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Articles > Language > Restoring the orthography of the Armenian nation


By Father Mesrop Aramian


A task for our generation


Often in disputes and disagreements of human affairs, the stated theme is unrelated to the real issue; the disputants, unwilling to address the essential issue, rarely come clean and humbly submit to the truth. However, the moral health of any society demands certain clear limits to keep people on guard from succumbing to the temptations of "professional" ontentiousness or elevating their private opinions into absolute truths. We must recognize that both the nostalgia for the soviet past or the zeal to rid ourselves of that legacy are treading on sacred turf, which demands great caution and discretion. The discussion of Armenian orthography is one such matter today. And many self-appointed experts evince "professional" conviction and try to protect us from the various inconveniences of the orthography of the Armenian nation (Haykazian Orthography). Those advocating the other side have been not been understood when they try to explain that the issue is actually of deeper importance to our nation and transcends mere convenience or expedience.


The way we write is first and foremost an issue of spiritual and cultural values that goes to the heart of our nation's worldview, linguistic thought processes, and our most fundamental capacity for audiovisual creativity and transmission. All this springs from our origins as a people, crystallized through the centuries, and turned into speech and writing, which is our heritage and our wealth, a force that binds us together and makes us a nation, and forges our national identity. This is not the place for us to raise a ruckus or try to show each other up, but rather, calls for calm earnestness, setting aside deceptive tactics (and we can be quite deceptive). Here, the linguist has no advantage over the musician or politician, since orthography and literacy are not the province of specialists, but are rather the manifestations of national self-consciousness, where distortions are very dangerous.


If one were to say to us today that for this or that convenience or advantage we should reject the Armenian alphabet, we would not only reject the proposal, but would discredit and condemn the proponent of such an idea. Why? Because our letters are sacred symbols and their written form is not arbitrary, but is intimately related to the uniqueness of our psyche and worldview. Defacing the letters of the alphabet would be tantamount to defacing our national self-consciousness and psychology. If the way we write letters is so important, then isn't the way we write words equally important? Of course, it is important, not less important, but more so. The purpose of letters is to combine them and write words, and in that way of writing there is an audiovisual harmony of language and thought. The letter finds its significance in the word, and the world is the smallest meaningful unit of language. Thus, like letters, words are sacred symbols and fundamental building blocks of our spiritual and national self- consciousness. If today we suffer from injuries and distortions to our national identity, our spiritual and cultural values, our historical memory, and linguistic thought processes, these can be attributed in great part to the effacing of the way we write words. Words convey spiritual content, and our written language is the fundamental means of transmitting our historical heritage and memory. If we write words the way that Sts. Mesrop Mashtots, Sahak Partev, Movses Khorenatsi, Hovhannes Odznetsi, Nerses Shnorhali, and Grigor Tatevatsi did, as well as the way that Khachatur Abovian, Hovhannes Tumanian, and Vahan Terian did, then we have a living, existential tie to those people and the heritage that was transmitted to us thanks to their efforts.


Words are the clothes of our thoughts, and the way we write affects the way we think. When the result of our thinking is expressed in symbols or writing that is not authentically its own, the harmony of idea-word relationship is destroyed, undermining and constricting our thought processes. Today, we often lament the degradation of our linguistic sensitivity and the deplorable level of Armenian language usage. We say, how could we have had such a phalanx of great writers at the beginning of the last century, and today we face a broken chalice. One of the reasons is that at the beginning of the last century, they learned Armenian through Mashtots, Yeghishe, Mandakuni, in a word, from the creators of the Armenian literary language, the Grabar (Classical Armenian) as foundation of Armenian language study, and there was no orthography barrier to communicating with the past. Today, in our public education system, we have neither Classical Armenian, nor the orthography of the language of our Golden Age. We have, just what we have, nothing more.


Perhaps for many it may be surprising to learn that in many European countries, for example, Austria, the public schools have continued to teach Latin and Greek. Modern German is certainly much more distance from Latin or Greek than Modern Armenian is from Classical Armenian. But there people understand that those two classical languages are the bases of European civilization and their own language. Meanwhile, here, people become alarmed at the thought that we should have to learn a couple of new words or rules. And the reality is that all the commotion is really just about a couple of rules and words, which all fit easily on one page. Imagine all this fuss is about something this small. To learn foreign languages (for example, English) we memorize thousands of words without so much as a whimper. And here for our language we are talking about only one page, and there's an uproar.


Let's pause a moment to think about the essence of Mesrop Mashtots' work. Mesrop Mashtots did not create a phonetic alphabet. Indeed, having merely phonetic letters is not such a great virtue. Such simple phonetic alphabets have been invented for many languages, but they have not taken hold. Phonetic transcription is not sufficient, since the language and words have an inner structure. Letters must not only be combined correctly, they must also reflect the sound system of the language and properly represent the diphthongs and triphthongs of the language. In other words, words themselves dictate the existence of certain letters. A profound understanding of the language is necessary, an instinct for its spoken spirit and essence, in order to identify the letters required to properly represent that language. For this reason, the hymn writer says of Mashtots, "He created living letters on earth." These symbols truly are living letters and the living embodiment of Armenian speech. Sts. Mesrop, Sahak and their disciplesí greatest achievement was the creation of a written language, a language, whose entire strength is reflected not only in its ability to express our own thoughts, but also in its unprecedented capacity to express the universal of all humanity. We have quite rightly called them Holy Translators. They translated the "wisdom of the Uncreated God," that is, they became the translators of heavenly truth for earthly beings, giving us access to the highest values of mankind, enabling us very quickly to take our place culturally along with the strongest nations. They also make accessible to us our own culture, and through them we acquired the main force for expressing and discovering our identity and national potential, our written language.


How can the heirs of the mighty works of the Holy Translators impoverish their writing system and reduce their language-thought to a level of mere phonetic transcription? Yet even this was not completely "achieved" due to various "bad habits" of pronunciation. There are still words pronounced one way, and written another. What's to be done? Should we delve into phonetic transcription again so that our children do not have difficulty spelling? That's what communist ideology imposed in the guise of concern for establishing uniformity and facilitating communication among nations. It's lucky they didn't get around to changing the alphabet. Even today there are great threats. We live in a world where everything is tied to the computer and then ease and speed of various operations on computers. There have been suggestions that our alphabet has too many letters and that Armenian is not suitable for the English keyboard. This is a serious concern. If we aadopt this mentality of expedience and instill in our children the attitudes of not valuing our own and shunning seemingly superfluous knowledge, then what the communists failed to do, we may do by our own hand.


There is much talk these days of restoring our national symbols. If we truly understand that our identity is expressed first and foremost in our spiritual and national symbol system, then we have no time to waste in reestablishing the rules of our national writing system. This is no less important than the issue of the national seal or anthem. And as the next logical step, we should seriously thing about teaching Classical Armenian in the schools. And finally, we must recognize language in its historical context and in the richness of its diversity. Classical Armenian, Middle Armenian, Western and Eastern Armenian are not different languages. They are one coherent whole which has developed through various stages and expressions. This unified language has one, unified, classical, Haykazian orthography.


Since independence, "Gandzasar" Theological Center has published more than a half million books, all in classical orthography. Never has anyone complained about the orthography. On the contrary, many people have stated that this writing captures the living spirit of the language. And many people whom we have taught to write in classical orthography confess that they cannot go back to soviet orthography, because classical orthography is our authentic orthography. It has depth and spirit. Be assured the transition to classical orthography is not a long or difficult process. For a literate person, it takes a week or two and gives the learner a great sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. After all, this is the beginning of learning to write in the same manner as our great saint and teacher Mesrop Mashtots did.


I propose that instead of arguing with each other we make a small effort and try to write in classical orthography, that goes for both the advocates (since many of them have yet to master that orthography) as well as the rabble-rousing opponents (since they can only be enriched by this knowledge). And instead of expressing abstract concerns about making our people literate, we should each begin with ourselves by overcoming our own illiteracy. In my opinion, one who does not know classical orthography and does not know Classical Armenian, and therefore is cut off from the source of our language can not be considered a literate Armenian. And our people's literacy is declining. One of the reasons is that we are depriving our children of knowing the roots of their own language and the opportunity to know their language and its historical development. Do we have this right? Not recognizing and correcting a mistake is more blameworthy than making it in the first place. If we do not do it for ourselves, then at least we need to accept certain truths for coming generations.


Text in Armenian


Added: Sunday, October 22, 2006
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