2021 October-November Analysis Featured

A kovidsalami to the new Georgian – how COVID-19 has changed the language forever

Something very unusual happened at that unofficial bastion of the English language, the Oxford English Dictionary, in late 2020. The editorial staff in charge of writing their annual report decided that the events of that year were so unusual in their effects on how people talk about and describe the developments that were unfolding that they could not choose any one single ‘Word of the Year’ to encapsulate its myriad events. From ‘R-0’ to ‘community transmission’ to ‘self-isolating’ and ‘doom-scrolling’, words evolved or increased in frequency to describe new realities. They noted that the word ‘coronavirus’ itself became more frequent in their corpus databases than that ancient word, ‘time.’

What happened to English is part of a broader trend around the world as speakers of all languages have been forced to adapt to changing environments and newly articulated realities. Here in Georgia, the effects of the pandemic produced an uneasy seesaw effect as early strict lockdowns imposed by Georgia’s health authorities relented in the summer of 2020 to tentative broader reopening, only to be followed by renewed strict measures in the fall following October’s parliamentary elections. Some of these figures, such as Health Minister Ekaterine Tikaridze or Center for Disease Control head Amiran Gamkrelidze, rose to iconic status, as their weekly or even daily pronouncements were followed by an anxious population. They found themselves having to explain, in Georgian, words, phrases and sentiments that were new even in the languages from which they were translating: lok’dauni anu sruli čak’et’va ‘lockdown or in other words a complete closing’, sp’aik’cila ‘spike protein’ or the esoterically statistical mosaxvevis gabrt’q’eleba ‘flattening the curve.’

And it was not just in press-conference halls that the narrative changed. Some words already existed in the language, but received new prominence: k’arantini (quarantine), uk’ontakt’o (contactless), acra (shot, jab), gadamgebi (contagious), mosaxleobis imunit’et’i (herd immunity), and of course p’irbade (facemask). Many words like lockdown were either wholly new loans into Georgian or generally unrecognized by the wider population: k’last’eri (cluster), k’ont’akt’t’reisingi (contact-tracing), sup’er-sp’rederi (super-spreader) and ant’ivakseri (anti-vaxxer) required a certain level of discernment or insider-knowledge to decode for Georgians who were not up to date with the latest jargon and cultural trends. In some cases, pre-existing words changed meaning: in 2019, a vent’ilat’ori referred primarily to a fan to cool down with, but one year later it came to have a more somber medical meaning. And some words mixed and matched foreign concepts with indigenous resources: tvitizolacia ‘self-isolation,’ ep’idsit’uacia ‘epidemic situation,’ ep’idvitareba ‘epidemic development’ and sac’olpondi ‘bed capacity.’

Then there were words that did not describe the pandemic itself so much as people’s reactions to it and the new social conditions it brought. Government regulatory agencies debated whether citizens needed k’ovidp’asp’ort’ebi (COVID-passports), and who precisely counted as aucilebeli mušebi (essential workers), not to mention musings about how big the generation of k’oronialebi (‘Coronials,’ Corona-babies) would be. People were asked to dist’ancia daicavit ‘maintain distance;’ notably, the phrase does not use the older Georgian word for distance, mandzili, probably reflecting its origins as a translation from Western languages. People also forsook handshakes and began greeting each other with fist or elbow bumps as a kind of k’ovidsalami (COVID-greeting). Almost everyone was forced to resort at least sometimes to online meetings through the Zoom application, with its associated confusion over who gets to talk (Daimiute! ‘Mute yourself!’) and was subject, as it unfortunately sometimes was, to zumbombingi (Zoombombing). Many welcomed the introduction of vaccines, any vaccines, as a kind of deus ex machina heralding a return to normality. These eagerly sat at their computer console, waiting for a seat in the Georgian Health Ministry’s vaccination program to open up. Afterwards they sometimes flaunted their new status as vakcinosani, literally ‘clothed in the protection of a vaccine,’ an allusion to the great medieval Georgian epic poem, the Vepxist’q’aosani (The Knight in the Tiger Skin). Others, probably the majority, were not so sure: they had their doubts about vaccines in general, or just the Russian or Chinese vaccines. Some people hedged their bets: they got their first shot of one brand (usually Sinopharm or Sinovac which were first available), but then gadacra-ed (literally ‘transjabbed’) a different one for their second. Such was the dislocation in people’s lives that people began to speak of 2019 as a new k’oronik’oni ‘Corona-era’, an allusion to the era names of medieval kings and emperors.

As in the West, this wave of neologisms reflects the way in which Georgians experiencing the pandemic have internalized its presence in their lives and begun to integrate it into their larger hopes and fears about the state of the world. The visible role in public life of the Georgian Orthodox Church (of which 83% of Georgians are members) has witnessed varying levels of controversy in recent years, and since the start of the pandemic this has only been accentuated by the unwillingness of some clerics to emphatically support vaccination and public health measures endorsed by the government. The sight of priests driving through the streets in acts of mass-blessing with holy water, or encouraging parishioners to believe that drinking holy wine from a common communion spoon will protect them from the spread of the virus, elicited quiet skepticism from some quarters, while from others derisive calls of k’ovzidiot’ebi (from k’ovzi ‘spoon’ and idiot’i ‘idiot’, a play on the western neologism covidiot).

The pandemic has also provided fodder for all kinds of misinformation about the pandemic and accompanying conspiratorial thinking about its origins and propagation. According to Dustin Gilbreath, deputy director of the Caucasus Research Resource Center (CRRC) in Tbilisi, Georgia has one of the highest vaccine-hesitancy rates in the world: in a survey done on 30 March 2021, 57% of respondents said they would not want to receive a vaccine if it were available now. A year earlier, around 42% of the Georgian population believed the virus was created in a lab, a figure which has probably not dropped much since. It is easy to encounter wilder conspiracies in Georgian-language media: that the biblical Book of Revelation says vaccines are the mark of the Beast; that retractable vaccine syringes are being used to inject nanochips to control people; that apparent COVID-19 victims are still alive and being held in Australia; and that vaccines are actually šxamkcini, literally ‘poison-vaccines.’

Though it is hard to take these claims with any level of seriousness, they are having an undoubted effect on how people talk about the pandemic: dğes Ast’razenek’ati davičip’e ‘Today I got chipped with Astrazeneca’, former State Minister for Reconciliation Paata Zakareishvili is reported to have said. This is because languages evolve and change to reflect not the world as it really is, but rather the world as their speakers perceive it.

Will any of these changes have a lasting effect on the language? This is impossible to know. In every era of change, new generations adopt or reject the phraseology of times past based on who is now using it, how often, and why. Language is a kind of self-organizing system that tracks the patterns of human social networks that we all live in and interpret our world with. It is effectively a kind of communicative currency, the value of which changes depending on who uses it and why. When properties of those social networks change, language usually changes too. But if past epidemics are any guide to the future, even truly great changes in society may take years or decades to become apparent. When the bubonic plague ravaged medieval England in the years 1347-1352 and killed half the population, international trade came almost to a standstill, and it had an immediate effect on the French-speaking aristocracy and barristers, who became too thin on the ground. Within ten years, the language of the colonial occupiers, French, ended up being replaced by the indigenous language English in the courts of law. It also helped lead to a rebirth of English as a literary medium and reinforced the dialect of London as a new standard form of language: Geoffrey Chaucer, William Langland, and John Wycliffe all flourished in its immediate aftermath. But the real change did not come for generations more when systematic changes to English pronunciation known as the Great Vowel Shift started spreading through the population. Thus Middle English began its transition to Modern English.

Whether and how that earlier pandemic was related to the seismic change in language is controversial and unclear. What is clear is that it was changing the world in which speakers talked about and conceived their relationships to each other. It was changing, in the most literal sense, who was talking to whom. And that much is true in today’s Georgia during the COVID-19 pandemic as it was in ages past.

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