A Versatile Language is One Key to Survival

A response to the Keghart.com editorial, “Language Pollution Persists”, published on 18 November, 2015

 Nareg Seferian, Yerevan, 19 November 2015

Living languages are organic entities. They express meaning for the speaker and communicate that meaning to the interlocutor. As long as a language can fulfill that function, it is used.

Languages also tend to change over time. This is a mark of the vitality of a language. It so happened in modern times that many languages of Europe began to look to their native ways of communicating, rather than sticking, for example, to the ancient Latin, because Latin was no longer useful.

This is a natural phenomenon, and it is how we got, among many others, French and Spanish – although this “French” happened to be the dialect of Paris, where the royal court was located, and likewise the “Spanish” we know is specifically the dialect of Castile, the region around Madrid. “A language is a dialect with an army,” a certain saying goes.

A response to the Keghart.com editorial, “Language Pollution Persists”, published on 18 November, 2015

 Nareg Seferian, Yerevan, 19 November 2015

Living languages are organic entities. They express meaning for the speaker and communicate that meaning to the interlocutor. As long as a language can fulfill that function, it is used.

Languages also tend to change over time. This is a mark of the vitality of a language. It so happened in modern times that many languages of Europe began to look to their native ways of communicating, rather than sticking, for example, to the ancient Latin, because Latin was no longer useful.

This is a natural phenomenon, and it is how we got, among many others, French and Spanish – although this “French” happened to be the dialect of Paris, where the royal court was located, and likewise the “Spanish” we know is specifically the dialect of Castile, the region around Madrid. “A language is a dialect with an army,” a certain saying goes.

Something similar occurred with the Armenian language as well, but without any armies. The Armenians of the Russian Empire, in particular led by Khachatour Abovian, did away with the church-dominated education that emphasised the Classical Armenian language. Eastern Armenian as a literary language thus got its start in the 1840s after Abovian’s novel Verk Hayastani (“Wounds of Armenia”) was published. Similarly, the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire – educated individuals in Constantinople and elsewhere – developed their own dialect into what we now call Western Armenian. Both versions of Armenian spread through active school systems over the course of the generations that followed.

Armenian does not have a standard governing body, at least not one that has sway over the entire language, whether in the Republic or in the Diaspora. Anyway, it is strange to think of a living, organic entity being dictated terms on how to develop. Languages do not work that way. When people who speak Armenian mix in words from Russian or Turkish, or French or Arabic, or English or Persian, this is a rather natural occurrence. No government official can tell them not to do so.

As such, the forced censorship of any language in order to “purify” it is highly problematic. What is a “pure” language, anyway? There really is no such thing. Armenian would certainly not qualify even if there were. Thousands of Armenian words in fact stem from old Persian vocabulary or ancient Semitic roots. It is a testament to the Armenian language’s activity and the history and geography of the Armenian people that a language could have words in use for centuries that come from both the classical, stereotypical West (baron, for example, or megheti) and the classical, stereotypical East (ishkhan, yerajishd). Isn’t it wonderful that the Armenian word for money arises from and shares similar words with other languages in the Mediterranean and the Middle East? A merchant does not distinguish between making some tram or some drachme or some dirham. Once again, this is linguistic wealth that showcases the versatility of the Armenian people and the Armenian language.

There is nothing impure going on here at all. It is the natural give-and-take of any living language – as opposed to a language set in stone that does not like change in grammar and vocabulary, doomed to fall out of use (Latin, Ancient Greek, Sanskrit… Classical Armenian).

The only reason that speakers of modern Armenian are able to point out to so-called impurities in the language is by identifying words from other languages they happen to know at the time. It just so happens in this historical moment that there is an awareness of Russian or Turkish among many speakers of Armenian. So when words from those languages are used in Armenian, a listener might be able to immediately identify them. But I can assure all Armenian speakers that they are using foreign words all the time, whether they identify those foreign words or not. And, indeed, it also happens that foreigners might use words from Armenian in their own languages, whether they realise it or not. Again, this is a completely natural phenomenon.

I find the use of Arabic, Persian, Turkish, or other vocabulary in the works of Sayat Nova, Nahapet Kouchak, and a host of others to be absolutely charming, to be a mark of the Armenian people’s openness towards other cultures, and, quite frankly, to the richness of the Armenian language. This has been a mechanism of survival of the Armenian identity throughout its history and its many geographies. I wouldn’t want it any other way. A versatile language should be celebrated.

One could also say that Grigor Narekatsi’s exceptional use of Classical Armenian – his creation of new words, his powerful poetic style – elevated the Armenian language in a way that might not have needed foreign words. But that is likewise a mark of versatility of the Armenian language. Both capacities of the Armenian language should be admired. Why limit what the language can do?

And for those who may still doubt the organic, ever-developing nature of the Armenian language, I would suggest having a look at the first page of Khachatour Abovian’s Wounds of Armenia – Click on Վերք Հայաստանի

How clear is this Eastern Armenian for the modern reader today? Eastern Armenian, it turns out, has itself developed over the past two centuries. As has Western Armenian. As they should.

And, by the way, how many words of Persian and Turkish origin can the reader point out in that text by Abovian? Not just one or two.

The Armenian language is indeed one element of the Armenian identity, a significant one. And, just like the Armenian identity, it is constantly changing. That’s the way languages and identities survive.

Nareg Seferian’s published writings are available at naregseferian.com.

2 comments
  1. Seferian’s Old Argument

    Seferian's argument is an old one. What he says–language is organic and evolving–was not being challenged in the editorial. The question is how much foreign elements can our language absorb/accommodate before it stops being Armenian.

    Even a strong nation such as France, whose language is admired almost universally, set up as early as the beginning of the 17th century, the Academie Francaise to protect the French language. Perhaps such a top-down supervision is restrictive. However, we should make every effort to stop the penetration of foreign words into our language when we already have the Armenian equivalent: if we don't have it then we should mint it.

    Our language is a vital pillar of our identity: Armenia is not a well-known country; we are few in number; we continue to be threatened by the Turks and their cousin Azeris; we are threatened by assimilation in the Diaspora; our religion is not unique; Armenia is a vassal state of Russia. We can't afford to distort the primary characteristic which makes us Armenian.

    Perhaps it's easy to sit in an ivory tower in Yerevan and expound the well-known theories of foreign language gurus while our language seeps through our palms and we see parks, banks, hotels, restaurants mushrooming in the capital of the Armenians.

  2. Modern Armenian

    This piece reminded me of a recent conference that was held in Yerevan about Arti Hayeren (Modern Armenian). I was told that it was the education minister who opened the conference noting that the language is a living organizm (the modern Armenian word for organism). We have a beautiful word for it, eyag. Apparently he chose not to use it for “modernization” sake.

    Quoting Apovian is out of place here because he did not borrow foreign words and introduced them into his text when he lamented the wounds of Armenia. Those words would not have helped him come to terms with the wound.

    If arti hayeren is indeed an organizm, then one can safely say it is becoming an artificially inseminated GMO, a  genetically modified organism, a mule of sort that has lost the graces of a horse and the docility of a donkey.

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