Save the Mingrelian Language!

Save the Mingrelian Language!

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Active neglect or even supression of regional dialects and languages was a necessary means of the "nation-building" process, which greatly intensified in many parts of the world in the second half of the 19th century. Rather paradoxically, with the process of globalization potentially reducing the role of "nation states" to that of fiscal agents, some local dialects may spring back to life at the micro level. However, in the absence of any "memetic" advantages, Migrelian and other almost extinct Georgian dialects are less likely to survive, unless conscientiously protected and supported by the Georgian state.
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There are clear expectations in many cultures to marry somebody from their own group, and not living up to these expectations will at least cause a loss in reputation. This is nicely displayed in the movie Late Marriage by Dover Kosashvili, humorously depicting a young Georgian Jew in Israel whose parents want him to marry the “right” woman (the movie features extensive dialogues in Judeao-Georgian, another endangered language).

In extreme cases, people who enter a relationship with members of other cultures may be victims of honor killings. In Europe, subgroups like the Yazidis – who have a considerable diaspora in Georgia, and who were recently facing horrible persecution by the Islamic State terrorists in Iraq – have very strict rules about this. If you are not a Yazidi but intend to marry one of their group, you may run into lethal problems with a big Yazidi clan.

Why are these sanctions imposed on people who want to marry an “outsider”? There is a simple answer to that question: without the sanctions, those cultures would not have survived until today.


A hybrid academic field called Memetics, initiated by the eminent British biologist Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene, applies the rules of evolution to human ideas, religions, and cultures. Seen from a memetic angle, all those cultures that exist today have sufficient fitness in the evolutionary struggle for the minds of people, while those which disappeared were memetically inferior.

The behavior of humans is partly determined by genes (“hardware”) and partly by culture and ideas (“software”) – memes. Somebody with genetic defects will have a lower probability to procreate, and thus over time these genes will have gradually lower shares in the population. Yet also ideas have an influence on the likelihood to procreate, and ideas which reduce the reproduction rates of their followers will have less followers in the next generation (assuming ideas are transmitted from parents to children, as is often the case). There is, however, an important difference between genes and memes. Unlike the genetic endowment, which is given to each human once and for all and can only be passed to one’s children (inter-generational transmission), ideas can also spread from one person to another even if they are not relatives (intra-generational transmission).

There are four dimensions of memetic fitness, predicting how well a meme will do in spreading within the human population.

First, it is beneficial if a meme prescribes its followers to spread that meme. Examples are Islam and Christianity. In Islam, it is considered one of the greatest deeds to “make dawah”, namely to convert members of other religions to Islam. Likewise, Christians are encouraged to spread the message of Jesus, and the fact that more than 30% of the world’s population adheres to Christianity is due to the relentless missionary activities of Christians, in particular in those parts of the world that were subject to European colonization.

Second, when a culture or religion cannot proselytize, they have to adopt a different strategy – inbreeding. The smaller the group, the more strictly it has to prevent the possibility that its members marry outside the group – this is the very reason why sanctions for intercultural marriages are so harsh within small groups (up to honor killings) and less severe among bigger groups.


Western Judaism was a proselytizing religion until the beginning of the 5th century CE, and it was very successful in its missionary efforts. By the first century CE, it is estimated that almost 10% of the population of the Roman empire was Jewish (cf. Sue Fishkoff: “Try It, You’ll Like It: Should Jews Proselytize?”, published on Yet this was a threat to Christianity, and the Christian Roman emperor forbade missionary efforts by the Jews. Later, in Christian-dominated medieval Europe, which saw frequent riots and pogroms against Jews, the only way to retain their culture was to keep a “low profile” and refrain from any proselytizing (one exception to the non-proselytizing character of Judaism is the conversion of the Khazars in the 8th century, a people whose kingdom spread over large parts of modern-day Georgia).

Being deprived of the possibility to proselytize, Jews had no other choice but to resort to an inbreeding strategy. To illustrate what that means, let us consider a simple model. Assume there is a minority Group A with, say, 1000 members, living in a larger majority population of, say, 10000 Group B members. If in the marriage market members of the minority group are randomly matched with the members of the majority group, i.e. there is no inbreeding, then (roughly) 9 out of 10 Group A members will be married to a Group B member. Assuming each couple has two children, and the probability of the offspring of an intercultural couple to be A is 50% and to be B is 50%, the next generation will have just 950 Group A members. If all Group A members, however, are matched to other Group A members, Group B will not increase at the expense of Group A, neither in relative nor in absolute terms.

Third, to be memetically successful a group may encourage or require its holders to reproduce eagerly and teach the meme to the offspring. This is most successfully adopted by Islam – on average, Muslim women have a much higher fertility than Christian women. In the second half of the 21st century Islam will take over from Christianity the title of world’s most populous religion (source for both claims: Pew Report on World Religions 2015). But also the Catholic rejection of contraceptives and the Judeo-Christian call to “be fruitful and increase in number” (Genesis 1:27) requests the followers of the Christian meme to procreate restlessly.

Fourth, certain memes just yield huge intrinsic advantages to their holders and are therefore highly successful. For example, there is no need to convert people to the English language or punish those who stop speaking it. Command over the English language is so profitable that people choose to learn and speak English without preaching or pressure.


Maka Chitanava, one of the authors of this article, is a proud Mingrelian, yet while her grandmother used to speak Mingrelian, her own knowledge of the language is cursory at best, just like that of most young people in Samegrelo. This observation places Mingrelian in the UNESCO category of a definitely endangered language.


A language is considered safe by UNESCO if it is spoken by all generations and the intergenerational transmission is uninterrupted; vulnerable if most children speak the language, but it may be restricted to certain domains (e.g., home); definitely endangered if children no longer learn the language as their mother tongue; severely endangered if the language is spoken by grandparents and older generations, but while the parent generation may understand it, they do not speak it with children or among themselves anymore; critically endangered if the youngest speakers are grandparents and older; extinct if there are no speakers left.

Dying languages are a worldwide phenomenon. According to UNESCO, at least 43% of the 6000 languages spoken in the world today are endangered, and it is estimated that half of the languages spoken today will have disappeared by the end of this century.

The problem for Mingrelian language and culture is that it is weak in all four fitness dimensions of a meme:

    • Mingrelians are NOT “proselytizing” – have you ever been approached by a Mingrelian who tried to convince you to become a Mingrelian too?
    • Mingrelians are also NOT punishing those who forget their culture and language.
    • Furthermore, Mingrelians do NOT have more children than other people.
    • And finally, there are NO intrinsic advantages in knowing Mingrelian.

For these reasons, memetic analysis predicts that the Mingrelian language and culture will become extinct rather soon. Kenneth Hale, who taught linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, sums up nicely why all of us, Mingrelians and others, should be concerned about this:

“When you lose a language, you lose a culture, intellectual wealth, a work of art. It's like dropping a bomb on a museum.”

Unfortunately, Mingrelian may be beyond the point where it can be saved. Among the four possibilities to gain memetic fitness, the only practically feasible one is to increase the intrinsic benefits from speaking Mingrelian. There must be some advantages from knowing Mingrelian language and culture for young people to genuinely want to study it, but creating such advantages might require nothing short of a cultural revolution. One would, of course, have to introduce Mingrelian language at preschools and schools. But, for young Mingrelians to be incentivized to study their heritage they should feel that speaking Mingrelian is really cool and that to cite a Mingrelian poem or an episode from Samegrelo’s history is a great way to impress their friends (and tourists!).

At the national level, Georgia could encourage the unique local cultures that comprise it to develop “memetic fitness” through a purposeful effort to celebrate and commercialize cultural diversity. In fact, this may be not too difficult to achieve as Mingrelia and other unique Georgian regions have considerable ethno-touristic potential. To develop it, Georgia could subsidize or otherwise encourage the preservation and branding of local cultural heritage, e.g. museums, food festivals, horse riding tournaments, dancing, singing, and poetry groups, traditional arts and crafts.

Fortunately, some movement in this direction may be already observed in Samegrelo. “The Little Prince” by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry has been recently translated into Mingrelian; the Mingrelian epos of “Veramkhutu” is about to be published; there are even the beginnings of a Wikipedia in Mingrelian. Mingrelian language can now be learned online. A few enthusiasts have recently started to translate short cartoons (for instance, "Zero") to introduce the language to kids. As one of them says: “This may not be enough. Mingrelian language may disappear, and I feel like I must do something about it. This is an obsession for me”.

Whether all of this will help, however, is uncertain. The forces of memetics may be stronger in the end.



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