Tbilisi Dialect (history and the present)

Literary language is also called a written language by specialists because this term explains better an obligatory link with written tradition of standardized language. And ordinary people (including the literate society as well) often wrongly link the notion of literary language with geographical or urban marker and announce that literary language is close to the speech of a town, mainly capital city. It should be noted that among us, even among the linguists the issue of regarding Tbilisi speech as one Tbilisi dialect or social strata of the town (social dialect) and as to where Tbilisi speech must be placed on dialectological map (or its separate district or separate social group) is rather vague.

In Georgian reality unlike other towns of Georgia, the city of Tbilisi creates different social scheme and this is reflected in speech. This fact has its explanations: historically Tbilisi is Georgia’s political and cultural centre that has been evolved on Georgia’s historical and geographical cross-roads since old times and ethnographical and speech peculiarities of different corners of Georgia were reflected in its life. Although, according to modern thinking urban peculiarities have been acquired since the 19th century when it did not represent the capital of independent Georgian country any more and turned into administrative centre of one of the remote provinces of the Russian empire. Later the status of Tbilisi came to the forefront again.

 Once Tbilisi was even announced the capital city of the short-lived Transcaucasian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic. This created favorable conditions for attraction of the population not only from different parts of Georgia and Transcaucasia but also from the rest neighboring regions of the Soviet Union. In mechanical growth of Tbilisi in the period the Soviet period along with migration processes, a certain role was played by the merge of neighboring small towns and villages to the capital. This by itself did not give opportunity for the urban speech to evolve by one’s own dynamics and constantly connected it with definite types of geographical dialects.

While speaking about city dialect one of the most important issues is the choice of terms. Namely, what terms are convenient for designation of city speech (or urban dialect) and its images. The cities along with common urban features also have their own individual character that causes the difference of social imagery.  Social taste, cultural tradition, specific character of determining bases of economic priorities by elitist circles, widespread branches, cultural level, criminal situation, etc. significantly differ from each other not only the capital cities of various countries but even the cities within a country. Let us take on the one hand, reinforcement of Russian pronunciation  well-expressed in the speech of Tbilisi elitist privileged intelligentsia (diphthongs “with intention of softening”, stress, tendency of Caucasian softening or Europeization and frequent use of Russian vocabulary and phraseology in Georgian speech up to the nineties, or the use of English accent or English inclusions by a new generation of elitist intelligentsia to prove one’s priority since 1992 till present but, on the other hand, the tendency of English or American elitist intelligentsia to prove one’s priority with the knowledge of English or high class identification sign thorough knowledge of official language is considered. In Soviet period in conditions of universal compulsory education the illiteracy did not actually exist, also, as a result of  general educational system and organized managing of mass media from the viewpoint of speech there was not well-pronounced social differentiation of the society and therefore for soviet Tbilisi the number of notable speaking strata was far less than it is today, when social differentiation of the population and tendency of settlement of the city districts by social principle reinforced.

The notion of city speech is associated with the notion of the so-called “common speech” which, on the one hand, looks like geographical dialect as it is unstandardized and, on the other hand, it is similar to functional style as it is socially conditional.

The term ““common speech” itself is not widespread in Georgian perhaps because the term “common” by its content is social rather than the same Russian просторечие or English slang. The Russian просторечие in linguistic encyclopedic dictionary is interpreted as “one of the forms of national language in dialectical, jargon speech and literary language. Together with popular dialects and jargon it constitutes non code sphere of all national speech communication – folk, colloquial language; has super dialectal character. Unlike dialects and jargon просторечие for bearers of national language is universally comprehensible”(cf. Fr. La langue populaire, bas-language, Czech everyday-spoken language”, Italian Dialetto regionale) [Linguistic… 1990]. Other terms are also used, for example, “street language’, “city jargon”, etc. In Thesaurus of Georgian language the term “vulgarism” is used.

The diversity of the speech of town (city) does not yield the multiplicity of geographical dialects of the countries. In Irving Lewis Allen’s solid work it is stated that in the speech of city can be singled out as many speech groups as there is social groups (Allen, 1993].

According to Zakaria Chichinadze during the reign of King Erekle Tbilisi underwent census four times both in households and per head. The data concerning the first census are not available. In 1769 the census was taken in Tbilisi for the second time by Paata Batonishvili (by this censor in 1769 the number of Tbilisi residents made 85 thousand…, but by households – 21 thousand households). The third census was taken in 1780. The census of Kartl-Kakheti-Tfilisi was taken. The census was led by Solomon Leonidze (in Kartli and Tbilisi) and Garsevan Chavchavadze (in Kakheti). The census was needed for the Russian-Georgian Treaty which was concluded between King Erekle and Empress Elizabeth. Georgian Jews in Tbilisi were recorded for the first time[1]. The fourth census conducted David Rektor in 1790 by King Erekle’s order. According to the data of this census the number of Tbilisi residents by that time appeared much less compared with the data of 1780. “During the fourth censor only 72 thousand households appeared in Tbilisi, 8 thousand less than in the old one. David Rektor remarks that the reason for this is that due to frequent wars and attacks the residents migrated from Tbilisi to the villages. In 1790 Tbilisi population was: Georgians - 44 thousand, Armenians - 12 thousand, Jews - 5 thousand, Muslims - 10 thousand and 2-3 thousand others” [Chichinadze, 1917: 8].

Tbilisi of King Erekle’s time was divided into eight parts: 1) Kashveti district or the entire Mtatsminda and its environs; 2)garet district, with Kabakhi in it; 3)Gamjis kari; 4)Avanaant District including also Kala or Sololaki; 5)Avlabar or Isani; 6)Chughuret-Kukia (the boundaries from the east Iasani , from the west beginning of Didube); 7)Vera and 8)Seidabadi[2].

In 1880 Oliver Wardrobe wrote about that time Tbilisi: “The population of Tbilisi makes 101.000. Here reside not only Georgians, but Russians too (civil officers and soldiers, Armenians (traders and money-lenders), Persians, Turks, few Europeans, namely Germans (colonists from Schavabia), French (tailors, hotel owners), etc.” [Wardrope, 2001:37].

Tbilisi as a capital city, almost always represented the centre of inner movement of Georgian population, though in the history of our country there were moments when Tbilisi was “closed” for the rest population, in such moments the function of cultural and economic centre was fulfilled by other town (e.g. Kutaisi, Geguti)… However, Tbilisi along with restoration of its political importance quickly returned the role of a social leader. The growth of the population of urban Tbilisi was especially observable after sovietization when the process of mechanical gain of population was obviously managed from outside (from the Soviet centre).

“Each district of old Tbilisi was mainly populated by people of the same nationality. The Persians, Jews, Armenians and partially the representatives of other nationalities had such quarters. The picture of this traditional settlement existed in the 19th century too. Some of such districts were created just at that time. A great part of Armenian bourgeoisie had settled in the rich quarter Sololaki since the middle of the past century but the poor strata of this nationality resided mainly in Avlabar…. In the eighties of the past century rather large districts of newly settled Georgians appeared on the other side of the railway – in Nadzaladevi[3] [Tetvadze…1989:132]. In the same book there is stated that for the eighties that “closeness” of such nationality based districts weakened because “wavelike” settlements of migrants was unequalled.

Despite this, since the fifties the settlement of the population from Georgian villages and towns mainly occurred in the then Lenin, Gldani, Orjonikidze and Saburtalo districts where 3/5 part of Tbilisi Georgian population resides and 26 Commissars and Worker districts where traditionally Armenians and Russians prevailed, new contingents of these nationalities was added; Georgians reside again in minority there.

Obviously, in the course of time the territory of Tbilisi and number of population (along with national and social composition) significantly changed. The distribution of resident population of Tbilisi according to the languages by the data from 1989 census [Georgian… 1991] is:



Total of resident population

Of them  native language find

Language of own nationality

                                     Language of other nationality



Other language

Total population

1 243 150

1 134 435

39 371

66 695

2 649


 820 753

 816 718


 3 614









  33 138

 18 860

 11 829

  2 339



 124 825

 122 683

  1 986   




  16 086

   6 842


  8 697



   2 148



  1 197



  17 968

  15 128


  1 855



  150 127

 106 485

 15 248

 28 247



   1 328






   6 896


  1 957

  3 991


Georgian Jews

   6 643

   6 118





   2 752      

   1 283





  21 715

  10 280

  2 169

  8 392



  30 299

  22 759

  3 308

  3 819


It should be noted that by 1989 of non Georgians residing in Tbilisi Georgian as a second language was mastered fluently by 43 035 of 124 825 Russians, of 17 968 Azerbaijanians – only 7 330, of 150 127 Armenians – 63 615, of 6 896 Jews – 2 408.

By data of 2009 the  population of Tbilisi made 1 106.700. It is stated that in recent years under the influence of developed events and migration of non Georgian population because of the accumulation of the displaced people the national composition of Tbilisi polulation has been significantly changed. Currently, more than 75% of Tbilisi residents are ethnic Georgians. Tbilisi is characterised with well-expresed everyday  ”commutation” migration. Here from 10 to 30 thousand people arrive for trade, work and education daily. The centre of the city and residential communities are populated most densely (25 thousand men/km2).

According to the data of 1997 by the Ministry of Refugees and Accommodation of Georgia the scheme of displaced persons – refugees – accomodation looks like: Gldani – 14 600; Saburtalo – 14 400; Isani – 11 800; Nadzaladevi – 11200; Didube – 9300; Samgori – 8200; Vake – 7700; Chughureti – 6400; Mtatsminda – 6300; Krtsanisi – 4200 [Gugushvili, 1998: 65]. The heterogeneity of national composition of the population and flows of displaced population moved up to the capital city because of recent political developments give no opportunity for stabilization of lingual situation in the city and makes impossible the ”formation” of the so-called Tbilisi speech. It must be said that in not so distant past the peculiarities of Tbilisi dialect were expressed rather sharply.

Even after acquiring of contemporary urban features Tbilisi remained the centre of development and dissemination of Georgian literary language and personification of prestige, cultural authority of literary language for various regions of Georgia. Though in the course of the whole soviet period the tendency of regarding Tbiliseloba as a social category of a certain prestige that had a tint of communist snobism and for Georgians left beyond Tbilisi set up a barrier of inaccessibility for  belongness to Tbilisi ”elite”. Such self-isolation was in need of a special frame and one of the edges of this frame was also speech. Tbilisi nomenclature elite that utilized in its business activity Russian and literary Georgian, in everyday life addressed ”special speech” by which it emphasized not only its own common urban but intraregional identity and with this separated from other population. What peculiarities can be seen from this viewpoint?

  • Tbilisi was international city during the Rusians domination that was also favored by the fact that Moscow granted Tbilisi the role of political centre in  the Trancaucasus. In 1922 the number of Georgians in Tbilisi was 35.2%. Unlike the representatives of other nations the Armenian population dominated whih made 34.9% [Daushvili, 1997:17]. Non Georgian population fit well to Russian dictate and feared the strengthening of Geogian statehood. That is why great majority of Tbilisi met loyally the Communist coup d'état. It was from them that the the most part of party and administrative workers was staffed in the first years of the Soviet power.

Thus, significant part of the Party nomenclature was not of Georgian orientation by self-consciousness and speech. This featue is to be taken into account while speaking about Tbilisi dialect. Rapid growth of Georgian population in Tbilisi started in the thirties when building of factories and plants was widespread. In the year of 1939 the number of Georgians in Tbilisi was already increased by 44% [Daushvili, 1997:17]. The population of non Georgian orientation and with bad knowledge of Georgian naturally creates such variant of speech which does not look like traditional dialect of Georgian and as far as dialectal speech is also the way of self-identification the representatives of this certain category of Tbilisi residents ”recognise” each other by language.

  • What social group was formed by the residents of Tbilisi from the twenties to the end of the thirties?

1)      The majority of Tbilisi industries belonged to Armenian capitalists: Adelkhanov, Iaralov, Bozarjiants, Empianjants, etc. They hired their coutnrimen willingly in their own enterprises, and that is why in Tbilisi factories (especially in leather-shoes enterprises) Armenian workers dominated. In these enterprises Armenian national and language situation dominated [Daushvili, 1997:131]. In 1939 the number of workers already reached 43.7% in Tbilisi population (226 755 men).

2)      In the middle of the thirties too in Georgia, namely, Tbilisi, quite large groups of workers were illiterate in  a number of labour collectives of enterprises.

3)      In multinational collectives national problem was inevitably arisen: the isue of speaking language. Before the revolution this problem was solved in a simple way: the speaking language in the enterprise usually was the language of majority and the language of official relations was the language of the empire, i.e. Russian. In 1923 the state status of Georgian language was approved and its use in all state and commercial establishments became mandatory. The adopted resolution required Georgian to be operated in all establishments. This was timely and necessary resolution but its realization become to a certain extent difficult. The unsettled state of language issue could become the reason of international conflict. And this really happened [Daushvili, 1997:134].

  • Beyond regional division of Tbilisi social ground were shaped: corruption based communists could not express their material and social priorities in open. Therefore, they satisfy their big financial opportunities through the setllement in central and, hence, historical districts. In these districts as is also seen from the above statistics, they had to live together with non Georgian population that did not speak Georgian and spoke with interference. The privileged  class in order to provide the future of their children needed to finish the Russian schools that also implied intrusion into natural development of Georgian speech;
  • The elite came from the regions to the city set up the task to fit with Tbilisi socium by all means and, so to say, ”started to speak its language”; on this way they were hindered by speech trace brought with them from sound Georgian dialectical enviroment and the absence of language living together with alien ethnos. On the way of elitarization of this category speech the external side of Tbilisi dialect is clearly seen, more easily picked up, and turning into ”urban” the peculiarities brought from the region;
  • On this way inside of the urban population social division happened: those who leave Georgian dialects and directly connect literary Georgian language and those who come from dialects or were born in Tbilisi, then linked with Tbilisi jargon and after this went into literary Georgian. Thus, several social dialects have been fixed in Tbilisi:

It should be mentioned during long time period the gain in Georgian population has been clearly expressed and the number of people speaking Georgian significantly increased. Tbilisi city has become the centre of strengthening Georgian literary language by its political and ideological course and by increasing of Georgian population too.

In Ioseb Grishashvili’s ”Kalakuri Dictionary” (City Vocabulary) one part of the given vocabulary does not represent old urban vocabulary, its significant part (20-25%) is the property of literary Georgian or geographical dialects (e.g. abjari, azizi (ilia), berika, bozbashi, bolta, giauri, gulnamceca, etc.); about 5% is actively used in jargon even today (to, khoshi, chalichi, chautaka, chaijiba, chagazile, shustri, shaakole, kurbani, komarbazi, kamari, ksela, fetiani, sipta, siabandi (=ishkilbaz(ionbaz) damkhmare), poslika, ishta, roshva, jujva, jami (=uSno), pupuz (=sakme gaurigo, mere aighos da pupuz... pirshi chala gamogavlos, etc); probably with the course of time about 10% transfer to literary language (e.g. kachali, kiliki, psoni, petkhumi, sika (=1.ghone, fulis gone; 2.bechedi), nokari, ringi (=feri, saghebavi; 2.zne, chveuleba; 3girseba) [Grishashvili, 1997].

In Levan Bregadze’s ”Georgian Dictionary of Jargon” there are over 600 words which can be heard in the speech of a ”true Tbilisi resident” every day: azrzea, atesa, avarda, audo (Grishashvili also has them), ”ambavshi parivs gcem”, afuilebs, apsikheba, datira, daibrida, daiada, iazvoba, ibairama, tomari gaushva, svoi bichi, svido, svetobs, tufta, fraeri, firma, keshi, kaji, ksiva, shatalo (hang about), shantraba (riffraff, – scroundrel’s group), chereschur, chrez dzma, chkua eketeba, etc. [Bregadze, 1999]. The evaluation of language tendencies with these two dictionaries shows that in the interval between issue of the dictionaries the use of scabrous language and thieves' slang significantly increased.

The characterization of urban speech (in our case, that of Tbilisi) happens best of all in anecdotes in which the vocabulary considered to be most typical vocabulary and expressions are accentuated and it is felt that the emphasis on ”true Tbiliseli” occurs by putting forward the outer features of Avlabari Georgian (we have already spoken on ethno-lingual orientation of Avlabari speech and book traditions).

While dealing with min tendencie of ”colloquial speech” attention should be paid to the orthoepy of colloquial speech. It is true the colloquial speech with peculiarities of its sound approxixmates literary language but it also contains a number of peculiarities that singles it out as a special orthoepic system. It is oral, speaking language. There is more physiological inertia in it and freedom from literary associations. Of these orthoepic peculiarities some characterise many dialects too. However, they are so common and do not contradict the tendencies of literary language. The forms of conversation, speed and discontinuity, reinforce physiologicl inertia of pronunciation. The following belong to them:

  • Simplification of consonents group. E.g., magram, mag/am; vinac/uinats; kargad/karka...
  • Omitting of the consonant: zaan, karga, etc.;
  • Shortening of the syllables: gamaketebina – gamaketina, gauutova –gautova; in prefixes: chakvinta – dayvinta, daubera – gaubera...
  • Dialectal accentuation of literary words. (eh! Evishalot akhla!)
  • Transfer of a sound (biznesmeni/bizmesmeni, reanimatsia/reaminatsia);
  • The change of the meaning of a lexical unit is especially frequent in urban jargon: bnelebi (chamorchenilebi)...
  • The standard of a word is often changed and correspondingly new meaning or nuance of meaning appears: daje (and not: dajeki), chamoeteri (and not: chamoetre, ro (and not:rom), aravize (and not aravisze), jobia (and not:sjobia or umjobesia)...
  • The pronunciation of the foreign words with specific accent is considered as urban feature;
  • Today’s Tbiliseloba also means  to fit the scabrousness;

In the collective works of contemporary authors the claim to be a citizen is felt that is regarded by these authors as a breaking from traditional Georgian reality. They use non-natural forms, try not to use the figurativeness characteristic of dialects and the language of the Georgian classic literature. This can have three reasons: 1) they claim for total isolation from non-urban part of a common state space as a sign of being city dweller;  2) in order to fill themselves  as bearers of urban symptoms, they need to immitate the foreign urban models or imagine themselves as a part of cosmopolitan urbanian space; 3) from the viewpoint of literary schools they belong to modern avant-garde or other trends characterised by emotional emptines, which is obviously reflected language too.

One of the characterisitc feature with contemporaries is a removal of lexical censorship resulting in  striving to the scabrousness; the speech of a positive hero is usually not of positive connotation. The separation of social groups in Georgian reality and lingual characterization has been proceeding fragmentally so far.

[1] It is also mentioned there that ”The jews of that time Tbilisi were rich, as we said, they had two chapels in Tfilisi up to 1794, two caravanserais.. they occupied four streets in Tfilisi, beginning from Fetkhain district up to the Mtkvari. They all were exiled  by Agha Mahammed Khan in 1795. The reason for this violence was that Georgian Jews travelled to Russia for trade too. This situation was percieved by Aha-Mahmed-Khan as hostile.  The Jews hoped that he would not harm them because of their Jewish background  and did not even migrate. After this impudence the number of Jews in Tbilisi abruptly decreased, at the time when Georgian Kingdom joined Russia just 20 Jewish households appered in Tbilisi, and they were poor” [Zakaria Chichinadze, Census of old Tbilisi and number of residents, newspaper Sakartvelo (#153-154), 1917, the article was reprinted in the newspaper ”Georgian Book”, #10, October, 2001, p.8].

[2] According to the workshops and trade spots located in this district we can judge on the arrangement of speech strata of artisans’ social layer (1.Sirage-khana – Avlabar or Isani area at the hill); 2) Jon-khana (leather artisans; hatters); 3) Kharaz-khana – in front of Sioni; 4) Kasab-khana – close to the square; 5)Zarapkhana district).

[3] In the mentioned Book there is indication in relevant references that the name “Nadzaladevi” itself was given to this district because the settled here started without official permission from the city authorities.


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The Armenians in Georgia. Tbilisi, economical and geographical research. Tbilisi.
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15 The Best.....
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Linguistic Encyclopedic Dictionary Moscow.
Allen Irving Lewis
The City in Slang, New York life and Popular Speech. New York, Oxford.