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Armenia-Diaspora Conference 2002 Commentary

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A Political Analyst's View on Unified Spelling Problem

By Haroutiun Khachatrian

Armenian orthography has existed in two variants for 80 years now,
which has become another dividing factor between Armenia and its
Diaspora. If we overcome this problem, we can say that we are a nation
capable of acting in accord, otherwise, we can hardly do so. Indeed,
the change in our orthography does not affect any external forces'
interests. They won't even notice what orthography we use in
writing. This is only our problem and its solution (whichever variant
we opt for) will certainly contribute to the unity of Armenians and
vice versa.

So far, mainly professional linguists have discussed the issue, i.e.
whether it was right or wrong to reject the classical orthography in
1922.  I'll try to analyze the problem as a public-political rather
than a linguistic one, since the establishment of unified orthography
in Armenia and in the Diaspora is a political issue that eventually
will have to be solved by politicians.

And so: Armenia and a sizable part of the Diaspora, i.e. the Armenians
living in the territory of the former USSR (the so-called `internal
Diaspora'), use the new orthography, and the `external Diaspora' and
also the Armenian Apostolic Church have remained loyal to the
`classical' orthography.  A `compromise' between the two systems in
impossible and senseless, as it would mean creating a third
orthography with additional problems. That is, we must make a
decision: either we all adopt the classical spelling system, or we all
use the new one (the notorious problem with the Armenian letter
conveying the sound [u] - a digraph consisting of two elements - has
nothing to do with it, and must be solved in any case). The argument
of those who advocate the new orthography is naturally its easiness,
and those supporting the return to the classical spelling system
substantiate their opinion by the fact that by rejecting the classical
orthography we severed ties with our classical culture.

Without concealing that I myself am an advocate of the new
orthography, below I'll try to give reasons why it is impossible to
revert to the old spelling system not proceeding from my own
preferences but basing on a sober analysis of the situation.


Paruyr Sevak used to say: in order to know Armenian perfectly, one
must know four languages: Grabar (Old Armenian), Middle Armenian,
Eastern Armenian and Western Armenian.  It leads a non-professional to
the obvious conclusion: Ashkharhabar (Modern Armenian) and Grabar (Old
Armenian) are different languages (like, for example, Latin and
Italian, the latter being a descendant of Latin) and consequently, it
is not necessary that they should be written with the use of the same
orthography. That classical orthography is more difficult and does not
correspond to the current two Armenian languages is not new: it was
not without reason that its reform became an agenda issue still at the
beginning of the 20th century. The author of that reform (its initial
variant) was not at all a Bolshevik evildoer who negated the past
(often the reform of 1922 is branded as a `Bolshevik Conspiracy'). It
was Manuk Abeghian, who is considered to be the greatest specialists
in medieval Armenian literature until today.

So, in fact, the aspiration of the supporters of a return to classical
orthography is that all Armenians will know Armenian as perfectly as
possible, i.e., that they will know not only Ashkharhabar (Modern
Armenian) but also Grabar (Old Armenian). It is a very welcome
aspiration, but, unfortunately, it is an unfeasible luxury for us. Let
those who advocate classical orthography tell Italians: you break ties
with your glorious Roman past, and in the name of restoration, adopt
the Latin orthography. Or try to convince Germans to restore the
pre-Lutheran orthography, and the Russians to restore their old
orthography, explaining to them that after the spelling reform in 1918
(also initiated by the Bolshevik government) they lost the spirit of
their epics. Be sure that your suggestion will at least perplex
them. Your interlocutors will explain that the currently applicable
orthography does not at all prevent them from being aware of their old
culture (indeed, I am not sure that I can understand Narekatsi worse
than the one who writes Modern Armenian using the Old Armenian
orthography).  True, there are languages, such as English for example,
that have not changed their spelling for centuries, but many did
change. But going back to the pre-change spelling system after an
effected change is perhaps unprecedented. Don't we, Armenians, have
any other domain to distinguish ourselves from others in the world?


Every spelling reform is painful for a literate man. The example of
one German newspaper is notorious. The paper decided to study whether
it was possible to waive the illogical rules of German spelling
according to which upper case is used in writing all nouns. It started
to publish one article every day with lower-case nouns. The experiment
was put an end very soon to by the angered readership.

From this perspective, the 1922 spelling reform (even if we consider
it to be a fatal error) was carried out in a very convenient time when
the sweeping majority of Armenia's population was illiterate.  Due to
that circumstance, there was no need to conduct a mass reeducation
campaign: most people simply began to write and read using the
modified orthography only. Today, the situation is different, and like
in every country that has a high degree of literacy, an attempt to
reform orthography in Armenia will meet with stiff public
resistance. In case of change resistance is sure to emerge also in the
`distant' Diaspora, but I dare predict that it will be on a smaller
scale. The reason is evident: the Diaspora (I hate this to sound
insulting) is less `literate' than Armenia when it comes to the mother

I mean the following. All citizens of Armenia, including
non-Armenians, study the language, while in Diasporan communities the
study of the language is optional (unfortunately, only a minority
chooses it). In Armenia schools are really Armenian, that is, they
teach all subjects in Armenian - from history up to chemistry, while
in the Diaspora children attending Armenian schools use their mother
tongue only in studying the language proper, history and related

In Armenia, written Armenian is an active language. The citizens of
Armenia write in Armenian most of their daily correspondence,
beginning from business contracts, bank receipts and court suits and
ending with letters and kids' scrawl on walls. Most of Diasporan
Armenians, even if they can write and read in Armenian, at best do so
out of their business activities, simply, to say so, for their
pleasure. There is one more problem, a change in the usual mode of
spelling would create more difficulty for those who write, rather for
those who read (for example, residents of Armenia can well read the
texts written with the use of old orthography). And, as residents of
Armenia not only read, but also write in Armenian more often than
their Diasporan compatriots.

In short, Armenian in Armenia is a state language, in the Diaspora -
it is not.

It obviously follows from what was mentioned above that to carry out a
spelling reform in Armenia is a much more difficult thing to do than
in the Diaspora. It would be so even if the new orthography was more
difficult than the classical one, but as it is, in fact, vice versa,
the complication gets tripled.


Even if we agree that the 1922 spelling reform was a fatal error, then
to make an opposite step in Armenia today would be an awfully
difficult, not to say impracticable thing to do.

The change in the spelling of the state language in Armenia must be
carried out at once, at the state level, from top to bottom: more than
one orthography cannot be applied in a country. It means that all
citizens of the republic, in particular, all officials (from the
president and judges to the lowest-ranked policeman) must admit that
they are illiterate and begin studying an orthography alien to
them. No one can predict from what moment it will be possible to
consider that the country is already prepared for passing on to a new

Meanwhile, in the `distant' Diaspora the reform can be made gradually,
implanting the new orthography in the course of years. The application
of two orthographies at a time is quite acceptable there. By the way,
this phenomenon already exists - many of those who left Armenia
recently use the new orthography, and there are even newspapers using
the new orthography there.


There will emerge no less serious psychological obstacles to the
re-establishment of classical orthography in Armenia. A considerable
part of Diasporan Armenians, at least those whose active language is
English or French, find it quite natural that there is no unequivocal
interconnection between the way a word is written and pronounced. For
example, a native speaker of English is used to spelling out a word
unknown to his interlocutor (in a letter-to-letter way) after dropping
it in a conversation. Meanwhile, an Armenian taught to write using the
new orthography has no need for any `spelling', the orthography he
knows makes it possible to decide the way the new word is to be
written in 99 cases out of 100. For this reason, the following
scenario can be predicted. When Armenia's Armenian hears the name of
the French city of Marseilles (Marsel in Armenian), he puts it down
without thinking, as he knows a clear rule: the sound [e] in an inner
position is always written with the corresponding letter `e' (`yech',
the 5th letter of the alphabet). The advocates of classical
orthography will tell him: so that you maintain ties with your
forefathers' high culture, from now on you must remember that the
sound [e] in this word must be written with the use of `e', the 7th
letter of the Armenian alphabet. Armenia's Armenian will naturally
protest: `For which of my sins do I have to cudgel my brains? What has
the city of Marseilles to do with Mesrop Mashtots?'


Let's consider the most formidable challenge - the political one.  An
orthographic reform in Armenia can only be carried out according to a
decision made by its leadership - the President and Parliament, and,
unconditionally, only through a referendum. Obviously, new
difficulties besides those considered above will arise, and they will
immediately become a subject of active political speculations. For
example, it is not difficult to foresee the following. As we already
mentioned, along with other traps, the reform is a very expensive
pleasure to afford: first, teachers are to be retrained, then the
entire population of the country is to be taught anew; new literature
is to be printed in huge volumes; road signs, paper money, seals,
passports and other things bearing inscriptions are to be replaced by
new ones. What will be the source of financing this tremendous project
if Armenia cannot even afford to pay its officials decently? They say
that some philanthropists from the Diaspora have volunteered to
allocate funds to this effect. But as soon as someone just mentions
it, no doubt, there will begin a real storm in Armenia: `Don't we have
anything else to spend money on? People do not have enough to eat and
do not have proper clothes to wear, people are abandoning the country
and you're wasting huge money only to complicate our orthography.'
Only a leader inclined to political suicide will take the initiative.

Let's not forget another aspect of our reality - emigration still
looms large in the country as Armenians continue to abandon their
homeland.  They leave, of course, in search of livelihood. But for
many of those leaving Armenia it has become something like itching,
they concoct all imaginable and unimaginable excuses to convince their
neighbors and themselves that Armenia `is the wrong place to live
in'. I have no doubts that the probable change in orthography will
give a fresh and drastic impetus to such sentiments. They'll say:
`Armenia is the only country that makes the lives of its citizens
miserable by means of complicating orthography. It's not a country to
live in.' And we will no longer be able to object to this. It will,
indeed, be the only such country in the world.


Hereby I could put a full stop to my arguments, but I find it
necessary to add another remark, probably the most arguable one.

I mentioned above that during the Bolshevist rule it was not only
Armenian that underwent an orthographic change. Four years before the
reform of Armenian orthography, in 1918, the Bolshevist government
also carried out a reform of Russian orthography, simplifying the way
of writing many words, abolishing a number of archaisms and even
excluding some letters from the alphabet.

Similarly, the reform in the Russian spelling system sparked off a
vigorous protest among the Russian Diaspora. However, hardly a decade
had passed that the Russian Diaspora put up with the new orthography,
and the Russian Church followed suit. The Russian Diaspora, which, for
sure, was no less opposed to the Bolsheviks than the Armenian
Diaspora, did not consider itself to be entitled to oppose the
decision of the then Russian State. Alas, the Armenian Diaspora was
less respectful of the contemporary Armenian State.  The most painful
is that the Armenian Church acted the same way. And here is the result
- we still have no Holy Bible orthographically meant for an Armenian
living in Armenia. Even the latest Eastern Armenian translation was
printed with the use of classical orthography alien to the residents
of Armenia as if for maintaining the existing gap between the Church
and the public at large. The foreign sectarians, whose fast spread in
Armenia is a matter of widespread concern, take care not to make this
elementary mistake in their preaching strategy: it does not occur to
them to bring literature written in classical orthography to
Armenia. By the way, I retract my statement made at the beginning of
the article: there is at least one external force interested in our
orthography's remaining divided, namely, the sectarians.

From a political analyst's point of view, it is obviously the Diaspora
and the Church rather that the Armenian Government that committed a
fatal error for the simple reason that arguing with the state over
this issue is improper. It is possible to dispute a pending change,
but if the state has taken some step, it means that it is always right
ever since.

So, I urge my compatriots from the distant Diaspora and our Church
fathers to start writing Old Armenian applying the orthography that
has been used in the Armenian State by four generations of people, for
as long as 80 years now. It will be both a way to pay tribute to the
Armenian State and a contribution that can hardly be estimated in
monetary terms. Simply, we must admit one thing: it is the Republic of
Armenia that is, first of all, the center of Armenians.

Haroutiun Khachatrian is an economy and political analyst in Yerevan,
Armenia. He publishes articles in Armenian newspapers and on the site. He is the Editor-in-chief of the Noyan Tapan
Highlights weekly.

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