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Armenian Citations   Armenian Links   Select a New Language

Number of Speakers: Approximately 6 million

Geographical Center: Armenia

Today, five to six million people speak Armenian (Grimes 1992), although the total population of the Republic of Armenia is only 3.5 million (ninety three percent of whom are ethnic Armenian). Thus, nearly half of Armenian speakers today live outside their historic homeland, primarily in Iran (370,000), Syria (299,000), Lebanon (235,000), Egypt (100,000), and the United States (175,000). Smaller communities, under 40,000, are found in Canada, Cyprus, Greece, India, Israel, and Jordan. Somewhat larger communities, between 40,000 and 70,000 speakers, live in Turkey, France, and Iraq. Enclaves of speakers also reside in Georgia and Azerbaijan, especially the Nagorno Karabakh region (CIA 1992). Haieren and Ashkhari are Armenian terms for the language, although the latter is somewhat erudite.

The term Armenian can be used to refer to at least three different languages, each with its own dialects. It can refer to Classical Armenian (the older form of the language); Modern Western Armenian (developed in those regions of Armenia that are now Turkey and the variety spoken in the diaspora); and Modern Eastern Armenian (the language of the Republic of Armenia).

Armenian forms an independent branch of the Indo-European language family (Comrie, 1981). Armenian is most closely related to Greek, but has many borrowed words from such Indo-Iranian languages as Pushto and Persian. In fact, during the very early periods of its classification, Armenian was erroneously considered an Iranian language because of its large number of Iranian loan words.

Two standard dialects exist. Eastern Armenian is used in Armenia and in enclaves in Azerbaijan and Iran. Western Armenian is used by Armenians in Istanbul, Lebanon, Egypt, other parts of the diaspora, and formerly in eastern Turkey. Eastern Armenian has been influenced by two sets of Russian reforms and differs orthographically from Western Armenian; there are also phonological differences. Many regional dialect variations exist, e.g., Yerevan, Tbilisi, Karabagh, Istanbul (Djahukian 1986). Some local dialects are so different from both standard forms of the language that speakers of the standard forms have difficulty in understanding local dialects (Greppin and Khachaturian 1986). Otherwise, dialect differences are no greater than dialect differences within American English.

The Armenian alphabet was derived primarily from the Greek alphabet in the fifth century and consists of thirty eight (originally thirty six) letters. Although foreign influences have greatly changed the Armenian language (so much so that it has at times been thought of as a Persian dialect), Armenian's script is easily distinguished from Persian and Arabic writing. Soviet influence on the language also changed Armenian orthography and several letters characteristic of Classical Armenian (and the West Armenian dialect) are not used in East Armenian. Several transliteration schemes into English exist, (Greppin 1992) one is by the Library of Congress (Greppin 1977).

The sound system of Armenian is atypical of Indo-European languages in that it has ejective sounds. Ejectives are sounds made by using the vocal cords instead of the lungs to push out air. It is probable that these sounds were borrowed from neighboring Caucasian languages. Words are normally assigned word final stress.

Armenian has seven nominal cases. The language distinguishes two numbers, singular and plural, but there is no grammatical gender. The position of the indefinite article varies between Eastern and Western Armenian. In the Eastern variety, it precedes the noun, in the Western, it follows the noun. Every verb stem has two forms, called bases. One is used for the simple past tense and past participle; the other is used for all other tenses, moods, and participles. Word order in Armenian is subject-verb-object.

Armenian is the official language in Armenia and is used in schools and by the media. Armenians of the diaspora have gained renewed interest in their homeland as a result of the Armenian revolution and the establishment of the Republic of Armenia. Although many Armenians of the diaspora do not intend to return to their Armenian homeland, they consider continued use of the language of critical importance to the maintenance of a unified Armenian sense of history and identity. Because many second generation Armenian immigrants in the United States have lost proficiency in their native language, attempts are being made to preserve their cultural heritage. Thus, the Armenian community in the United States has recently published many books that are intended to re-introduce Armenians to their mother tongue, generally the West Armenian dialect. In addition to textbooks, Armenian language newspapers are printed in Boston, Fresno, and New York. Thus the Armenian language learner in the United States has a rich diversity of language materials and cultural resources to draw from.

Armenia has a long literary tradition, with publishing centers in Yerevan, Istanbul, and Cairo. A fifth century classical form of the language, Grabar, is maintained by the Armenian church.

The scattered population of Armenian speakers--the diaspora--is the result of several historically significant events. During World War I, Armenians in Turkey suffered persecution and then genocide in 1915. From 1918 to 1920, those who resisted the Turks attempted to create an independent Armenian Republic but ultimately were unsuccessful. Historic Armenia was then divided up among the USSR, Turkey, and Iran while numerous Armenians fled to other parts of the world. These Armenians are the primary speakers of the West Armenian dialect. The Armenians who settled in Armenia and Iran were influenced by the USSR. By 1923, all the political power in Armenia was in the hands of the Soviet government and the East Armenian dialect was subsequently influenced by two sets of Soviet orthographic reforms.

Campbell, G. L. 1991. Compendium of the World's Languages, Vol. 1-2. London: Routledge.

Central Intelligence Agency. 1992. "Ethnolinguistic Groups in the Caucusus Region." (Map number 724594 [R00397] 3 92).

Comrie, B., ed. 1987. The World's Major Languages. New York: Oxford University Press.

Djahukian, G. B. 1986. "Introduction." In J. A. C. Greppin and A. A. Khachaturian, eds. A Handbook of Armenian Dialectology, pp. 9-26. Delmar, New York: Caravan Books.

Fairbanks, G. H., and E. H. Stevick. 1975. Spoken East Armenian. Ithaca, New York: Spoken Language Services, Inc.

Greppin, J. A. C. 1992. "Armenian." In W. Bright, ed. International Encyclopedia of Linguistics, Vol. 2:112 114. New York: Oxford University Press.

Greppin, J. A. C. and A. A. Khachaturian. 1986. A Handbook of Armenian Dialectology. Delmar, New York: Caravan Books.

Linguistic Society of America. 1992. Directory of Programs in Linguistics in the United States and Canada. Washington, DC.

Bright, W., ed. 1992. International Encyclopedia of Linguistics, Vols. 1 4. New York: Oxford University Press.

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