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The Armenian Language

Armenian is the official language of the Republic of Armenia, as well as of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is a part of Azerbaijan. In terms of classifying the language it is known as an Indo-European language, which some linguists consider similar in some respects to the Greek language. To reach its current format today, the Armenian language has been influenced by many other world languages, from Iranian to French. This article will seek to chart the development of the language through time, eventually bringing us to the Armenian of today.

Today 6.7 million people worldwide speak Armenian, which is considered an astonishing fact in itself given the time the language has taken to be recognised as a language in its own right at all. 97% of the 3 million strong population are Armenians. But there are more than 5 million Armenians living outside of Armenia. The reason for the spread of Armenians all over the word was due to conflict with the Ottoman Empire in 1915-1916, when 1.5 million Armenians were said to have been killed.

Classic Armenian imported many of its words from Middle Iranian languages, which might help us understand the proximities between certain aspects of the tongues today. Middle Armenian was then heavily influenced by Arabic, Turkish, Persian and Latin, and more recently dialects have incorporated words from Modern Turkish and Persian. The wealth of other languages which have influenced Armenian is vast, and it is still possible today to identify shared characteristics with these other tongues. However, a problem posed by the fact that Armenian has been influenced by many other languages is that it is sometimes quite difficult to chart the evolution of the language, given the amount of words borrowed from other tongues. In fact, the Armenian language borrowed so heavily from Iranian that initially it was classified as an Iranian language until the late 19th century when two layers of ‘Iranian loans’ were identified within the current Armenian vocabulary. On the other hand though, the fact that Armenian has been so influenced by other tongues can sometimes help us gain a broader picture of the history and politics of the country. For example, following the problems with the Ottoman government almost all Turkish influences were removed from Armenian speech. As so often is the case a country’s language proved to be an integral part of its defence from, or reaction to, harm inflicted by others. Bearing this in mind it is good to know that the Armenian language has gone from strength to strength since the fall of the Ottoman Empire, and today Armenian language newspapers are printed not only in Armenia but also in Boston, Fresno, and New York.

As far as we know, the Armenian alphabet was created in AD 405 by a cleric called Mesrop Mashots, and he based some letters of his new alphabet on those found in the Greek alphabet. The Armenian prominent between the 5th and 7th centuries was used as the literary version of the language until the 19th century when two new literary languages were formed. There was Western Armenian, which was based on the speech of Istanbul Armenians, and Eastern Armenian, based on the speech of Transcaucasian Armenians. Due to a long tradition of emigration and expulsions during the last decades of Ottoman rule, most speakers of Western Armenian live outside of Anatolia. Eastern Armenian is the language of the present-day Republic of Armenia.

Grammatically, early forms of Armenian had much in common with classical Greek and Latin, but the modern language, like Modern Greek, has undergone many transformations. This is not to say that it is impossible to identify similarities between the two however. It is important to point out that with time the Armenian language made a transition from a synthetic language (Old Armenian or Grabar) to a typical analytic language (Modern Armenian) with Middle Armenian as a midpoint in this transition.

In terms of differences between the dialects, pronunciation is quite distinct. There are a few differences in the pronunciation of the letters between two main dialects of Armenian: Western and Eastern. Eastern Armenian speakers have kept the original pronunciations of the letters, pronouncing each of the 38 letters quite distinctively. Western Armenian speakers pronounce a few of the letters in the same way. Most of the letters have numerical values and Classical Armenian distinguishes seven vowels: a, i, schwa, open e, closed e, o, and u. Armenian is rich in combinations of consonants, especially in affricative sounds such as j, ch, and ts. This can make it a difficult language for Europeans to master, and matters are not helped by the fact that both classical Armenian and the modern spoken and literary dialects have a complicated system of treating nouns, with six or seven noun cases but no gender. In modern Armenian the use of auxiliary verbs to show tense (comparable to will in "he will go") has generally supplemented the inflected verbs of classical Armenian. Negative verbs are conjugated differently from positive ones. This last point in particular may dissuade anybody from trying to learn the language, but if we take a minute to think about the English language, we also conjugate verbs differently according to whether they are positive or negative. For example consider the difference between the English "he goes" and "he does not go". The system is similar in Armenian.

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