Dr. Avedis Sanjian

Avedis K. Sanjian (1921–1995)

Dr. Sanjian speaks at Sara Chitjian’s In Service Program

Part 1

In Service 2 with Dr. Sanjian (transcribed)

This attendance is really overwhelming. I was expecting no more than eight or ten people. Is this an indication of the growing interest in things in Armenian, the Armenians, the Armenian Cause? If so, it would be overwhelming in any event. I am very delighted to see so many of you—teachers, some principals who, within the larger framework of developing an interest in what is generally referred in this country as ethnic studies, have also shown some interest in one of the ethnic groups, namely the Armenians. And this brings me to the question as to what do you mean by ethnic?՛՛ ‘’what do you mean by minorities?՛՛ When I first came to the United States in 1949 as a graduate student, I thought every single ethnic national group was a minority. In recent years we have discovered that we’re no longer minorities. We’re a part of the majority.

I’d like to suggest that the Armenians don’t consider themselves as an ethnic group in the sense of the term that is being currently used. They like to consider themselves a nation, and they are a nation. They don’t consider themselves a race because man has different connotations and it’s one that is extremely difficult to define. The Armenians consider themselves, as I said, a nation with a very long cultural, historical, literary tradition. I use the term ՛՛culture՛՛ in the broadest sense possible.

The topic that was chosen for today’s presentation is the Armenian language. And I can’t help but recall that some eight or ten years ago at a conference of the anthropologists in the United States, I believe (which was held in Chicago, at the University there) the internationally recognized Dr. Margaret Meade and a colleague of hers presented a paper in which they suggested, for a number of reasons (which I shan’t go into) that it would be extremely desirable to adopt Armenian as the international language. With that in mind, I have no doubt that you, being here today, are on the ground floor—you’re on the right track. Who knows, someday Armenian might be adopted as the international language. I say that with a big grain of salt.

When we talk about the Armenian language (my paper will be over the historical development of the language) we’re talking about a very ancient civilization—a very ancient nation, whose history goes back at least to the middle of the first millennium BC as far as recorded history is concerned but its antecedents go way back and it’s very difficult to determine exactly when. So we’re talking about a tradition (linguistic, cultural) that is at least two and a half millennia old. And since language is a living organism, it is born at a given time in history. It develops under all kinds of influences. And if there is a nation that has used that language as a means of communication (in the broadest sense) and if there are survivors, there are speakers of that particular language, then you’re covering a large number of centuries as the background of its historical development. And that is what I’m proposing to do this afternoon. 

By way of introduction I want to mention, parenthetically, that the Armenian language as a medium of writing, as a medium of literature was first recorded in the very beginning of the 5th century AD but obviously the language existed considerably longer than that in history. What the Armenians employed in terms of an alphabet, the system of writing and whether any record of this has been preserved is an extremely interesting and also, unfortunately, a moot question because there are no records at all as to what means the Armenians or the speakers of Armenian employed to write.

Firstly, it gave the declension, if it was a noun or any other part of speech that is declined or the conjugation if it’s a verb. And it also provided (at the beginning) the meaning of the word and gave examples of the use of that particular word in sentences. Secondly, Acharian proceeds to give the etymology or brief history of the word which, in his opinion, was the correct explanation. Or, he offered his own explanation or put it (somewhat differently again) his own theory or view as to the origin and historical development of that word. And then, thirdly, he gives the history of the word suggested by other authors or linguists which he didn’t accept. He gives his own history, etymology of the word. He gives examples of its usage and he goes on to say that ՛՛Look, there were sorts of these grammarians, linguists, scholars who have in their works referred to this particular word, have given us the etymology or history of the word but I don’t accept them—they’re wrong.՛՛ He proceeds to say why, in his view, they’re wrong. And finally, since any given word, which is a part of the vocabulary of the Armenian language is listed in the book, the derivative forms are not given (that is words that are formed on the basis of a basic word are not given because they are derived from a basic root). However, he felt that it was important for him to indicate the root forms as they occur or occurred historically in a number of spoken and not written dialects of the Armenian language.

There are, as I said, some 10.000 entries in the seven-volume dictionary. Acharian has provided (for the first time) his own etymologies of over 1600 words. I might also add that there are a considerable number of root forms, basic forms of Armenian words in his dictionary that have no explanation at all. He says, ՛՛This is a word. I cannot figure out its origin. I cannot tell you on the basis of my own investigations what other word in what other language it might be related to՛՛. I suspect very strongly that these are words that might, to a considerable extent, I suppose, be etymologically explained, as linguists are able to decipher inscriptions which usually are early forms of languages about which they know very little at the present time. This would, I think, support my own contention that many of the words whose origins have not been explained actually go back to languages that preceded the formation of the Armenian language and which came into the Armenian vocabulary as a result of the assimilation of the speakers of Armenian with native people in their subsequent historic homeland who had preceded them there or happened to be there. We know historically that the ancestors of the Armenians when they eventually… (this was a period when people were migrating from one part of the globe to another and pushing people around and taking over their places)…eventually when the ancestors of the Armenians arrived at the location which started (when they came) to be known as historic Armenia, there were at least 20 different distinct languages spoken in the area which they eventually overtook and made it their own country. And, we must also assume that when you conquer a country, where people speaking so many different languages are involved, eventually in the process of assimilating those people and imposing your own language upon speakers of other languages, you also borrow all kinds of vocabulary terminology, lexical forms from the people who you subjugated.

Going back to Acharian’s dictionary, there is no question in my mind that this is the most unique work. It’s considered not only a milestone in the study of the Armenian language but it’s also unique in the sense that, to the best of my knowledge, no language including English (I’m sorry to say), does have a complete etymological dictionary as such—I mean as monumental as Acharian’s etymological dictionary of Armenian is.

Acharian is also the author of the two-volume work which is known as the ՛՛History of the Armenian language.՛՛ This is a book which is extremely difficult to find. I’m one of the lucky people who has not only one set but two sets of it (don’t tell anybody). These two volumes were published—the first one in 1940 and the second one in 1951. Briefly, this two-volume book is devoted to a detailed historical and descriptive analysis of the origins and also the development of the Armenian language, and particularly devoted to the impact of individual foreign languages upon the Armenian vocabulary.

I’d like to talk about the cultural relationship of the Armenians with the Persians. These relations lasted for some 1600 years specifically from the 7th century BC until the 11th century AD. This is not to suggest that after the 11th century there was no contact between the two but the influence of the Persian language on Armenian became almost negligible after the 11th century essentially for political reasons. Because of these very close political and cultural relationship between the Armenians and the Persians, the Armenian language was greatly influenced by Persian so much so that until late in the 19th century European linguists were convinced that Armenian must have been one of the dialects of the Iranian language. I must give you some explanation as to why there was this misconception. In Europe in the 19th century, when there was a great interest in the study of non-European languages, practically all the linguists who were interested in Near Eastern languages, Oriental languages had no knowledge of Armenian, to begin with. And secondly, they were interested in Near Eastern languages and primarily in Persian. And any linguist who was knowledgeable in Persian and made his first acquaintance with the Armenian language every so often he would see an Armenian word which he knew from Persian. And there were so many such words that he finally assumed that Armenian must be a secondary language—it must be a dialect of Persian. This theory prevailed until late in the 19th century when the very famous German linguist by the name of Heinrich Hübschmann made a much more detailed study of the Armenian vocabulary, compared it with the Persian vocabulary and came to the conclusion that although they belong to the same family of languages, that is Indo-European languages, the Armenian is a language distinct from Persian and not a dialect of Persian. So the Armenian language since that time has been known as a distinct language, an important member, so to speak, of the family of Indo-European languages with very close ties to the Persian language. The relationship between Armenian and Persian languages is a very interesting one insofar as the vocabulary in both languages falls into four, what might be called, distinct categories. Number one—words that Armenian and Persian have in common but are not borrowed from one another. Rather they go back to what must have been the original language before the so called speakers of the Indo-European original language separated into all parts of Europe and the Near East. Generally, this is referred to as Proto-Indo-European language. It’s called Indo-European because it was established quite some time ago that there was a relationship between a significant number of European languages with a number of languages used in India. That is why it’s called Indo-European (essentially, the relationship between certain European languages and the language called Sanskrit in India). So you will have a basic number of words that occur and have occurred or have been part of the Persian and Armenian vocabulary. They didn’t borrow them from one another. They both go to a common origin which is Proto-Indo-European. The second group consists of words that Armenian has definitely borrowed directly from Persian. The third group of words that both Armenian and Persian have borrowed from a third source, mainly from Arabic. And the fourth group consists of words that Persian, for a change, has borrowed from the Armenian language. Acharian points out that during the 16th century of political and cultural association the Armenian language borrowed a total of a little over 1400 words from the Iranian languages. When I say Iranian languages we’re talking about the various dialects that were used or spoken in, what is today called, Iran (or historically also Persia) through its various stages because Persian has developed from an original base into modern Persian. Interestingly enough, not only in terms of vocabulary but also in terms of style, idioms, various uses of the same words and to some degree syntax peculiar to the Iranian languages had some influence on the development of the Armenian language.

Next we come to the influence of Greek upon Armenian which began in the 5th century AD and lasted until 12th century. During this period numerous Greek writings were rendered into Armenian and Acharian has determined that a total of 916 words came into Armenian from Greek and that only 164 of these words are still used in the modern and literary language.

Next, although we know that 138 Hebrew words came into Armenian principally through the translation of the Old Testament (Early Greek version) and other literary words, only 6 of the total number of 138 Hebrew words have become an integral part of the Armenian lexicon. For instance, Hebrew word for ՛՛Saturday՛՛ is ՛՛Shabat՛՛ (they say ‘’Shabat shalom’’). The Armenian word for ՛՛Saturday՛՛ is ՛՛Shabat՛՛. The Hebrew word for a ՛՛shop՛՛ or a ՛՛store՛՛ is ՛՛khanօut՛՛ and the same word occurs in Armenian. ՛՛Khanօut՛՛ means a store or a shop. And there are four others that I don’t recall.

The Arabs occupied Armenia as they occupied practically all of the Near East at one time or another and the Arab occupation of Armenia lasted for about two centuries, roughly from the middle of the 7th century until the middle of the 9th century. One of the strangest phenomena is that although the Arabs were in occupation of Armenia for roughly two centuries no Arabic word ever came into the Armenian literary vocabulary. And this is extremely difficult to explain. However, Arabic had some influence on the development of the Armenian vocabulary in the 11th and 12th centuries mainly as a result of the translations of Arabic scientific writings (particularly medical and botanical) into the Armenian language.

A gentleman in Los Angeles (an Armenian family from Iran) has a manuscript which was written in 1298 for a reigning king. It deals with horse breeding. It’s something like an encyclopedia—horses, diseases, how you treat diseases, various kinds of horses. It’s a unique manuscript. We exhibited it in 1917 at this large exhibition at UCLI. I was reminded of that because at the end of the manuscript it says that the work was translated from a considerable number of Arabic and Indian manuscripts dealing with the subject of horses.

A certain number of Arabic words came into Armenian through Persian because Persia was under the domination of Arabs. They came under domination shortly before Armenia came under Arab domination. And the Arabic language had a vastly more significant impact on the Persian language than it did on the Armenian and some 700 words that are of Arabic origin didn’t come into Armenian directly from Arabic or speakers of Arabic who were in occupation of Armenia. But they came into the Armenian vocabulary through Persian. How can we tell this? Because the forms in which they have been preserved in Armenian are similar to the forms as they exist in Persian and not in Arabic literature.

During the past nine centuries, perhaps I might say, that the greatest influence on Armenian (and here we’re talking about one segment of the Armenia population rather than the other, the so called Turkish Armenians or Western Armenians) was from the Turkish language. This is explained by the fact that Armenia was ruled by the Turks. It’s interesting to know that in contrast to the other foreign languages that influenced the Armenian vocabulary the influence of Turkish was not on literary Armenian but rather on certain local spoken dialects of Armenian. As a matter of fact, there came a time when the vast majority of Armenians living in Asia Minor gradually became Turkish speaking—most of the Greeks, most of the Armenians, most of the Jews. They all gradually became Turkish speaking. As I mentioned a moment ago, it’s extremely significant to note that the influence of Turkish was not on the Armenian literary language but the spoken dialects.

Acharian has studied the Armenian language and the spoken language of the capital Istanbul before the First World War and he came to the conclusion that there were some 4000 Turkish words that the Armenians used when they spoke Armenian. It’s like many Armenians in this country who speak Armenian…Although the grammar, syntax and articles are all Armenian frequently more than fifty percent of the vocabulary is English. May I cite my own favorite examples? ՛՛Yes, automobile-y hos park kenem՛՛,  ՛՛Johnny-in telephone ereq՛՛ (instead of saying ՛՛I will park the car here՛՛). Although the grammar is perfectly good in Armenian, the articles, particles are all perfect (of course, I exaggerated the examples I used) at least 90 percent of the vocabulary is English.

Armenian literature begins, as I said earlier, in the beginning of the 5th century, immediately upon the creation of the Armenian alphabet (406 AD). Prior to the 5th century Armenian literature confines to what is generally known as Oral literature consisting of folk songs, legends, fables and epic poetry. We know about various stories and legends created in this type of folk literature. And we also have, thanks to the first Armenian historian, Movses Khorenatsi, a comprehensive history of the Armenia people.

A total of 141 lines of poetry. And these 141 lines contained a total of 183 distinct words (there are some repetitions of course). It already shows that in this tiny fragment alone there were borrowings from Persian, from Georgian, from Assyrian, from Syriac and Greek. So even in the first documentary piece of literature there is evidence of the words which are related to other literary neighboring languages.

With the creation of the Armenian alphabet in 406 AD, foundations were laid for the inception and development of the Armenian national literature. There are some 41 works that have survived that initial period. This is the period which is generally known as the Golden Age of Armenian Literature. They didn’t call it as such at that time. There was a designation given in more recent centuries. The majority of these works that have survived are actually translations mostly of religious, theological, liturgical nature primarily from Greek and secondarily from Syriac. The primary reason for the creation of the Armenian alphabet and the inception of the Armenian national literature was perhaps the desire to provide the speakers of Armenian the Bible in their own language.

The Armenian version of the Bible which includes both the Old and New Testaments is one of the masterpieces of the world literature. It was the major achievement of the early part of the Armenian literature. It was the most important book ever written in the Armenian language. It had profound impact not only on the development of the Armenian language but on the Armenian religion, theology and literature in general. And this is a language which at its very inception is characterized by the richness of its vocabulary, by its abundance of synonyms, its idiomatic and grammatical regularity. I keep telling my students, in the very beginning when they start learning Classical Armenian, that this is a language that uses a great deal of economy of words. There are many things that are not there but they are there. Unless you know the grammar very well you think you understand the meaning of the classical text but you don’t.

There is a great deal of scholarly controversy about the language which was used to produce the Armenian version of the Bible, to translate the Greek and Syriac religious works into Armenian. The controversy has been going on for at least two basic reasons. How is it possible for the people who had no literary tradition, no recorded literature to, all of a sudden, create an alphabet and produce a book like the Bible. You don’t start a language (a literary language) and produce a masterpiece with great linguistic literary quality. The other reason is that was there or was there not literature before the year 406. It’s a debated issue and it has not been resolved. This is a pure lecture and I shan’t go into details. I won’t even do any research in that specific area until documentary evidence is obtained, hopefully as a result of archeological excavations.

Let’s conclude the things that we have learnt. We have seen that in the course of some 2500 years the Armenian language and basically its vocabulary developed as a result not only its own organic growth but also because its direct and in some cases indirect contact with other cultures and different languages.

I also referred to the Golden Age of the Armenian literature, the Bible and not only the large number of translations from Greek and Syriac into Armenian but also the creation of international literature which included the first comprehensive history of the Armenian people. 

From that point on, we see certain historical developments. In the beginning of the 6th century a group of Armenian scholars who lived in the capital of the Byzantine Empire engaged in serious scholarly research. They were fundamentally interested in ancient Greek philosophy and they began the efforts of translating non-religious and philosophical texts into Armenian and in the process they discovered that the Armenian language was woefully deficient in philosophical terminology. It’s a long story about two centuries but in the process, because of the tremendous impact of Classical Greek, these scholars living in Byzantine developed an artificial Armenian language which subsequently came to be known as Philhellene Armenian. That is an Armenian language somewhat independent of classical, traditional Armenian language which in many essentials was patterned after the Greek language which meant that if you didn’t know Greek you were in trouble. And since this was an artificial language it lasted for two centuries and eventually disappeared. Whereas the phases of the traditional, classical language which is generally referred as Grabar continued until about the middle of the 19th century, believe or not. In the 13th century or so, as a result of the very conservative efforts of Catholic missionaries in the East many Catholic religious, theological books were translated into Armenian but they utilized the language that sounded more Latin than Armenian. And this language is referred to as Phil Latin. And since this too was an artificial language it didn’t survive beyond the 16th century. The death blow given to this language was essentially an Armenian Catholic institution based in Venice. They are to a large extent responsible for the extinction of this artificial language.

In the Middle Ages, with Armenia having lost its independence and with the creation of the Armenian state in the eastern corner of the Mediterranean known as Cilicia they developed a language which was based on the spoken language but was used as the official language which is referred to as Middle Armenian. What it means is that this language which was used for about three or four centuries had basic elements of the classical language but it had also developed its elements from the spoken vernacular which eventually became the basis the Modern Armenian.

In the beginning of the 19th century people came to realize that literature had, for all intents and purposes, not only begun as the domain of the clergy, but also the preserve of the clergy. Since the church has always been conservative and traditional as they clung on to the language as the basis of the literature, theology and everything else and since the spoken language had changed so much, the speakers of the language didn’t understand the literature. The struggle began between two groups of individuals: the Conservatives and Liberals—the Conservatives advocating the continued use of the church language (dead language that was not spoken) and the Liberals advocating the development of the Modern Armenian language based on some dialects that would be understood by the people. This controversy, this conflict was waged in the Armenian press. Journals of one kind or another began to mushroom and the controversy was debated in the press. In the process of debating the issue they were also developing the modern language. The Liberals said, ՛՛We ought to get rid of the all the foreign words in Armenian.՛՛ By foreign words, at that time they understood all Turkish words used in the spoken language and there were some 4000 of them. They also meant some other words used by Turks, Greeks, Armenians and by other nations. So you eliminate 4000-5000 words from the spoken language. So what did they do? They said, ՛՛OK, we are eliminating all of these Turkish words. Let’s go back to the dictionary of Classical Armenian and revive several thousand dead words.՛՛ That is why today in the modern language there are so many words which are the same as the ones used in Classical Armenian. Some, however, changed their meaning. Therefore, anyone who knows Modern Armenian, studying Classical Armenian, must be on his guard. You can’t assume that the word you read in Modern Armenian will have the same meaning in the Classical Armenian. As a result of this linguistic conflict that started in the beginning of the 19th century and lasted until the middle of the 19th century, the Liberals naturally won. And we have the Western dialect of Armenian and also, independently of this, the Eastern dialect of Armenian. Do they understand one another (the ones who speak East dialect and the ones who speak the West dialect). Of course, they do. It’s the same basic language, the vocabulary is basically the same. There are phonological differences, there are some grammatical differences but they are mutually intelligible.  On this note, I should say that since the development of the modern language which goes back to the middle of the 19th century, not only there has been tremendous growth of Armenian literature in many areas but also a tremendous shift from what used to be the religious basis of Armenian culture and literature to a very large secularist tradition. And that is the period. Thank you very much.

Someone: Are there any questions?

Attendant: You mentioned that a German linguist determined that Armenian is not just a branch of Persian but a language of its own. I didn’t catch his name.

Sanjian: Hübschmann.

Attendant: Hübschmann? OK.

Attendant 2 (in Armenian): Were there any other Armenian scholars besides Hrachya Acharian who were interested in linguistics and became famous as well?

Sanjian: The question is whether there were any other Armenian linguists who compiled a dictionary of Armenian. The answer is definitely yes. But what I said in connection to Acharian was that he was the first and the only linguist (Armenian or non-Armenian) who has compiled an etymological dictionary. Now there are many other dictionaries like the huge dictionary of Classical Armenian but that’s not etymological and it doesn’t include the history of each word. The dictionaries of Modern Armenian are absolutely horrible.

Attendant 3: Was the Syriac language the same as Aramaic?

Sanjian: Syriac is very closely related to Aramaic. So yes, they are symmetric languages.

Someone: Are there any other questions?

Attendant 4: You talked about the conflict of the Caucasus and the Armenians in Istanbul. Which one was in favor of keeping the Classical Armenian?

Sanjian: The conflict was not between the Armenians in Caucasus and the Armenians in Istanbul. The conflict was among the Conservatives and Liberals. The first ones fought for the maintenance of the classical language and the Liberals were advocating the creation of the modern language.

Part 2

In Service 3 with Dr. Sanjian (transcribed)

In the language of the Armenian Kingdom in Cilicia, the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, the classical tradition was not abandoned. On the contrary, beginning in 406 AD, with the translation of the Bible and the composition of original works all the way down to about the middle of the 19th century, serious authors had no choice but to write their works (whether it was philosophy, theology, chronicles, historical works, various sciences and poetry) in the classical language. This is explained by the fact that, for the most part, Armenian literary genres and various forms of the Armenian arts were developed by the clergy and mostly in monastic institutions. The school system throughout the ages was run, for all intents and purposes, not by the laity but by the clergy. And the church institution, unlike others, has been an extremely conservative institution which saw to it that the classical language was still maintained and used as the medium of literary expression. Despite the fact that from the 10th century onwards fewer and fewer Armenians knew or understood the classical language (because language, being an organic thing naturally develops and is subjected to all kinds of changes) a greater and greater disparity occurred between the literary language and the spoken language. However, one of the nice things about, what is generally known as Middle Armenian, is that there were authors who went beyond the established norms and the accepted principles and did write poetry or other kinds of literature in the language which was based upon the spoken vernacular. And, therefore, we have what today we consider to be a very rich, somewhat non-religious or secular literature, mostly poetry which reflects the language of the people rather than, to use a modern expression, the language of the establishment of the church institution. What happens when you have such a wide gap between the literary language and the spoken language? Language after all is developed by its users, its speakers and not by its authors. The authors are normally influenced by the spoken vernacular even though there is this tendency to be extremely conservative and traditional insofar as maintaining the old system, the old style of the language and grammatical phenomena are concerned.

In the beginning of the 19th century the disparity between the spoken and the classical language was so great that Armenian intellectuals in Istanbul which had one of the largest Armenian communities in the world and also Armenian intellectuals in Yerevan which is the capital of Armenia today (in the Soviet Union) as well as a significant community of Armenians in Tiflis, the capital of Georgia and a significant number of Armenian intellectuals in Moscow got busy and in their respective regions decided that they had to do something about developing a language which was intelligible to the masses of the people. And because Yerevan, Tiflis, Moscow were under Tsarist Russian rule and because the large community of Armenians in Istanbul were under Ottoman (Turkish) rule and there was constant rivalry between these powers (the Tsarist Russians and the Ottoman Turks) there was not as much contact between the two segments of the Armenian people. Therefore, the literary dialects which developed as a result of the 19th century’s Armenian cultural Renaissance produced two somewhat slightly different literally dialects of the same language. A little while ago I explained to you some of the differences between East and West Armenians. That’s exactly what I’m referring to again. What happened, historically, in the process of developing this new literary language is I think one of the most fascinating episodes in the creation of any literary language. In Istanbul where my native dialect of Armenian originated the local people (we’re not talking about the priests, bishops and others who continued to use the classical church language for the development of the literature but the masses) spoke a language the grammar of which was Armenian, the syntax was Armenian but as far as the vocabulary is concerned there was a good percentage of words which were Turkish. That’s perfectly understandable because they were living amongst the Turks. But also, a significant number of French words, Italian words came into Istanbul from Western Europe, Central Europe and very little from Eastern Europe. The Iron Curtain existed even in those days and they had become a part and parcel of the spoken vocabulary (not only the Armenians’ but the Greeks’, the Jews’ and several other minority groups’). So about the beginning of the 19th century, as I said, intellectuals (progressive intellectuals) came to the conclusion that it was vitally important to develop a modern language. The controversy was waged in the Armenian press—the periodicals, the daily newspapers, the weeklies, the monthlies, the quarterlies. There were people who said, ՛՛Well, Classical Armenian which is not only the language of the church and the services but also of such a great cultural literary tradition it would be a shame to abandon this kind of majestic language and replace it with something else.՛՛ But the others, the progressive and minded individuals thought that there was no way that the kind of literature that had been used all those centuries could seep through the consciousness of a larger number of Armenians and bring them into line insofar as the European Enlightenment was concerned. These intellectuals of course were influenced by the Democratic principles and ideals as expounded by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and others. And interestingly enough, as I said, the controversy went on in the Armenian press—in the periodicals. And of course in the process of feuding with one another they were also creating the new literary language. They eliminated, for instance, some 4000 words from the spoken vocabulary of the Armenians of Istanbul because they thought they were foreign words. Most of them happened to be Turkish words but they also eliminated French words and Italian words. And what do you do when you eliminate some 4000 words from the basic vocabulary? You have to create new ones or, as they did, in addition to creating news words, they resorted to the dictionary of the Classical Armenian. Many words that were no longer used by intellectuals and writers were revived. They were revived from the dictionary of the Classical Armenian and they were popularized through these articles—the debates that were going on in the Armenian press. This went on to such a degree that today you can pick up a text written in Classical Armenian (I’m talking about a native speaker of Modern Armenian) and, in all likelihood, you will understand perhaps some 60 percent of the words in the classical language because they happen to be part of the modern language. However, you may not understand what is said in the classical text unless you’re familiar with the grammar of Classical Armenian. What I’m saying is that a native speaker of Modern Armenian cannot automatically assume that without studying the classical language he can understand the text but knowing Modern Armenian can be a considerable help in so far as knowledge of the vocabulary is concerned. At UCLA I happened to teach the courses in Classical Armenian, the traditional language of the literature, which was developed from the beginning of the 5th century until the middle of the 19th century, rather than Modern Armenian language which I do only on the advanced level. It has its rewards. To some degree I agree with the conservative traditionalists who fought so hard for the maintenance of the classical language in the 19th century but most of all I agree with them because in my view Classical Armenian was and still is (although dead) a highly developed and sophisticated language. And it is a shame that a language of that majesty should have changed into Modern Armenian, which incidentally is not less majestic or considerably less majestic than Grabar or Classical Armenian is. But for all intents and purposes, therefore, anyone who would study Classical Armenian would do so essentially for purposes of scholarship. And no one who dwells in any aspect of Armenian culture, language, literature, the arts before the middle of the 19th century can meaningfully do so without the grasp of the classical language. How can you study a large part of European culture without a good grasp of Latin? Latin became a universal language in the Middle Ages and it affected practically every single literature that was developed in the European countries. Similarly, you cannot historically examine any aspect of Armenian literature without attaining a basic knowledge of the classical language. However, you can do without the classical language and its entirety if you concentrated on Modern Armenian which is, as I said, a highly developed language. What it did among other things was to reflect essentially the language spoken by the people whether they were living in Turkey or in the Caucasus (Armenia) or other parts of the Russian Empire and Iran. The development of the new language not only brought the Armenians into the modern age so to speak but also opened up all avenues of literary development. For instance, the novel, the dramatic arts, secular poetry and genres of this time developed essentially because of the emergence of the modern language. What other aspects would you like me to comment on?

Attendant: The thing I don’t understand is that you mentioned that the Classical Armenian was the language that combined Italian, French, Turkish, etc. or is that the Middle Armenian?

Sanjian: No, what I meant was that at that time, in the beginning of the 19th century (and I was referring to the Armenians living in Istanbul) the kind of Armenian that they spoke, in addition to Armenian words, was also replete with Turkish words, French words, Italian words, etc. They were not native to the Armenian language but they were part and parcel of the language spoken by the Armenians. And practically all of which, because they were considered to be foreign terms, were eliminated and replaced by new words which for the most part were coined for reflecting translations of European words with Armenian elements.

Attendant: That’s what I’m saying. You said that they wanted to be more westernized that’s why they were eliminating those words.

Sanjian: No, westernization was not in sense that they wanted to Europeanize the Armenian language but bring the intellectual enlightenment up to par with the European enlightenment. They thought they could accomplish this by developing an Armenian language which would be intelligible to the masses of Armenians. You could do that only by abandoning the Classical Armenian language which very few people understood and very few people utilized for the purposes of literature. For instance, I cited this example last time—many of the sciences were new in the 19th century. Some of the sciences that we know today originated in the 19th century, like psychology, for instance. They didn’t have the speakers of Armenian in Istanbul and didn’t have a word for ՛՛psychology՛՛ in the 19th century but there were intellectuals who were trained in European universities and who went back to Istanbul. They had become familiar with a new science or a discipline known as psychology. You don’t have that word in Armenian. They didn’t want to adopt the word ՛՛psychology՛՛ outright and infuse it into the vocabulary. Instead, what they did was to analyze the composition of the word ՛՛psychology՛՛.  How is that word constructed? They were knowledgeable individuals. They realized that the word consists of three elements—՛՛psyche՛՛, ՛՛logos՛՛ and the ՛՛y՛՛ ending which is an abstract nominal ending. They decided to translate, if they could, terms of this kind (compound words) into Armenian. What is ՛՛psyche՛՛ in Armenian? It’s ՛՛hogi՛՛ What is ՛՛logos՛՛ in Armenian (word or thing)? It’s ՛՛ban՛՛. And what is one of the abstract endings used in Armenian? It’s ՛՛utiun՛՛. So they combined these three elements. There were precise translations of each component element and for ՛՛psychology՛՛ they had ՛՛hogebanutiun՛՛. This was a literal translation of the word ՛՛psychology՛՛ and they couldn’t have done it if they had not analyzed the structure of the word ՛՛psychology՛՛. This is one example that I cited. They did this time and time again and thereby enriched the vocabulary of Armenian by not adopting the European terms. What does one do when in the early 1920s the word ՛՛radio՛՛ became popular? Do you adopt that word and use it in Armenian and make it a part of the Armenian vocabulary or you don’t? Well, you have two trends։ Radio [ʌ] where the ՛՛a՛՛ is used like an ʌ. So ՛՛radio՛՛ [ʌ] would be the Armenian version for ‘’radio’’ [ei]. On the other hand, they also coined some words which have Armenian elements in them. The word ՛՛television՛՛, for instance. They did the same thing as they did with the word ՛՛psychology՛՛. They analyzed the component elements, and to me and much more so to you, it would sound rather awkward to find out that the Armenian equivalent for ՛՛television՛՛ is ՛՛herօustatesօutioun՛՛, a very long word. And it is used although in the abbreviated form. This word was created in Soviet Armenia, although editors of newspapers, periodicals outside of Armenia coined other words and so we have three, four or five words that are used in Armenian all of which stand for the word ՛՛television՛՛. As far as East Armenian is concerned it’s the language that is spoken by perhaps 60 percent of the Armenians in the world. It’s estimated that there are 6 million Armenians around the world today 3 million of whom live in the Soviet Republic of Armenia. There are about million and a half Armenians living in other Soviet Republics as Azerbaijan and Georgia, some quarter of a million live in Iran. They all speak the East dialect of Armenian and the rest dispersed all over the world use the West dialect. Mind you that both dialects, as I said earlier, are mutually intelligible. Therefore, as far as the future is concerned, it’s what happens to the Armenian which is continuing to develop in the Soviet Union rather than in the Armenian diaspora because that’s where the state is, that’s where the higher institutions of learning are, that’s where all the public schools are and that’s the country which is inhabited by the 88 percent of the population of Armenian background. 12 percent belong to other racial or ethnic groups although the other 12 also speak Armenian, for the most part. Therefore, what is happening to that language, in so far as to Russian influence is concerned, is a matter of seriousness depending on who is worrying about it.

Attendant 2: Is there anything happening to Russian influence?

Sanjian: Well, a lot is happening, naturally. Number one, to begin with, the Russian language historically long before the Bolshevik Revolution was to a very large extent influenced by German, French, Italian languages. So the process had already started and it’s continuing under the Soviets. Many European terms are going into the Russian language. Since Russian is the universal language of the Soviet Union, including Soviet Armenia and Russian publications have large distribution in Armenia among other Soviet Republics, consequently, the Russian vocabulary and new terminology that’s of European origin through Russian is coming into Armenian. What to me is deplorable is the use of the word ՛՛automobile՛՛. Not too many people use that word in this country (it’s easier to say car) but in any event in the 19th century (towards the end of the 19th century) the word ՛՛automobile՛՛ was invented. The Armenians, once again like ՛՛psychology՛՛, examined the word and came to the conclusion that it consists of ՛՛auto՛՛ and ՛՛mobile՛՛. They translated those two elements into Armenian and therefore the Armenian word for ՛՛automobile՛՛ is ՛՛self-moving՛՛, right? Moving by itself became ՛՛inqnasharzh՛՛. Exactly the same thing—՛՛moving by itself՛՛. Here is a perfectly good, well-constructed Modern Armenian word which the intellectuals in Armenia didn’t know about. And today, people in Yerevan or in any other part of the Armenian Republic, have taken the easy way out and they simply say ՛՛avto՛՛, which is the Russian form for the word ՛՛auto՛՛. And this has become a part of the Armenian vocabulary. This is only one illustration out of many. However, there are two trends I have noticed. There is a great disparity between the spoken language and the literally language in Armenian. The spoken language has become in a way a victim of the kind of influence that one would expect when you have a dominant language like Russian, the vocabulary automatically seeping through into another language. However, in so far as the spoken language is concerned, they frequently replaced already existing Armenian words. If they had adopted those words as synonyms it would have enriched the language. You have more than one word for a particular concept or object whereas if you bring in and adopt a word like ՛՛auto՛՛ or the word ՛՛marozhni՛՛ which in Russian means ՛՛ice-cream՛՛ when you have a perfectly good Armenian word for it․․․The first time I went there a friend asked me, (it was a hot day and we were walking in the street) ՛՛Would you like some ՛՛marozhni?՛՛ I said, ՛՛That’s obviously not an Armenian word. It’s Russian. What is it? Is it ice-cream? ՛՛ When we were conversing in Armenian he used the Armenian word for it which is ՛՛paghpaghak՛՛. I said, ՛՛Why did you say ՛՛marozhni՛՛? You could say ՛՛paghpaghak՛՛ and I would understand you then.՛՛ He said, ՛՛Well, it’s become a habit.՛՛ That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about. In contrast, however, I have noticed that novelists and poets in particular in their creative works seldom use any of these new words that have come into the spoken language by Russian. They are purest in a way compared to the other communication means like television, newspapers and radio. Their vocabulary is considerably different. Any other questions?

Attendant 3: What about ՛՛astronaut՛՛?

Sanjian: They had to create a word because it didn’t exist until recently but once again the story I told you about the word ՛՛psychology՛՛ applies—it’s ՛՛astghanavord՛՛. ՛՛Aster՛՛, ՛՛astor՛՛ or any other variation is the same word in Armenian—it’s ՛՛astgh՛՛. That’s in Classical Armenian. ՛՛Naut՛՛ is ՛՛nav՛՛ and you have a suffix there—՛՛ord՛՛. ՛՛Astghanav՛՛ is ՛՛spaceship՛՛. In ՛՛astghanavord՛՛ there is a suffix ՛՛ord՛՛ which indicates the performer. Someone who runs a spaceship is an astronaut. So ՛՛astghanavord՛՛ corresponds exactly to the word ՛՛astronaut՛՛.

Attendant 4: So they didn’t use ‘’cosmonaut’’.

Attendant 5: No, that’s Russian.

Sanjian: No, they don’t use ՛՛cosmos՛՛. All kinds of fascinating things are occurring and of course these developments are not unique to the Armenian language. The communication, the media are so fast nowadays, so many sciences and things are being created day in, day out. It’s rough to keep pace with it. There was a story recently in the LA Times about a dictionary. You may have noticed it. The editor was in New York, I think. Every ten years they revised the dictionary to bring it up to date. Interestingly enough, the number of words in each edition remained essentially the same. If it’s basically 200.000 words in the dictionary which means it has included some new words, like ՛՛aquanaut՛՛ or whatever, they have dropped an equal number of words which apparently are either not used or maybe were deliberately left out for some reason that is not explained.

Attendant 6: Was the cultural development influenced only by the ruling clans? I wonder what you think in terms of this.

Sanjian: I don’t think you can have a clear-cut yes or no response to that kind of question. I wouldn’t say cultural development was influenced only by the intellectual elite although I think that does have a significant bearing. I contend that not only the intellectual elite but the masses also developed lasting literature, lasting cultural traditions regardless as to whether they are rulers or subjugated people, creative people and regardless of the political situation. I think you have to take the creative contribution of all segments of the society because I think the combination of contribution of all segments and the final analysis form the culture as a whole. For instance, for a few thousand years Armenians, like other people, were singing and creating songs of the peasants. They were not a ruling class but peasantry. They were doing so in the late 19th and early 20th century until a genius composer decided to collect these songs from the peasants in the villages. He recorded them and he composed music based on themes created by other people. So the compositions, the musical contribution as far as technique are the composer’s but the themes were all created by the masses. So you have to take into account the contribution of all segments of the society. So I cannot subscribe to that restricted definition. Thank you very much!

Attendant 7: Thank you very much! This was very informative. I have one more question. There were Eastern and Western dialects of Armenian. Were there any regional dialects?

Sanjian: I was born in Turkey. There were Armenians there from all parts of Turkey. They had all kinds of local dialects. So I was exposed to many local dialects many of which, in the course of time, I began to understand. But I didn’t learn any single local dialect.

Attendants: Thank you very much. Thank you!


In Memorium

Avedis K. Sanjian

 Professor of Near Eastern Languages & Cultures, Emeritus

 Los Angeles


On July 22, 1995, UCLA lost a truly great friend. Avedis K. Sanjian, an internationally respected pioneer in Armenian studies who helped make UCLA a major center for the discipline died at the age of 74.

The Turkish-born Sanjian earned two degrees in English: a bachelor’s degree from the American University of Beirut in 1949 and a master’s degree from the University of Michigan in 1950. In 1956, he became the first graduate student at Michigan to receive a doctorate in Near Eastern studies.

Sanjian’s academic career began in 1957 with an appointment at Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies as a postdoctoral research fellow in Armenian studies. During the four years (1957-61) of his postdoctoral fellowship, Sanjian researched and wrote his first book, The Armenian Communities in Syria under Ottoman Dominion, published by the Harvard University Press in 1965. In 1961, Sanjian was appointed assistant professor of Armenian studies at Harvard University—a milestone in the history of higher education in the United States, as it was the first full-time appointment in Armenian studies. At the urging of the noted Orientalist, the late Sir Hamilton Gibb, then Director of Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Sanjian developed the first curriculum of Armenological courses in the United States. It encompassed Armenian language, literature, and cultural history. While at Harvard, Sanjian also compiled A Grammar of Classical Armenian (Harvard University, 1963), to enable students to learn this ancient language.

In 1965, the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), invited Avedis Sanjian to join its faculty as associate professor of Armenian studies. Three years later, he was promoted to the rank of full professor. The next milestone in his professional career came in 1969 when he was appointed to the newly created Chair for Armenian Studies at UCLA, the first ever endowed chair established at UCLA. At his suggestion in 1979, the Chair was named after the great medieval Armenian mystic poet Grigor Narekatsi. Also in 1969, Sanjian inaugurated the Graduate Program in Armenian Studies. His fourth book, Colophons of Armenian Manuscripts, 1301-1480: A Source for Middle Eastern History, was published in 1969 by the Harvard University Press.

From 1970 to 1974, Professor Sanjian served as chair of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, which had four undergraduate and seven graduate degree programs. During that time, he also worked on his monumental tome, A Catalogue of Medieval Armenian Manuscripts in the United States, which was published in 1976 by the University of California Press.

Professor Sanjian wrote 10 books and authored more than 40 articles in English and Armenian on various Armenological subjects published in scholarly journals. He was a founding member of the Society for Armenian Studies, an international organization dedicated to the promotion of Armenian Studies. He was the editor-in-chief of its scholarly publication the Journal of the Society for Armenian Studies, whose first issue won the “Best New Journal” award in 1985. He was also a member of various scholarly organizations and Armenian cultural organizations, such as the Tekeyan Cultural Association and the Armenian General Benevolent Association—to name the two closest to his heart. From 1981 to 1989, he served as chairman of the board of the Tekeyan Cultural Association’s Arshag Dickranian Armenian School.

Sanjian received many honors and awards, but the two that he cherished the most: the “Saint Sahak-Saint Mesrop Medal” bestowed upon him by His Holiness, the late Catholicos Vazgen I, of Echmiadzin, Armenia for his “many years of dedicated cultural and scholarly services… as an educator, philologist, historian, and expert in literature” and in appreciation for his 30 years of “most meritorious accomplishments in the interests of the Armenian people…”; and the “Mesrop Mashtots Medal,” awarded to him by the Directorate of the famous Manuscript Library of Armenia called Matenadaran. These medals were awarded to Sanjian on the 30th anniversary celebration of his dedication to Armenian Studies, which was organized by the graduate students in Armenian Studies and celebrated by members of the UCLA faculty and administration, by organizations representing the Armenian community, and numerous scholars and institutions in the United States, in Europe, the Near East and Armenia. The event took place in March of 1987.

The absence of this kind and gentle man will be deeply felt by all those whose lives he touched. He will be particularly missed by his students, towards whom he was so caring and nurturing. He is survived by his wife, Helen Sanjian, mother, Nazeli Sanjian, son and daughter-in-law Professor Gregory S. and Andrea Sanjian, and grandson Alex G. Sanjian; brothers Arsen K. Sanjian and family, Garabed K. Sanjian and family, and Harout Sanjian and family.

Gia Alvazian

Nancy M. Henley