The effect of the Armenian alphabet
With the national conversion to Christianity in the 4th century, it became necessary to reach the people through religious services conducted in Armenian, and to translate the Bible and scriptures from the Greek. At first Armenians tried to adapt foreign alphabets to fit their language, but Armenian phonetics structure made that difficult.
The task of devising an alphabet was given to a learned clergyman named Mesrop Mashtots, who, after research abroad, returned in 406 AD with the job completed. The 36 phonetic letters which he devised account beautifully for the sounds in the language. It is the same alphabet used today. Two more letters were added in medieval times to accommodate new sounds which entered the language.
Before the being of written Armenian, evidence points to the existence of a popular oral tradition with songs, poems, fables, legends and epics that were passed by memory from generation to generation. Since it was not recorded, little of it has survived. After the creation of the Armenian alphabet, the written word helped to develop the Armenian language, literature and arts. The Church immediately set to work translating the Bible from Greek into Armenian. The translation is regarded as a masterpiece. This is perhaps due in part to the language’s inherent word-building power which, when properly used, adds a richness to the text. To do so, the literature must be painstakingly translated by creating Armenian words for borrowed concepts, rather than by inserting foreign words directly into the text. For example, the Greek word for Bible literally means “the book”. Instead of borrowing the Greek word, the Armenians created their own word, Astvatzashoonch, meaning literally “the breath of God”.
The Bible being able to be translated into Armenian increased the importance of Christianity in Armenian art. The written word also allowed for the development of the art of the illuminated manuscript. Armenian scribes began to copy and translate Christian texts onto parchment adding to them symbolic illustrations and introductory pages. These manuscripts were then used in religious services
Linguists enjoy studying the Armenian language because it contains clues to the parent Proto-Indo-European language from which almost all-European and Indian languages probably developed. Although Armenian forms a branch of the Indo-European language family, it does not closely resemble them. It has the grammatical structure of an Indo-European language, yet a large part of its vocabulary has been borrowed from Armenia’s many neighbors and its dictionary includes many non-Indo-European words.
During the following centuries the dialect into which the Bible was translated became the standard language for other literary works, particularly those of a historical and philosophical nature. A vast amount of literature was written in this language, known as krapar (Classical Armenian). Some works in Classical Greek and other languages have survived only through their Armenian translations. Copies of most of these classical works – whether translations or original Armenian literature – are preserved today in the National Repository of Manuscripts, the Matenadaran, in Armenia’s capital city of Yerevan.
By the 11th and 12th centuries, however, the many Armenian village dialects had evolved to such a degree that Classical Armenian was considerably different from the vernacular dialects spoken by the people. The nobility therefore adopted a more current dialect, now known as Medieval or Middle Armenian, as the standard language for the affairs of state.
Only in the past two centuries have the majority of Armenian writers seen any encouragement for writing in dialects other that the Classical. The influences of 18th and 19th century’s European political philosophies, respect for the common man and a heightened political awareness of oppression in Ottoman Turkey made vernacular dialects acceptable for artistic and political expression. Thus an outpouring of such expression took place in the 19th century in the form of journalism, poetry, short stories and novels aimed at the masses.
Today literature thrives in the Republic of Armenia as well as in the Diaspora. Writers use one of two standardized vernacular dialects, Western Armenian and Eastern Armenian, whose names reflect their geographic origins.
Throughout centuries of foreign domination the retention of the Armenian language seems to have been one of the people’s greatest defenses against assimilation. It is difficult to express the deep feeling Armenians have for their language, which many regard as the lifeblood of their culture.