The danger of the “en-danger-ed”: The hope for a Western Armenian imaginary

An illustrated portrait of contemporary author Maroush Yeramian, featuring a poem from their work “Steganography (2015). Illustrations by Arpi Krikorian.

it was accepted.
then it became forbidden and familiar
the word kept silent
whatever has passed
it continues in a magnificence, unseen
unforetold
and eventually— we will become
one with the word
as we once were before.

Maroush Yeramian, from Steganography (2015)

(translation by Dr. Maral Aktokmakyan and me)

I identify as an author. I identify as a woman. I identify as a poet. I write experimentally. I write fantasy. I write concrete poetry. Yes, my writing is in Western Armenian. Yet, according to UNESCO’s online Atlas of Endangered Languages, Western Armenian is categorized as “Danger1” and “definitely endangered.” 

Endangered you say? So, then why even write in Western Armenian? Who will read your work? Who will buy your books? Is there a point in writing in a language claimed to be dying? Is there a point when so few can even read what you write? Ah, so the purpose is just preservation then?

People often ask me why I write in Western Armenian—surprised when I express that it is my language of articulation. It is the language I feel at home in, no matter where I have lived or been in the world. It is my language of humor, anger and interpretation—conversing always among and within other languages. It is my first language, even though I was born in the U.S. It is the language people constantly tell me is “dying” or maybe even already “dead.”

But I am writing in it. I am reading its words and teaching them. I am experimenting with it. I am communicating with my friends in it. To me, it is very much alive. To some, it is dispossessed, at a loss and must be saved. For my present, it is redeemable. For others, it may already be elapsed. I am starved for it; others feel deprived of it. I play with it; others tell me not to misuse it—to respect and honor it. 

We are constantly reminded that Western Armenian is under threat and commanded to preserve the language through speaking, reading and writing. But what does it mean to “respect” and “honor” a language, if not to celebrate it by creatively engaging with it; to look at the intricacies of the language through its essence, through its calligraphic forms, through its rhymes and verses, and then to craft your own; to honor its place by contributing to its history through your own personal and familial relationship with it? As a writer, I think about how its “endangered” status influences how I approach this language creatively. I do not write to simply preserve the language, but I wonder if this question can even be separated from my artistic thrust. At the same time, I wonder how readers approach these creations and set their expectations. Would my work—especially its experimental form—be received differently if the looming threat of the endangerment of Western Armenian was not at the foreground of each reader’s mind? Does the shadow of endangerment inhibit our ability to fully experience contemporary Western Armenian literature as an imaginative form, rather than as words motivated by preservation?

Western Armenian is both a language of community and a language that has always existed among multiple communities. It is also a language that has helped to build community. As Western Armenian speakers, we are constantly negotiating this language with other languages—and more often than not, with a colonial language. I have thought a lot about how Western Armenian was taught to me in school. I am proud to have attended an Armenian school where I had exposure and instruction in two languages, English and Armenian. In fact, my language and literature classes were my favorite subjects. However, mastering Armenian was something I felt we had to prove excellence in; English was not. Learning Armenian came with a lot of familial and cultural pressure—but we were always taught with the assumption that somehow we would fail, and English, the colonial language of America, would win. We were reminded to speak in Armenian and not switch so quickly to English. We were reminded that both our grandparents and parents’ generation preserved the Armenian language, and this was also our responsibility. We were reminded that we were getting assimilated—a jermag chart, or a white or “silent” genocide, they called it. 

When we made mistakes in English, those were easily corrected; we forgave ourselves quickly, not thinking twice about it. We never stuttered when we spoke English. However, each error in Armenian—spelling, conjugation or vocabulary—seemed like a huge betrayal to the language, our ancestors and our teachers. We were made to feel insecure in our own language, for several reasons. One, we were constantly reminded that we were far removed from our ancestors that originally spoke it, and that being in America fated us already to “losing” it. Two, in the constant anxiety over its extinction, we forgot that language was a living and being thing, that it changed, mutated and formed itself through its own spoken vibrations. We didn’t use Western Armenian in ways that were playful, in our everyday mundane discoveries and communication. Western Armenian was presented to us as a language that should be preserved and used in conjunction with high poetry, Armenian history and authors who died in the Genocide. English was our present, and Western Armenian stayed in our past. 

The registers in which we were asked to communicate in Western Armenian also attempted to box us in. The anxiety of preservation brought with it anxieties around the purity and perfection of language. We were frequently told to speak in “clean Armenian,” “to avoid English and other foreign words” and “to not corrupt the language of our ancestors.” We experimented in English, learning from music, television and popular media. When we spoke Armenian, our framework became ancient, 19th-century, male, heteronormative and traumatic. We stood upright instead of naturally. We were conscious of performing a language we could never really get close to, that could never fully be made intimate to us. Our lines were delivered as recitations, in ways we hoped our teachers and elders would approve of—and when we stopped acting for them, we secretly turned to English.

I cannot account for the experiences of every Western Armenian speaker and each individual who has formed a relationship with this language. As you see, this relationship is personal and complicated, as all relationships are. This relationship may and can be, for some, very traumatic—an extension of intergenerational trauma and the very struggles the language has endured to sustain, to be created within and in. It is a looming question for those authors, like me, who argue that its endangered status paradoxically may even promote its own presumed essence of being en-danger-ed. 

Though these realities existed in the minds of young learners of Armenian, many like me were still drawn to the language. We wanted to speak perfectly. We wanted to express our hearts in Armenian. We wanted to read the great authors, from the ancient to the contemporary, from Khorenatsi to Srpuhi Dousap to Maroush Yeramian. Yet when we force students to read primarily male authors from the 19th-century, who all died tragically either from the “poet’s disease” tuberculosis or as targeted intellectuals in the Armenian Genocide of 1915, how can we expect them to continue to engage with literature produced in Armenian when the underlying message remains trauma, death and hopelessness? Have we paired—or even conditioned ourselves to pair—Western Armenian with a status of “dead”? Have we done this so often that we have already manifested an empty coffin for our language? How can we think of Armenian as living if people keep telling us it is on the brink of death, when students and communities are hardly being introduced to the very few active authors who are composing creatively in the language today, and when young learners and readers of the language are not associating it with their own contemporary realities?  

I think about the revolutionary women who carried Western Armenian, an orphaned language, by continuing to compose and publish in it beyond the trauma of the Armenian Genocide. I gain inspiration and strength from the women who sustained the life of this language, fought time and time again to publish its imprints and gave voice to other women in their own mother tongue. I remind myself that they, too, were negotiating the place of Western Armenian alongside a colonial language.

When I contemplate the struggles of being an author in an endangered language, of being a woman who attempts to give voice and expose inequities, to educate in and around this language and raise awareness of its literary history, I often think of my foremothers as my strength. I honor the role of women, both historically and at present, in shaping the place of this literature—how they have kept it breathing and beating, how they continue to resuscitate its life through rhyming and reading. I think about the revolutionary women who carried Western Armenian, an orphaned language, by continuing to compose and publish in it beyond the trauma of the Armenian Genocide. I gain inspiration and strength from the women who sustained the life of this language, fought time and time again to publish its imprints and gave voice to other women in their own mother tongue. I remind myself that they, too, were negotiating the place of Western Armenian alongside a colonial language.

Can someone read an experimental work in Western Armenian today without thinking of its status as endangered? How is this poetry received when it lives anew in the moment its author births its life, while simultaneously decaying at the thought of its endangerment? I often think of how close we can get to images we are told are fleeting—in a language that keeps being presented to us as a mirage. I often wonder how we continue to create without foregrounding our intentions as merely acts of preservation. 

Imaginaries exist beyond words—but we need to translate our visions and expressions. I want to empower the belief that there is a future for our people and our language that is healed—that was always meant to thrive despite our traumatic past. 

For me, Western Armenian is not dead or dying. It is living. It is living today as its reverberations fill rooms. It is living today as it echoes in halls, dormitories, in nature and through music. It is living every time someone speaks its name—any name, any word. It is not a memory; the language makes memories. And though there are many women whose names have been forgotten, who were the silent advocates of this fight, who have kept this literature alive—while their names may never be known to us, their whispers reach our ears. These women are the biographers of an unhidden truth and an untold history. 

I believe Western Armenian will create its own future. I believe Western Armenian will birth a new generation of creatives. I believe the words of the Western Armenian writer Maroush Yeramian when she writes: “eventually— we will become/ one with the word/ as we once were before.” 

Tamar Marie Boyadjian

Tamar Marie Boyadjian

Tamar Marie Boyadjian is a professor, author, Western Armenian poet, editor, translator and medievalist. She is the first U.S. born author to publish a book of poetry in Western Armenian: ինչ որ է ան է (Yerevan: Andares, 2015). She is also the first writer of Western Armenian to produce a fantasy series in the language (Arpi Publishing, 2024). She is currently the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of the Society for Armenian Studies. She has also served as the main editor of two out of three extant volumes of contemporary Armenian literature in translation into English: makukachu (Ingnakir, 2017), and unscripted: An Armenian Palimpsest [Absinthe: World Literature in Translation] (University of Michigan Press, 2017). She was the recipient of the Sona Aroyan Book Prize for her monograph, The City Lament: Jerusalem Across the Medieval Mediterranean (Cornell University Press, 2018). Her latest book, Կաթիլ մը կին՝ անանուն, անքերթուած a drop of woman: unnamed, unwritten — will be released in 2024. She currently teaches Western Armenian courses at Stanford University.

5 Comments

  1. Western Armenian is under serious threat of extinction in the entire Armenian Diaspora, with the possible exception of Lebanon, because like every diaspora around the world, most of the Armenian Diaspora have been assimilated in the host countries over the many decades and the majority don’t speak or understand it.

    The loss of Western Armenian through assimilation, is the bloodless continuance of the Armenian Genocide.

    The problem is not only living in a foreign country, where assimiliation is inevitable, the problem is also the lack of or the very few number of Armenian schools and kindergardens, the dispersal of Armenians, but even more so that fewer parents pass on Western Armenian to their children. Intermarriages with non-Armenians are also a reason for this decline, as the language is also much less likely to be passed on to the children.

    The buck ultimately stops with the parents and families who should teach and pass on Western Armenian to the children.

    The advent of the Internet can partially remedy this decline with online Western Armenian courses, if Armenian schools and kindergardens are unavailable, but especially if parents teach and pass on Western Armenian to their children. I hope that the Armenian Diaspora doesn’t become like the huge and totally assimilated Italian Diaspora around the world, where the only heritage remaining, is the surname.

  2. Type western Armenian in English alphabet which on your AI computer, prints in Armenian alphabet and keeps the Armenian alphabet alive.

  3. Never too early to start! Very happy to see the class Frog and Toad in Western Armenian – perfect for reading at bedtime with the little ones and keeping Western Armenian alive!! The trick part is maintain interest…we defintely need more teenage / young adult content written/published in Western Armenian…

    https://www.cascade.press/frog-and-toad

  4. A great article to open the conversation about Western Armenian … but I prefer to pivot to the reality that it is only endangered as we in the diaspora allow for it … as an American Armenian born in NYC, Western Armenian was my first and only language for the first 5 years of my life … it resonates with our archetype, parallels the resilience, and yes ultimately the generational survival of my hyphenated persona … if we claim it dead or dying, we would then dare to claim our existence the same? I think not!

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