The Armenian Alphabet: Pictures and Miscellanea

The Armenian alphabet is an alphabet used mostly for writing the Armenian language, though it has occasionally been used for other languages. It looks strange to me, like a cross between the Georgian alphabet and the Arabic alphabet. I don’t know if there’s any objective sense in which individual Armenian letters are actually harder to read than Georgian ones, but because of its distinct upper and lower cases, Armenian writing as a whole is probably objectively harder to learn than Georgian.

armenian alphabet transliteration

The Armenian alphabet with Eastern and Western transliterations (I think “fort” indicates aspiration rather than ejectivity)

The Armenian alphabet in its original design had thirty-six letters, with two being added later on to represent foreign sounds (and with one ligature apotheosized to the rank of letter). The transliteration of the Armenian alphabet is complicated by the different (and, in fact, opposite) pronunciations of certain letters in Armenian’s Eastern and Western dialects. Eastern Armenian, like Georgian, features a triple voicing scheme for its plosive consonants: voiced, voiceless aspirate, and voiceless ejective. Not only does Western Armenian not distinguish between the two voiceless varieties, but it also has voiced plosives where Eastern has voiceless aspirated, and vice versa (so that for instance, the first book printed in Armenian, Ուրբաթագիրք, is Urbatagirk Eastern and Urpatakirk in Western).

One of the casualties of these different interpretations of the alphabet is, ironically, the very creator of that alphabet, Mesrop Mashtots, whose name in Western Armenian is Mesrob Mashdots.

mesrob mashdots statue

A statue of Mesrop Mashtots / Mesrob Mashdots in Damascus

mesrob mashdots armenian arabic english

According to Mashtots’s biographer Koryun, the first phrase written in Armenian was from Proverbs 1:2: “To know wisdom and instruction; to perceive the words of understanding” (Armenian: Ճանաչել զիմաստութիւն եւ զխրատ, իմանալ զբանս հանճարոյ). After this, Mashtots was assisted in the task of translating the rest of the Bible and other classical ecclesiastical texts by another man affected by the Eastern / Western consonant discrepancy, Isaac the Parthian (Armenian: Sahak / Sahag). Mashtots and Isaac are the foremost of the so-called Holy Translators.

armenian holy translators

Mashtots front and center, Isaac rear left of center

As with the Georgian alphabet, there are crank theories floating around according to which the Armenian alphabet was created according to some geometric plan (and encodes some kind of divine knowledge). For Armenian, the geometric plan favored by the cranks is the swastika. This theory is only slightly better than the one claiming that the Armenian alphabet was deliberately ordered in such a way as to make its first letter the first letter of the Armenian word for  god (Աստված, astvats) and its last letter the first letter of Christ (Քրիստոս). Of course, these latter facts are completely coincidental, and the arrangement is actually due to the ordering of the Greek alphabet.

armenian alphabet swastika

armenian alphabet swastika 2

Again as with Georgian, the Armenian alphabet is an important cultural relic for Armenians, to the point that there are many statues prominently featuring or even exclusively dedicated to it.

The most dramatic of these is a park near Aparan, Armenia that has a 1.5m-tall statue for every letter of the alphabet. It’s what I want to see the most in Armenia. If I do, I’ll be sure to update this post. UPDATE 2/5/15: On my recent trip to Armenia, I saw the Armenian Alphabet Park, and I was dazzled. It’s worth seeing if you’re into that kind of thing. I saw it under conditions that I would say are ideal: there was enough snow on the ground to really make the statues pop, but not so much as to make the park itself or the statues difficult to access.armenian alphabet statues aparan

armenian alphabet statue letter n

Me sitting on the Armenian N (next to Y)

Something like half of Armenians in the world live outside of Armenia, and Armenia itself has always been heavily influence by surrounding cultures (most recently, Russian). Given these facts, I conjecture the following:

Among alphabets with significant modern use, Armenian is the one most often used alongside other alphabets.

Discussion questions: 1) Can this conjecture be made more precise? 2) How could it be verified? 3) Is it true?

armenian russian road sign

kuwait armenian school

An Armenian school in Kuwait

armenian english spanish sign

A trilingual street-crossing sign from Glendale, California, home to the largest Armenian community in the United States

Besides writing Armenian alongside other languages in other scripts, the Armenian alphabet has, as I’ve said, also been used to write other languages. The most prominent of these is Turkish (including Azeri). Turkish written in the Armenian script is usually referred to as “Armeno-Turkish”, although that makes it sound like a dialect of Turkish, which it isn’t. It was mostly written by and for Armenians, especially those who spoke Turkish natively, but it was also used by others. Turks had long observed that the Arabic script was inadequate for representing Turkish, and some advocated the use of the Armenian alphabet in its place. Foreign missionaries often learned Turkish via the Armenian alphabet for the same reason. (See this podcast for more on Armeno-Turkish.)

armeno turkish book of mormon

A copy of the Book of Mormon in Armeno-Turkish (?!)

I don’t know how to read Armenian. Maybe some day I’ll have occasion to learn? Stay tuned.

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18 thoughts on “The Armenian Alphabet: Pictures and Miscellanea

  1. I second your conjecture although the manpower and effort needed to verify it is way out of any single person’s ability. Your translation of the Kurdish book title is correct. And this is the first I ever heard of the swastika theory. Pretty neat! The Armenian alphabet is harder than the Georgian one, speaking from personal experience. And the statues of the letters aren’t really statues, they’re cross-stones which are one of Armenia’s proud symbols. Awesome post!

  2. The top part of the title of that Kurdish book is in Armenian. So it’s simply Armenian in Armenian script and it says ‘Kurdish folk works’. The bottom part is in the Kurdish version of the Cyrillic alphabet, so it’s probably in Kurdish (but I don’t know that language).

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  9. I feel sorry for Beautiful and Inteligent nation like Armenians for giving a Letters and relegion like Christianity to one of the most stupid, none appreciative nation Gorgians……

    • Who are gorgians. You mean gorgia in usa. Gorgia state. Entire world knows Armenians. But who the hell are gorgians. They are some tribes from central asia????

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