4 August 2006
Barev! Yes, I have studied Armenian. It was only natural when I was in that phase of finding out about the Armenians, after discovering that I had an Armenian great-great grandfather. Papa-papa hayr. And in particular when I decided to travel to Armenia in 1992. I found out that the language itself has an interesting history, gaining its own script in around the year 400. But as for learning it... phew. The script has a lot of letters, many of which look rather similar. The sound system is forbidding, with many pairs of consonants which sound identical to my ears, and a few sounds which are totally unfamiliar. Armenian is Indo-European, but it's about as distant from English as to make that irrelevant. The vocabulary has very few words you'd recognise. Grammar, well, it doesn't seem too bad from what I've seen so far.
I took two main approaches. First, I looked for some books. I've noticed that there are very few available these days even in major bookshops. You'd think there'd be more, since independence. In fact, once I'd gone to places like Foyles (Britain's biggest bookshop, on Charing Cross Road in London, a huge maze of a place) I found a lot of books, old ones, due to a lot of Armenian publishing from Beirut in past years. Then I faced disappointment. Many of them were really too old; and most of them were devoted to Western Armenian, rather than the Eastern which is spoken in the Republic. I should have ignored that factor, the difference doesn't seem too great. However, I did eventually find a newer coursebook plus cassettes, Spoken Eastern Armenian. I got quite a lot out of that, I managed to cope with the earlier chapters. My main regret was not being able to work on them in a proper class. There's also another factor which will be there when I pick up studying again, the fonts used, which make reading through the text hard work.
My second idea was to try and make contact with some Armenians. I know this sounds a bit crass, but since I could easily explain my interest, I found some receptive ears, and duly made a friend, Miran, who was originally from Iran. I am indebted to him not only for his kindness but because at that time he enabled a contact with a guy who helped me out when I made that trip in 1992, crucially as an interpreter. I ended up, not merely going to museums etc. as I'd expected, but meeting people. Anyway, I attended the local Armenian Sunday class for some while. I was lucky to be able to do that, although I was aware that strictly speaking it wasn't the best sort of tuition for me; it was understandably intended for the children of Armenian families settled here. Furthermore, I know I have a more effective approach to language study than I did then.
Right:- I made a (non-Windows) font to do various things for the class. I didn't know there was a conventional keyboard layout for Armenian, hence why the letters aren't where they should be. I know the crafting of the glyphs is crude, but it was an early effort! I won't be doing it again because of course there are plenty of good Windows fonts for Armenian.
By the by, I enjoyed some socialising with Armenian friends though I can't claim to have got more than the occasional drift when the conversation went into Armenian. One factor was the discovery which learners of most languages make, that the language as spoken is often not the 'correct' version as found in the textbooks. A couple of simple examples. There is an Armenian word for no, but what I heard a lot was ch'e, which sort of means it isn't. Another was this word ban'e. I found that one baffling, especially since I asked Miran what it meant a couple of times, and he had no good answer. He shrugged and frowned and said it sort of meant thing. I reckon it was one of those filler words, you know, we adorn our speech with them too. Well, I certainly do.
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