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Georgian has two sets of verb affixes that don't really mark a specific tense or aspect themselves, but the combination of them narrows down which TAM-indicating conjugation you're looking at - the preverb and the thematic suffix or "stem formant".

My understanding is that the Georgian preverb, which appears in the future and aorist but not the present, is usually analyzed as having historically been a perfective marker, and since most also have a directional/locative meaning, they may have arisen via a directional > telic > perfective pathway.

I'm not really sure what the thematic suffix is doing though. It's found in the future and present, but not aorist - but it can't just be non-past, or the imperfect wouldn't have it.

Looking for explanations, I found this paper, but it's dense enough in jargon that I don't really know what she's suggesting the answer even is. This paper lists a bunch of possibilities that all sound mutually exclusive, and then goes on to argue that they simultaneously mark both "inner" and "outer" aspect? Which... are not terms I'm very familiar with; if "inner aspect" is lexical aspect, like the action inherently being a state of being vs. activity, then I don't understand how that answers the question of why the thematic suffix isn't found in the aorist and optative (if the action is a activity, how does it stop being an activity just because it happened in the past?).

Is anyone able to explain more simply what role thematic suffixes are even doing in the verb that causes them to show up in some conjugations but not others, and where they probably evolved from? Or is there just no known answer and it's anyone's guess?

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    The two papers deal with two different varieties of Georgian which to me seem to treat those suffixes differently. Why not take a single grammar of a single variety of Georgian and read it all, at least about the verb section, then you'll understand the jargon. Anyhow it's quite clear that it's the stem alternation also found in many Indo-European languages like Latin, Persian, or Polish. Your question is like why in Latin the infinitive is formed from the same stem as the present tense, while in Polish the infinitive is formed from the same stem as the past tense.
    – Yellow Sky
    Commented Apr 22, 2023 at 3:52
  • As @YellowSky hints at, the list of suggested functions of the thematic suffix given in the second article is for Standard Georgian, but the main body of that article is for Şavşat Georgian, which is different. Note that the “McGinnis (2016)” mentioned in the second article is the first article. They’re saying that the proposed explanation by McGinnis and that by Nash (2017) for Standard Georgian together seem to best match how the thematic suffix is used in Şavşat Georgian. The very existence of the list shows that it’s not firmly established what these suffixes actually do. Commented Apr 22, 2023 at 10:57

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