Armenian – a language “half as old as time”

Reinvigorating a language in the age of digital communications ought to be easy. After all, the Internet makes sources and resources widely available and social media technologies encourage linguistic improvisation. Armenian – threatened by historical exile and then by Russification – is a case in point.

Armenian is spoken in the Republic of Armenia, in the independent but unrecognized state of Nagorno-Karabakh, and among communities in the Armenian Diaspora. It has its own alphabet and script. Early in the 5th century BCE, Classical Armenian, or Grabar, was one of the great languages of the Near East and Asia Minor. Although an autonomous branch within the Indo-European family, it had some affinities to Middle Iranian, Greek and the Balto-Slavic languages, but belonged to none of them. Characterized by a system of inflection, it made flexible and liberal use of combining root words to create derivative and compound words by adding bits on.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, Classical Armenian began to give way to the vernacular language, called Ašxarhabar. The introduction of new literary forms and styles, as well as the many new ideas sweeping Europe, created a need to turn Ašxarhabar into a modern literary language. Since by then numerous dialects had developed in the traditional Armenian regions, two major variants were developed on the basis of common features:

  • Western Variant: The influx of immigrants from different parts of the traditional Armenian homeland to Constantinople crystallized the common elements of the regional dialects, paving the way for a style of writing that required a shorter and more flexible learning curve than Grabar.
  • Eastern Variant: The dialect of the Ararat plateau provided the primary elements of Eastern Armenian, centred in old Tiflis (now Tbilisi, capital of Georgia). Similar to the Western Armenian variant, the Modern Eastern was in many ways more practical and accessible to the masses than Grabar.

Both versions of Ašxarhabar were enthusiastically promoted. Soon the proliferation of newspapers in both regions and the development of a network of schools dramatically increased literacy rates even in remote rural areas. Literary works entirely written in the modern language increasingly legitimized its existence and by the turn of the 20th century both varieties of modern Armenian had prevailed over Grabar leading to a new and simplified grammatical structure of the language.

More recently, digital communications have given the language a new lease of life through online blogging and discussion. The Internet has provided space for literary and journalistic reflections on crucial public debates, circumventing ineffective state mechanisms of information-sharing. It also helped that UNESCO nominated Yerevan, Armenia’s capital city, as World Book Capital 2012. Some commentators thought this a ludicrous choice, given the absence of a traditional literary marketplace, the shattered library system, extremely limited print runs of books by contemporary Armenian authors, and the general lack of public interest in literature and writers.

But there are signs of hope. The government has seized the opportunity to promote book publishing and is celebrating 500 years of printing. In Venice in 1512, just seven decades after Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, Hakob Meghapart printed the first book in Grabar and several exhibitions will focus on ancient Armenian books kept in the world’s libraries and museums.

Yerevan World Book Capital 2012 events are emphasising children and young adults as future bearers of knowledge. Many programmes explore the joys of reading, reciting, writing and learning how to publish and print books. Bringing together writers, journalists, publishers, librarians, booksellers and book-lovers, Yerevan World Book Capital 2012 promises to turn over a new leaf in Armenia’s linguistic and literary heritage.

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3 comments on “Armenian – a language “half as old as time”

  1. you’re missing a Ււ in the alphabet… The Alphabet has 38 letters with the last 2 added much later, though the alphabet in Armenia seems to have 39, having removed the letter that I just mentioned and having put in the two two-letter words meaning “and” as letters :/

  2. Philip Lee says:

    Thank you for the clarification. It’s difficult if one isn’t able to read such a fascinating language!

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