Armenian is the official language of what in recent memory was the smallest republic of the former Soviet Union, now the southernmost republic of the Commonwealth of Independent States. The language is spoken by approximately four million people still living within the borders of the republic. A small group of speakers live in north-western Iran, and some communities dot the countryside of eastern Turkey. Countless emigrees have spread the language to all corners of the world. The earliest documentary evidence of the Armenians is a sixth century B.C. inscription in Behistun by the Persian king Darius I. It was nearly a thousand years, however, before the Armenians themselves began to put their language to writing, when in 406 or 407 A.D. a priest Maštʿocʿ (also known as Mesrop) developed an Armenian alphabet. One also finds reference to a prior alphabet created by the Syriac bishop Daniel, purportedly abandoned because it was ill-suited to the sound system of the language. The language whose records date back to this period is termed Classical Armenian. Much later, in the twelfth to seventeenth centuries, one finds the legacy of Middle Armenian, whose authors attempted to emulate the style of the Golden Age of Classical Armenian. Between these two time periods one further distinguishes two stages of the Armenian language: post-Classical, spanning the sixth and seventh centuries, and Pre-Middle Armenian, from the eighth to twelfth centuries. After the seventeenth century, Armenian developed into a modern form which has split into two varieties: West Armenian and East Armenian.
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According to Greek mythic tradition, Armenia was named after Armenus, one of Jason's Argonauts. Herodotus, writing in the fifth century B.C., states that the Armenians lived in Thrace and then moved into Phrygia, from which they crossed into the later Armenian territory. Strabo, writing in the first century B.C., states that the Armenians entered the territory from two directions, one group coming from Phrygia in the west, the other coming from Mesopotamia in the southeast. Although by neither account were they the original inhabitants of the region, Xenophon records in 400 B.C. that they seem to have absorbed most of the local dwellers.
Armenian tradition, recorded between the fifth and eighth centuries A.D., relates the Armenian people to the descendants of Noah. After the Flood, Noah's family settled in Armenia before moving south to Babylon in successive generations. One of Noah's descendants, Haik, revolted and returned to Armenia, pursued by the Babylonian Bel. Haik killed Bel and became ruler of the Armenian land, and the descendants of Haik later defended Armenia from the forces of Assyria.
Modern scholarly views are just as wide-ranging. A common view is that the Armenians were of Indo-European stock and entered the region either along with the Phrygians from the Balkan region or with the Mitanni from the area of the Aral Sea. They encountered the Urartuan culture in a period of decline and eventually came to rule over them and other Caucasian groups in the region. Another theory draws on linguistic similarities between the Armenian language and the Caucasian languages of the area to say that the Armenians had originally been themselves a Caucasian tribe which adopted an Indo-European tongue, and this Caucasian substrate is responsible for the fact that Armenian is rather genetically isolated among the Indo-European languages. Yet another theory is that the Armenians are the most sedentary members of the original speakers of Proto-Indo-European; that the Indo-European languages originated in the transcaucasian region, but the Armenians, who chose not to migrate out of the area, were marginalized during periods of Hittite and Urartuan dominance. Suffice it to say, the true origin of the Armenian peoples will remain shrouded in obscurity for some time to come.
The Armenian land itself is a plateau located roughly 5000 feet above sea level and hemmed in by mountainous regions. It lies roughly southeast of the Black Sea and southwest of the Caspian Sea. The ancient Armenian homeland was somewhat more expansive than the modern Armenian Republic, also including much of eastern Turkey, the northeastern corner of Iran, and parts of Azerbaijan and Georgia. In the northeast the Kur River separates the highland region from lowlands which sweep to the Caspian Sea. The northern border is continued by the Pontus mountain range, which extends west from the source of the Kur and shields Armenia from the Black Sea. The Taurus and Zagros mountain ranges create a natural boundary running along the entire southern expanse and cutting Armenia off from Mesopotamia. The Armenian plateau itself is divided by several smaller mountain ranges that furnish the sources for a number of unnavigable rivers. The northermost section of the Euphrates was to form the boundary between Greater and Lesser Armenia in the subsequent imperial struggles.
The status of Armenian within the Indo-European family of languages remains obscure. Few facts are certain, and those conclusions which have an air of certainty about them are often of a very general nature. The fact that some propose Armenia to be the homeland of the original speakers of Proto-Indo-European would lead one to hope that Armenian represents the language of those speakers who did not migrate into other regions, but unfortunately this seems unlikely. Most suppose the speakers of Armenian to have come to the region from the west, supplanting the Urartuan culture they encountered. The Armenian language seems to have undergone several changes between the time of arrival into the transcaucasian region and the invention of the alphabet in the fifth century A.D., but unfortunately documentary evidence for the language during this period is lacking. By the time the language is recorded, roughly forty percent of the lexicon consisted of borrowings from other languages, the phonological system had changed to resemble several features of the Caucasian languages, and the morphological system had developed as well, though less drastically than the lexicon and phonological system. The changes in consonants from Proto-Indo-European to Armenian are typified by the following:
The vowels developed as follows:
In addition, there was a strong stress on the Proto-Armenian penultimate syllable, which led to the loss of any final vowel, and caused /i/ and /u/ to become the schwa in unaccented syllables.
Scholars generally believe Greek, Iranian, and Phrygian to have had the most linguistic influence on Armenian. The actual nature of Phrygian influence, however, is open to much debate because of the language's scanty attestation. The influence of the remaining languages seems to have been chiefly in the form of borrowings. Many terms of an ecclesiastical nature were adopted from Greek, as well as from Syriac, the language which formed the medium of the liturgy in Armenia for several years. But by far the greatest number of borrowings come from Iranian. Some borrowings date back to the Achaemenid period (ca. 550-330 B.C.), but Armenian felt the largest influence in the Arsacid period (ca. 53-428 A.D.). The loans can be traced to the north-eastern dialect by the presence of linguistic traits such as the presence of /rd/ instead of /l/ (e.g. Arm. vard 'rose' compared to MPers. gul 'flower'), and /z/ instead of /d/ (e.g. Arm. yazem 'I adore' compared to MPers. yad-).
The oldest documents in Armenian, dating back to the invention of the alphabet in the fifth century A.D., are of a primarily ecclesiastic nature. Presumably the Bible was the first text to be translated, followed by a number of other Greek and Syriac texts. Secular material, too, was translated, including many works by Aristotle and Neoplatonists such as Prophyry, Probus, and Diodorus. There was even an Armenian translation of the grammatical treatise of Dionysius Thrax. Some works have survived only through their Armenian translations, such as the Commentaries on the Benediction of Moses by Hippolytus, the first part of the Chronicle of Eusebius, and the Romance of Alexander the Great by Pseudo-Callisthenes. Soon native texts were composed, chiefly on historical and religious matters, such as the History of the Conversion of Armenia by Gregory the Illuminator, by Agatʿangelos, a biography of Maštocʿ by Koriwn, and Against the Sects, by Eznik of Kołb.
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