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Chapter 39
This webpage reproduces a chapter of
A History of Armenia

by Vahan M. Kurkjian

published by the
Armenian General Benevolent Union of America

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 41

 p365  Chapter XL
The Armenian Language

Where First Known

Armenian is the idiom first known as being spoken in the sixth century before Christ by the people living in the mountainous regions of Ararat, the Lake of Van, the southeastern shore of the Black Sea, and the sources of the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers.

Of Indo-European Origin

It is an Indo-European language; that is, an outgrowth with variations, of a long-vanished tongue, represented also by the Indo-European, the Hittite, the "Tokharian," the Slavic, the Baltic, the Albanian, the Greek, the Celtic and the Italic (Latin and Osco-Umbrian).º But it is as independent of all the others as are, for example, the Greek and the Germanic. It is isolated, not paralleled by any language of similar aspect, as the Slavic is with the Baltic, or the Italic with the Celtic. In its earliest known form, it appears to have had no dialects. From the beginning, it has been manifested in one form only, and the modern speech does not present any trace that would indicate the existence of dialects greatly differing from one another even in the fifth century A.D. In any case, these tongues do not contain anything to imply Indo-European peculiarities unknown in the classic Armenian. For at least a thousand years it was not written, and therefore, there are no documents in existence to enlighten us about its origin and about the influence exercised upon it by the idiom spoken by the natives of the area which was later occupied by the Armenians.

 p366  Theory of Thracian Origin, via Phrygia

Some Greek historians say that the Armenians must have been Phrygian colonists — the Phrygians themselves being of Thracian origin. J. Marquart has even placed their habitat in the north of Thessaly. But the little that is known of the Thracian language does not confirm this theory linguistically. It appears evident that the Armenian tongue was brought to the country later known as Armenia between the tenth and the sixth centuries B.C. What influence did the language of the previous inhabitants have on it? Unfortunately, scholars have been unable to find any clues which would determine what Armenian words whose etymology is still unknown could have sprung from the speech of the natives. No doubt many words were adopted bodily. It is therefore probable that the linguistic tendencies of the ancient inhabitants of the country have in a large measure determined the destinies of the Armenian.

Resemblances to Georgian, Caucasian, etc.

In fact, the general aspect of the Armenian phonetic system resembles that of the Southern Caucasians, the Georgians and other near neighbors. As another remarkable similarity, the Southern Caucasian languages have numerous declensions, but no grammatical gender; while the Armenian, despite the dropping of the final letters, has preserved almost all the cases of the Indo-European declension, but has no trace of genders, which were lost before the fifth century A.D.

We have no account of the development of the language during the long period of time between the Indo-European era and the stabilization through writing of the classic Armenian. The Vannic cuneiform inscriptions were written in an idiom differing from the Armenian. The Hittite inscriptions have now been deciphered, and the language does not appear to have any close relation with the Armenian.

Borrowings from other Languages

Contacts with subdued nations and later, with conquering ones and others, introduced a great many foreign elements into the Armenian language. In the early centuries of the Christian era, the Armenians were frequently under Iranian domination. For more  p367 than three centuries the country had an Arshakid dynasty, and during that time the nobility had a strong Parthian flavor. Hence the numerous Iranian words in the Armenian vocabulary, whose forms indicate that they were borrowed, not from the old Persian, but from an archaic Pehlevi. There are so many Iranian elements in the Armenian vocabulary that the language was for a long time regarded as an Iranian dialect. However, the Armenian grammar remained almost free from the influence of the Persian, which has neither declension nor gender. The Syriac and Greek words found in the Armenian proceed from ecclesiastical and scientific borrowings and are of little linguistic importance. Many Greek words have strayed into the Armenian indirectly through borrowings from the Pehlevi.

Grabar, or Written Language

The introduction of Christianity into Armenia and the desire for evangelization brought into existence the Grabar or written language, in classic form. Like the Gothic and the Slavic, the Armenian was first written by a scholar who put into words its system of grammar and a vocabulary facilitating the translation from Greek of the sacred books and writings, expressed in an alphabet well adapted to the phonetics of the tongue. The irregularities of writers accused of vulgarisms, like Lazarus of Parb (Ghazar Parbetsi), are chiefly lexical. Where grammatical, it is by no means certain that they were perpetrated by the authors; they may be innovations by writers or copyists. Almost all the existing manuscripts of these authors were written no earlier than the Middle Ages. Certain translations of philosophical text in an artificial style, almost always imitations of Greek originals, have also peculiarities, manifestly novel, which are departures from the originals.

Phonetic Variations East and West

Because of the absence of ancient dialectalº differences, it cannot be determined in what region the classical Armenian was evolved and stabilized. As the language of scholars and the Church, the classic Grabar has remained in use to the present time. It passed gradually out of popular use in the Middle Ages, being replaced among the people by the modern common vernacular (Ashkharhabar, from Ashkharh, "world," "country") which was in general use in the fifteenth century. It is to be noted that there are a number of phonetic variations between Eastern and Western vernaculars  p368 of the modern Armenian, as for example the sonorous labial, guttural and dental letters, b, g, and d, heard in the East, are in the West turned into p, k and t. For example, the word Grabar, so pronounced in the East, would in the West be pronounced Krapar. Sourb Grigor in the East become Sourp Krikor in the West. The Eastern is nearer to the classical Armenian.

Grabar passed out of use in the eleventh century, in which epoch texts of a dialect (Armenian of Cilicia) were used.

Byron a Student

Among the students of the Armenian language we must not forget the English poet, Lord Byron, who for some time lived in San Lazar, Venice, and had as his teacher Father Pasquale Avcherian, with whom he collaborated in compiling an Armenian-English grammar. In a letter written to a friend on December 5th, 1816, Byron expressed himself as follows, ". . . . I find the Armenian language — which is twin, the literal and the vulgar — difficult but not invincible; at least, I hope not. I shall go on. . . . It is a rich language, and would amply repay anyone for the trouble of learning it. . . ."

The Armenian language and literature undoubtedly offer to the philologist, to the students of Oriental-Christian literature and to the theologians, a vast field for research. Often, for example, the ancient Armenian versions, in the absence of the Greek originals, become definitely precious, particularly if one takes into consideration their accuracy. The adaptability of the Armenian language to the peculiarities and nature of the languages in the original texts, is indeed remarkable.

When the Armenian version is done by men of genius and good taste instead of some humble and anonymous monk, it becomes a notable work of art. It is sufficient to remember the stupendous version of the "Oraisons Funèbres," of Bossuet, and the "Georgics" of Virgil, and of the "Sepolcri"º of Ugo Foscolo, made by Father Arsen Bagratuni.

Under this aspect, the Armenian language and literature are seen as really a language and literature of translations, though original and admirable works in Armenian are not lacking.

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Page updated: 4 Jan 05