Svan language

ლუშნუ ნინ Lušnu nin
Pronunciation [luʃnu nin]
Native to Georgia
Region Svaneti
Abkhazia (Kodori Gorge)
Native speakers
14,000 (2015)[1]
  • Svan
Georgian script
Language codes
ISO 639-3 sva
Glottolog svan1243
ELP Svan
Kartvelian languages.svg
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Svan (ლუშნუ ნინ lušnu nin; Georgian: სვანური ენა, romanized: svanuri ena) is a Kartvelian language spoken in the western Georgian region of Svaneti primarily by the Svan people.[2][3] With its speakers variously estimated to be between 30,000 and 80,000, the UNESCO designates Svan as a "definitely endangered language".[4] It is of particular interest because it has retained many archaic features that have been lost in the other Kartvelian languages.


Familial features

Like all languages of the Caucasian language family, Svan has a large number of consonants. It has agreement between subject and object, and a split-ergative morphosyntactic system. Verbs are marked for aspect, evidentiality and "version".

Distinguishing features

Svan retains the voiceless aspirated uvular plosive, /qʰ/, and the glides /w/ and /j/. It has a larger vowel inventory than Georgian; the Upper Bal dialect of Svan has the most vowels of any South-Caucasian language, having both long and short versions of /a ɛ i ɔ u æ ø y/ plus /ə eː/, a total of 18 vowels (Georgian, by contrast, has just five).

Its morphology is less regular than that of the other three sister languages, and there are notable differences in conjugation.


Svan is the native language of fewer than 30,000 Svans (15,000 of whom are Upper Svan dialect speakers and 12,000 are Lower Svan), living in the mountains of Svaneti, i.e. in the districts of Mestia and Lentekhi of Georgia, along the Enguri, Tskhenistsqali and Kodori rivers. Some Svan speakers live in the Kodori Valley of the de facto independent republic of Abkhazia. Although conditions there make it difficult to reliably establish their numbers, there are only an estimated 2,500 Svan individuals living there.[5]

The language is used in familiar and casual social communication. It has no written standard or official status.[6] Most speakers also speak Georgian. The language is regarded as being endangered, as proficiency in it among young people is limited.


Svan is the most differentiated member of the four South-Caucasian languages and is believed to have split off in the 2nd millennium BC or earlier, about one thousand years before Georgian did.


The Svan language is divided into the following dialects and subdialects:

  • Upper Svan (about 15,000 speakers)
    • Upper Bal: Ushguli, Kala, Ipar, Mulakh, Mestia, Lenzer, Latal.
    • Lower Bal: Becho, Tskhumar, Etser, Par, Chubekh, Lakham.
  • Lower Svan (about 12,000 speakers)
    • Lashkhian: Lashkh.
    • Lentekhian: Lentekhi, Kheled, Khopur, Rtskhmelur, Cholur



The consonant inventory of Svan is almost identical to Laz, Georgian, and Mingrelian.

Svan consonants
Labial Dental Alveolar Velar Uvular Glottal
Nasal m [m] n [n]
Plosive voiced b [b] d [d] g [ɡ]
aspirated p [pʰ] t [tʰ] k [kʰ] q [qʰ]
ejective [pʼ] [tʼ] [kʼ] [qʼ] ʔ [ʔ]
Affricate voiced ʒ [d͡z] ǯ [d͡ʒ]
aspirated c [t͡sʰ] č [t͡ʃʰ]
ejective ċ [t͡sʼ] čʼ [t͡ʃʼ]
Fricative voiced v [v] z [z] ž [ʒ] ɣ [ʁ]
voiceless f [f] s [s] š [ʃ] x [χ] h [h]
Approximant w [w] l [l] y [j]
Trill r [r]


Front Central Back
unrounded rounded
short long short long short long short long
Close /i/

უ̈, ჳი

Close-mid /eː/


Open-mid /ɛ/

ო̈, ჳე

Open /æ/

  1. Freely varies between [ə] and [ɨ]

Apart from the odd /eː/, only Upper Bal and Lashkh dialects have long vowels. Only Upper Bal has /æ, æː/; Lashkh does not have the front rounded vowels /œ, œː, y, yː/.


Road sign in Svan language, that contains only Svan-specific letters, and romanized variant

The alphabet, illustrated above, is similar to the Mingrelian alphabet, with a few additional letters otherwise obsolete in the Georgian script:

  • /f/
  • /q⁽ʰ⁾/
  • /ʔ/
  • /j/
  • /w/
  • /ə/
  • /eː/

These are supplemented by diacritics on the vowels (the umlaut for front vowels and macron for length), though those are not normally written. The digraphs

  • ჳი ("wi") /y/
  • ჳე ("we") /œ/

are used in the Lower Bal and Lentekh dialects, and occasionally in Upper Bal; these sounds do not occur in Lashkh dialect.



  1. ^ Svan at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. ^ Levinson, David. Ethnic Groups Worldwide: A Ready Reference Handbook. Phoenix: Oryx Press, 1998. p 34
  3. ^ Tuite, Kevin (1991–1996). "Svans". In Friedrich, Paul; Diamond, Norma (eds.). Encyclopedia of World Cultures. VI. Boston, Mass.: G.K. Hall. p. 343. ISBN 0-8168-8840-X. OCLC 22492614.
  4. ^ UNESCO Interactive Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger
  5. ^ DoBeS (Dokumentation Bedrohter Sprachen, Documentation of Endangered Languages)
  6. ^ Tuite, Kevin (2017). "Language and emergent literacy in Svaneti". In Korkmaz, Ramazan; Doğan, Gürkan (eds.). Endangered Languages of the Caucasus and Beyond. Montréal: Brill. pp. 226–243. ISBN 978-90-04-32564-7.

General references

  • Palmaitis, Mykolas Letas; Gudjedjiani, Chato (1986). Upper Svan: Grammar and texts. Vilnius: Mokslas.
  • Oniani, Aleksandre (2005). Die swanische Sprache (Teil I: Phonologie, Morphonologie, Morphologie des Nomens; Teil II: Morphologie des Verbs, Verbal-nomen, Udeteroi). Translated by Fähnrich, Heinz. Jena: Friedrich-Schiller-Universität.
  • Tuite, Kevin (1997). Svan (PDF). Languages of the World, Materials, vol. 139. Munich: LINCOM-Europa. ISBN 978-3895861543.

External links