Research - Kartvelo-Sumerian


Exactly 70 years after the seminal book of Henry Frankfort's… (Archaeology and the Sumerian Question, A.M.), it may be worthwhile to see what remains, what new evidence has turned up in the meantime, and, in particular, to ask whether we are any closer to a solution of the Sumerian problem... arguments have changed but … we are still far away from an answer (Nissen 2002, 13).

This is the reason why one of the objectives of the Center for Research of Kartvelian Civilization is to demonstrate the validity of the Sumero-Kartvelian genetic relations as well as cooperate with scholars and help them obtain necessary Kartvelian material for their studies. 

Sumerian – Still Unresolved
Our knowledge of Sumerian phonology is still deficient after over 200 years of scholarly attainment and dedication of a number of scholars to the investigation of even such basic phonetic (or phonological) issues as the number and type of phonemes in the Sumerian language. Understandably, we are far away from the correct reading, understanding, and reconstruction of Sumerian phonology. The latter based on the sound system of Semitic Akkadian, whose "…vocalism was itself reconstructed (in the 14th century) by mechanically transferring Arabic vowels into Akkadian texts" (Diakonoff 1955), can be anything but faultless. Hence, scholars’ assumptions indicate that "Sumerian phonetics and phonology were much more complicated than what may have been thought reading Akkadicizing transcriptions of Sumerian texts" (Ibid.). 

S. Kramer, a renowned American Sumerologist, noted the same being true of the consonantal system of Sumerian: "There is notrustworthy translation available for many of them (literary compositions, A.M.), especially those written in a phonetic rather than in the historical orthography, which makes even word-division uncertain, let alone meaning and interpretation" (Kramer 1971, 208; emphasis added). It is precisely the phonetic orthography of Sumerian that abounds in striking similarities with the Kartvelian sound system. It is symptomatic that more than 70 years ago M. Tsereteli, a well-known Georgian Orientalist, put in words what I feel reading the transliterations of Sumerian and Akkadian literature today: 

"…and it is amazing, if one takes an Assyrian syllabary, the Sumerian phonetic equivalents of cuneiform signs are like Georgian words." Or, "…the more the character of Sumerian was being discovered, the more it looked like Kartuli" (Tsereteli 1912, 70-71; emphasis added). 

Sumero-Kartvelian – Problem of Relationship
The problem of contacts between the Sumerian and Kartvelian languages is a part of the long-neglected Kheto-Iberian theory recognizing genetic contacts of the Kartvels with the people of Mesopotamia, Asia Minor, and the Iberian Peninsula. Current studies along these lines are, therefore, a revival of the old hypothesis rather than a completely new concept. Possible Sumero-Kartvelian genetic ties have been under scholarly focus with varying degrees of intensity ever since Assyriology appeared as a field of study. Views that have been expressed on the subject both by foreign and Kartvelian experts can roughly be summarized as follows:

  • Kartvelian and Sumerian are not connected genetically.
  • Sumero-Kartvelian affinities are pointed out without any definite conclusion as to their genetic relations.
  • Kartvelian and Sumerian are genetically connected.

The first view is shared by virtually all the leading American, British, German and Russian schools of Oriental Studies. Their attitude is well reflected in Stephen Langdon’s words pronounced more than half a century ago: “I have no theory concerning the linguistic affinities of this remarkable people. As a negative result of my studies, I am convinced that it has no affinity with either theCaucasian, Aryan or Semitic groups. This side of the problem has not occupied my attention as the futility of such efforts is at once apparent” (Langdon 1911, II; emphasis added). 

A number of scholars, whom I have had the good fortune of meeting and talking to at various academic gatherings, display the same attitude of mistrust and suspicion. These exchanges of ideas clearly demonstrate not only scholars’ strong belief in the futility of the Sumero-Kartvelian hypothesis but also an absolute lack of interest in the approach. For me, it is very painful to hear polite attempts to avoid any further conversation on the topic to say nothing of the feeling of estrangement and alienation I almost always feel and am left with, after the failure of my attempts to bring up the topic. 

Nevertheless, it is my stance that such a prejudiced attitude of researchers is temporary as it is primarily caused by lack of knowledge of the Kartvelian languages. The instances of Sumero-Kartvelian identity that the Kartvelian language evidence reveals to me, says nothing to most scholars. M. Tsereteli, a Georgian Orientalist, speaks of the same reason that had led earlier academics to abandon any views on the genetic contacts between Kartvelian and the dead languages of the past. Consider: "…the hypothesis on Kartuli and Sumerian affinities contains the truth. If Assyriologists have failed to prove this so far, is accounted for by lack of knowledge of the Kartuli language" (Tsereteli 1912, 50; also, pp. 29, 47; emphasis added).

Another no less significant reason for neglecting the Kartvelian languages in Near Eastern Studies is their exceedingly complex nature which, without exaggeration, makes them the most difficult languages to master (Meskhi,, ED468601). Various phonetic, grammatical, and lexical difficulties become insurmountable barriers in mastering Kartvelian, a fact, which not surprising, may kill scholars’ endeavors at the very start.

In this regard, one would think that Georgian academics are fortunate to have a unique opportunity to carry out research along the mentioned lines. Unfortunately, with a few exceptions (see further) Georgian scholars have failed to pursue their investigation in the field. Even worse, the efforts of others have been/are characterized as renderings of the desire for a fact, and/or their works are attributed to the sphere of imagination or fiction. Not infrequently, the authors have even been irresponsibly labeled with names totally unacceptable for academic ethics. 

Despite the described negative attitude towards the mentioned field, the fact remains: language affinities between the Kartvelian and Sumerian languages do exist. They embrace all language subsystems: vocabulary, phraseological expressions, grammar, and sounds.1 Once these similarities are exposed, explained, and even deciphered, scholars, I believe, will take more interest in the forgotten Kheto-Iberian theory and will incorporate the Kartvelian languages and culture in future studies of pre-history. Therefore, until Sumero-Kartvelian similarities are accounted for and the troublesome questions they raise receive definitive positive or negative answers, scholars will keep going back to the issue.

The number of scholars who share the second view and point to the existing affinities between the Kartvelian and Sumerian languages is quite significant: V. Bardavelidze (ethnology), J. Sharashenidze (history), H. Fähenrich (linguistics), Z. Kiknadze (folklore), and others. Clearly, the variety of fields offering evidence for Sumero-Kartvelian contacts is quite impressive; a fact that once again underlines the significance of investigating Sumerian material in conjunction with Kartvelian. 

Contrary to the first two groups, the third view brings together earlier and modern scholars: Bork, Zommer, Vaidner, Huising, Karst, Blaihstainer, Lenormant, Jensen, Hommel, Sayce, Marr, Meshchaninov, Kramarzh, Tsereteli, Svanidze, Bakradze, Janashvili, Janashia, Javakhishvili, Gabashvili, Intskirveli, Mikeladze, Eristavi, Kapianidze, Mibchuani, Meskhi, to name a few. Viewing Sumero-Kartvelian genetic ties as an undoubted fact, these scholars take different perspectives on the issue.

For M. Tsereteli, A. Svanidze, Kramarzh and A. Meskhi, genetic affinities between the Kartvelian and Sumerian are obvious. Similarities cover a whole range of the language system from phonetics to syntax. M. Tsereteli’s short Sumero-Kartvelian dictionary attached to his work, Sumeruli and Kartuli, provides over 104 similar vocabulary items in addition to the analysis of various grammatical categories. A. Svanidze, T. Mibchuani and R. Gabashvili add a number of divinity and person names that have exact and/or similar correspondences in Kartvelian (Svanidze 1936, 39-41; Mibchuani 1989, 89-98; Gabashvili 2000, 18-19). 

Dr. Meskhi’s research confirms the existence of phonetic, grammatical, lexical, and phrasal identities along with more unexpected similarities between Kartvelian writing signs and representations of Sumerian symbols. Moreover, she demonstrates that transliterations of Sumerian and Akkadian clay tablets reveal numerous instances of distorted renditions of Kartvelian words; a fact that can ultimately help to more precisely determine the phonetic system of Sumerian. 

Dr. R. Gordeziani thinks that Sumerian and Kartvelian represent divergent developments of the same language spoken by people who inhabited southeast Anatolia, Chatal Huyuk (Çatal Höyuk), and who migrated in two different directions: one group went to Mesopotamia and gave rise to Sumerian, while the other went to the Caucasus and settled there (Gordeziani 1985, 40). Paraphrasing the author, the Kartvelian and Sumerian languages represent two branches of a common Anatolian source language. 

Be it as it may, the advancement of the view on Kartvelian genetic ties with Sumerian was a significant step. It put the Sumero-Kartvelian issue on the agenda of Assyriological studies and acknowledged the necessity and usefulness of the introduction of Kartvelian evidence in pre-historic researches (Svanidze 1936, 5).