The Necessity of Preserving Western Armenian

“Language is the road map of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going”

As I read the list of endangered languages published by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), it perplexed me when Western Armenian was categorized as “definitely endangered.” According to UNESCO, “definitely endangered” means that ‘children no longer learn the language as mother tongue in the home.’ Currently there are only 200,000 people who speak Western Armenian. However, according to the most recent UN data, the number of Armenians in the diaspora is 6-7 million.

A nation’s identity, its culture, its values, and the preservation of its heritage is dependent on its language. Armenian is no different. It should not be “optional” to teach Armenian to our children, but rather intentional. It may be a struggle, but not impossible. According to the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences, ‘optimal learning’ is achieved when children start learning two languages between birth and 3 years of age through high quality interactions with live human beings’ (Authors Patricia H. Kulh, Ph.D. and Naja Ferjan Ramirez, Ph.D.). Simply put, the best way to teach our mother tongue is face to face.

In addition, there is an infinite number of learning tools such as DVD’s, CD’s, audio books and multimedia sources that can be used as supplements to help introduce our children as well as adults to our mother tongue. The fruits of our labor will not be seen or heard spontaneously, however. Instead, after many months and years, a committed and determined parent will see their child (or children) has achieved a level of fluency and proficiency that is sufficient for formal or informal conversations. The emphasis is on commitment and attitude. The attitude must be one of intentional daily teaching, even if it is for ten minutes a day. This, however, is not limited to parents of young children. Adults of any age, Armenian or non Armenian, can learn Western Armenian, given today’s technologically rich era of multimedia and social media.

One might wonder how long it takes to learn a new language or your native language.From my own research, thirty minutes per day for two years will provide a comfortable level of fluency. Again, be mindful that Western Armenian has been demoted to “definitely endangered.” This can be reversed if the diaspora has a unified, intentional goal of preserving the heart and soul of our language, and ultimately, our nation.

Many would argue they don’t have thirty minutes to spare each day. Yet the average daily use of social media is over two hours. Yes, it takes discipline and living with purpose, but at this low point in our history, we have no choice. In fact, it is our responsibility and privilege to our next generation. It’s up to you . It’s up to us. It is never too late, and it is never too early to learn and preserve Western Armenian.

Martha Mekaelian

Martha Mekaelian

Martha Mekaelian's parents are from Jerusalem (mother), and Jordan (father), and she is a first generation Armenian (born in the US). She has a Professional Educator Licensure in the state of Illinois, with endorsements in the fields of Learning Behavior Specialist 1, Learning Disabilities, and Social/Emotional Disorders. As a Christian (first, and foremost), she has served at the St. Gregory of Datev Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for over 25 consecutive years. As a humanitarian, she has worked with AmeriCares and The Prelacy of the Eastern United States in securing billions of dollars of humanitarian aid for Armenia for nearly 25 years, and received the first humanitarian award from the Armenian Prelacy in 1998.
Martha Mekaelian

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23 Comments

  1. Ms. Mekaelian’s timely article sheds new light on the importance of the Western Armenian language and its everyday use.

    We can be even stronger if we establish a unified Western Armenian political entity to help us preserve our language, identity and rights until the liberation of Western Armenia.

  2. Unfortunately, for someone who was not brought up or did not grow up in a household where Western Armenian was spoken, learning Western Armenian is not an easy matter by any stretch of the imagination. I speak and write fluent Western Armenian, not because my mother who thought the language in Armenian schools for some five decades, nor because I had made a commitment to learning the language early on. I was simply brought up that way. “It takes a village” to learn the language. I suggest all those who are interested to learn the Western Armenian to establish an online connection with like-minded people and start communicating sounding the words in Western Armenian but writing in Latin characters and slowly interject Armenian characters, at times even along with Latin characters, to spell a word, gradually shifting only to Armenian characters. The good thing is that Western Armenian, unlike the English language, has a character for every sound. One does not need to learn, as in English that F sounding is written as Farm or rouGH or PHarmacy. We, as ethnic Armenians, have not been connected the way we are now. Internet era has been our era. Creating an online connection, I believe, is the most productive way, if not the only way, to come together and learn Western Armenian. Yes, “It take a village” to learn the language.

    • This concept is wonderful, and it can only empower those who have the will to learn our mother tongue.

  3. With each passing generation fewer and fewer Armenians are speaking the dialect. Very few Armenians today actually speak proper Western Armenian. Many of those that ‘think’ they speak the dialect, actually speak an ugly, bastardized form of it. Without a homeland, the dialect will fade into oblivion despite best efforts. Strategically, it would make more sense to adopt the official language of the Armenian Republic. At least, this way we may be able to finally bridge the cultural/psychological divide that exists between the Armenia and the Diaspora. At the end of the day, what really counts is not the Diaspora or Western Armenian, but the health and well being of the Armenian state. Period. In other words, you people need to get yourselves out of your tribal and Diasporan thinking mode.

    • With Eastern Armenian being “an ugly bastardized form” of millennia-old Western Armenian, it makes a lot more sense to continue learning and mastering Western Armenian. No sane living Western Armenian would agree to commit cultural genocide, as you suggest. That would also legitimize the crime of Genocide perpetrated by Turkey. No-go.

    • Cultural and psychological divide, to the extent it exists, between Diaspora and Armenia, is not because of differences in the diction of the same alphabet. Let us be reminded that the Diaspora Armenians do not necessarily hail from Western Armenia. The largest Diaspora Armenians are the Russian Armenians and Diaspora Armenians are culturally diverse amongst themselves (Latin Armenians, Western and Eastern European Armenians, North America Armenians, Middle Eastern Armenians, etc.). Should a Diaspora Armenian decide to learn Eastern Armenian instead of the Western, that is perfectly fine and encourageable. The point that was raised in this article was the endangered Western Armenian and the discussion is centered how best to preserve it, should one be inclined to do so.

    • Eastern Armenian is “an ugly bastardized form” of millennia-old Western Armenian. Therefore, it makes a lot more sense to continue learning and mastering Western Armenian. No sane living Western Armenian would agree to commit cultural genocide, as you suggest. That would also legitimize the crime of Genocide perpetrated by Turkey. No-go.

    • We respectfully request that the Armenian Weekly editors caution readers about hateful remarks such as the one posted by Norserunt. Every dialect has its value and beauty. No dialect speaker is immune from misusing a language. Misuse should not prevent anyone from speaking the language style of choice but should offer opportunities for encouragement. We should REJOICE when any Armenian attempts to preserve and use the endangered mother tongue be it in E. Armenia, W. Armenia, Cilicia, or ANYWHERE in the world.

    • “an ugly bastardized form”… Wow! What a pity that such a phrase is used in order to describe Eastern Armenian. What an unbelievable, absurd claim. This must be one of these “interesting” efforts where some people have the temerity to teach Armenian to the people of Armenia. Funny, isn’t it? Most of these people think that the 4th and the 9th letters of the Armenian Alphabet have exactly the same pronunciation. These guys also believe that the 2nd letter of the Armenian Alphabet is a “p”, and the 3rd letter is a “k”… Thankfully, Eastern Armenian speakers know it’s not the case..: The first letter (sound) of the alphabet is “A” and it’s followed by “B”… (GREEK ALPHABET: “A”lpha, “B”eta, “G”ama, “D”elta… ARAMAIC ALPHABET: “A”lap, “B”eth, “G”amal, “D”alath… ARMENIAN ALPHABET: “A”yb, “B”en, “G”im, “D”a…) Mashtots would love Eastern Armenian. Next time before you curse the language in which Sevak & Charents wrote, think again. (From Constantinople with love)

    • I want to address to Petros Kesaratsi.
      Dear, you got mad from Armen but it seems that you didn’t know or care why he wrote that. Armen responded to Norserunt’s comment which was as ignorant as yours is. You and Norserunt are the textbook definition of linguistic prescriptivists. You might need to look up to the meaning of “prescriptivist”.
      All people SPEAK AS THEY WISH TO SPEAK, SPEAK IN THE FORMAT THAT THEY SEE FIT. You can’t come and say that “no no, our speech is the purer one, yours is very corrupted, you guys need to fix it” bullshit stuff.
      And yes, Eastern Armenian is bastardized as much as Western is. The “um” used in conjugation is of Persian influence. The orthography that is used in Armenia is completely different from that which was used in krapar, the same orthography that all Western Armenians use till this day.
      If you’re so worked up on the “false” Armenian, then you should never hold vigil on April 24. Cause you know why? Those people who were killed and marched under the heat of the sun spoke and/or learnt WESTERN Armenian. Those people who, yes, thought that the 4th and the 9th letters of the Armenian alphabet have exactly the same pronunciation, those same people who also believed that the 2nd letter of the Armenian alphabet is a “p”, and the 3rd letter is a “k”.
      Next time before you belittle the language in which Taniel Varoujan, Siamanto, Zabel Yessayan, Khrimyan Hairig, Bedros Tourian, Misak Metzarents, Rupen Zartanian, Louise Aslanian wrote, think again.
      And, oh, before I finish with my comment, I’d like to say how IRONIC it is that you mentioned Sevak because, te re re re, Paruyr Sevak was inspired by Rupen Sevag (with a ‘p’ and a ‘g’). Paruyr loved his writing in WESTERN Armenian so much to the point that he adopted Rupen’s last name. And if you’re gonna call me out for also writing something “ironic” because Rupen was a native of your own city, then think twice before doing it. Cause remember where most Western Armenian writers were born (psst, if you want a clue, just look east, oh yes, they were from Anatolian towns and villages).
      Keep that love in Istanbul. Thanks.
      (From one of your damn southern neighbors)

    • @Tamar:
      Barev Tamar.
      Thanks for your message.

      First of all, my main concern was some Western Armenian speakers’ disdain for Eastern Armenian and Eastern Armenian speakers.

      You know the story: A Western Armenian speaker visits Armenia and complains he/she doesn’t understand the language, without even thinking about their own lacking in the language. Some of them go even further and come up with some absurd arguments like “hey you know what? In Armenia, they don’t know Armenian” – No, they surely know Armenian, and they breathe it on a daily basis. If a Western Armenian speaker doesn’t understand the language spoken in Armenia, it’s because he/she doesn’t know the language enough to cope with it. Armenian Language is not limited with “Bari luys”, “gisher bari”, “inchpes es”, “shnorhakaloutyoun”, “barev”, etc. etc… If you know Armenian well enough (whether it be Western Armenian or Eastern Armenian; Armenian is Armenian), you have no problems in Armenia or in any community where they know the language well (even writing a sentence like this feels weird, I know)

      And by the way, I’m NOT generalizing Western Armenian speakers here. Even though they (we) mostly lack optimum conditions, without a doubt, we also have some Western Armenian speakers who use the language very well.

      1) “Being rude or not” has nothing to do with the issue. It’s what I say, not the way I say it. So, you are (or anyone else is) completely free to call me anything you wish (i.e. ignorant, etc.) – I love Western Armenian, and, I love Eastern Armenian. My point is, Eastern Armenians are doing it right when it comes to the pronunciation. There is a reason why we have an Alphabet with 36 (38) letters. Each letter has a DIFFERENT pronunciation. Each letter represents DIFFERENT sounds. If two letters have exactly the same pronunciation, then why don’t we have just one letter instead of two letters? Komitas was signing his own name with the Latin letter “K” when he was signing documents with Latin letters. It’s “Komitas”, not “Gomidas”.

      2) “All people SPEAK AS THEY WISH TO SPEAK, SPEAK IN THE FORMAT THAT THEY SEE FIT” —- I don’t think so. Yes, language is a tool to express yourself, but there are right & wrong ways to do it. If an individual thinks that i.e. the 4th and the 9th letters of the Armenian Alphabet have exactly the same pronunciation, then he/she is wrong. These are different letters, and different sounds.

      At this point, I want to specify that people shouldn’t be afraid of speaking Armenian Language because of possible mistakes; I would definitely prefer Armenian speakers with mistakes than nonspeakers. I hope I’m clear here.

      3) “If you’re so worked up on the ‘false’ Armenian, then you should never hold vigil on April 24. Cause you know why? Those people who were killed and marched under the heat of the sun spoke and/or learnt WESTERN Armenian” —- So, again, it has nothing to do with the point I’m trying to express. There were Turkish speakers among them. There were Kurdish speakers among them. There were different Armenian dialects. So what? My point is: If an individual thinks that i.e. the 4th and the 9th letters of the Armenian Alphabet have exactly the same pronunciation, then he/she is WRONG, NO MATTER WHO HE/SHE IS. The same goes for the 25th letter and the 27th letter, and the 2nd letter & 35th letter, and so on. They don’t have the same pronunciation. They don’t represent the same sounds and this is the reason that our alphabet has them.

      4) “Next time before you BELITTLE the language in which Taniel Varoujan, Siamanto, Zabel Yessayan, Khrimyan Hairig, Bedros Tourian, Misak Metzarents, Rupen Zartanian, Louise Aslanian wrote, think again.” – I NEVER belittled Western Armenian and will NEVER do. As I have specified earlier, I love Western Armenian as much as Eastern Armenian (I don’t need to mention this but anyway, Vahan Tekeyan is my favorite poet) – When it comes to Paruyr Sevak / Ruben Sevak; again, Paruyr Sevak’s respect for Ruben Sevak has nothing to do with my point.

      My point is: Each letter of the alphabet is there because of a reason, and that reason is that they represent different sounds, and unfortunately, most of the Western Armenian speakers are not good at it. And I think the way Eastern Armenian speakers pronounce these letters “preserve” these sounds.

      5) According to Koryun (the biographer and pupil of Mesrop Mashtots), “Mesrop Mashtots created a letter for each sound”; so, in other words, he didn’t create two different letters for the same sound. The reason I gave examples from the GREEK Alphabet and the ARAMAIC Alphabet in my previous comment was because of their huge influence in the region. GREEK and ARAMAIC were two of the most influential languages during the invention of the Armenian Alphabet but these alphabets were still insufficient to represent all of the Armenian “sounds”, thus Mashtots took action and created the alphabet, an alphabet that was able to represent all Armenian “sounds”.

      And let’s see how they wrote the names of the apostles of Jesus, the influential figures of history, or some geographical locations when they were translating the Bible:

      Original: Petros / Armenian: Պետրոս (P = Պ and t = տ)

      Original: Paulos / Armenian: Պօղոս (P = Պ)

      Original: Daniel / Armenian: Դանիէլ (D = Դ)

      Original: Basilius / Armenian: Բարսեղ (B = Բ)

      Original: Tigris / Armenian: Տիգրիս (T = տ and G = Գ)

      Original: Grigorios / Armenian: Գրիգորիոս(G = Գ)

      Original: Ararat / Armenian: Արարատ (t = տ)

      (And so on and on…)

      Mnas Barov + Wish you the very best,
      Petros

  4. Thank you, Rose. We can all be mindful with our language and give the time it deserves daily. One day, a center for Armenian language learning should be established in the midwest.

  5. Thank you for the article.

    What would you say about first learning Eastern Armenian and then switching over? Speaking for myself, I hope to spend time in the Republic of Armenia as well as to follow its news from abroad, so for the past year I have been studying Eastern Armenian. I don’t have time to learn the two different dialects in parallel. Should I continue focusing on Eastern Armenian and then switch over once I reach a certain level, or should I stop learning Eastern Armenian and start Western Armenian “from scratch”? Surely learning Eastern Armenian will make learning Western Armenian easier, right?

    Thanks.

    • Learning Armenian in any dialect is infinitely better than no attempt at all. Many who speak Western Armenian have minimal problems in understanding Eastern Armenian and vice versa. This is the beauty of our language. . . it transcends boundaries and speaks to the heart.

  6. This article brings to surface what many of us keep in the back of our minds. Living in North America, specifically in Montreal, where the Armenian language still flourishes even through 2nd and 3rd generation Canadian born Armenians, I feel the importance of this message and I would like to emphasize the suggestion that Martha herself touched upon. Yes, Armenian Language Learning Centers. Actually in the 70’s and 80’s it was the base for why, I believe, many Armenians today are able to speak the language. There is also a new emergence that may impact this whole phenomenon of “keeping Language” and stressing the concern about its preservation. Taking into account the international crisis/change in Syria and Iran; where Armenians, who until most recently enjoyed high concentrations of “community life”, allowing language, culture and identity to maintain, now are sent all across the world, wherever refuge can be obtained. Again, the concern of “preservation” hits again.
    I guess we can ponder the problem, however, I like Martha’s approach in finding solutions and suggestions. I hope this exchange of comments yields to establishing programs. Martha, with your background and expertise can you start a program ?

    • The Chicago Armenian community has great talent, and if we harness this talent, we can start a language program. Often, it is just a matter of organizing a social setting which recurs on a monthly basis so the exposure to Armenian is consistent.

  7. Western Armenian is a broken and Turkifed Arabized version of Armenian. Western Armenians should learn true Armenian. You cnahbhed the alphabet to something that’s different and does not make sense. Western Armenians are Armenians period. There is no such thing as western or eastern we are all Armenians and we all speak the same language have the same blood and will die for the same flag. Stop this division nonsense. We all speak ARMENIAN. an ancient Indo European language and we should stick to Classical Armenian, the Armenian language that is spoken in Armenia.

  8. You people who tear each other in the comment section are unbelievable, yet you are all Armenian, carry the same genes and blood in your veins, and suffered the same fate of injustice, and genocide. Instead of accepting your faults and embracing each other, you continue to tear each other any chance you get. The truth is there is one Armenian language: 2 different dialects. Eastern and Western. May I remind all of you that before the genocide of 1915, there were many different spoken dialects, each different from each other, and sometimes one barley understood the other. Now there are only two dialects and you are bickering about that. The truth is the Eastern SPOKEN dialect is full of non Armenian words such as Russian and Latin, even though we have the equivalent Armenian words for them. Either accept that and move on or do something about it, like remove all the foreign words, and replace them with Armenian ones. The Western SPOKEN dialect has Turkish words. I suggest you do the same for this dialect too. Be constructive and find solutions to existing problems and then apply them. And stop bickering and tearing each other for heavens sake.

  9. A comprehensive dictionary; English – Armenian by Kouyoumdjian is a wonderful source to put to rest what is or is not Armenian. The concept is simple. Let’s use our resources. Let’s teach ourselves if nobody will teach us. This is possible and do able. We were not born Armenian so we speak everybody else’s language. The language is ours and let us treat it as such. We were born Armenian to preserve a gift which is precious. Give our next generation the same gift, but perfected.

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