All You Need to Know about Armenian Language

Mar 02, 2020 in Armenian Language

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Armenian Language
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Armenian Language

The Armenian language is known to us from the fifth century CE onwards thanks to an unbroken literary tradition comprising three periods: Classical or Grabar (5th to 11th centuries), Middle (12th to 16th), and Modern (17th to 21st). The fifth century is regarded as the golden age of Armenian literature. Armenian is written in its own alphabet, which was created by Mesrop Mashtots and originally consisted of 36 original letters, to which ō and f were added at a later stage.

One usually distinguishes around fifty or sixty modern Armenian dialects, a number of which are now extinct. Modern Armenian was canonized in the 19th century and consists of two branches: Western (based on western dialects such as that of Constantinople / Polis) and Eastern (based on the dialects spoken on the Ararat plain and surroundings).

Modern Armenian is spoken in the Republic of Armenia and the (de facto Armenian) Republic of Artsakh / Arcʻax (Nagorno-Karabakh Republic / Mountainous Gharabagh). Historically, it was spoken on a vast territory that basically included the Armenian Highlands (the Armenian plateau) and some adjacent areas.

Armenian is an Indo-European language, meaning it is genetically related to languages such as Hittite, Sanskrit, Avestan, Greek, Latin, Gothic, English, and Slavic. This implies that the ancestors of the speakers of Proto-Armenian and all the other proto-languages once spoke the same language, which is conventionally called Proto-Indo-European.

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From Jul 07, 2024 to Aug 30, 2024

Yerevan, Armenia

The name hay "Armenian" and its derivatives

Armenians refer to themselves as hay, the adjectival meaning of which is found in Revelation 9.11 (or kočʻi i hay barbaṙ korust “which in the Armenian language is called ‘loss’”), Łazar P‘arpec‘i, Movsēs Xorenac‘i, Anania Širakac‘i, Grigor Narekac‘i; hay-er ‘Armenians’ in Łazar P‘arpec‘i and Yovhan Mamikonean. Armenia is called Hay-k‘, genitive Hay-o-c‘ (Bible+); Hayastan ‘Armenia, Armenian (world)’ (Agat‘angeɫos, P‘awstos Buzand, Koriwn, etc.).

The Armenian language is called hayerēn ‘Armenian’ (adjective and adverb); Middle Armenian hayenak, dial. Nor-Naxiǰewan haynak ‘Armenian’.

The origin of hay has not been established with certainty. There are several etymologies, of which the most popular ones are the connections with:

1) Ḫai̯aša-, a kingdom or tribal confederation attested only in Hittite texts from the 14th to 13th centuries BCE;

2) Ḫatti, a land in central Anatolia;

3) Indo-European *poti- ‘master’;

4) Sumerian HA.A.

I give a slight preference for the view that connects Ḫai̯aša- to hay ‘Armenian’ / Hay-k‘ ‘Armenia’ and derives them from Indo-European *h2ei-e/os-, cf. Sanskrit áyas- ‘usable metal’ [in contrast with híraṇya- ‘precious metal’], ‘copper’, ‘iron’, Old Avestan aiiah- ‘ordeal metal (at the last judgement)’, Young Avestan aiiah- ‘metal’, Latin aes ‘copper ore, copper; bronze’, Gothic aiz ‘bronze’, etc. Note that the territory of this land roughly coincides with that of the Chalybes in Pontus, who were famous for the preparation of steel (Greek χάλυψ ‘hardened iron, steel’), οἱ σιδηροτέκτονες χάλυβες.

According to this explanation, Hay-k‘ and Ḫai̯aša- have actually meant ‘the land of metal or iron’, and Arm. hay referred to an inhabitant of the land of metal/iron; compare the case of Greek χάλυψ ‘hardened iron, steel’, the appellative of the Chalybes. Ḫai̯aša- possibly betrays an Indo-Aryan intermediation, cf. Indo-Iranian *(H)ayas- ‘copper, iron’.

Other designations of Armenian and Armenians

Other peoples called Armenians mostly Armen ‘Armenian’. In a late medieval dictionary called Baṙgirk‘ hayoc‘ one finds geɫni and gɫnik glossed by hay. Armenians are also called: Somexi by Georgians; Fla by Kurds: fila(h) / fallāḥ, actually meaning ‘Christian farmer’ borrowed from Arabic fallāḥ ‘farmer, villager’. Sometimes they are also called Ałac, literally ‘salted’, after the custom according to which the midwife sprinkled salt over the body of the newborn child immediately after the first bathing.

Where was/is Armenian spoken?

Historically, Armenian was spoken on a vast territory that basically included the Armenian Highlands (the Armenian plateau) and some adjacent areas. Historical Armenia (known as Hayk‘ and Hayastan, based on hay ‘Armenian’) was centred around Mount Ararat (Masis), Lake Van and the Araxes (Erasx) Valley, thus comprising the eastern half of present-day Turkey, Republics of Armenia and Artsakh (Arcʻax) and some chunks of Iran, Azerbaijan and Georgia. Its borders ranged from the upper streams of the Euphrates and Tigris in the west and southwest up to the Kura River in the northeast, and Lake Urmia in the southeast. The kingdom of Greater Armenia (Mec Hayk‘) comprised 15 provinces: Barjr Hayk‘ (Upper Armenia), Č‘orrord Hayk‘ (Fourth Armenia) or Cop‘k‘, Ałjnik‘, Turuberan, Mokk‘, Korčayk‘, Parskahayk‘, Vaspurakan, Siwnik‘, Arc‘ax, P‘aytakaran, Utik‘, Gugark‘, Tayk‘, and Ayrarat. Present-day Armenia was formed from only a small eastern part of those territories.

Modern Armenian is spoken in the Republic of Armenia and the (de facto Armenian) Republic of Artsakh / Arcʻax (Nagorno-Karabakh Republic / Mountainous Gharabagh, in Armenian: Leṙnayin Łarabał), as well as in Russia, USA, France, Italy, Georgia, Syria, Lebanon, Iran, Argentina, Turkey, Ukraine and many other countries. The total number of Armenians in the world is roughly estimated as 7-11 million, of which ca. 5-5,5 million speak Armenian.

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From Jul 07, 2024 to Aug 30, 2024

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Origin of the Armenian language. Where does the Armenian language come from?

Armenian is an Indo-European language, meaning it is genetically related to languages such as Hittite, Sanskrit, Avestan, Greek, Latin, Gothic, English, and Slavic. This implies that the ancestors of the speakers of Proto-Armenian and all the other proto-languages once spoke the same language, which is conventionally called Proto-Indo-European. This has been firmly established on the basis of fundamental lexical agreements among these languages. Observe the following set of relatively transparent lexical correspondences:

• Arm. aɫuēs ‘fox’: Greek ἀλώπηξ ‘fox’, Sanskrit lopāśá- ‘fox’

• Arm. ayl ‘other, alien’: Greek ἄλλος ‘other’, Latin alius ‘another’, Old Irish aile ‘other’

• Arm. anun, dial. anum ‘name’: Greek ὄνομα, Latin nōmen, Sanskrit nā́man, Gothic namo

• Arm. astɫ, asteɫ ‘star’: Greek ἀστήρ, Avestan star, Gothic stairno, Latin stella, Hittite ḫasterza

• Arm. arawr ‘plough’: Greek ἄροτρον, Latin arātrum, Welsh aradr, Old Icelandic arðr

• Arm. armukn ‘elbow’: Sanskrit īrmá ‘arm, shoulder’, Lat. armus ‘id.’, Goth. arms ‘arm’, English arm

• Arm. duṙn ‘door’: Sanskrit dvā́r-, Greek ϑύρα, Latin foris, Welsh dor, Engl. door, OCS dvьrь ‘door’

• Arm. dustr ‘daughter’: Sanskrit duhitár, Greek ϑυγάτηρ, English daughter, Lithuanian duktė̃ ‘daughter’

• Arm. kov ‘cow’: Skt. gaúḥ ‘cow, bull’, Latv. gùovs ‘cow’

• Arm. heru ‘last year’: Greek πέρυσι, Dorian πέρυτι, Sanskrit parut ‘last year’

This is only a small selection of lexical correspondences belonging to basic vocabulary, but it has convincing power because the phonological agreements between correlating forms are systematic and consistent. This power is further exemplified in the following example:

An initial *s- drops, compare:

• Arm. ałt ‘salt’ vs. Engl. salt ‘salt’

• Arm. am ‘year, age’: Sanskrit sámā ‘year, season’

• Arm. amaṙn ‘summer’: English summer ‘summer’

• Arm. ewt‘n ‘seven’ vs. Sanskrit saptá, Avestan hapta-, Greek ἑπτά, Latin septem ‘seven’

There are also significant grammatical agreements, one of which can be observed in the following example:

• Indo-European *bher-e (compare Sanskrit bhárati, Gr. φέρω, Lat. ferō, ‘to carry, bear’):

Arm. berem ‘I bring’ and Skt. bhárāmi ‘I bring’,

Arm. beres ‘you bring’ and Sanskrit bhárasi ‘you bring’,

Arm. berē ‘he/she/it brings’ and Sanskrit bhárati ‘he/she/it brings’;

vs. Arm. e-ber ‘he/she/it brought’ from Indo-European *é-bher-et, compare Sanskrit á-bhar-at, Greek ἔ-φερ-ε.

All these correspondences clearly demonstrate that Armenian is an Indo-European language.

Where was the Indo-European / Proto-Armenian homeland?
Where is the place of Armenian in the Indo-European language family?

As we have observed, speakers of the Indo-European cognate languages once spoke the same language, which we conventionally call Proto-Indo-European. Furthermore, they once lived in a defined geographical area, the PIE homeland (Urheimat), the location of which has not yet been established. Various locations have been proposed: Anatolia, the Armenian Highlands, north of the Caucasus mountains and the Black Sea, etc. The dispersal of PIE is dated to about 4000–3000 BC by most scholars and a few millennia earlier by the followers of the Anatolian model.

The archaeological material and the linguistic relationship between the Indo-Iranian and the Finno-Ugric languages seem to favour the view according to which, after the dispersal, the ancestors of the Indo-Iranian languages were once in contact with those of the Finno-Ugric languages somewhere in the southern Urals. However, this would make it hard to explain the close relationship between the Indo-Iranians and Proto-Armenians, if the latter would have been in the Near East around the 3rd millennium BCE. Besides, even more impressive lexical correspondences between Armenian and Greek, both shared innovations and substrate words especially in the domains of agriculture and technical activities, imply a long and multistage stay of Proto-Armenians in the regions not very far from the Black Sea.

The linguistic evidence enables the following preliminary conclusions on the place of Armenian in the Indo-European language family to be drawn. Armenian, Greek, and Indo-Iranian, and possibly also Phrygian and Thracian were dialectally close to each other, and may even have formed a dialectal group at the time of the Indo-European dispersal. Within this hypothetical dialect group, Proto-Armenian was situated between Proto-Greek and proto-Phrygian, etc. (to the west) and Proto-Indo-Iranian (to the east). On the northern side it might have neighboured, notably, Proto-Balto-Slavic.

After the Indo-European dispersal, Armenian developed isoglosses with Indo-Iranian on the one hand and Greek on the other. The Indo-Iranians then moved eastwards, while the Proto-Armenians and Proto-Greeks remained in a common geographical region for a long period and developed numerous shared innovations. At a later stage, together or independently, they borrowed a large number of words from the Mediterranean / Pontic substrate languages, mostly cultural and agricultural words, as well as animal and plant designations.

Therefore, even if one accepts the Near-Eastern origin of the Indo-Europeans, it is hard to claim that the PIE dispersal took place in the Near East, and that the Proto-Armenians stayed there all the time. Efforts have been made to reconcile the two theories within a chronological framework implying two phases: an earlier stage (in the Near East) and a later stage (north of the Caucasus mountains and the Black Sea).

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From Jul 07, 2024 to Aug 30, 2024

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History of the Armenian language

We have written documents at our disposal for examining the cultural history of the Armenians during the last two and a half millennia, both in Armenian (as far as the period from the 5th century CE is concerned) and foreign sources. As for the period from the origin of the Proto-Armenian language to the first millennium BCE, we have no concrete historical data whatsoever. The only systematic tool to explore early Armenian culture during this period of over 2 or 3 millennia is historical linguistics.

After the Indo-European dispersal, as we have observed, Proto-Armenian, Proto-Greek, Proto-Italic and some contiguous language-branches may have remained in contact somewhere in the Pontic or Mediterranean (Balkan) areas probably in the 3rd and 2nd millennia BC.

A considerable number of words are confined to Armenian, Greek, Latin and/or one or two other Indo-European language(s) of southeastern Europe or Anatolia, but the phonological or word-formative correspondences are irregular with respect to the Indo-European system, and they cannot be considered loanwords from one another. It is remarkable that in some cases there are also comparable forms in non-Indo-European languages of the Caucasus and the Near East. On the other hand, Armenian shows a considerable number of lexical correspondences with European branches of the Indo-European language family, a large portion of which too should be explained in terms of substrate rather than Indo-European heritage.

Subsequent stages in the development of the Armenian language are characterized by a great number of borrowings from neighbouring languages: Caucasian, Anatolian, Semitic, Iranian, and so on.

Anatolian loanwords include:

• Arm. šełǰ ‘heap, mass, pile (of corn, etc.)’ < Hittite šēli- c. (gen. šelii̯aš) ‘grain pile, grain storage’; 

• Arm. targal ‘spoon’ < Hittite GIŠtaru̯-āli- from PIE *dr̥u̯- ‘wood’ (cf. Sanskrit dárvi ‘spoon’);

• Arm. personal name Mušeł < Hittite Muršiliš.

Armenian is the source of a large number of words in various languages of the Near East and the Caucasus. Note, for example, a few ancient Armenisms in Kartvelian languages such as:

• Kartvelian *ɣwino- ‘wine’ < Proto-Armenian *ɣweini̯o- (Classical Armenian gini, gen. ginwoy) ‘wine’, which derives from Indo-European *u̯e/oi(H)no- ‘wine’, cf. Hittite u̯ii̯an-, Greek (ϝ)οἶνος, Lat. vīnum, etc.;

• Kartvelian *ɣwi- ‘juniper’ < Proto-Armenian *ɣwi- (Classical Armenian gi ‘juniper’) from Indo-European *u̯i(H)-t-, cf. Greek ϝῑτέα ‘willow’, etc.;

• Kartvelian *fon- ‘riverbed’ < Proto-Armenian *fon(th)- (Classical Armenian hun ‘ford, shallow, riverbed’) from Indo-European *pontH-, cf. Sanskrit pánthās ‘path’, Greek πόντος ‘sea’, Latin pōns ‘bridge’.

The Iranian element is the largest layer of the Armenian lexicon. It comprises a period of more than 2.500 years starting from pre-Achaemenid times (beginning of the 1st millennium BCE) up to the modern period. The high number of Iranian loans led scholars in the mid-19th century to conclude that Armenian belonged to the Iranian group of Indo-European languages. This opinion prevailed until 1875, when Heinrich Hübschmann proved that Armenian is an independent branch of the Indo-European language family. Applying phonetic criteria, Hübschmann was able to distinguish between native Armenian words and Iranian loans. In this way, for example, it can be shown that Armenian amis ‘month’ is of Indo-European background (cf. Sanskrit mā́s, Greek μήν, Lat. mēnsis ‘month’, etc.), but that mah-ik ‘crescent (of moon); lunette, crescent shaped ornament’ is an Iranian loan.

Similarly, Armenian gawazan ‘rod, stick, staff’ has been borrowed from Iranian *gawāzan(a) (compare Avestan gauu-āza- and Sanskrit go-ájana- ‘whip, stick for driving cattle’). The first member of this compound derives from Indo-European *gwou- ‘cow, bull’, which is reflected in Avestan gāuš and native Armenian kov ‘cow’.

The Armenian language thus comprises three major layers:

(1) Indo-European heritage: 5th-4th millennia BCE;

(2) late Indo-European and Mediterranean/European substrate: 3rd-2nd millennia BCE;

(3) loanwords from neighbouring languages, such as Caucasian, Anatolian, Hurrian, Urartian, Semitic and especially Iranian: 2nd-1st millennia BCE to the present.

The first two layers belong to prehistoric times, whereas the third belongs to the most recent period and is partially elucidated by historical records.

Below I present Ačaṙyan’s calculations of layers of vocabulary:

Asia Minor9
Old Latin11
Turkic / Tatar170
Old French86
New European44
Invalid / uncertain words2.221
Words of unknown origin3.680

The problem of pre-Mesropian writing

The existence of an Armenian writing system and literature before Mesrop Maštoc‘ has long been a matter of intense debate. At this stage of research, we have no solid positive evidence but it is more than probable, however, that the pre-Christian Armenians used some signs for ritual or magical purposes. In a remarkable passage from Meknut‘iwn araracoc‘ attributed to Eɫišē (2003: 919b), one finds among activities that are considered as unacceptable for Christians “to draw written signs with alien thoughts” (awtar xorhrdovk‘ nšanagirs gcel).

Some ethnographic materials indirectly testify that prehistoric Armenians might have used birch bark for writing magic signs. In the Armenian district of Basen, they made amulets (hmayil) out of birch bark, put them into a triangular cloth, sewed and hung from the neck of beautiful children and animals to keep them away from the Evil Eye. It is not specified whether there were written signs on these birch bark amulets. Nevertheless, there is some indirect evidence which makes one believe that those triangular amulets, at least originally, should have contained magical writings.

This practice finds parallels, either genetic or typological, in other Indo-European traditions, namely Indic and Slavic. The bark of Skt. bhūrjá ‘a kind of birch’ was used to make writing material (attested in the Yajurveda). A similar tradition is found in East Slavic: Russ. dial. beresto displays the meanings ‘birch bark’, ‘letter’, and ‘paper’ and is derived from the same PIE word for ‘birch’, *bh(e)rHĝ.

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The Armenian script and the history of the literary tradition

The Armenian language is known to us from the fifth century CE onwards thanks to an unbroken literary tradition comprising three periods: Classical or Grabar (5th to 11th centuries), Middle (12th to 16th), and Modern (17th to 21st). The fifth century is regarded as the golden age of Armenian literature.

The Classical period of Armenian started with the invention of the Armenian alphabet by Mesrop Maštoc‘ in 405/406 CE. The Classical Armenian alphabet consists of 36 original letters, to which ō and f were added at a later stage. The earliest script is called erkat‘agir, literally ‘iron letters / script’.

The pre-Mesropian oral literature has reached us in a few specimens attested mainly by the fifth century author Movsēs Xorenac‘i, whose standard title is K‘ert‘ołahayr, “father of rhetoricians / grammarians”. This age is called vipasanakan “Epic”.

Old / Classical Armenian
Chronology of Classical Armenian

It has been suggested that the literary Armenian language, Grabar, was based on dialectal-colloquial norms of the central provinces, especially Ayrarat and Turuberan and their surroundings. The initial phase of Classical Armenian (405/406-460 CE) is traditionally called the Golden Age (Oskedar or Oski dar) or Mesropian Age; some call it dasakan hayerēn “Classical Armenian” (but this term often refers to Grabar in general), others the Age of the King Vṙamšapuh.

The following period, i.e. the second half of the fifth century is sometimes referred to as post-Golden, post-classical or post-Mesropian (hetoskedaryan, hetdasakan, hetmesropyan). Akinean (1932: 57-62) places the post-classical (yetdasakan) period from 450 to 572 CE and names it the Silver Age (arcat‘i/ē dar). The latter term is otherwise ascribed to the seventh or 12th centuries. The earliest phase of the post-classical period marks the beginning of the medieval Armenian linguistic tradition and grammatical terminology. In this period the Grammar of Dionysius Thrax and its commentaries play an important role. The translation of this work is traditionally ascribed to a certain Dawit‘ (whose identity is disputed). This stage is characterized, in particular, by “pre-hellenophile” texts. The “purely” hellenophile or philhellene (yunaban) style is usually placed in the period from the sixth to seventh/eighth centuries. Akinean ascribes the yunaban style to 572 to 603 CE and names this period “Copper Age” (płnji dar), which was followed by Iron Age (erkatʻi šrǰan) and Mud Age (cʻexi šrǰan).

The concept of “Golden” and “Silver” Ages has been criticized. According to a more modern view, the period of Old Armenian or Grabar (hin hayeren or grabar: fifth to 11th centuries) is divided into three sub-periods: (1) early old or classical grabar (vał hin or dasakan grabar): fifth century; (2) late old or post-classical grabar (uš hin or hetdasakan grabar): sixth to seventh centuries; (3) pre-middle (naxamiǰin): eighth to 11th centuries.

The final phase of Grabar: Grapaykar ‘language/writing struggle’

In the first half of the 19th century most literature was still written in Grabar. By the end of the 19th century, the famous “language/writing struggle” (grapayk‘ar) ended with a complete victory of the modern language, ašxarhabar. Grabar is still in use in church services, however.

Literary and lay languages: names and perceptions

Although based on the spoken language of the time, Classical Armenian was a literary language, as is seen in its designation: grabar ‘written (language), book (language) / Schriftsprache’, composed of gir ‘letter, writing, book’ and the adverbial suffix -abar. In the adverbial meaning ‘in a written manner, by way of writing’, grabar is attested in a translation from Socrates.

Next to grabar, one also finds a variant grabaṙ (e.g. in Mxitʻar Sebastacʻi, 1730 CE), which contains the word baṙ ‘word, speech’. This form is recorded in a number of dialects, such as Łarabał (kərápaṙ), Hadrut‘ and Šałax / Xcaberd (kiráp‘aṙ) ‘book language’, and Moks kyräpäṙ ‘literary’.

In contrast to the “written/book” language (grabar), Modern Armenian is called ašxarhabar “wordly/speech or regional language”. This word is attested in the meaning ‘secularly, vulgarly, lay’ and is composed of the word ašxarh ‘world, country, region’ and the aforementioned suffix -abar seen in grabar; compare derivatives of another adverbial suffix, -ōrēn: ašxarhōrēn ‘secularly, vulgarly (said of speaking)’ attested in Nersēs Šnorhali (12th century), and a later term ṙamkōrēn ‘vulgarly, popularly, commonly’. Typologically, compare Polish Armenian erkrcʻnak ‘Armenian language’, derived from erkir ‘land, country’ and meaning thus “language of the fatherland”.

In Middle Armenian we find ašxarhabaṙ ‘in the colloquial language, non-grabar’ (e.g. in Amirdovlat‘ Amasiac‘i, 15th century) or ašxarhi baṙ, lit. ‘word/speech of world/region’ (Alēk‘sianos). Note, e.g., dial. Zeyt‘un ašxarə < *ašxarhi ‘lay, non-religious’ as opposed to krōnawor ‘religious’.

In contrast to the “written/book” language (grabar) or the “grammatical” (k‘ert‘ołakan) language, the colloquial or dialectal language is called by the ancient authors:

gełǰuk ban (Yovhannēs Drasxanakertc‘i, 10th cent.) or gełǰuk (or gełǰkac‘) barbaṙ / baṙ “rustic, plebeian speech / words” (Nersēs Šnorhali, 12th cent., etc.), with gełǰuk ‘peasant, villager’ based on giwł, gen. gełǰ ‘village’; cf. also gełǰkabanem ‘to speak vulgarly, speak like a peasant’ (T‘ovma Arcruni, 9-10th cent.);

mt‘in lezu “dark, obscure language” spoken by gṙehikk‘ “commoners, plebeians” (Hamam Arewelc‘i, 9th cent.);

sovorakan xōsk‘ “common, ordinary speech / words” by ṙamikk‘ “commoners, plebeians” (Yovhannēs Drasxanakertc‘i, 10th cent.) or sovorakan baṙk‘“common, ordinary speech / words” (Smbat Sparapet, 13th cent.).

Also in modern times colloquial or dialectal speech is mainly considered to be “rural, village language”, cf. Ararat gełac‘evar, Karin gełac‘avari and Xarberd gełac‘(a)nak (derived from gełac‘i ‘peasant’), also Van, Karin and Ararat gełavra, Sebastia, etc. gełvra, Ararat and Muš gełavari (derived from geł ‘village’), all meaning “speaking in the village(r) manner”. Typologically compare the name of the “civilian” language: k‘ałak‘akan or k‘ałak‘ac‘iakan, derived from k‘ałak‘ ‘city’ (see below); note also k‘ałak‘avari ‘polite, having a decent mode of life’ in the Ararat dialect.

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Did Old Classical Armenian have dialects?

The existence of dialectal diversity in the Classical period is much debated. Scholars consider a number of traces of early diversity, e.g. t‘aršamim vs. t‘aṙamim ‘to wither’; p‘axnum vs. p‘axč‘im, both meaning ‘to flee’ in the Bible translation; the semantic doublets of ays ‘wind’ and ‘(evil) spirit’; the additional -n. On the other hand, the modern dialects preserve important data for the reconstruction of the oldest history of the language. A frequently cited example is dial. *lizu vs. Classical lezu ‘tongue’.

The 8th-century author Stepʻannos Siwnecʻi mentions the seven marginal dialects ( zbaṙsn zezerakans) as opposed to the central ones ( zmiǰerkreaysn ew zostaniksn). I do not subscribe to the view that these seven baṙkʻ ezerakankʻ refer to foreign languages which were spoken in the corresponding parts of Armenia rather than to Armenian dialects.

All the modern dialects have fully participated in the fixation of the proto-Armenian accent on the (prehistoric) penultimate syllable and the subsequent apocope. The formation of the Armenian dialects cannot thus be pushed back beyond the date of apocope (loss of some sounds of the final unaccented syllable). At a later stage, the accent was retracted back to the penultimate syllable in Eastern dialects. It is certain, however, that Armenian dialect diversity existed in the prehistoric period (i.e. before the 5th century CE), and the modern dialects have preserved features which are not present in Classical Armenian.

Middle Armenian

Middle Armenian (miǰin hayerēn) is an intermediate between Grabar and Modern Armenian, in use during the period from the 12th to 16th centuries. Earlier, this period was not defined clearly or had different designations, such as: “vulgar language of the ancestors” (naxneac‘ ṙamkōrēn), “Cilician Armenian” (kilikyan hayeren), and “language of the low ages” (storin daruc‘ lezu). Grabar had not been a spoken language for a long time at the outset of the Middle Armenian period. Its status weakened especially after the fall of the Bagratuni kingdom. In contrast to this, the foundation of the Cilician kingdom strengthened the position of Middle Armenian; indeed the language of early Middle Armenian sources was closer to the Cilician vernacular than to Grabar.

Grabar remained in use as a literary language beside Middle Armenian until the “language/writing struggle” (grapayk‘ar).

The most characteristic feature of Middle Armenian is the present particle ku.

Middle Armenian and contemporary dialects

Various analogical developments have taken place in dialects. Some peripheral dialects preserve archaic features. One finds more than one line of developments from Classical Armenian to modern dialects not always through literary Middle Armenian. A remarkable example is the aorist paradigm of the verb tam ‘to give’.

The Classical Armenian aorist forms etu ‘I gave’ and tuak‘ ‘we gave’ have been replaced by etu-i and etua(n)k‘ respectively in inscriptions from North-East of historical Armenia of the 11th century onwards. These forms deviate from Middle Armenian, where one finds tui and tuak‘, respectively.

Suren Avagyan discusses the inscriptional material and concludes that the vowel e- of these forms is due to insufficient grammar skills of the authors of these inscriptions. However, the inscriptional forms are directly confirmed by data from Aramo (Syria), the farthest and most isolated dialect in the South-West corner. Here we find ədva ‘I gave’ and ədvunk‘ ‘we gave’, which, according to regular phonological developments of this dialect, reflect Armenian etu-i and etuank‘ respectively and are thus astonishingly identical with etu-i and etuank‘ found in inscriptions from North-East of historical Armenia.

Modern Armenian

In contrast to the “written/book” language (grabar), Modern Armenian is called ašxarhabar ‘secularly, vulgarly, lay’ or ašxarhabaṙ ‘in the colloquial language, non-grabar’ (see above).

Modern Literary Armenian was developed from the “civilian” (k‘ałak‘akan or k‘ałak‘ac‘iakan) language (lingua civilis) of the 17-18th centuries. In the view of contemporaries, the latter was an intermediary form between the “written” language and the spoken one, i.e. local dialects of the time. According to Bałdasar Dpir, the “civilian” language was neither completely canonized (kanonawor), nor uncanonized (ankanon), but was rather a mix of the two (xaṙn yerkoc‘unc‘). There were two variants of this “civilian” language, a Western one, based on what would later become the Constantinople / Polis and adjacent dialects, and an Eastern one, based on the dialects spoken on the Ararat plain and surroundings, mostly the Nor J̌uła (New Julfa, Isfahan) and Ararat dialects. In the 19th century, these variants were fully canonized and developed into Modern Western Armenian and Modern Eastern Armenian, respectively. The earliest specimens of ašxarhabar are found from the 14th century onwards.

Attempts to create different types of ašxarhabar were undertaken by Nahapet Ṙusinyan in the mid-19th century (armenerēn, literally “Armenian [language]”) and by Minas Č‘eraz in the 1870s (əntrōłakan hayerēn, literally “selective Armenian”). In the 1920s, M. Vaykuni propagated a new version of grabar, which he calls haykaznerēn, lierally “language of the Armenian nation, language of Hayk”. All these attempts failed.

Eastern Armenian

Standard Modern Eastern Armenian is the official language of the Republic of Armenia, where it is spoken by the majority (ca. 97/98 %) of its population (ca. 3 million people), and of the Republic of Artsakh (ca. 140,000 people). The status of Armenian is regulated by “Language Law” (Ōrenk‘ lezvi masin) of the Republic of Armenia (April 17/21, 1993) and the Republic of Artsakh (May 15 / June 3, 2013). The law refers to the language as grakan hayeren, literally “Literary Armenian”, with no further specification as to its instantiation, which is Modern Eastern Armenian. Minority languages spoken in the Republic of Armenia include Kurmanji (the Kurdish dialect spoken by Yezidis and Kurds), Russian, Assyrian Neo-Aramaic, Ukrainian, Greek, Lomavren, and Udi.

Modern Eastern Armenian was canonized in the 19th century on the basis of dialects spoken on the Ararat plain and surroundings

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Russian influence on Eastern Armenian and the 1922/1940 orthographic reform

The influence of Russian on Eastern Armenian has been enormous. In 1828 Eastern Armenia fell under Russian suzerainty, and in 1922 became a fully-fledged Soviet republic. Soon after independence (September 21, 1991) Armenia closed its Russian-medium schools and removed Russian from the school curriculum. During the last decade, however, steps have been taken to retain Russian as part of Armenians’ multilingual repertoires. For Armenian studies and language research in Russia and during the Soviet period.

In 1922/1940, a moderate orthographic reform was introduced in the Soviet Republic of Armenia, a reform that is sometimes exclusively associated with the Soviets or Bolsheviks. Note, however, that attempts to canonize the orthography of, in particular, v/w, y/h and the diphthongs, were also made in the pre-Soviet period.

Western Armenian

Western Armenian is spoken by Armenians originating from the Ottoman territories. A significant part of them were the descendants of the 1915 Genocide survivors who fled from Western Armenia (now Turkey) and dispersed around the world. Some populations settled in the Republic of Armenia. The status of Western Literary Armenian is threatened. As a language with threatened status, Western Literary Armenian is struggling to survive as it preserves traditional orthography and other linguistic traditions.

Modern Western Armenian was canonized in the 19th century on the basis of western dialects such as that of Constantinople / Polis.

Armenian dialects. How do we classify Armenian dialects?

One usually distinguishes around fifty or sixty modern Armenian dialects, a number of which are now extinct. The dialects have been classified according to a phonological principle, namely the development of the consonant system, as well as a morphological one, that is the formation of the indicative present.

Classical Armenian possesses a three-fold opposition: voiced – voiceless – voiceless aspirate. Most of the dialects display varying developments of the voiced and voiceless stops, whereas the voiceless aspirate series is stable everywhere. The dialects of the Group 6 (T‘iflis, Ardvin, Ararat/Loṙi, Agulis, Kṙzen, etc.) have retained the system intact. Particularly interesting are the dialects of Group 4 (Sasun, Cilicia, Svedia, etc.) which display the following steps of the so-called Second/Modern Armenian Sound Shift: voiceless > voiced; voiced > voiceless. This seems to require an interchange of two features, voiced and voiceless (cf. Class. Tigran > dial. Dikran), which is impossible from a relative chronological point of view. Therefore other features have been adduced in the discussion. On the one hand, the Classical Armenian voiced stops have been interpreted as voiced aspirates that directly continued the Proto-Indo-European series *bh/*dh/*gh. In these terms, the original opposition would seem to have been preserved in Group 2 (Karin, Muš, parts of Ararat, etc.). On the other hand, the glottalic character of the voiceless stops in some dialects has been interpreted as an inherited, Indo-European, feature. These two issues have been heavily debated, however. Are these phonological features archaic remnants of Proto-Armenian phonology or they are recent innovations in Armenian dialects? This basic question still awaits an answer.

The morphological classification of the Armenian dialects, developed mostly by Ačaṙyan and Ɫaribyan, is based on the formation of the present indicative. In Classical Armenian, the present indicative was of a simple synthetic type, e.g. sirem ‘I love’, mnam ‘I stay’. Armenian gradually used this form to express the subjunctive and future, while a new present indicative developed in various ways: present formative particle + finite verb (kə sirem, kə sires, etc.), participle [originally dative-locative case] + copula (sirum em), infinitive + copula (sirel em), infinitive in locative case + copula (sirelis / sire[li]s em), as well as action noun + copula (lalman em, cf. CA action nouns in -umn, gen. -man). The development of these characteristic features dates to around the 11th century. Xotorǰur and Aramo have preserved the classical present intact.

J̌ahukyan offers a multi-feature classification and on this basis identifies eleven dialectal groups:

A. Western grouping

• I The Antiok‘ or extreme South-Western group: K‘esab / Svedia, Beylan.

• II (I-III) The Cilicia or South-Western intergroup: Hačən, Maraš / Zeyt‘un.

• III The Asia Minor or Western group: Karin, Šapin-Garahisar, Sebastia, Evdokia, Marzvan / Amasia, Nor-Naxiǰewan / Crimea, Polis (Constantinople), Sivri-Hisar, Kyurin, Syolyoz, Malat‘ia, Kesaria, Xarberd / Erznka, Aslanbek, Akn, Arabkir.

• IV (I-III-VI) The Hamšen or North-Western intergroup: Hamšen, Edesia.

• V (III-VI) The Aṙtial (Transylvania) or extreme North-Western intergroup: Aṙtial (Transylvania).

• VI The Muš / Tigranakert or South-Central group: Muš, Talvorik / Motkan, Sasun / Gelieguzan, Tigranakert.

• VII (VI-VIII) The Van or Southern intergroup: Van, Moks, Šatax, Diadin.

B. Eastern grouping

• VIII The Xoy / Marała or South-Eastern group: Xoy, Marała.

• IX The Ararat or North-Eastern group։ Ararat, J̌uła, Bayazet, Astraxan, Ardvin / T‘iflis.

• X (IX-XI) The Łarabał / Šamaxi or extreme North-Eastern intergroup: Mehtišen, Łarabał, Łazax / Kirovabad, Kṙzen, Havarik, Šamaxi, Burdur.

• XI The Agulis / Mełri group: Agulis, Mełri.

The impact of the Armenian Genocide on dialects

The Armenian dialects are presented in eleven groups in accordance with J̌ahukyan’s multi-feature classification. The dialects of the Eastern grouping (groups VIII-XI) have developed and are still spoken in the Republic of Armenia, Arcʻax (Karabagh / Ɫarabaɫ), as well as Parskahayk‘/Persian Armenia and surroundings (North West Iran). By contrast, the western dialects (groups I–VII) which had developed on the territory of the western part of the historical Armenia (that is, the eastern half of present-day Turkey) for many centuries, with a few exceptions, are no longer spoken in their original location. This is because of Turkish constant genocidal policy and especially the Armenian Genocide starting in 1915 which resulted in extermination of more than one million Armenians and constituted an amputation of Armenian life, and therefore also an amputation of Armenian dialects. Some surviving groups of the Armenian population were dispersed around the world. Their descendants have partially preserved their dialects in the Republic of Armenia, J̌avaxk‘ (now in Georgia), Russia and other countries.

For these reasons our information on the western dialects is uneven. Many of them are now almost or completely extinct. Some of them have been described before the Genocide, others are known by some secondary materials recorded from the refugees, and for the rest we practically have no information.

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Archaisms and innovations in Armenian dialects

Issues regarding the origin of the Armenian dialects and their existence in the classical period, as well as numerous archaic dialectal words and features are dealt with in several monographs and a number of papers mostly by Armenian scholars. In these studies, dialectal archaisms are often represented as a preservation of what has been lost in the corresponding classical forms. This view should be verified in each individual case. For instance, the dialectal form anum ‘name’ (cf. also anmani ‘famous’) vs. Classical Armenian anun ‘name’ from Old Armenian *anúw(a)n < Indo-European *h3neh3-mn̥ ‘name’ has been treated as a reflection of older *anumn, but it is methodologically more cogent to explain the preservation of -m- through generalization of the prehistoric oblique *anVman-, cf. paštawn vs. gen. paštaman ‘service’, mrǰiwn vs. mrǰmun-k‘ ‘ant’.

On the other hand, many deviant features that have been assigned to great antiquity can, in fact, be easily explained within the framework of recent internal developments. For instance, the assumption that Łarabaɫ rɛk‘nak (vs. Classical aregakn ‘sun’) is an archaic reflex of the Indo-European proto-form allegedly with an initial *r- is untenable. First, the proto-form of the word for ‘sun’ is now reconstructed as *h2reu̯-i- rather than *reu̯-i- (compare Sanskrit ravi- ‘sun, sun-god’ and Hittite ḫaru(u̯a)nae-zi ‘to become bright, get light, dawn’). Second, Proto-Armenian (probably also Proto-Indo-European) did not tolerate a word-initial *r- and in such cases always acquired a prothetic vowel, an augment e- or a-, so it is extremely difficult to imagine how a word in a modern dialect would have escaped this rule. Third, rɛk‘nak is a marginal form; aregakn is reflected in Łarabaɫ mostly as iərík‘nak, iəríhynak, ərɛ́k‘nak, əríhynak. Fourth, the reduction of the initial pretonic syllable in polysyllabic words is regular in Łarabaɫ (and surrounding dialects), cf. a(r)celi ‘razor’ > cíli, akanat ‘trap’ > kánat ‘net’, asaranoc‘ ‘oil-mill’ > səranoc‘, hac‘ahan ‘an implement for taking out the baked bread’ > cəhan, etc.

In a series of articles Jos Weitenberg discussed a relatively homogenous set of dialectal isoglosses within a chronological framework starting from pre-literary times, all of which are anterior to the sound shift h > x in the Van-Urmia group and the devoicing (b, d, g > p, t, k) which are dated to approximately the 7th century or later:

• Retraction of the accent to the penultima.

• Diphthongization of stressed o (and perhaps e) in initial position; all dialects diphthongize any o in absolute anlaut, whereas the dialects having accent retraction (Łarabał, etc.) and the dialects of the Van-Urmia region do so only in monosyllables.

• Monophthongization of aw; if aw (under penultimate accent) is followed by a dental stop or affricate, the w yields x, e.g. eawt‘n ‘seven’ > Mełri ɔ́xtə.

• Ačaṙyan’s Law (fronting of back vowels after voiced obstruents).

• Devoicing (7th century or later).

The archaic set of isoglosses demonstrates an opposition between the South-Eastern periphery (Łarabał/Agulis area) on the one hand, and the Central and Western regions on the other. The Van-Urmia intermediate area may originally have formed part of the South-Eastern area. Furthermore, there is a sharp contrast between Muš and Łarabał.

Dialectal designations of Armenian(s) and some of the Armenian dialects

The speakers of the Armenian dialect of Svedia called themselves k‘ist‘inə / k‘isdinɛ, which reflects the word k‘ristoneay ‘Christian’, and the dialect, k‘ist‘inəg / k‘isdinig / k‘ist‘inüg ‘language of a Christian, Armenian’.

In the secret language of Van we find ōcuk ‘Armenian, of Armenian descent’, literally ‘anointed, baptized’.

The speakers of the Armenian dialect of Agulis were called zok, probably from the pronoun z-(h)ɔk, accusative of hɔk ‘here’. Typologically, compare the name of the Polis people, hos-hos, reduplicated from hos ‘here’. The language of Agulis was called z(ɔ)kɛrän (zok-eren). The inhabitants of T‘iflis called them satana ‘Satan’. One wonders whether this reflects the memory of the notorious pagan tradition of the Gołt‘n district. Note that Koriwn (§ 14), the fifth-century biographer of Mesrop Maštocʻ, describes Siwnakan province (adjacent with Gołt‘n) as čiwałabaroy, that is “having manners of čiwał ‘monster, phantom’”.

The Łarabał speakers were called lɔx in the dialect of Mełri. Most probably it reflects the word lɔx ‘all’ that is peculiar to the Łarabał dialect.

The Nor-J̌uła (New Julfa) dialect is called J̌ułc‘evar by the local population.

Inhabitants of Yerevan and Hawlabar (who have migrated from Yerevan) are called šančrag ‘Dog’s candle’ in the dialect of Tiflis.

In the Armenian dialect of Aṙtial there is a curious designation of Armenians, Kabzan. Various etymologies have been suggested: Turk. Arab. kabza ‘poignée’; Polish kabza ‘porte-monnaie’; Arm. Polish dial. kavzan ‘pastoral staff’ < ClArm. gawazan ‘stick, goad (for driving cattle)’. Polish Armenians also used the word erkrcʻnak ‘Armenian language’, derived from erkir ‘land, country’ and meaning thus “language of the fatherland”.

Hrach Martirosyan
20.02.2020, Leiden / Los Angeles