The Armenian Language: Answers Of A Linguist – Part 1

Armenians who are not linguists are often under the incorrect impression that there are only two possibilities for Armenian origins: either Armenian is the only Indo-European language who stayed in place or Armenian is descendant from Phrygian, following Herodotus’s claim that Armenians were Phrygian colonists.

Yet, mainstream historical linguists are convinced by neither position. It is true that Armenian shares some features with Phrygian, but it shares, even more, features with Greek and Indic. In all cases, the features in question are not in sufficient numbers or of a type deemed convincing for establishing a common stage after Proto-Indo-European. The standard view is that Greek-Armenian-Indo-Iranian (plus Phrygian, Thracian and perhaps Albanian) forms a linguistic area where Indo-European features spread at an early date, while the branches were probably already distinct, but still mutually intelligible.

A page entitled “Ourbat/Ourpat”, “Friday”, from the first printed Armenian book; European woodcuts were re-used as illustrations, but this one was modified for the audience – the priest has been given a black, pointed hood, which forms part of the traditional garb of Armenian clergy.

The Linguist

Luc Vartan Baronian is an Associate Professor of Linguistics, Departement des arts et lettres, at  the Université du Québec à Chicoutimi in Canada. He received his bachelor’s and masters degree in Mathematics and Linguistics, at theUniversite de Montreal, then his P.hD  in Linguistics at Stanford University. For full credentials, click here.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do we know that Armenian is an Indo-European language?

Any two randomly selected languages share similarities. This can be due to chance or to universal tendencies. An example of the latter is the word for mother, which often contains an [m], probably because [m] is universally among the first sounds pronounced by babies and perhaps because of an ideophonic connection with the suckling sounds and gestures associated with nursing. Besides the requirement that the common words be in sufficient numbers, the major requirement for establishing a relationship between languages is that the correspondences be systematic: for example, English wasp, William, and war correspond to French guêpe, Guillaume and guerre ([w/g] correspondence), while English father, five and fire correspond to Greek pater, pente and pyr (f/p correspondence). When two languages share such systematic similarities, historical linguists search for an explanation. The two possibilities are that the languages were once in a situation of social contact (the reason why English borrowed Chinese words and vice versa) or that the two languages were once one and the same (for example, French, Italian and Spanish are all forms of Latin that evolved separately).

Indo-European Family Tree, Armenian as a seperate branch.

It is usually not a problem to distinguish common words due to a contact situation from common words due to an inherited common stage. For example, the words khanut ‘shop’ and shuka ‘market’ that Armenian shares with Syriac are obvious trade terms (hence, due to contact). However, Armenian shares words with Greek, English, Latin, Russian and Sanskrit that belong to a more intimate part of the lexicon, less prone to borrowing, which includes, but is not limited to kinship terms, small numbers and body parts. Further, Armenian shares grammatical prefixes and suffixes with Indo-European languages. If we think of a language as consisting of a machine (the grammar) that spits out its production (words and phrases), we can safely say that Armenian has an Indo-European machine and core production.

Is Armenian agglutinative? What does that mean and imply?

Armenian is somewhat agglutinative, with Modern Armenian being more so than Classical Armenian was. An agglutinative structure refers to the stringing of a root with a series of prefixes or suffixes. For example, English lov+er+s consists of the root lov(e) followed by the suffixes +er and +s. The more a language contains such structures, the more it is considered agglutinative. Besides being agglutinative, word structures can also be, among other possibilities, isolating or infectional. An isolating example from English is I will love, where each word carries a separate function (subject, future tense, verb) as opposed to I loved, where the past tense is more agglutinative. An inflectional example from English is sing/sang/sung where the tense is expressed by changing the internal vowel of the root.

Like English and like many other languages, Armenian shows agglutinative, isolating and inflectional structures: nav+er+u+n (boat+plural+dative+definite) ‘of the boats’ is agglutinative; siradz em ‘I have loved’ is isolating; mayr/mor ‘mother/of mother’ is inflectional.

It is important to note that the late 18th / early 19th century linguist and philosopher W. von Humboldt used such terms as isolating, agglutinative and inflectional to denote what he perceived were stages in the evolution of languages. In von Humboldt’s mind, inflectional languages such as Sanskrit represented the summum of linguistic perfection. It was also thought by some that the use of such structures by different language groups were indicative of a special relationship. Both these ideas have since completely been discarded and the labels are now simply used as a convenient way to summarize a language’s word structure, with no major theoretical consequence in mind.

It is possible that Armenian became more agglutinative under the influence of Turkish, but such a hypothesis is very difficult to prove, because the evidence is indirect. In any case, Armenian’s pseudo-agglutinative status is not indicative of anything concerning its origins.

Was Armenia the site of the Indo-European Homeland?

In the current state of research, there are more linguistic arguments against this view than in favor of it. Armenian is definitely an Indo-European (IE) language and, by almost everybody’s account, it is one that separated from the others very early on. Linguists argue that Proto-Indo-European (the mother language of Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, Hittite, Armenian and others) was most likely spoken circa 5000 B.C., shortly after the wheel was invented, but before the invention of bronze, because of the words we are able to safely reconstruct in this language. A plurality of anthropologists have linked the IE language dispersal to the kurgan cultural expansion from the steppes North of the Black Sea. Others, arguing for an earlier date, link the dispersal to the spread of agriculture to Europe from (peninsular) Anatolia. Armenia has been considered as a potential site within the Glottalic Theory, which has, however, failed to gain mainstream support among historical linguists. Other credible proposals include Bactria, the Balkans and Mesopotamia, all sites located not too far from Armenia, but not quite close enough.

Countries where Indo-European languages are either de facto national or official languages.

The main argument against considering that Armenia is the original site of the IE languages is that Armenian almost certainly contains a substrate that other IE languages lack. Obvious words include those for ‘camel’, ‘apple’, ‘grape/vine’, ‘plum’, ‘quince’, ‘mint’, ‘pomegranate’, ‘tin’. Many of these words are from the local but now extinct Hurro-Urartian family. It is a typical case of a language coming in from outside adopting the local names for flora and fauna. Had these words originated in Armenian, we would expect to find them in the other Indo-European languages, but we don’t.


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