The Alphabet

Armenians have been conquered by many different dynasties throughout their long history. Yet, they persevere as a nation. One of the other PCVs commented, “I’ve never seen such a small country with such a strong cultural identity.” A huge reason for that is their alphabet. It makes Armenia unique, and has given a bonding quality to its culture throughout the millennia.

The alphabet was created in 405 A.D. by a guy named Mashtots. He is a revered dude, obviously. You can find his name on lots of things throughout Armenia.

Mashtots enlightening a scholar and Morten's dad

His original intent was to create an alphabet to translate the bible. Leaning on the Greek alphabet’s success, he created an Armenian alphabet in which every sound created in the oral language was represented by one letter. Read that again, English speakers. The one sound per letter rule makes pronouncing words when reading quite straightforward (kind of).

Side Note Problem: There are 39 distinct sounds in Armenian, so the alphabet is 39 letters long. 50% longer than the English alphabet. Also, there are many letters that sound the same to the foreign ear. In fact, there are 2 t sounds, 2 p sounds, 2 k sounds, 2 ts sounds, and many others that sound similar or don’t exist in English.

While he did it for Jesus, Mashtot’s alphabet caught fire for another reason: it also doubled as a numerical system. The first 9 letters represent 1-9, then 10-90, 100-1000, and 1000 to 9000. With the simplicity of one letter per sound plus the numbering, the language was destined for success. Traders especially benefitted from the ease with which they could now do business. It was like an alphabet Leatherman.

Why stop at 26 when you can have 39??

My first encounter with the language was utter confusion. Why are there so many w’s, u’s, and n’s? It does look like a cluster when you are unfamiliar. But once you finally learn all the letters, it is actually pretty cool. I can read Armenian, but I am pretty slow. The real problem is that once I read it, I have no idea what it means! 🙂

I should also say that the original alphabet was only 36 letters. The last 3 (yev, o, and f) were added in later in order to import cognate words. Lots of Armenians turn up their noses at these last 3 letters, as if perfection was met with 36 and we don’t need those outsiders’ silly words anyway.

Finally learning the entire alphabet was a relief. Words no longer looked like the symbols on the Predator’s watch. I could actually look up words in the dictionary. And I remember the first word I read successfully: bistro.

The other thing to think about with the alphabet is just how much it adds to their culture and identity. Imagine for a moment that you are part of a nation of only 3 million. Your country used to be vast and powerful, but now has been reduced down to the size of Maryland. 1.5 million of your people were massacred in a genocide less than 100 years ago. You are a bastion of Christianity in a sea of Islam. Your country has survived thousands of years and multiple sackings, takeovers, and wars. You just recently survived communism and are struggling to catch up to the rest of the world. Now imagine that you had your very own language. No one else uses it; it is yours entirely. No one else can understand your script because it is so unique. The letters are over 1300 years older than the USA. That is the reality that Armenians live in, and it helps me to understand why they are so homogenous and steadfast in their traditions.


3 Responses to “The Alphabet”

  1. Peter Says:

    Wow, that last paragraph was some deep stuff. The Cold War is my new favorite reading topic because it was not very long ago and there are so many things about it that just seem insane (ie cuban missile crisis almost obliterated us all etc. etc.)

    This is the exact opposite of some of my Mexican friends I went to grade school with – they could speak perfect Spanish but could not read it to save their lives. Go figure.

  2. Peter Says:

    Speaking of which, I would love to hear more about how it has changed since the cold war. 😉

  3. icenugget Says:

    Peter, I will try to include some info here on changes since the Cold War. In fact, another volunteer wants to do an oral history of Soviet times type project. If that gets off the ground and there is any multimedia (it will probably be interviews with Armenians who lived through those times) I will definitely share it here.

    If I had to choose between speaking and reading, speaking would win. But reading is a great skill to have as well. The feeling of being illiterate (when I arrived in country) was very, very uncomfortable.

    Speaking of that, Armenia has a ridiculous literacy rate. Over 99% are literate, despite what we would consider lots of extreme poverty.

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