By Artsvi Bakhchinyan, Yerevan, 5 February 2023
My parents recall how during their student years in late 1960s at the Armenian philology department of Yerevan State University they read that in some international conference there was a suggestion to make Armenian as second international language due its correspondence to universal language standards. “We, as future specialists of Armenian were enthusiastic about this news, but one of our linguist professors dampened our enthusiasm saying if every Armenian becomes a teacher, it won’t be enough to provide teachers for all humanity.”
How accurate was this information? I found out at the time the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper (July 2, 1969) reported that at an international conference of ethnographers in Tokyo, there was a suggestion to make Armenian the second international language. The story had actually begun a year before. In the 1960s many linguists and anthropologists confirmed that the artificial language of Esperanto had not succeed in its mission, so there was a need for a second international language. Experts had concluded Armenian has all advantages to become that international language. The suggestion came from such eminent academicians as American anthropologists Sol Tax (1907-1995) and Dr. Margaret Mead (1901-1978), as well as Austrian-American author Rudolf Modley (1906-1976). In their article “Need for an International Language,” Mead and Modley stated: “There should be a large number of literate speakers who themselves are fluent in the principal languages of the world, so that they would be available as translators and teachers. At the present point of search, Armenian for example, is a language that meets these criteria” (Natural History magazine, August 1968, see The Armenian Reporter, 1968 October 10, page 2). In another article, Mead repeated her statement and said “Armenian meets the criteria that have been suggested for a worldwide second language” (Chicago Daily News, August 17, 1968).
Sol Tax, a University of Chicago anthropologist, said the second international language must be a natural language that has proven its viability, is comfortable, easily learned and translated. “Above all, it must not be the language of a leading nation because of the political advantage that would confer…I would rule out English, German, French, Spanish and several others,” Tax said. He voted for Malayan but quickly acceded to the preference of Mead and other colleagues for Armenian as a second language to be spoken all over the world. Urging that Armenian meets the criteria, Tex added: “It has other built-in advantages. There is Asiatic as well as a European Armenian. In addition, there are colonies of Armenians all over the world. You have a ready-made teaching and translating device. Yet it is not widely enough used to have any political implications.” (Arthur J. Snider, Jet age spurs drive for worldwide language, “Armenian Church,” 1976, p. 7).
The specialists were right in maintaining Armenian was a good candidate for a worldwide second language. And what are the main characteristics which qualify Armenian for the nomination? It contains most the vowels and consonants that exist in the languages of the world; the oral and written languages do not have many differences; it doesn’t have grammatical genders; it is very logical and complex in terms of language thinking, etc.
Yet, having a unique alphabet, not being widespread, as well as because of other factors Armenian didn’t become an international language. But its native speakers already in the 19th century studied its possibility to become a basis for a universal language — Lingwe uniwersala in the internationally-known Esperanto language. Before Esperanto inventor L. L. Zamenhoff, an Armenian polyglot had already invented an artificial language. He was eccentric nobleman Bedros Tenger (Tengerian, 1799-1881) from Smyrna who had invented the vocabulary, script, and grammar of Sahleray (or Sehlerai) “universal language.” Tenger even published the ABC of that language in 1864.
Another Armenian from the Ottoman Empire (Caesaria-Gesaria), Stepan Davidian (Tavitian, 1830-1890) introduced his idea of universal language to lecturers of the Imperial Medical School in Constantinople. His concept was based on Krapar (classical Armenian) as a perfect language. In 1887, Davitian published a study in French on the subject and presented it to the Paris Academy: the same year Esperanto was presented by Zamenhof, Margos Kalusdian (d. 1923) published the “Mezperanto” booklet in an attempt to create an international language based on Armenian.
None of those artificial languages have been adopted. Yet, Esperanto entered the Armenian reality at the beginning of the 20th century. Armenian linguist A. Antreasian, the President of the Esperanto Society of Lausanne, was one of the enthusiasts of Esperanto in Switzerland in the early 1900s. In 1911, Antreasian participated in the Esperanto international conference in Antwerp. In attendance was Zamenhof. Another contemporary Armenian Esperantist was writer, artist, and translator Zabel Boyajyan (1872-1957). In addition to her command of many languages, she had mastered Esperanto. She was one of the founders of the London branch of the International Esperanto Society. In 1907, Boyajyan acted in an Esperanto theater performance organized in Cambridge.
Around that time, Zamenhof became fascinated by the idea of a world without war. He believed it could be achieved with the help of a new international secondary language. The Armenian idealists who believed in the need to create a universal language were also guided by the ideas of a unified mankind living in peaceful conditions.
Alas, mankind is still far from considering itself a whole organism and embracing the idea of a world without war. The idea of the whole mankind speaking a common language remains a dream.