The precious secrets of the Udi language

This is a transcript of a Subtitle podcast episode.

Subtitle is made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

Patrick Cox: When languages fade away — when people stop speaking them — they often take their secrets with them. Some languages though, they fade really slowly. They stick around long enough for us to know what’s unique about them, so we really know the value of what we’re losing. One of those languages is Udi.

Alexander Kavtaradze: My maternal grandmother was Udi.

Patrick Cox: This is a guy by the name of Alexander Kavtaradze.

Alexander Kavtaradze: My maternal grandmother’s uncle was Zinobi Silikashvili.

Patrick Cox: Alex are I sitting on the flat roof of a house in a village in the Republic of Georgia. I don’t how well you know your geography, but we’re in the foothills of the towering Caucasus Mountains. The other side of the mountains, to the north, no more than 10 miles as the crow flies, is Russia. Down a wide river valley east of here is Azerbaijan. Alex’s Great great uncle, Zinobi Silikashvili– everyone today just calls him Zinobi– he was born in 1891 about 120 miles from here in what’s now Azerbaijan but was then part of the Russian Empire. His family was well-off.

Alexander Kavtaradze: They had lots of lands. And they apparently owned several silk factories. Zinobi himself, he went to receive theological education. He came to Georgia, he came to Tbilisi Theological Seminary.

Patrick Cox: You may not have heard of Tbilisi Theological Seminary but back then it was one of the top places in that part of the Russian Empire to get your education. Another student who went there you will have heard of was Iosif Dzhugashvili, aka Joseph Stalin. Back to Zinobi.

Alexander Kavtaradze: In 1920 he returned to his homeland.

Patrick Cox: Only to find his people — the Udi people — caught up in the crossfire between two other ethnic groups.

Alexander Kavtaradze: Even Zinobi’s family– some members of Zinobi’s family were targeted. For example, his father was killed during that period. His uncle who was a priest was burned alive with some other members of the Udi community in one of the houses.

Patrick Cox: Alex says his great great uncle decided that he needed to escape the fighting and bring as many Udis with him as possible. It wasn’t difficult to convince people to leave.

Alexander Kavtaradze: Some Udis thought that the only way to survive was to move somewhere else. And Zinobi led them here and there were around 100 families that initially moved and started building the village, and almost finished the entire village by the end of 1923.

Patrick Cox: This was a time of lawlessness. The Russian Empire had collapsed, the Communist revolution there had led to civil war. Georgia briefly won independence, only to be reoccupied by Russian troops, who forced it to become part of the Soviet Union. When Stalin rose to power a few years later in the mid 1920s, many Georgians were proud that one of their own had risen to the top in Moscow. But he showed no signs of favoritism. During Stalin’s Great Purge of the 1930s, thousands of Georgians were killed on trumped-up charges. Among them, Zinobi.

Alexander Kavtaradze: He was executed by the Soviets in 1938. Tragic story that was shared in our family. My grandmother would often remember this story. She was only a few months old when that happened. But she knew it from her mother and all the siblings.

Patrick Cox: Everyone in this Udi village, they speak of Zinobi as their savior. The man who delivered their ancestors to this safe place, who bankrolled the construction of the houses here, helped get businesses off the ground. And because Zinobi kept the Udis together, he guaranteed the survival of the Udi language. This village, by way, is called Zinobiani. No prizes for guessing why.

Patrick Cox: Today, people visit from all over the world: linguists, historians and other scholars. They come not just to hear about Zinobi, but also about the early history of the Udis– and about their language: an ancient language with its own alphabet that also happens to have a rare and quirky aspect to its grammar. So rare and so quirky, in fact, that Udi may be the only language to have it.

Patrick Cox: From Quiet Juice and the Linguistic Society of America, this is Subtitle: stories about languages and the people who speak them. I’m Patrick Cox, Languages are departing this planet at an unprecedented rate. Like all those near-extinct animals and plants, each of these languages is unique. I don’t know about you, but I feel the need to know about languages before it’s no longer possible to. So in this episode, the story of Udi.

Patrick Cox: One evening in Zinobiani, we pay a visit to Zhenia Mamulashvili. Zhenia is 66. She and her husband greet us in Georgian, the language they use with visitors. When they’re alone they speak Udi. Zhenia is unnecessarily apologetic about her English.

Zhenia Mamulashvili: It was 42 years before. I cannot remember.

Patrick Cox: Zhenia is a grape and hazelnut farmer but in her spare time, she writes poetry, often in Udi. Like this one.

Zhenia Mamulashvili recites a poem in Udi.

Patrick Cox: Most of Zhenia’s poems are personal and heartfelt, and this one’s no exception, though it’s not about someone she knows. It’s about Zinobi, the founder of this village, how the story of what he did for Udi speakers must be passed on to the children here.

Zhenia Mamulashvili: Zinobi is our man, my grandfather.

Thomas Wier: The Udis themselves, their language has been documented since Antiquity.

Patrick Cox: This is Thomas Wier. He’s a linguistics professor who grew up in Texas and now teaches at the Free University of Tbilisi. That’s Georgia’s capital, a good place to study languages. Something like 50 languages are spoken in the Caucasus region. Tom is here in Zinobiani too. He and I took the two-hour ride here with Alex. He’s working with Udi speakers, helping them devise ways to keep people speaking the language.

Thomas Wier: Their language was first written down as far as we can tell in the fourth, fifth centuries AD, after the advent of Christianity.

Patrick Cox: That was one of the languages — or the language — spoken in a kingdom in a part of what’s now Azerbaijan. It was called the Caucasian Albanian kingdom– has nothing to do with modern-day Albania. Sometime around the 8th century, the Caucasian Albanian kingdom and its documents were destroyed. Later on — we don’t know quite when — Udis, without a nation, they stopped using their alphabet. Over the centuries, it became a bit of a myth. People questioned whether the Udis really ever had their own alphabet.

Thomas Wier: But so it was only in the 20th century when a manuscript was discovered on Mount Sinai that proved that they not only had an alphabet, but they used it to write and express their own ideas and thoughts, often of a religious nature.

Patrick Cox: Knowing now that they did once have this writing system, Tom says, is an incredibly useful status symbol for the Udis.

Thomas Wier: Just the fact it does have this ancient written heritage is a very strong talisman of their identity. It’s something that makes them completely unlike the many other but different groups of the Caucasus. Besides Georgian and Armenian, none of the other indigenous languages of the Caucasus were written down with their own alphabet in late Antiquity. So that’s something they can really hold onto.

Patrick Cox: OK, reality check here. Zinobiani is a village of maybe 300 people. People younger than 40 generally don’t speak more than a few words of Udi. There are Udis elsewhere. Some in Russia. A few thousand in Azerbaijan. And increasingly also in Armenia. Remember I mentioned before that the Udis who built Zinobiani were escaping persecution after being caught in the crossfire between other groups? Well those groups were Azeris and Armenians and they have been at loggerheads on and off for hundreds of years, most recently in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. When conflicts break out, the Azeris didn’t trust Udi because they’re Christian, like the Armenians. And the Armenians didn’t trust them because — well, they weren’t Armenian. And the flare-ups, they’re still going on. Recently a group of Udis were deported to Armenia. So, there aren’t many Udi speakers, probably less than 20,000. They’re struggling to pass the language onto the younger generations. And they’re scattered over several countries. So what are Udi-speakers and their supporters doing about that? That’s coming up after the break.

Patrick Cox: Here’s another podcast I love and I think you will too. It’s called The Vocal Fries. And as part of recommending The Vocal Fries to you. I’m going to make an admission. I’m guilty of judging other people’s language. Misplaced apostrophes, use of the word ‘irregardless’, American use of the word ‘entree’ to mean main course. I mean, come on! But as the wise people at The Vocal Fries point out, there’s no point in me or you getting riled up. It’s not going to make anything better. If anything it’ll make things worse. Here’s an example, the thing the podcast is named after: vocal fry, something– for the record– that I have no problem with. But a lot of people do– some people even believe vocal fry harms the vocal cords. It doesn’t. If you want to know more, I tell you, you must listen to The Vocal Fries. In each episode your hosts, linguists Carrie Gillon and Megan Figueroa, take on some aspect or other of speech or language that some people may be repelled by. They find out why the repulsion came into being and– no spoilers– why it’s misplaced. Want to know more about the language of K-pop or dialect coaches or internet memes? Listen to The Vocal Fries at Apple Podcasts or wherever you’re listening to this. And as Carrie and Megan say, Keep Calm and Fry on.

Patrick Cox: During our time in Zinobiani, Alex, the great great nephew of Zinobi, takes Tom, the linguist, and me to meet the village’s oldest living Udi speaker.

Sound of Alex speaking with the woman, Zoia Kakulashvili.

Patrick Cox: We also visit a chapel on a hill above the village.

Patrick Cox: It’s built on foundation stones brought from the Udi community in Azerbaijan that the founders of Zinobiani had fled from. We go to a recently-erected statue of Zinobi. Below is a plaque with his name inscribed not just in Georgian but also in the Caucasian Albanian alphabet.

Patrick Cox: Just when I’m wondering if everyone in Zinobiani is living in the past, I meet Ana.

Ana Patchikashvili: My name is Ana Patchikashvili.

Patrick Cox: OK.

Ana Patchikashvili: Patchikashvili.

Patrick Cox: I can’t say that.

Ana Patchikashvili: It’s really hard even for Georgians.

Patrick Cox: Oh really, that’s a specific Udi sound?

Ana Patchikashvili: Yeah, yeah.

Patrick Cox: Ana didn’t think about history when she was a kid. In fact, she didn’t even know that her grandfather was a migrant from Azerbaijan until after he died. She only started realizing she wasn’t the same as other Georgians after noticing so many foreigners visiting the village.

Ana Patchikashvili: When I saw first Americans and Europeans in Zinobiani, I became interested: “Oh, wow. Why are these people coming here? What’s the reason?” Something in my inner said that it was, uh, important and worth to do something and to think about this. And, you know, then I decided to make some, some things here.

Patrick Cox: Ana started lobbying the Georgian government to invest in the village. It’s in the heart of gorgeous wine country, but you wouldn’t know it. Bad roads, no winery tours, nothing like that. The European Union agreed to kick in some money and now roads are being paved. Ana and her husband have restored and expanded the house that her grandfather had built– and this past summer they opened a guest house in a part of it, serving traditional Udi dishes al fresco.

Patrick Cox: Also this.

Ana Patchikashvili: This is inhalers. Under the inhalers there are beehives.

Patrick Cox: Her guesthouse, Ana says, has Georgia’s first and only apitherapy retreat, where guests can inhale the air of the beehives. Alternative therapy for people with respiratory issues or immune disorders.

Ana Patchikashvili: So you can switch on, and it has five different speeds

Patrick Cox: You may wonder– I did– what bee inhalation therapy has to do with an ancient language in danger of dying out. I think that this and all the other things that are happening in Zinobiani — the visitors, the re-building, the statue of Zinobi, they’ve changed the place. Fewer people are moving away, and some are coming back to live– like Ana. She says attitudes here have changed too.

Ana Patchikashvili: Many years ago when I was a kid, it was kind of shame to say that your Udi. And, you know, we’ve made some kind of discrimination and that also, uh, you know, that also became a reason stop studying, you know. And now it’s becoming more and more popular. I think so. Because people also want to be involved in kind of activities. Some of them came in and ask some of the questions, “How can we arrange guest houses? Can you help us? We also want to see tourists here.” And being Udi is becoming, I think, popular. And people are not ashamed. I think that kids will be– we need to work very much too much with them to make them sure that it is important to maintain your your own own past, you know, your own roots and the languages. The only one which we have, nothing more. You have to stimulate them. I think so. And then we can see the results.

Patrick Cox: I asked Tom Wier about this, what kind of results are we talking about, for the people of Zinobiani– and Udis elsewhere? What might they expect to get out of this? Is pride in being Udi and determination to pass that on to the younger generation is enough to keep people speaking the language. Before I give you his response, there’s something else about Udi that’s useful to know, something that raises the stakes for its survival. There’s a grammatical characteristic of Udi — kind of a grammatical tic — that some linguists believe is unique to Udi. It happens when you inflect verbs. We don’t pay that much attention to it in English, most verbs don’t inflect as much as they do in other languages.

Thomas Wier: So for example, “the boy kicks the ball,” right? So “kicks” consists of a stem, a kick, plus “s”. And that tells you that it’s third person singular, right? And so Udi has person agreement like that too. But the suffix doesn’t just stay stuck at the end like the as it does in English. It moves around — it moves to other words in the sentence. It can also be stuck into the middle of roots in Udi .

Patrick Cox: So that “s” at the end of the root verb, “kick,” in Udi it could end up right in the middle of the word. So it could be K-I-S-C-K.

Thomas Wier: And this is actually maybe truly unique in all the languages of the world. There’s a little bit of debate among linguistic typologists about whether this is unique but that’s something that linguists have always thought was completely impossible. That was it was something that many theories have been written with the express desire to rule out that kind of possibility. And the fact that it exists in Udi means that it’s a real possible thing. Because we wouldn’t even know languages could do that if we didn’t know about Udi. So the loss of a single language can really tell us something about it could be the difference between knowing we can, we can that languages can do that and languages cannot do it. It could be like that.

Patrick Cox: OK, as an argument to try to keep people speaking Udi, this grammatical peculiarity, it may not stack up that high among the villagers of Zinobiani. Let’s face it: the placement of verb affixes doesn’t come up that much in everyday conversation. But it makes you realize– it makes me realize– what may be lost every time a language goes silent. Add that to Udi’s ancient alphabet and the story of the exodus in 1922– and well, Udi is making quite the case for itself. As I mentioned, I did ask Tom what he thought the results would be of all of this newfound activity among Udi villagers and activists– people like Ana and Alex — and how much of a difference they’d be able to make. Would their efforts help keep Udi afloat?Here’s Tom’s answer.

Thomas Wier: I think that right now it’s kind of sliding into oblivion. I think that that’s unless something is done very soon, within the next few years, really. I think it will not survive. So it needs active community support both inside and outside the community. It’s ultimately up to the community how they perceive the value of their own language. Languages don’t don’t usually die by by murder. Sometimes they do. But a lot of times languages die by suicide, in effect. Because the communities feel like they literally feel they literally assign an internal emotional value to that aspect of their culture and when they feel like that aspect of their culture is not valuable, then it’s not a priority for them. It’s not important.

Patrick Cox: I don’t think Tom’s downplaying the efforts of language activists within the community. He’s just looking at the broader picture, what happens with a language when an entire generation decides not to pass it on to their kids. Turning that around is a huge challenge, even when attitudes change and people want to re-embrace the language. In that sense, Udi is anything but unique. It’s happening all over the world.

Patrick Cox: Before we leave Zinobiani to drive back to Tbilisi, Alex, Tom and I stop off at a vineyard just outside the village. It’s land owned by our poet friend, Zhenia Mamulashvili and her husband. She wants to give us grapes to take back to the city.

Zhenia Mamulashvili: Hi, how are you? It’s our grapes.

Patrick Cox: Zhenia — she likes to be called Jane by English speakers — she hands us a couple of massive buckets to fill. There’s just time for her to give Tom a quick Udi lesson.

Zhenia says an Udi word. Tom repeats it back.

Patrick Cox: Tom and Alex will be back soon. Tom is recording certain undocumented aspects of the Udi language. He also wants to start a sort of exchange class with villagers. He teaches them English, and they teach him Udi. Alex is helping organize a celebration in the village to mark the 100 years since Zinobi established the village. But now we’re off.

Zhenia Mamulashvili: Good bye good bye. Bye bye.

Patrick Cox: Bye bye Jane.

Zhenia Mamulashvili: Oooh, very good. Thank you very much.

Patrick: Thanks to everyone we met in Zinobiani to taking time out from the grape and hazelnut harvests to chat. Thanks also to Thomas Wier for telling me about Udi in the first place, and to Alexander Kavtaradze for all the introductions and for driving us to Zinobiani. Also to Masho Lomashvili, Natalia Antelava and Andrew North. Over to Kavi, who is here in person, sitting right next to me, for the first time in–how long, Kavi?

Kavita Pillay: Oh, must be since early 2020, since before the pandemic that we were recording in a room together. Tina Tobey is our sound designer. Allison Shao manages our social media and newsletter. If you’re a regular listener you’ll know about the newsletter. If not, consider signing up. It’s free, it’s fun, there are sometimes silly photos of us and the people we interview. Plus a bunch of language-related stories in the news.

Patrick Cox: This is the final episode in our current series. And because of that we’d like to thank a few more people: Nina Porzucki, Cristina Quinn, Ciku Theuri, Leah Lemm, Oluwakemi Aladesuyi, Laura Wagner, Meggan Ellingboe, Jeremy Helton, Julia Kumari Drapkin, Andrew Sussman, Alina Simone, Bob Gourley, Kirk Chao, Jackie Mow, Nola Cox, Sauli Pillay and Thalia Pillay. Also special thanks to two people who helped behind the scenes with a couple of episodes, and who I forgot to thank back then. Take a bow, Daniel Ofman and Henry Sessions.

Kavita Pillay: Special thanks also to four linguistics professors who have ably advised us this season: Barbara Bullock, Nicole Holliday, Lynne Murphy and Jacqueline Toribio. Also to Alyson Reed, Katha Kissman and everyone at the Linguistic Society of America, and to The World public radio program.

Patrick Cox: Last but not least our thanks to the National Endowment for the Humanities for their continued support.

Kavita Pillay: Subtitle is a member of the Hub and Spoke audio collective. We’re a group of podcasters who seek out untold stories about people and history and culture– and of course language. Another Hub and Spoke podcast is The Briny. This is a podcast about how we’re changing the ocean, and how the ocean changes us. In the latest episode, a sea turtle conservation group comes up with an unusual business plan to keep its operation afloat: it builds a rum distillery. Their hope is that creating jobs could be a way to fight the root causes of turtle poaching.

Patrick Cox: We’ll be back next Spring with another season. Who knows there may be an emergency episode between now and then.

Kavita Pillay: In the meantime, thank you so much for listening. And wherever you are, be well, stay safe and stay healthy.

Subtitle is made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

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