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|Ե||ե||e, ye||e, ye||եչ||5||Շ||շ||sh||sh||շա||500|
|Զ||զ||z||z||զա||6||Ո||ո||o, vo||o, vo||վո||600|
|և||ևվ||yev, ev||yev, ev|
It is said that some letters of the Armenian alphabet were based on the Greek ones. However, more than a visual similarity, the Armenian and Greek alphabets are rather very close in the letter/sound order. Actually a Greek colleague allegedly helped Mashtots with creating the Armenian alphabet.
Furthermore, the alphabet is composed as a prayer, beginning with A as Astvats (=God) and ending with K' as K'ristos (=Christ). The original alphabet had only 36 letters. Later, three more characters were added:
- և (yev) : actually a conjunction meaning "and". It is used only in minuscule. Therefore when using capitals, it must be written like two letters- ԵՎ. On the beginning pronounced “yev”, in the middle of the word “ev”.
- Օ : it is being used in the eastern Armenian on the beginning of the words when it is needed to be pronounced as “o”, instead of “Ո”, which is pronounced “vo” on the beginning of the words. In western Armenian, it is commonly used in the middle of the words.
- ֆ (F)
The transliteration system I use is very simple, based on the Latin character equivalents assigned to each letter in the alphabet above. Each letter has an English equivalent letter, or combination of letters.
For example, the Armenian word for Jacob, "Հակոբ" would be pronounced "Hakob" in Eastern Armenian, or "Hagop" in Western Armenian.
It is important to remember that the Eastern and Western dialects differ in transliteration, because some Armenian characters are pronounced differently. For example, in Armenian, the equivalent of the English name Peter, is Petros in Eastern Armenian, and Bedros in Western. As you can see the P and the T are pronounced differently in Western Armenian. This name would be Pedro in Spanish, where only the letter T has changed. This is because the Armenian alphabet contains a few "middle sounds" which English has for the most part lost. For example, the P and B sounds have a sound somewhere in between those two sounds that English speakers (and often Western Armenians) will have a very difficult time perceiving. If you say the English word "sports", you may notice that you are actually pronouncing this middle sound without even noticing it. Most people are not pronouncing a clean P, but something that sounds more like a B, but not quite... this is the sound that Eastern Armenian uses for the second letter of the Armenian alphabet. Western Armenians do not use this difference as much, pronouncing more of a clean B. Western Armenian also differs in vocabulary and conjugation from Eastern Armenian, which is used in the Republic of Armenia today. A brief guide/dictionary of differences between the two dialects can be found here.
Dating Armenian monuments
Knowledge of the Armenian alphabet is useful but not essential for appreciation of Armenia's cultural patrimony. However, one sure way to impress on-lookers, including local worthies, is by deciphering the date on medieval inscriptions. Dates are generally marked by the letters ԹՎ or the like, often with a line over, indicating "t'vin" ("in the year") followed by one to four letters, each of which stands for a number based on its order in the alphabet. In the Middle Ages, Armenians used a calendar that started in 552 AD as the beginning of the Armenian era. To translate into standard years, simply add 551 to the number. Thus, should you see an inscription reading ԹՎ ՈՀԳ, simply check the alphabet table below and see that this equals 600 + 70 + 3 + 551 = 1224.
Armenia's remarkable alphabet
By Ken Gewertz
Harvard University Gazette, MA November 3, 2005
Saint's sturdy Armenian alphabet focus of meetings Harvard News Office
In Yerevan, capital of Armenia, the manuscript library known as the Matenadaran possesses an almost sacred status. Situated on a hill, it is approached by a long cascade of white marble steps flanked by statues of the great figures of Armenian literature. Chief among these is St. Mesrops Mashtots, who gave Armenia its alphabet.
According to James Russell, the Mashtots Professor of Armenian Studies at Harvard, the fifth-century saint gave Armenia much more than an efficient system for rendering its language into written form. By means of his invention, Mashtots gave Armenians a cultural and religious identity as well as the means to survive as a people despite the efforts of larger and more powerful neighbors to subsume or destroy them.
Armenians pride themselves on being the first nation to adopt Christianity, an event that is supposed to have occurred in the early fourth century when St. Gregory the Illuminator succeeded in converting Trdat, the king of Armenia. But according to Russell, there is much evidence that after Trdat's death, the country was in the process of reverting to paganism.
"Mashtots' principal purpose in inventing the alphabet was to change Armenia's cultural orientation from the Iranian East to the Mediterranean West," Russell said. "He gave Armenia the means and the incentive to remain Christian."
Having an alphabet allowed Armenians not only to translate the Bible into their own language but works of Christian theology, saints' lives, history, and works of classical literature as well. It also allowed them to develop scholarly institutions and a literature of their own.
"Within a century, Armenians had a library of classical and Christian learning and were able to build their own literary tradition. As a result, they became independent and almost self-sufficient, and they became impervious to attempts by Rome to Hellenize them or attempts by the Sassanian empire to re-impose Persian culture on them."
On October 28 and 29, Harvard hosted an international conference to consider the achievement of Mashtots, its historical background, and its wider influence. Organized by Russell, the conference was sponsored by the Armenian Prelacy of New York, the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, and the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Harvard. It was held under the patronage of His Holiness Aram I, Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia.
Fortunately for scholars, Mashtots is known in the historical record.
One of his disciples, named Koriun, wrote a biography of his mentor, which records many details of his life as well as the process by which he formulated his alphabet. The biography tells us that Mashtots came from an aristocratic family, that he served in the royal court, and that he was ordained a priest and founded several monasteries. With the support of King Vramshapuh, and with the aid of a Greek scribe named Ruphanos, he embarked on a project to develop an Armenian writing system.
Mashtots studied various scripts as models, including Greek and Syriac. He might also have given careful consideration to a version of Aramaic script developed by the Parthian prophet Mani, promulgator of the gnostic doctrine of Manichaeism. According to Koriun, Mashtots' synthesis of all these elements came to him in a dream, resulting in a 36-character alphabet. Two more characters were added during the Middle Ages, bringing the number of letters in the present-day Armenian alphabet to 38.
According to Russell, this synthesis reflects a deliberate effort on Mashtots' part to borrow elements from Eastern scripts but reorient them to give them a more Western character. All known alphabets are derived ultimately from the letterforms of the Phoenicians, but Eastern writing tends more toward the horizontal while Western alphabets emphasize the vertical. Mashtots' preference for vertical elements reflects his effort to reorient Armenia toward the Christian West.
More information about Mashtots' alphabet has been gleaned through careful study of manuscripts. In recent years, computer analysis has helped scholars to focus with greater precision on the formation and evolution of letter shapes. One of the pioneers in this field, Michael Stone, professor of Armenian at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, was the keynote speaker at the conference. Stone is the chief author of the recently published "Album of Armenian Paleography," which uses computer techniques to analyze the development of letters over time and is a great help in accurately dating manuscripts.
Besides studying the letter shapes, scholars have also tried to understand Mashtots' reasons for ordering the letters as he did.
Russell, who has studied this problem and delivered a paper on the subject, believes that the order of the letters reflects his familiarity with number symbolism of the sort found in a Hebrew text called the "Sepher Yetsira," or "Book of Creation," thought to be an early work in the kabbalistic tradition.
One measure of the alphabet's success is the fact that there have been few changes in the letters or in the spelling of words since Mashtots created it in the fifth century.
"This is a very striking circumstance," Russell said, "especially when you compare it with English where spelling has changed a great deal in just the last 500 years. It shows that the Armenian alphabet was already so perfect that there was little reason for it to change."
Perhaps an even more convincing argument for the importance of Mashtots' achievement is the survival of the Armenian people through a long and often trying history.
"Mashtots' real achievement was to create a culture that became a repository for both Eastern and Western traditions, that was cosmopolitan, but had a strong anchor of its own. He made Armenia a culture of the book, a 'bibliocracy,' and that has been their key to survival, because you can carry a book into exile, but you can't carry mountains and trees."
Photo: James Russell organized a conference to discuss the fifth century Armenian alphabet invented by St. Mesrops Mashtots. Said Russell, 'Mashtots' principal purpose in inventing the alphabet was to change Armenia's cultural orientation from the Iranian East to the Mediterranean West.' (Staff photo Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard News Office) http://www.news.harvard.edu/gazette/2005/11.03/09-mashtots.html