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About Armenian Language

The Armenian language (հայերէն in TAO or հայերեն in RAO, Armenian pronunciation: [hɑjɛˈɾɛn] — hayeren) is an Indo-European language spoken by the Armenian people. It is the official language of the Republic of Armenia as well as in the region of Nagorno-Karabakh. The language is also widely spoken by Armenian communities in the Armenian diaspora. It has its own script, the Armenian alphabet.

Linguists typically classify Armenian as an independent branch of the Indo-European language family,[3] though many Indo-Europeanists believe it forms a subgroup with the Greek and Indo-Iranian families. (Renfrew, Clackson and Fortson 1994).

Origins

The earliest testimony of the Armenian language dates to the 5th century AD (the Bible translation of Mesrob Mashtots). The earlier history of the language is unclear and the subject of much speculation.

Graeco-Armenian hypothesis

Armenian is regarded by some linguists as a close relative of Phrygian. Many scholars such as Clackson (1994) hold that Greek is the most closely related surviving language to Armenian. The characteristically Greek representation of word-initial laryngeals by prothetic vowels is shared by Armenian, which also shares other phonological and morphological peculiarities of Greek. The close relatedness of Armenian and Greek sheds light on the paraphyletic nature of the Centum-Satem isogloss. Armenian also shares major isoglosses with Greek; some linguists propose that the linguistic ancestors of the Armenians and Greeks were either identical or in a close contact relation. Other linguists including Fortson (2004) comment "by the time we reach our earliest Armenian records in the 5th century A.D., the evidence of any such early kinship has been reduced to a few tantalizing pieces."

Evolution

Early in the fifth century, 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 of languages, it had some affinities to Middle Iranian, Greek and the Balto-Slavic languages, but belonged to none of them. It was characterized by a system of inflection unlike the other languages, as well as a flexible and liberal use of combining root words to create derivative and compound words by the application of certain agglutinative affixes.

In the period that followed the invention of the alphabet and up to the threshold of the modern era, Grabar (Classical Armenian) lived on. An effort to modernize the language in Greater Armenia and the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia (11-14th centuries) resulted in the addition of two more characters to the alphabet, bringing the total number to 38.

The Book of Lamentations by Gregory of Narek (951-1003), that could be considered a masterpiece of world literature, is perhaps a good example of the development of a literature and writing style that came to be known as Middle Armenian or Vernacular. In addition to elevating the literary style of the Armenian language, Gregory of Nareg paved the way for his successors to include secular themes in their writings. The thematic shift from mainly religious texts to writings with secular outlooks further enhanced and enriched the vocabulary. “A Word of Wisdom,” a poem by Hovhannes Sargavak devoted to a starling, legitimizes poetry devoted to nature, love or female beauty. Gradually, the interests of the “vulgar population” were also reflected in other literary works. Konsdantin Yerzinkatsi and several others even take the unusual step of criticizing the ecclesiastic establishment and addressing the social issues of the Armenian homeland. Not surprisingly, these changes altered the nature of the literary style and syntax but they did not constitute radical changes to the fundamentals of the grammar or the morphology of the language.

The Treaty of Turkmenchay of 1828 once again divided the traditional Armenian homeland. This time, two thirds of historical Armenia fell under Ottoman control, while the remaining territories were divided between the Russian and Persian empires. The antagonistic relationship between the Russian and Ottoman Empires led to creation of two separate and different environments under which Armenians lived and suffered. Halfway through the 19th century, two important concentrations of Armenian communities were constituted.

Because of persecutions or the search for better economic opportunities, many Armenians living under Ottoman rule gradually moved to Constantinople, the capital of the Ottoman Empire, while Tiflis (Tbilisi), in Georgia, became the center of Armenians living under Russian rule. These two cosmopolitan cities very soon became the primary poles of Armenian intellectual and cultural life.

The introduction of new literary forms and styles, as well as many new ideas sweeping Europe reached Armenians living in both regions. This created an ever-growing need to elevate the vulgar language, Ašxarhabar, to the dignity of a modern literary language, in contrast to the now-anachronistic Grabar. Numerous dialects developed in the traditional Armenian regions, which, different as they were, had certain morphological and phonetic features in common. On the basis of these features two major variants emerged:

  • 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 to 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, centered in Tiflis (Tbilisi, Georgia). Similar to the Western Armenian variant, the Modern Eastern was in many ways more practical and accessible to the masses than Grabar.

Both centers vigorously pursued the promotion of Ašxarhabar. The proliferation of newspapers in both versions (Eastern & Western) and the development of a network of schools where modern Armenian was taught, dramatically increased the rate of literacy (in spite of the obstacles by the colonial administrators), even in remote rural areas. The emergence of literary works entirely written in the modern versions increasingly legitimized the language’s existence. By the turn of the 20th century both varieties of the one modern Armenian language prevailed over Grabar and opened the path to a new and simplified grammatical structure of the language in the two different cultural spheres. Apart from minor morphological, phonetic and grammatical differences, the largely common vocabulary and identical rules of grammatical fundamentals allows users of one variant to understand the other easily.

Iranian influence

The Classical Armenian language (often referred to as Grabar, literally "written (language)") imported numerous words from Middle Iranian languages, primarily Parthian, and contains smaller inventories of borrowings from Greek, Syriac, Latin, and autochthonous languages such as Urartian. Middle Armenian (11th–15th centuries AD) incorporated further loans from Arabic, Turkish, Persian, and Latin, and the modern dialects took in hundreds of additional words from Modern Turkish and Persian. Therefore, determining the historical evolution of Armenian is particularly difficult because Armenian borrowed many words from Parthian and Persian (both Iranian languages) as well as from Greek.

The large percentage of loans from Iranian languages initially led linguists to classify Armenian as an Iranian language. The distinctness of Armenian was only recognized when Hübschmann (1875) used the comparative method to distinguish two layers of Iranian loans from the true Armenian vocabulary.

Modern changes

The two modern literary dialects, Western (originally associated with writers in the Ottoman Empire) and Eastern (originally associated with writers in the Russian Empire), removed almost all of their Turkish lexical influences in the 20th century, primarily following the Armenian Genocide.

Morphology

Armenian manuscript, circa 5th-6th century.Armenian corresponds with other Indo-European languages in its structure, but it shares distinctive sounds and features of its grammar with neighboring languages of the Caucasus region. Armenian is rich in combinations of consonants. Both classical Armenian and the modern spoken and literary dialects have a complicated system of declining nouns, with six or seven noun cases but no gender. In modern Armenian the use of auxiliary verbs to show tense (comparable to will in "he will go") has generally supplemented the inflected verbs of Classical Armenian. Negative verbs are conjugated differently from positive ones (as in English "he goes" and "he does not go"). Grammatically, early forms of Armenian had much in common with classical Greek and Latin, but the modern language, like modern Greek, has undergone many transformations. With time the Armenian language made a transition from a synthetic language (Old Armenian or Grabar) to a typical analytic language (Modern Armenian) with Middle Armenian as a midpoint in this transition.

Dialects

The major division is between the Eastern and Western dialects. The most distinctive feature of Western Armenian is that it has undergone several phonetic mergers; these may be due to proximity to Arabic and Turkish-speaking communities.

For example, Eastern Armenian speakers pronounce (թ) as an aspirated "t" as in "tiger", (դ) like the "d" in "develop", and (տ) as an unaspirated voiceless stop, sounding somewhere between the two as in "stop." Western Armenian has simplified the stop system into a simple division between voiced stops and voiceless aspirate ones; the first series corresponds to the unaspirated voiceless series of Eastern Armenian, and the second corresponds to the Eastern voiced and aspirated voiceless series. Thus, the Western dialect pronounces both (թ) and (դ) as an aspirated "t" as in "tiger," and the (տ) letter is pronounced like the letter "d" as in "develop."

There is no precise linguistic border between one dialect and another because there is nearly always a dialect transition zone of some size between pairs of geographically identified dialects).

Armenian can be subdivided in two major dialectal blocks and those blocks into individual dialects, though many of the Western Armenian dialects have died due to the effects of the Armenian Genocide. In addition, neither dialect is completely homogeneous: any dialect can be subdivided into several subdialects. While Western and Eastern Armenian are often described as different dialects of the same language, some subdialects are not readily mutually intelligible. It is true, however, that a fluent speaker of one of two greatly varying dialects who is exposed to the other dialect over even a short period of time will be able to understand the other with relative ease.

 

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