Armenian is an Indo-European language with about 6 million speakers mainly in Armenia (Հայաստան [Hayastan]) and Nagorno-Karabakh, a de facto, though unrecognised, independent republic in the Nagorno-Karabakh region of the South Caucasus. There are also Armenian speakers in many other countries, including Russia, Georgia, Lebanon, Iran, Syria, Turkey, Egypt and the USA.
Armenian is the offical language of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, and has official status as a minority language in Cyprus, Poland and Romania. Until the the early 1990s schools in Armenian taught in either Armenian or Russian, however after the collapse of the USSR, Armenian became the main medium of instruction and the Russian-medium schools were closed. In 2010 Russian language education was reintroduced in Armenia [source].
Armenian at a glance
- Native name: Հայերէն [hɑjɛˈɾɛn] (hayeren)
- Linguistic affliation: Indo-European, Armenian
- Number of speakers: c. 6 million
- Spoken in: Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, Russia, Georgia, Lebanon, Iran, Syria, Turkey, Egypt and the USA.
- First written: 405 AD
- Writing system: Armenian alphabet (Հայոց գրեր / Հայոց այբուբեն)
- Status: official language in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. Recognised minority language in Cyprus, Poland and Romania
A brief history of Armenian
Not much is known about the Armenian language before it was first written in the 5th century AD, though the Armenians are mentioned in inscriptions dating back to the 6th century BC.
The type of Armenian spoken and written in the 5th century is known as Classical Armenian, or գրաբար (grabar – “literary”). It contains numerous loanwords from Parthian, and also from Greek, Syriac, Latin and other languages such as Uratian. Grabar continued to be used as a literary language until the late 19th century.
The Armenian used between about the 11th and 15th century is known as Middle Armenian, or միջին հայերեն (mijin hayeren), and contains more loanwords from Arabic, Turkish, Persian, and Latin.
The two main modern forms of Armenian emerged during the 19th century when the traditional Armenian homeland was divided between the Russian and Ottoman Empires. Western Armenian developed among Armenians who had moved to Constantinople, while Eastern Armenian developed among Armenians living in Tbilisi in Georgia. Many newspapers in each of the variants were published and many schools for each variety were set up. This resulted in widespread literacy and to an increase in the amount of literature written in modern Armenian, rather than in the classical language.
Armenian alphabet (Հայոց գրեր / Հայոց այբուբեն)
In the late 4th century AD, King Vramshapuh (Վռամշապուհ) of Armenia asked Mesrop Mashtots (Մեսրոպ Մաշտոց), one of the officials in his chancellery and a prominent scholar, to create a new alphabet for Armenian. Before then, Armenian had been written with ‘cuneiform’ scripts, which was deemed unsuitable for religious works by the Armenian Church.
Mashtots travelled to Alexandria, where he studied the principles of writing and came to the conclusion that the Greek alphabet was the best alphabet in use at that time because there was an almost one-to-one correspondence between sounds and letters. He used this model to come up with a new alphabet, which he presented to the king when he returned to Armenia in 405 AD. The new alphabet was well-received and a new Armenian translation of the bible was published in 405 AD. Other literary works soon followed.
There are two standard forms of Armenian: Eastern Armenian, spoken mainly in Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Georgia and Iran; and Western Armenian, spoken by the Armenian diaspora in many countries. They are more or less mutually intelligible.
From the early 18th century until the 1950s some 2,000 books were published in Turkish written in the Armenian alphabet, and official documents produced during the Ottoman period were in the Armenian and Arabic scripts. The Armenian alphabet was used in the literature of Kipchak-speaking Armenian Orthodox Christians between 1524 and 1669. The poet Sayat-Nova used the Armenian alphabet to write poems in Azeri, and it was also the official script for Kurdish in Soviet Armenia from 1921-1928.
- Type of writing system: alphabet
- Direction of writing: left to right in horizontal lines
- Used to write: Armenian, and formerly used for Turkish, Azeri, Kipchak and Kurdish
- There are a few minor differences in the pronunciation of the letters between the two standard literary forms of Armenian: Western and Eastern.
- Most of the letters have numerical values.
Eastern Armenian alphabet (Արևելահայերեն [Arevelahayeren])
Western Armenian alphabet (Արեւմտահայերէն [Arevmdahayeren])
Differences between Eastern and Western Armenian
Regular differences in pronunciation between Eastern Armenian and Western Armenian.
Additionally, “Ռ” an “Ր” – both rolled Rs /r/ – have no distinction in sound in Western Armenian, whereas “Ռ” is rolled more strongly than “Ր” in Eastern Armenian. Eastern Armenian has distinct sounds for all fifteen letters above.
Western Armenian sounds for letters under columns I and III match exactly within Western Armenian. (Spellings of words must necessarily be learned, as one consequence.)
Eastern Armenian sounds for letters under Column I have shifted to become the sounds for letters under Column II in Western Armenian.
Eastern Armenian sounds for letters under Column II do not exist in Western Armenian. (Speakers of Western Armenian often have trouble even hearing those sounds.)
Spellings of proper names are often the same in Western Armenian and Eastern Armenian (except for new words that have come up in the past century or two), but their pronunciations – and therefore, transliteration into other scripts – differ. An Eastern Armenian speaker would call himself “Grigor” and his father “Petros”, while a Western Armenian speaker would call himself “Krikor” and his father “Bedros”, both writing out their names in Armenian in exactly the same way.
Besides differences in grammar and vocabulary, Eastern Armenian also underwent an orthography reform, so Armenian written in the former USSR and by Armenians of the former Soviet Union uses the new spelling system, while the Eastern Armenian used by Armenians in Iran maintains the classical spelling system, almost fully matching with Western Armenian orthography.
Sample text in Eastern Armenian
Bolor mardik c’nvowm en azat ow havasar’ irenc arjhanapatvowt’yamb ew iravownqnerov: Nranq o’jhtvac’ en banakanowt’yamb ow xghtwov, ew partavor en mimyanc nkatmamb varvel eghbayrowt’yan ogov:
Sample text in Western Armenian (by Nareg Seferian)
Polor martig gy’ dz’nowin azad ew hawasar irenc arjhanabadowowt’eamp ew irawownqnerov. Irenq o’jhtowadz’ en panaganowt’eamp ow xightwov, ew bardaworowadz’ en mimeanc hante’b eghpayrowt’ean oqiov varowil.
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
(Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)