wise, the most important way you can prepare for your departure is to learn the alphabet. If you learn the alphabet before you get on the plane, you will start your first language lessons at least being able to understand what is being written down by your language instructor, and you’ll have that much more of a head start on learning the actual words. Past the very basics (“gamarjoba,” “nakhvamdis,” “madloba,” etc.), it is very difficult to learn anything about this language when you are not here, being taught by an exceedingly competent teacher (trust us – the language teachers are amazing; you’re in good hands). Buy a language book if you want to, and study as much as you like, but any head start you get with actual words is likely to be minimal. However, I recommend in the strongest possible terms (and most volunteers agree) that you learn the alphabet before you get here. It’s doable, and it will make it easier for everyone to get started.

So – how to learn it? The internet can be a good resource for you, but when I did my research before leaving America, I never had any idea how reliable the information was on the few websites I found. Some of it was contradictory. So, since the alphabet is such an important first step, I have compiled the Absolutely Unassailably Correct Pre-Departure Future Volunteer Alphabet Guide for you, so that you can feel reasonably confident that you are learning what we learned. I do not require your thanks; merely that someone bring me a Taco Bell Burrito in some sort of thermos when you get here from America. Thank you.

Now, then. As you can see from the first chart, the Georgian alphabet is made up of 33 letters. Some of the sounds contained in these 33 letters basically do not exist in English, and some of them sound exactly the same as other sounds, to our ears, but are in fact different. Differentiating sounds, and being able to identify the proper letter when you hear sounds that are not in English, will end up being a much more difficult task for you than just memorizing which squiggles correspond to the sounds you CAN hear. It is still hard for volunteers who have been here a long time. I will do my best to explain these sounds for you, but it will take arriving in-country for you to really grapple with them. Let’s start with an alphabet chart, and then parse it further from there:

One thing that does make learning the alphabet easier is the fact that the sounds never change with context, like they do in English. There aren’t several different sounds represented by the letter for “a” – there’s just one, so all you have to do is learn the sound for each letter, and it will always sound like that. This frees your brain to try to recognize the letters that sound, to English speakers, exactly the same. But we’ll get to those in a minute. First, the easy ones. These 16 letters have English equivalents; except, as I mentioned, each letter has only one sound that never changes. This chart tells you which English sound is used for the equivalent letter in Georgian:

Of these, all are very commonly used except for the last two; “j” is used infrequently, except in the word “gamarjoba,” and “h” almost never, except in the word, “ho.” This is fortunate, because they can be difficult to write.

Next, there are five letters that do not have an EXACT equivalent in English, but are either pretty close, or combine a two-letter sound that we DO have in English. These are also easy letters:

Of these letters, the letter “zh” is not used particularly often, but the others are very common.

Finally, we come to the twelve letters that will be the most difficult for you to learn. These twelve letters consist of six sounds in English, each with two variations that will be very, very difficult for you to hear at first. It will get easier for you to sometimes hear the difference between these sounds as you spend more time here, but you will continue to make mistakes, and if you have annoying coworkers, they will laugh and try to get you to make sounds that you cannot (for instance, they LOVE to try to get volunteers to say “bakh’akh’i,” which means frog, and twice uses what is generally considered to be the most difficult sound for Americans to say). When this happens, my best advice is to say the word, “faith,” which combines three sounds that don’t exist in Georgian, and are thus just as hard for them as “bakh’akh’i” will be for you. Ha ha! Cultural exchange is fun.

The easiest way to think about these sounds is in pairs of letters, one with a “soft” sound, and one with a “hard” sound. The soft sound is closer to the way the letter sounds in English; for these sounds, you should be letting air escape your mouth. For the hard sounds (marked here and in many language guides with a ‘), make the same sound as before, but stick your tongue back in the roof of your mouth, and force the sound through it, without letting air come out. A good way to test whether you are saying the sound properly is to put your hand in front of your mouth; if you feel breath, you’re saying the soft sound, and if you don’t, you’re saying the hard sound. Let’s give it a try:

Of these letters, the general consensus is that the most difficult is “kh’,” or the letter that looks like a “y” (I have to describe it, instead of typing it, because you probably don’t have Georgian font drivers installed on your computer yet – find a driver online, if you can). It’s hard enough to say the soft version of this sound, especially when you haven’t had a glass of water in a while, but the hard version can be very, very difficult. The best piece of advice I heard for pronouncing it is to tilt your head back as far as it can go, and look at the ceiling. Then say the soft, “khhhh” version of the sound. That should produce the proper, harder sound.

It will be hard to know if you’re getting the sound right until you’re here, in your language classes; your language teachers will do an excellent job of trying to teach you the sounds, but you still won’t be able to tell them apart in conversation-speed speech for a while. But don’t really worry about it. Georgians will understand you, even when you say the sounds wrong, and to my knowledge there aren’t any extremely embarrassing words that sound exactly like a more innocuous word, only with one sound pair switched. It ends up being mostly a spelling issue; you will NOT be a good speller in Georgia. Just trust me on that one.

So, now that the alphabet is laid out for you, how can you practice it so you know it backwards and forwards once you get here? What I did was to write the letters over and over and over, just like kindergarten all over again. This allows you to start putting sounds with squiggles, and gets you more comfortable with writing the letters more quickly (although don’t try TOO hard with j, t’, ch’, or ts’ – there are handwritten versions that are easier than the typewritten ones). There is also an excellent website that has a small alphabet game, where you are shown either a Georgian or an English letter, and have to select the proper equivalent in the other language. A combination of these techniques, along with any other materials that you find on the internet (although be careful with these, because as I said before, I found a lot of contradictory information online; the sources usually have the alphabet right, but often have differing explanations of the sounds) or that Peace Corps might send you, in whatever way you think works best, will work out fine for you.

So, that’s it! I am sure you will arrive here with the alphabet in the palm of your hand. Eventually, though, you will have to wash that off, and actually learn it. And it isn’t so hard, with practice. Trust me. The time you spend pre-departure on the alphabet is time you don’t have to spend on it here, when you will need every word you learn immediately, in order to be able to communicate at the most basic level with your host family and with people in the community. The Georgian language is a fickle mistress, and you must do your homework if you wish to tame her. Good luck.


Barb & Jim said...

Dan, My husband and I are going to members of G8. I don't know whether to thank you for this article or not. I was already scared of the language. I hope the burrito makes it through customs.


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