Western Armenian Is An Endangered Language. A New Generation In LA Is Learning It
For diasporan Armenians like myself, the third generation born in the U.S. whose families were from the Ottoman Empire, our heritage language is almost like slang we heard thrown in the middle of English-language conversations.
Like if your grandma, who always sticks -jan to the end of your first name as a term of endearment, asks, “eench bes es?” (How are you?), you answer, “shad lav em” (I’m very well) before switching to English.
You probably called your siblings “esh” (ass) when you were mad at them. You might instinctively substitute “panmu che” for “no problem” and drop “gu hasgunas?” instead of “y’know?” but can’t actually speak a complete sentence.
You might be reluctant to use any of these words around people who really speak Armenian because your pronunciation is terrible and you don’t know if you even remembered the words right. I’m not sure if I spelled anything other than "esh" correctly here.
Still, you might want to be able to speak the language of your great-grandparents, if only to gain some insight into these words that have somehow remained in your family for generations.
If that’s the case, which has been mine, you may have hit roadblock after roadblock trying to find language-learning tools. And the need to overcome those hurdles might feel more urgent, since Western Armenian, the branch of the language most commonly associated with those who lived under Ottoman rule and the diasporan communities that formed following the Armenian Genocide, was declared an endangered language by UNESCO back in 2010. (Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day is Monday, April 24).
So I was intrigued to find out that, at UCLA, Professor Hagop Gulludjian is teaching Western Armenian through creative writing projects. Last year, he was the first recipient of the Kachigan Family Lectureship in Armenian Language and Culture.
“What happened when people had to go to Lebanon, Syria, Greece — survivors of the Genocide — many of them were Turkish [language] speakers,” he explains.
There were also survivors who spoke Armenian in various different dialects. In the schools that formed in these new Armenian communities, students learned the Western standard, which was based on the Istanbul dialect.
Gulludjian describes this as a “miraculous” achievement, because a language shift like this doesn’t typically happen without the backing of a state and significant financial investment.
“Here, it was people, poor people, hungry people, jobless people, orphans,” he says, who were keeping the language alive.
Western Armenian is still used in plenty of places — even in Armenia’s second-largest city, Gyumri — and there are concerted efforts to revitalize it. Still, it’s in a precarious position.
Learning through creativity
That’s where Gulludjian is making a difference. He’s encouraging students to learn through creative applications of language, rather than waiting until they know all the rules before they read and write.
Alexia Hatun was only in her second quarter of Armenian at UCLA when her class received a prompt from Gulludjian to write about margins.
Recalling the assignment on a recent Zoom call, Hatun breaks down the Armenian word for margin,” lus-antsk.”
“'Luys' is light and 'antsk' is a passage, so it’s like a passage of light,” she explains. “It can also mean the little crack in the door where light passes through.”
Hatun didn’t know Armenian, her heritage language, before college and took her first class as a third-year undergrad. Now, she’s a published writer in Western Armenian and is in her first year as an MA/Ph.D student at UCLA, where she’s looking at the use of Western Armenian in Southern California, as well as strategies for language revitalization.
Writing about margins was a breakthrough moment for Hatun.
“I sat down to write thinking that I would have nothing to say, but I was able to find something there,” says Hatun. “I was able to be creative in a way that I never would have imagined.”
When Hatun defined “lus-antsk,” I had my own breakthrough. I’m not an Armenian speaker, but knew the word “luys” meant light. Like “pari luys,” I thought, which is how you greet someone in the morning. It was a moment of realization that I could use the very little I do know to figure out what I don’t recognize.
Gulludjian’s students have had success with this method. Several, like Hatun, have published work in Armenian and others have won awards.
In 2021, the poetry collection To Say with Passion: Why Am I Here? (“Girkov useloo, inch hos em?”) by Tenny Arlen became the first published, full-length book of creative work written in Armenian by a U.S.-born writer. Arlen was a student of Gulludjian who learned Armenian in college and, sadly, died before she was set to begin her doctorate work at the University of Michigan.
Born in Lebanon, Gulludjian grew up speaking Armenian. When he was a teenager, his family moved to Argentina, which is where he finished high school and began his academic pursuits. He’s been teaching for close to 20 years now and says that his approach has evolved as he continues to learn.
At UCLA, Gulludjian’s students include Armenians with no prior knowledge of the language as well as those who grew up speaking it. Amongst the Armenian speakers, students come from varied backgrounds. They don’t all necessarily know the same dialect of Armenian. Gulludjian’s approach is to encourage students to use what they know in their work. That can mean relying on the dialect they learned at home as they grow more comfortable with writing. Part of this is to combat the “dialect shame” that can hinder people from using Armenian.
“The main reason I’ve seen for language shift in diaspora, at least in the American Armenian diaspora, is dialect shame,” he says. In linguistics, he explains, there’s what’s known as the L, or low, variety of the language — the colloquial form — and the H, or high, variety of the language that’s used for purposes like literature.
“Whenever you feel that you’re in the L variety — and usually it happens when you’re talking with someone with another dialect — the tendency almost 100% is to jump to the dominant language, which is English,” he says.
Through these approaches, Gulludjian encourages people to choose to learn Armenian like they might choose to go to the gym.
“It’s a lot of work, as going to the gym is a lot of work,” he says. But, there can be personal satisfaction that comes from the effort as well.
Armenian literary canon
At Gulludjian’s suggestion, Hatun began reading in Armenian. The first time she read a novel in the language, she didn’t understand much of it.
“It was a process of freeing myself to be allowed to make mistakes and to be allowed to not understand in order to then learn and come to a place of further understanding,” she says.
Since then, Hatun has read about 45 books in Armenian. She’s delved into the literary canon with authors like Zabel Yesayan, who wrote in the early 20th century about women’s rights and the Armenian Genocide. Yesayan’s 1922 novel, known as My Soul in Exile in English, is a favorite of hers.
Hatun has read it now at least six times and wrote a creative response in Armenian to a portion of the text that was recently published, Those Words, That Offer to Us, the first volume in a series published by Armenian Creatives with support from Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, which is perhaps the most prominent organization involved in the Western Armenian revitalization effort.
Talking to Gulludjian and Hatun was inspiring. I’ve always been reluctant to use even the tiny bit of Armenian that I can recall with people who aren’t related to me because it probably doesn’t sound right and most likely isn’t spelled correctly. But, making mistakes and admitting “chem kider”— I don’t know— is part of the process of learning anything. I checked out a Western Armenian dictionary and vocabulary CD set from the library after talking to them.
In her own journey, Hatun has been struck by the “beauty and creative potential” of Western Armenian for thinking and talking about the contemporary world and our future.
“We can do that using Western Armenian. That’s not outside of the parameters of this language,” she says. “It’s very much something that we can do. It’s very much something that I think is possible in diaspora. It’s just a matter of us who live in diaspora making the choice to use it.”
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