Armenian Alphabet

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 Partev. 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...

    This original script was created by the greatest Armenian enlightener Mesrop Mashtots about 405-406 AD. The invention of the script was caused by the spreading of Christianity over Armenia in the 4th century, and by the necessity to create a writing for mystic literature in the Armenian language. The issue of exact origin and prototype of the script is still unclear. However, general style of the construction (direction from the left, symbols for vowels, using letters for numbers etc.) makes us think it was invented under the influence of the Greek alphabet. It is also probable that Mashtots could use one of the Aramaic scripts or the Pehlevi cursive script.

    The alphabet is phonetic. It originally consisted of 36 simple symbols, each of them denoting a sound. 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. Combinations of letters, as well as the diacritic signs, are not used in Armenian, except for the sound [ev] (from [e] + [w]. This sign was absent in the original alphabet. In the 12th century two other letters were included in the script: for denoting [o] and [f]. The latter was introduced to reflect numerous borrowed words in Armenian which contained [f]. This was the ultimate form of the alphabet which is used nowadays.

    The only thing that changed a bit was the shape of letters. The modern Armenian alphabet is the descendant of the "round" variety, which was in use since the 12th century.