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Save the Mingrelian Language!


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).

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.


EVOLUTION OF CULTURES

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.

SURVIVAL OF THE JEWISH PEOPLE

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 MyJewishLearning.com). 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.


THE FUTURE OF MINGRELIAN LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

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.


UNESCO CLASSIFICATION OF LANGUAGES

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’s 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" and "The Old Man and the Sea") 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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Guest - Timothy Blauvelt on Monday, 20 April 2015 21:35

This is our recent article using the Matched-Guise experimental methodology to assess attitudes towards spoken Georgian with Mingrelian and Tbilisi accents (we did not use the MIngrelian language itself, just accents in standard Georgian). Our findings seem consistent with the arguments in this blog post.

http://www.academia.edu/9038519/Attitudes_Toward_Tbilisi-_and_Mingrelian-Accented_Georgian_Among_Georgian_Youth_On_the_Road_to_Linguistic_Homogenization

This is our recent article using the Matched-Guise experimental methodology to assess attitudes towards spoken Georgian with Mingrelian and Tbilisi accents (we did not use the MIngrelian language itself, just accents in standard Georgian). Our findings seem consistent with the arguments in this blog post. http://www.academia.edu/9038519/Attitudes_Toward_Tbilisi-_and_Mingrelian-Accented_Georgian_Among_Georgian_Youth_On_the_Road_to_Linguistic_Homogenization
Guest - Eric Livny on Monday, 20 April 2015 22:13

Christofer Berglund and Timothy Blauvelt have recently published a little research piece about this very subject, comfirming the main point of this article: in the absence of political will and a purposive national and local policy, Mingrelian language is likely to dissappear. http://www.academia.edu/9038519/Attitudes_Toward_Tbilisi-_and_Mingrelian-Accented_Georgian_Among_Georgian_Youth_On_the_Road_to_Linguistic_Homogenization

Christofer Berglund and Timothy Blauvelt have recently published a little research piece about this very subject, comfirming the main point of this article: in the absence of political will and a purposive national and local policy, Mingrelian language is likely to dissappear. http://www.academia.edu/9038519/Attitudes_Toward_Tbilisi-_and_Mingrelian-Accented_Georgian_Among_Georgian_Youth_On_the_Road_to_Linguistic_Homogenization
Guest - mfmsm on Tuesday, 21 April 2015 01:03

While Eric's outside-the-box thinking is always refreshing and frequently remarkable, here, there is - isn't there? - an extremely odd subtending thesis that there ought to be an ipso facto relationship between 'proselytizing' and the cultural survival of a language. There is here, also, a huge and I think untenable leap of faith between a philosophy intended to be applied to an organic phenomenon such the human being, and that of a society, or culture. These phenomena are value driven; and organic ones are not. This perhaps serious lapse aside, it is very good to support linguistic and cultural diversity, as this article does. Welsh, Cornish and Breton - as well as Gaelic - have all been preserved by a conscious effort, and I am sure Mingrelian will survive in a similar way.

While Eric's outside-the-box thinking is always refreshing and frequently remarkable, here, there is - isn't there? - an extremely odd subtending thesis that there ought to be an ipso facto relationship between 'proselytizing' and the cultural survival of a language. There is here, also, a huge and I think untenable leap of faith between a philosophy intended to be applied to an organic phenomenon such the human being, and that of a society, or culture. These phenomena are value driven; and organic ones are not. This perhaps serious lapse aside, it is very good to support linguistic and cultural diversity, as this article does. Welsh, Cornish and Breton - as well as Gaelic - have all been preserved by a conscious effort, and I am sure Mingrelian will survive in a similar way.
Guest - megiddo02 on Thursday, 23 April 2015 20:47

Martin, memetics is applied to all kinds of ideas, be them related to values or not. Indeed, from a memetic point of view, the acts of proselytizing somebody to join a religion and teaching somebody a language are the same. Memetics was applied even to the evolution of chess openings: http://cfpm.org/jom-emit/2002/vol6/de_sousa_jd.html

Martin, memetics is applied to all kinds of ideas, be them related to values or not. Indeed, from a memetic point of view, the acts of proselytizing somebody to join a religion and teaching somebody a language are the same. Memetics was applied even to the evolution of chess openings: http://cfpm.org/jom-emit/2002/vol6/de_sousa_jd.html
Guest - Hans Gutbrod on Tuesday, 21 April 2015 02:01

Having spent a little bit of time in Samegrelo, it never struck me that the language was particularly endangered. It seemed pervasive in all conversations, save for a few more "official" interactions. Is there more systemic evidence that it's actually endangered?

Having spent a little bit of time in Samegrelo, it never struck me that the language was particularly endangered. It seemed pervasive in all conversations, save for a few more "official" interactions. Is there more systemic evidence that it's actually endangered?
Guest - megiddo02 on Thursday, 23 April 2015 20:54

Hans, I do not question your observation, yet if it is true that Mingrelian is not spoken by the young generation anymore, it is only a question of decades until it will have disappeared completely. This does not contradict your observation, as long as those people you experienced speaking Mingrelian were not from the young generation.

Hans, I do not question your observation, yet if it is true that Mingrelian is not spoken by the young generation anymore, it is only a question of decades until it will have disappeared completely. This does not contradict your observation, as long as those people you experienced speaking Mingrelian were not from the young generation.
Guest - Till on Tuesday, 21 April 2015 07:14

I've got strong reservations about the idea that genes or memes are inherently more or less successful, as in:
"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."

Many genes give an advantage in some contexts and a disadvantage in others (e.g. famine periods versus times of plenty, cold versus hot climate). Equally, there's many memes that will serve you well in some contexts and badly in others (e.g. telling Armenian jokes). Darwinian logic works far better without getting distorted by notions of progress. A tiger is not in any way "better" than a sabre-toothed tiger, it's just better adapted to the current environment.

BTW, Welsh is a great example of how a language can rebound if there is political and social will. De facto reserving all local govt jobs to Welsh speakers was one element - even English parents in Wales queue up to get their kids into Welsh language schools. Whether that effort is worth it is entirely another debate.

I've got strong reservations about the idea that genes or memes are inherently more or less successful, as in: "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." Many genes give an advantage in some contexts and a disadvantage in others (e.g. famine periods versus times of plenty, cold versus hot climate). Equally, there's many memes that will serve you well in some contexts and badly in others (e.g. telling Armenian jokes). Darwinian logic works far better without getting distorted by notions of progress. A tiger is not in any way "better" than a sabre-toothed tiger, it's just better adapted to the current environment. BTW, Welsh is a great example of how a language can rebound if there is political and social will. De facto reserving all local govt jobs to Welsh speakers was one element - even English parents in Wales queue up to get their kids into Welsh language schools. Whether that effort is worth it is entirely another debate.
Guest - megiddo02 on Tuesday, 05 May 2015 21:09

Till, of course, certain genes/memes are beneficial in some environments and disadvantageous in others. We did not say that some genes/memes are inherently more successful than others.

There are, however, genes which are detrimental in a huge domain of environments. It would not be much of an exaggeration to say that they are inherently detrimental, as it may be difficult or impossible to find any environment where they might be useful.

In "Climbing Mount Improbable", Dawkins shows the picture of a pitiable frog who has his eyes in his mouth. You can see a picture here: http://www.sciencealert.com/this-frog-was-born-with-eyes-in-the-roof-of-its-mouth

In that book, Dawkins argues that almost all mutations are of that kind, i.e. highly detrimental for the mutant, and only a tiny fraction of mutants procreate.

In the realm of memes, the Russian Skoptsy cult comes close to an inherently detrimental meme. Is there any environment where it may be useful for women to cut off their breasts and for men to cut off their testicles? (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skoptsy)

Till, of course, certain genes/memes are beneficial in some environments and disadvantageous in others. We did not say that some genes/memes are inherently more successful than others. There are, however, genes which are detrimental in a huge domain of environments. It would not be much of an exaggeration to say that they are inherently detrimental, as it may be difficult or impossible to find any environment where they might be useful. In "Climbing Mount Improbable", Dawkins shows the picture of a pitiable frog who has his eyes in his mouth. You can see a picture here: http://www.sciencealert.com/this-frog-was-born-with-eyes-in-the-roof-of-its-mouth In that book, Dawkins argues that almost all mutations are of that kind, i.e. highly detrimental for the mutant, and only a tiny fraction of mutants procreate. In the realm of memes, the Russian Skoptsy cult comes close to an inherently detrimental meme. Is there any environment where it may be useful for women to cut off their breasts and for men to cut off their testicles? (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skoptsy)
Guest - mfmsm on Tuesday, 21 April 2015 15:47

There were two sane paragraphs in this article:

'Mingrelia and other Georgian regions certainly have unique 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....'

The other was in Eric's introduction:

The little I know about Mingrelia comes from one (thick) book about Ekaterine Dadiani - daughter of Alexander Chavchadvadze and the last queen of Samegrelo... Samegrelo has a really unique culture. This becomes obvious the moment you enter the first Mingrelian village, Abasha, on the way from Samtredia to Zugdidi. Wide roads, sidewalks, trees along the side of roads, clean and well-maintained public areas...

What should have been a Proustian evocation in Nabokovian English ended up as a Florian Gambit in which sabre-tooth tiger is exchanged, on Move 14, for the Welsh Language in the form of the ancient chess piece, the Chancellor.

I think that both the ISET journal and The Financial should stop being so pretentious about the politically correct notion of including mathematical data or psuedo-mathematical data in every article, and graduate to the level of serious social commentary.

There were two sane paragraphs in this article: 'Mingrelia and other Georgian regions certainly have unique 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....' The other was in Eric's introduction: The little I know about Mingrelia comes from one (thick) book about Ekaterine Dadiani - daughter of Alexander Chavchadvadze and the last queen of Samegrelo... Samegrelo has a really unique culture. This becomes obvious the moment you enter the first Mingrelian village, Abasha, on the way from Samtredia to Zugdidi. Wide roads, sidewalks, trees along the side of roads, clean and well-maintained public areas... What should have been a Proustian evocation in Nabokovian English ended up as a Florian Gambit in which sabre-tooth tiger is exchanged, on Move 14, for the Welsh Language in the form of the ancient chess piece, the Chancellor. I think that both the ISET journal and The Financial should stop being so pretentious about the politically correct notion of including mathematical data or psuedo-mathematical data in every article, and graduate to the level of serious social commentary.
Guest - Simon Janashia on Wednesday, 22 April 2015 13:29

There are far more languages endangered in Georgia with higher risks of disappearance: e.g. Svan, Aramaic, Batsb etc.. However should we propose their preservation, or their development? I would go for development, whenever possible, as preservation may be associated with low prestige by both the bearers of that culture and the dominant group.

However, one should as the question, what are the not only cultural but also political reasons behind the negligence to the problem of local languages in Georgia? What are the approaches to overcome the risks of disintegration of the national and at the same development of the local identities?

Post-Structuralist theories of socialization and culture (Bourdieu) probably offer a far better explanation of the mechanisms behind linguistic change, by looking at the cultural values and imagined power structures dominating the society than any grand narratives having their roots in social darwinism.

There are far more languages endangered in Georgia with higher risks of disappearance: e.g. Svan, Aramaic, Batsb etc.. However should we propose their preservation, or their development? I would go for development, whenever possible, as preservation may be associated with low prestige by both the bearers of that culture and the dominant group. However, one should as the question, what are the not only cultural but also political reasons behind the negligence to the problem of local languages in Georgia? What are the approaches to overcome the risks of disintegration of the national and at the same development of the local identities? Post-Structuralist theories of socialization and culture (Bourdieu) probably offer a far better explanation of the mechanisms behind linguistic change, by looking at the cultural values and imagined power structures dominating the society than any grand narratives having their roots in social darwinism.
Guest - Eric Livny on Wednesday, 22 April 2015 17:15

Simon, you are asking a very good question. No doubt, the "active" neglect of any and all local languages by the central "national" authorities is a key element in the disappearance of these languages. We've had this question discussed on Facebook with several other colleagues. Here is the thread https://www.facebook.com/yasya.babych?fref=ts. Here is a relevant excerpt:

Jan Fidrmuc: In the past, most countries would have continua of dialects/languages rather than a single clearly-defined and structured language. Linguistic standardization has had enormous economic, cultural and political benefits but we did lose the diversity of dialects. Are we really worse off for it? Moreover, languages evolve, which can entail convergence or divergence: the demise of regional languages in many European countries belong to the former, the emergence of Serbian, Croat, Bosnian and Montenegrin from Serbo-croat is an example of the latter. Perhaps Mingrelian should optimally be absorbed into Georgian.

Eric Livny: A good point. The fact that national languages did not exist until very recently (as late as the second half of the 19th century) is a point completely lost on most young people (and not only young) who only read text messages and FB posts. Another point to consider is that the universal effort to create and codify national languages was part and parcel of the nation state building process. Perhaps paradoxically, with the process of globalization eventually reducing the role of (forcefully homogenizing) nation states to that of local tax collection agencies, local (urban) dialects may spring back to life, just like in former Yugoslavia, but more at the micro level.

Simon, you are asking a very good question. No doubt, the "active" neglect of any and all local languages by the central "national" authorities is a key element in the disappearance of these languages. We've had this question discussed on Facebook with several other colleagues. Here is the thread https://www.facebook.com/yasya.babych?fref=ts. Here is a relevant excerpt: Jan Fidrmuc: In the past, most countries would have continua of dialects/languages rather than a single clearly-defined and structured language. Linguistic standardization has had enormous economic, cultural and political benefits but we did lose the diversity of dialects. Are we really worse off for it? Moreover, languages evolve, which can entail convergence or divergence: the demise of regional languages in many European countries belong to the former, the emergence of Serbian, Croat, Bosnian and Montenegrin from Serbo-croat is an example of the latter. Perhaps Mingrelian should optimally be absorbed into Georgian. Eric Livny: A good point. The fact that national languages did not exist until very recently (as late as the second half of the 19th century) is a point completely lost on most young people (and not only young) who only read text messages and FB posts. Another point to consider is that the universal effort to create and codify national languages was part and parcel of the nation state building process. Perhaps paradoxically, with the process of globalization eventually reducing the role of (forcefully homogenizing) nation states to that of local tax collection agencies, local (urban) dialects may spring back to life, just like in former Yugoslavia, but more at the micro level.
Guest - megiddo02 on Tuesday, 05 May 2015 21:41

Simon, I do not know much about Bordieu and post-Structuralist theories of socialization and culture, therefore I do not want to judge it. It seems to me, however, that sociology has an almost negligible impact on our societies (with the one exception of the sociological ideas of Marx and Engels). A reason for the irrelevance of Sociology may be that sociologists often express themselves incomprehensibly (e.g. Luhmann, Derrida) and that it is unclear whether under all of this language debris there is anything valuable to be found. The Sokal experiment is very telling in this respect: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sokal_affair

Memetics, on the other hand, has proved to be a powerful tool for example in the analysis of religions. It is well defined and allows for predictions, i.e. is falsifiable.

Simon, I do not know much about Bordieu and post-Structuralist theories of socialization and culture, therefore I do not want to judge it. It seems to me, however, that sociology has an almost negligible impact on our societies (with the one exception of the sociological ideas of Marx and Engels). A reason for the irrelevance of Sociology may be that sociologists often express themselves incomprehensibly (e.g. Luhmann, Derrida) and that it is unclear whether under all of this language debris there is anything valuable to be found. The Sokal experiment is very telling in this respect: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sokal_affair Memetics, on the other hand, has proved to be a powerful tool for example in the analysis of religions. It is well defined and allows for predictions, i.e. is falsifiable.
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