Armeno-Turkish Language

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St Nersess Seminary
September 28, 2005
150 Stratton Rd.
New Rochelle, NY 10804
Phone: 914-636-2003

Armeno-Turkish: Betrayal or Blessing?

It looks like Armenian but it's not.

For about 250 years, from the early 18th century until around 1950, more than 2000 books were printed in the Turkish language using the divinely-inspired letters of the Armenian alphabet. On the surface, the phenomenon of "Armeno-Turkish" would seem like yet another sad chapter in Armenian history as Armenians gradually lost their language, culture and identity under Ottoman tyranny.

Bedross Der Matossian sees the phenomenon not as a sign of the deterioration of Armenian ethnic identity, but of its extraordinary endurance and resilience. In an intriguing lecture delivered at the Seminary on Tuesday, September 27, the young doctoral candidate in Middle Eastern Studies argued that the tradition of writing Turkish with Armenian letters is an overlooked example of the versatility of the Armenian alphabet and "a creative mechanism for maintaining Armenian identity in a multi-ethnic environment."

Der Matossian's lecture, entitled, The Phenomenon of the Armeno-Turkish Literature in the 19th century Ottoman Empire, was the first in a series of five public lectures being offered this Fall as part of St. Nersess Seminary's commemoration of the 1600th anniversary of the creation of the Armenian alphabet.

Armenian? Turkish?

Armeno-Turkish books are not hard to find. If you know the 38 characters of the Armenian alphabet and you glance across the shelves of an Armenian library or church office; or peek into the boxes in medz-mayrig's (grandma's) attic, you will almost surely come across a book printed in Armenian, which you will not be able to read--unless you speak Turkish.

Armenians in the Ottoman Empire wrote books on history, fine arts, religion, science, and philosophy in Turkish using not the conventional Arabic script, but the ayp, pen, kim of our ancestors. Armeno-Turkish business contracts, school books, dictionaries, grammars, translations of European literature, Bibles, hymnals and even prayer books were published in more than fifty cities including Venice, Vienna, Trieste, Boston and New York.

This rich body of highly erudite writings can hardly be taken as the last gasp of a dying culture. It marked a true cultural-intellectual achievement. Der Matossian displayed a list of more than 30 distinct newspapers published in Armeno-Turkish, which circulated during the 60's and 70's of the 19th century.

Der Matossian repeatedly referred to Armeno-Turkish as a "language." The Armenians who wrote Ottoman Turkish were not simply transcribing the sounds of the Turkish language; they meticulously preserved the Turkish words, syntax, punctuation and grammatical structures. This triggered the publication of Armeno-Turkish dictionaries and grammar books, many examples of which survive today. The famous Haigazian Pararan, the preeminent lexicon of Classical Armenian published by the Armenian Mekhitarist Fathers of Venice in the early 18th century, gives an Armeno-Turkish equivalent for each word found between its massive covers.

`As the language evolved, Armeno-Turkish gradually adopted Arabic and Persian words and word forms,' Der Matossian observed, "Expressions which a Turk would probably not understand."

An Armenian Oddity?

Not only Armenians read Armeno-Turkish, but the non-Armenian elite, including the Ottoman Turkish intelligentsia, who were exposed to European literature and emerging political ideas thanks, in part, to the Armenians who translated these writing into Armeno-Turkish.

Turkish has no native alphabet. The Turks adopted the Arabic script along with Islam.

"Arguably, the Armenian letters function better than Arabic as a script for Ottoman Turkish," said Der Matossian, a native of Jerusalem, who is fluent in Armenian, Turkish, Arabic, Hebrew and English. "During the First Ottoman Constitutional Period (1876) there was even the suggestion that Armenian be used as the official alphabet of the Empire," the young scholar said.

American Protestant missionaries also learned and used Armeno-Turkish in their missionary efforts among the Armenians of 19th-century Ottoman Turkey. `Grammatically Turkish is a simpler language than Armenian but the Armenian alphabet is much easier to learn than the Arabic script. This made Armeno-Turkish a highly effective tool for the missionaries,' said Der Matossian. `For many Armenians of the time, the Bible was only accessible in Armeno-Turkish translations produced by the missionaries. The Armenian Church used only Krapar (Classical Armenian), which the general population did not understand,' he said. Protestant missionaries also produced an Armeno-Kurdish translation of the Scriptures, as well as Greco-Turkish (so-called Karamanli) and other versions.

For Those Who Do Not Know Armenian

Again and again Der Matossian insisted that the use of Armeno-Turkish should be seen not as a betrayal of Armenian identity, but as a creative effort to preserve it under the most unfavorable conditions. Several elderly members of the audience were visibly moved when Der Matossian read an Armeno-Turkish prayer that was dedicated `to those who do not know Armenian.' Giving thanks to God for the blessing of holy communion, the prayer had only four Armenian words: haghortootyoon(communion), Heesoos (Jesus), nushkhark (Eucharistic bread), and pazhag (chalice). Der Matossian said that Armeno-Turkish fully exploited the Turkish language but preserved certain `sacred' words in Armenian as a way of maintaining Armenian ethnic boundaries.

`I am hearing a language that I don't love express a thought that is very precious to me,' said Edward Yessayian, tears streaming down his cheeks.

The Language of the State and Dominant Group

`As a result of Ottoman domination and compulsory conversion to Islam, many Armenians of the Ottoman Empire gradually lost their ancestral language but they adhered religiously to their alphabet, teaching it to their children even though they could no longer speak the words it was intended to record,' Der Matossian said. `The readiness of our people to apply the Armenian alphabet as a vehicle for writing the language of the dominant group is astonishing and highly significant.' It is not that the Armenians could not learn the Arabic script - the intelligentsia wrote and spoke Turkish fluently.

`Rather," Der Matossian said, `It was their way of preserving, consciously or unconsciously, their ethnic and religious identity and maintaining boundaries around their distinctive identity. I would even venture,' Der Matossian said in response to a question, `that in developing Armeno-Turkish, the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire sought to `armenize' or to consecrate for themselves a small sanctuary in the hostile world they were living in. For Armenians, religion and alphabet cannot be separated.'

"Bedross gave a 3-hour lecture in 40 minutes," said Fr. Daniel Findikyan. `Here is an entirely overlooked aspect of the creative genius and theological depth of our Armenian-Christian heritage and forebears.'

Der Matossian is a graduate of the Hebrew University and currently a Ph.D. candidate at Columbia University in the Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures. His concentration is on inter-ethnic relationships during the Second Constitutional Period of the Ottoman Empire.

"The great reward of being a teacher is to raise a good student," said Dr. Roberta Ervine in her introductory remarks. "We are in the presence of something special when we meet a young man like Bedross who has devoted his life to exploring, preserving and teaching a precious culture."

Ervine was Mr. Der Matossian's teacher in the Holy Translators' Soorp Tarkmanchats School in Jerusalem. She called him "the best, most perceptive student of Armenian history that I had had in 21 years as a teacher in Jerusalem."

The next scheduled lecture in this series will take place at the Seminary on Monday, October 24 at 7:30 PM. Professor Michael Stone, the noted armenologist from Hebrew University in Jerusalem, will deliver a lecture entitled, `Why Have an Armenian Language?'