Sometimes we’re asked a question and only later do we wish we had paused and been more thoughtful in our response. And so it was when a participant at the Hamazkayin Cultural Retreat in Boston in May asked if Armenian has served me professionally, at once wondering how they could make the case for young people to prioritize learning Armenian.
At face value, the answer would be that I don’t use Armenian on a daily basis in my job, but the question – and especially the driving sentiment – deserves more consideration than that.
What does it even mean to be a professional and when have we arrived? Armenians ask “inch masnaget es,” and I’ve never had a simple answer. I studied music and communication in undergraduate university. I moved to Armenia; studying music and communication helped me communicate with Armenians. Armenians helped me grow into myself which, long story short, led me to where I am today.
When I lived in Armenia 25 years ago, everywhere I looked the Armenian language was an entrance to something new, foundational, essential.
My friend Gayane patiently spoke Armenian with me as I clumsily responded, occasionally surprising her with a new word: xraxusel impressed her one day. My friend Tom knew Armenian so well he followed the laws of the newly independent Armenia as fast as they were drafted. Hagop and Anahit taught me songs in Armenian with melodies that helped me understand pain and loss better than any history book or conversation ever could.
Armenians spoke of love and pain in ways unfamiliar to me as someone from a stoic culture that spoke of neither. Armenian invited me to be me in new ways.
On a basic level, Armenian is just an extension of the vocabulary I learned before the age of 21. Another participant at the Hamazkayin event noted that children do not distinguish between languages until grownups tell them to do so. Children simply know to use this word with this person and that word with that person.
Words are building blocks, and if you ask most any kid, they’ll tell you that more blocks are better. Armenian, as a flexible language in many respects, is ideal for the person who wants to build cool things, including ideas, stories and ways of being.
As an odar (and I know that there is some negative connotation with that word but I use it with no such baggage attached), Armenian differentiates me. It sounds like nothing else, it looks like nothing else, it makes me feel like nothing else.
I hadn’t spoken much Armenian the past couple of years, so for two weeks before the event, which was conducted in a mixture of Eastern and Western Armenian, I sat on my couch and read Kristine Sargsyan’s book out loud each morning with a cup of coffee. My mouth and ears and mind reoriented to another way of communicating.
And it’s a language, sure, or an extension of a vocabulary, however you wish to see it, but it’s also a powerful statement about survival. I’d say resilience, but I’m sort of bored of that word; I know plenty of people who wish they weren’t so remarkably resilient and that life were just more peaceful.
It is possible that speaking Armenian is in fact revolutionary.
Survival is something else. A scar is beautiful, why? Because it’s evidence that you survived. A language, however many or few words remain in collective memory, is indicative that people have made it through, identity intact, one generation conveying to the next the stories they deem most valuable, or at least readily accessible in their mind. It is possible that speaking Armenian is in fact revolutionary.
The Armenian language is not only about oppression, genocide and transgenerational trauma though. It is also one that expresses the mundane and points guests to the best nearby coffee shop and wrestles with complex social issues of right now and relates to complicated societies around the world in deeply empathetic ways. It is a framework for understanding this moment in time and one that is as relevant as any other framework.
The language, whether Eastern or Western, is more than syllables and a reluctant accommodation for more commonly used languages. I have spoken Armenian in Ethiopia, Mexico, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Canada, England, Turkey, Greece, the United States, Artsakh and elsewhere. This is notable because it requires effort to provide the world with such tangible evidence of your presence. Doing so would seem to suggest that much more is possible, too.
You could say that Armenian as a second, third or fourth language is impractical and superficially of little value, but this is not a zero-sum game. There is room for a much bigger vocabulary: one that includes words that we call Arabic, words that we call French, words that we call Spanish.
To leave out words that we call Armenian is, in a way, casting doubt on people’s capacity for building. And if I’ve learned anything about Armenians, it’s that no one should second guess their capacity to learn, create and contribute. Were it not for this truth, I wouldn’t speak Armenian.