Armenian is an Indo-European language with about 6 million speakers mainly in Armenia (Հայաստան [Hayastan]) and Nagorno-Karabakh, a de facto, though unrecognised, independent republic in the Nagorno-Karabakh region of the South Caucasus. There are also Armenian speakers in many other countries, including Russia, Georgia, Lebanon, Iran, Syria, Turkey, Egypt and the USA.
Armenian is the offical language of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, and has official status as a minority language in Cyprus, Poland and Romania. Until the the early 1990s schools in Armenian taught in either Armenian or Russian, however after the collapse of the USSR, Armenian became the main medium of instruction and the Russian-medium schools were closed. In 2010 Russian language education was reintroduced in Armenia.
Armenian at a glance
Native name: Հայերէն [hɑjɛˈɾɛn] (hayeren)
Linguistic affliation: Indo-European, Armenian
Number of speakers: c. 6 million
Spoken in: Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, Russia, Georgia, Lebanon, Iran, Syria, Turkey, Egypt, USA.
First written: 405 AD
Writing system: Armenian alphabet (Հայոց գրեր / Հայոց այբուբեն)
Status: official language in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh.
Recognised minority language: in Cyprus, Poland and Romania
A brief history of Armenian
Not much is known about the Armenian language before it was first written in the 5th century AD, though the Armenians are mentioned in inscriptions dating back to the 6th century BC.
The type of Armenian spoken and written in the 5th century is known as Classical Armenian, or գրաբար (grabar - "literary"). It contains numerous loanwords from Parthian, and also from Greek, Syriac, Latin and other languages such as Uratian. Grabar continued to be used as a literary language until the late 19th century.
The Armenian used between about the 11th and 15th century is known as Middle Armenian, or միջին հայերեն (mijin hayeren), and contains more loanwords from Arabic, Turkish, Persian, and Latin.
The two main modern forms of Armenian emerged during the 19th century when the traditional Armenian homeland was divided between the Russian and Ottoman Empires. Western Armenian developed among Armenians who had moved to Constantinople, while Eastern Armenian developed among Armenians living in Tbilisi in Georgia. Many newspapers in each of the variants were published and many schools for each variety were set up. This resulted in widespread literacy and to an increase in the amount of literature written in modern Armenian, rather than in the classical language.
Armenian alphabet (Հայոց գրեր / Հայոց այբուբեն)
In the late 4th century AD, King Vramshapuh (Վռամշապուհ) of Armenia asked Mesrop Mashtots (Մեսրոպ Մաշտոց), one of the officials in his chancellery and a prominent scholar, to create a new alphabet for Armenian. Before then, Armenian had been written with 'cuneiform' scripts, which was deemed unsuitable for religious works by the Armenian Church.
Mashtots travelled to Alexandria, where he studied the principles of writing and came to the conclusion that the Greek alphabet was the best alphabet in use at that time because there was an almost one-to-one correspondence between sounds and letters. He used this model to come up with a new alphabet, which he presented to the king when he returned to Armenia in 405 AD. The new alphabet was well-received and a new Armenian translation of the bible was published in 405 AD. Other literary works soon followed.
There are two standard forms of Armenian: Eastern Armenian, spoken mainly in Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Georgia and Iran; and Western Armenian, spoken by the Armenian diaspora in many countries. They are more or less mutually intelligible.