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Speaking Armenian: Everyman’s History

I’m no anthropologist, historian, linguist, or sociologist.  I do know how to watch and listen, and have for over four decades (and longer if you count grandmother stories).  So, I’m going to allow myself to size up the status of our spoken Armenian language, or at least describe how I see we’ve gotten to where we are today, in an extremely compact, probably oversimplified, package.

‘I’m going to allow myself to size up the status of our spoken Armenian language, or at least describe how I see we’ve gotten to where we are today, in an extremely compact, probably oversimplified, package.’

From the time Armenians, as such, came into existence, anywhere from three to five thousand years ago (depending on whom you ask), we spoke our language.  Sure, it was Urartian, and other proto-Armenians’ languages, at first, but it gelled into what we now know as crapar (grabar), Classical Armenian.

With the adoption of Christianity, we are told, the need to write in our own alphabet arose and Mesrop had his “vision,” coming up with our original 36 letters.  However, I’ve had a poster since my early teen (even pre-teen) years, that showed some older alphabets of ours.  This topic will sidetrack the discussion, and is easily fodder whole articles, so, back to the spoken language.

Of course, we had to contend with various conquering overlords (Arabs of various dynasties, Byzantines, Greeks, Medes, Persians—again, of various dynasties—Romans, Russians) throughout our history, having to communicate in the official state language, Armenian did some borrowing along the way, unavoidably.  Our homeland being located on major trade routes probably contributed to this process, too.

Yet, until the Turkic arrivals, at the time of Middle Armenian, we still spoke our often mutually unintelligible dialects in our villages, towns, and cities, whether tucked away in hidden gorges or high mountain redoubts.

Then it began: one of the longest periods of continuous subjugation to the same foreigner’s rule, under what ultimately coalesced into the Ottoman Empire.  This time, we lost our political classes and hierarchy who opportunistically converted to Islam to retain their hereditary status (a process which, to be fair, had begun even under Byzazntine rule), eliminating an important locus of Armenian speaking.  Coupled with the forced conversions to Islam over the centuries and the Armenian Church’s consequent “expulsion” of these people as Armenians lead to a diminution of the Armenian population in our homeland.  They became “Kurds” and “Turks” so now, we were obligated to use other languages in daily life with our “new” neighbors.

Then there was the constant Ottoman/Turkish persecution.  In many places, speaking Armenian meant having your tongue cut out.  This led some parts of our homeland to lose the language almost entirely.  Cilicia was such an area.  Other than some of the mountainous towns and villages, Armenians there had become Turkish speaking by the 1800s.  I even heard them described once as “Christian Turks”!  Only with the arrival of Western Christian missionaries and the spread of literacy they triggered did a slow restoration of spoken Armenian commence.

Then, of course, genocide struck and everything changed.  In some ways, with the removal of immediate Turkish pressure, returning to Armenian speaking was eased, especially in the Middle East where we were recognized as Armenians—not just as individuals.  That created very strong communities along with their educational institutions.  Turkish speaking was actively discouraged and Armenian was relearned by the new generations.

In the West, the situation was different.  For a variety of reasons, Armenian day schools started to be instituted two generations later.  Meanwhile, you had an immigrant generation that struggled to impart Armenian to their children, and did.  But then prejudice took its toll.  At least in the U.S., there was much pressure to speak English.  Kids being kids and not wanting to be different, avoided speaking Armenian.  Then when they grew up and had kids, even though they spoke Armenian, and initially taught the second diaspora-born generation the language, as soon as those kids hit school, the parents often stopped speaking Armenian to them, even at home.  The idea was to avoid putting their children through the same difficulties they had experienced.  So in the West, Armenian speaking was largely lost, or on its way to being lost.

However, starting in the 1960s, a new phenomenon manifested—a re-dispersion.  Armenians form the more Armenian-speaking parts of the world (Middle East and Armenia) started moving west, providing a boost, at least temporarily, to the level of Armenian-speaking in the communities they settled in.  This also created tensions when too much attention was focused on language vs. a more comprehensive Armenian identity retention/development agenda.  Before concluding this chronology with where we stand today, a look at parallel track is necessary.

That track is what was happening meanwhile in our homeland, and by that I mean Soviet Armenia/Artsakh/Javakhk/Nakhichevan, Turkish occupied Western Armenia, and for this discussion, I am including Bolis (Istanbul) as well.  In the east, Armenians were being forced out of their homes in Nakhichevan, less so in Artsakh, and slightly in Javakhk.  Simultaneously, these regions were deprived of Armenian governance, hence language instruction in schools was weak, leading to the spoken language being retained, but at the level of local dialects.  In these three regions, along with Soviet Armenia, heavy Russian influence came to permeate the language, from vocabulary to the tone and lilt of people’s speech.

In Bolis, Armenian schools continued to function. That, coupled with efforts to find and educate orphans from Western Armenia led to a fairly strong habit of speaking Armenian (though today, there are many who are exclusively Turkish speakers).  In Western Armenia, rumors of pockets of hidden Armenians retaining the language persisted.  Some of the survivors remembered the language, but they are effectively gone now.  There are the Hamshens, living near the border with Georgia, whose language is clearly a dialect of Western Armenian.

Today, we confront a largely unenviable mix of good and bad news on the Armenian-speaking front.  The bad news includes depletion of our Middle Eastern communities, making it more difficult to maintain Armenian speaking as a natural, practical, useful, part of everyday life.  Loss of language capacity even in the Middle Eastern communities (I read an article a few months ago wherein the author describes an Armenian school graduate in Lebanon who did not know/remember the Armenian word for the month of June!).

In the Republic of Armenia, of all places, an insufferable level of Russian words are still mixed into everyday speech, even in the media (broadcast, print, and electronic).  Armenian usage is declining almost everywhere.  Many people (almost) sneer when this topic is raised, criticizing those who express concern about needless use of non-Armenian words when speaking Armenian (these are, ironically, often people who can speak neither Armenian nor their host country’s language well).

The good news is that in at least two places, Argentina and Canada, there are examples of third and fourthgeneration diasporans who speak Armenian quite well as a result of the efforts of the community.  These may be models to study and emulate.  There is a lot of attention and effort directed at the issue now.  I hope that this will be done in a positive, constructive way, and not in such a manner that what ought to be a unifying factor – our language – becomes divisive, as happened in the 1970s and 1980s.

There are hints that a “merger” of our Eastern and Western dialects may be underway.  Should this occur, the incentive would dissipate for our youth to speak to one another in host-country languages because they do not understand the “other” dialect.  I have even heard (as far back as the 1980s) advocacy of a “mixed” language, where the structure is Armenian, but most of the words are English/French/Spanish/etc.  There is also the re-emergence of Western Armenia’s hidden Armenians, some of whom are thrilled to learn and speak their mother tongue.

Ultimately, if we are serious about being Armenian and reestablishing our presence in all of our homeland, we cannot dismiss the importance of language.  We must, however, must be careful not to turn our advocacy, love, and use of Armenian in speech into a divisive issue.

Let’s use it, not lose it.

5 Comments on Speaking Armenian: Everyman’s History

  1. avatar Ann A Nahabedian // June 26, 2017 at 11:49 am // Reply

    Excellent. Let’s emulate Canada and Argentina.

  2. You are repeating the experience of the early Zionist pioneers in the Land of Israel. If we were to revive the Jewish homeland we had to speak, read and write the authentic Jewish language, i.e. Hebrew. The Jewish day school in Brooklyn that I attended taught all religious subjects in Hebrew, as well as classical Hebrew literature, and now I am fluent in English and Hebrew, participate in Israeli sports groups on Facebook and have no difficulty communicating with the locals on my visits to Israel.

  3. avatar mayrenaser // June 26, 2017 at 2:09 pm // Reply

    an Armenian who doesn’t think in Armenian is not 100% Armenian, no nation can become great without the number one tool…Languange…the time has come to merge eastern/western dialects into one universal Armenian, and start to teach the newborns, the one and only mother tongue, where every soldier/citizen, civic leader, and most importantly business leaders can communicate with each other without any problems, despite of it all, leaving love of motherland aside, if an Armenian cannot earn a living, thinking and reacting, and processing day to day functions in Armenian, he/she is not going to be fully immersed in armenianness, so let’s all put aside, my version is correct and or your version is wrong and fuse into one for all, and remember, there is no mine and yours, it all OURS

  4. avatar Shant Harootunian // June 27, 2017 at 4:13 pm // Reply

    While I have no disagreement with many of the author’s comments and observations, I seriously question his comment
    that “. . .we lost our political classes and hierarchy who opportunistically converted to Islam. . .” I know of only forced conversions, not “opportunistic” ones. I wonder what his source is for this amazing statement. Can he name a few examples to illustrate his unfounded conclusion? One other point that he completely neglects to mention is the role of the Armenian institutions in Iran which succeeded in retaining the Armenian language for at least one more generation than did the Armenian institutions in other western countries.

  5. avatar Anna Kerkorian // July 1, 2017 at 6:02 pm // Reply

    Fascinating and so important. Thank you for this summation.

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