Mashtots and Me

The Armenian alphabet, legend has it, was invented by a monk named Mesrop Mashtots (Մեսրոպ Մաշտոց, მესროპ მაშტოც). Legend also has it that Mesrop Mashtots invented the Georgian alphabet and the Caucasian Albanian alphabet as well. I don’t believe that second part of the legend, and even the details of the first part are iffy. But regardless of the particulars, the Caucasus is a grammatological wonder, and Mesrop Mashtots stands as an avatar for its diversity of scripts. So if you love different alphabets — and I do — you have to love Mesrop Mashtots. With this in mind, I made it a goal on my recent trip to Armenia to take pictures with as many statues of Mesrop Mashtots as I could. I didn’t get all of them, but I got a few. Here they are. [Note: Not long ago I started using an image-editing program. I may have gone past the bounds of good taste in some places.]

The most dramatic of all Mesrop Mashtots statues is the one in front of the Matenadaran, a.k.a. the Mesrop Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts in Yerevan. Around five meters tall (15-20 ft.), it shows Mesrop sitting stately with Koriun, his loving student and biographer, kneeling by his side.

mesrop mashtots matenadaran statue

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Return to the South Caucasus (and gsykw’s new header image)

I recently took a trip back to Georgia, and I went to Armenia too. I’m not much for travel writing, so I’ll just give you the itinerary and some photos. Then I’ll point out updates I’ve been able to make to past posts.

Before that, however, I’d like to explain this blog’s new header image. For the past two and a half years I’ve used an image of some old Georgian calligraphy that I pulled from Wikipedia. That was fine for a while, but aside from the fact that it wasn’t my own image, it now strikes me as too limited. For while this blog started out as being only about Georgia, regular readers will have noticed that its scope has expanded somewhat to deal also with the regions and cultures surrounding and influencing Georgia. So this new image is fitting: the decayed ruins, covered in Russian graffiti, of an Armenian church in Tbilisi.

tbilisi armenian church ruins

Now, on to the trip.

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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)

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Armenian

Armenian (Armenian: hayerenհայերեն) is a language historically spoken throughout the South Caucasus and in the eastern part of what is now Turkey. Today, as a result of a century of war and genocide, the native range of Armenian has been restricted to the modern country of Armenia, the semi-country of Nagorno Karabakh, northern Iran, and the Javakheti region of Georgia (or Javakhk; see Notes on Terminology). Many (perhaps most) Armenian speakers are scattered abroad, mostly in Russia, the United States, and various Middle Eastern countries.

armenian distribution

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The Origin of the Georgian Alphabet

The origin of the Georgian alphabet is controversial. Whereas the Roman and Greek alphabets are the results of slow and gradual transformations of older scripts (rather than of deliberate creation), the Georgian alphabet shows up in history pretty much out of nowhere. This makes it plausible that it was invented, either by one person or several. So the obvious question is: who did it?

Historical tradition gives two conflicting answers. The first comes from a medieval Georgian chronicle called “The Lives of the Kings of Kartli.” It tells of Parnavaz, the first Kartlian king, who reigned in the third century BC. Among other exploits, the chronicle has it that Parnavaz devised the Georgian “script” (მწიგნობრობა, mtsignobroba). Some have interpreted this to mean that he developed the Georgian alphabet, but mtsignobroba can also mean “literacy” or simply “writing.” This writing could have been writing in the Georgian alphabet, but more likely it was writing in the Aramaic alphabet, which at the time was the script of the Persians. This is confirmed by archeology, which has found pre-Christian traces of the Aramaic alphabet in Georgia, but none of the Georgian. Georgian schoolchildren are taught this story.

georgian alphabet mug

The gift shop of the Georgian National Museum sells coffee mugs depicting the old Georgian alphabet. The mugs state that the alphabet was created in the 3rd century BC. I tried explaining (in Georgian) to the gift shop worker that this is not correct, but I don’t think I convinced her.

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