What To Do
Armenian is a complex and beautiful language. Except for a transition into middle Armenian during the 10th-12th centuries and into a modern form in the 19th century, it has been continuously used for more than 1500 years as it was first created, borrowing traces of words and expressions from Hindu, Persian, Arabic, Greek and Latin along the way. In its current form in the Republic, it uses a lively and vibrant incorporation of words from Russian, French, English and other countries. It is a language alive.
Armenian has its own unique alphabet, devised between 401-406 c.e. by Mesrop Mashtots (361-440 c.e.) under the patronage of King Vramshapuh and Catolicos Sahak Parthev. Until that time, most written versions of Armenian were in Greek. During the turbulent years of the 4th century c.e., the new alphabet was treated as a divine gift from God, a weapon of intellect over the dark forces of fanaticism. The first sentence written in Armenian was «To know wisdom and gain instruction; to discern the words of understanding…».
Armenians were quick to use the new alphabet, translating Greek, Roman, Persian, Arabic, Egyptian, even Chinese treatises into Armenian. The Matenadaran in Yerevan contains more than 25,000 manuscripts dating to the 5th century. Many of these are Armenian translations of philosophical, scientific, historical and religious writings going back as far as the Hellenistic Greece. Some are the only existing versions of the originals.
It has been said that no more important tool was given to Armenians then their alphabet, for it has preserved their identity during invasions, and allowed them to avoid assimilation. If Russian was the international tongue of the Soviet Union, then Armenian is the International tongue that binds almost 9 million Armenians around the world.
The language can give tongue fits to an English-speaking tourist, as it contains several sounds for which there are no English equivalents. There is more than one pronunciation of the consonants ‘p’ ‘k’ and ‘t’, for example, and it take a refined ear to discern the differences. Armenians usually place the subject of their sentence in front of the verb or action, so that the sentence, «I want coffee», is said in Armenian grammar, «I coffee want» (There is a subtle respect for the object of the sentence implied in this grammar. For example, in Armenian «I love you» is expressed, «I YOU love», placing the amorous object before the action). Armenians also use the double negative, so that «Nobody wants it», comes out «Nobody not wants it». In English the double negative would create a positive statement. Not in Armenian.
And so the rules (and exceptions) continue. But do not despair. The rules are not that difficult to learn, and for the tourist it is not necessary to learn a complete vocabulary and grammar in order to communicate. There are a few key words and phrases which - like all languages - once learned, open the world before you. So do not let the new sounds and rules stop you from learning some of the phrases contained in this guide or attempting to speak Armenian. Armenians love any attempt to speak their language, and it is a sure ice-breaker in an uncertain moment, winning admirers and instant friends.
The Armenian Alphabet
Originally there were 36 letters in the Armenian alphabet. Three letters were added in the 10th-12th cc, for a total of 39 letters.
Mashtots’ alphabet begins with the Armenian letter for the sound «ah» and ends with the letter for the sound «Q». This was no accident: The letter («a») stands for Astvatz («Ast-VAHTZ», God) and the letter («k») stands for Kristos («Kris-TOS», Christ). Coincidentally, all Indo-European languages begin with the sound «ah».
This chart shows the alphabet, a transliterated sound (Latin letter equivalent), and common pronunciations. Pronunciations of vowels are closer to the British long sounds than the flat American dialect.
The original 36 letters of the alphabet were arranged in 4 rows of 9 letters. Before Armenia adopted the Arabic numeral system, each letter represented a number. The first row of letters were (in sequence) for the numbers 1-9, the second row for 10’s-90’s, the third row 100’s-900’s, and the fourth for 1000’s-9,000.
Hence the letters in old Armenian represent 1996. You will find this number system inscribed on old monuments in Armenia, as well as on a few modern ones (the Matenadaran for example).
Note about years: When speaking a year, Armenians will say ‘one thousand nine hundred ninety six year’. They do not shorten it as we do, i.e. «nineteen ninety six».