Georgian shared a common ancestral language with and is believed to have separated from Svan and Mingrelian/Laz in the first millennium BC. Based on the degree of change, linguists (e.g. Klimov, T. Gamkrelidze, G. Machavariani) conjecture that the earliest split occurred in the second millennium BC or earlier, separating Svan from the other languages. Megrelian and Laz separated from Georgian roughly a thousand years later.
The earliest allusion to spoken Georgian may be a passage of the Roman grammarian Marcus Cornelius Fronto in the 2nd century AD: Fronto imagines the Iberians addressing the emperor Marcus Aurelius in their incomprehensible tongue.
The evolution of Georgian into a written language was a consequence of the conversion of the Georgian elite to Christianity in the mid-4th century. The new literary language was constructed on an already well-established cultural infrastructure, appropriating the functions, conventions, and status of Aramaic, the literary language of pagan Georgia, and the new national religion. The first Georgian texts are inscriptions and palimpsests dating to the 5th century. Georgian has a rich literary tradition. The oldest surviving literary work in Georgian is the “Martyrdom of the Holy Queen Shushanik” by Iakob Tsurtaveli, from the 5th century AD. The Georgian national epic, “The Knight in the Panther’s Skin” by Shota Rustaveli, dates from the 12th century.
The history of Georgian can conventionally be divided into:
- Early Old Georgian: 5th-8th centuries
- Classical Old Georgian: 9th-11th centuries
- Middle Georgian: 12th-18th centuries
- Modern Georgian: 18th-21st centuries