Culture: On Language: The Identity-Forming Element

Armenian Weekly



Special for the Armenian Weekly 

The colloquial language of my hometown, Gyumri, is a concoction of the dialects brought from historic Erzurum and Kars, mixed with the occasional Turkish of the borderland, and peppered with Russian influences stemming from a Russian military presence in the city since the 19th century.

The author in first grade, after learning the Armenian alphabet (Photo courtesy of Gegham Mughnetsyan)

The Gyumri dialect is unique. The utterance of your words identifies you like an invisible passport or business card. Among locals, the language serves as a sign of authenticity, of true belonging, and it’s flaunted in its full range and scope. Outside of Gyumri, it serves as an object of amusement and fascination. So, at times, feeling like a circus monkey asked to perform for the spectators’ entertainment, you conceal your speech under the blanket of “standard” or “dominant” Armenian.

In a way, the language—the communal _expression_ or restriction of it—becomes a defining, identity-forming element.

I went to first grade almost exactly 20 years ago. At the end of the first semester, we mastered the alphabet. Then, as we began to learn the language, the “proper” literary language, it became clear that it was not the same as our colloquial  lingua franca. Suddenly, in the classroom, we had to speak in this “proper” tongue, while everywhere else we were back to our identity-forming, “improper,” local lingo.

My paternal grandparents, who were originally from Lori, and for half a century had been teachers who used “proper” language, spoke a certain way. My maternal grandparents, who had repatriated from Iran to the Soviet Armenia in the 1960s, spoke a different way. And so, which of these languages was to become the identity-forming one was getting complicated to identify, and the language of my thoughts was like a colorful carpet being woven daily as I grew up.

When my family moved to the United States, I went to high school. Since the student body was predominantly Armenian at Glendale High, the school offered Armenian as one of the language options that students could take to fulfill their foreign-language requirement.

I did not take the class to learn Armenian; it was more of an excuse to regularly read and write in Armenian.

The class was taught by an Eastern Armenian speaker, but the textbook was written in classical orthography, which is not used in the Eastern Armenian of Armenia; moreover, the book consisted mostly of the works of Western Armenian writers.

I discovered many Western Armenian writers who had been overlooked by the curricula in Armenia, and who were most likely unknown to my Soviet-trained teachers. I read Shahan Shahnur’s Retreat Without Song, which I consider one of the most beautiful literary works in Armenian. In a way, I felt some sadness that had I not been in America, I may have never been exposed to such works.

Although Western Armenian literature has never been alien to me, and I have read extensively since childhood, many of my peers, either recent immigrants from Armenia, or Iran, or children of immigrants who grew up in Eastern Armenian-speaking households, rejected this language that was being presented to them as Armenian. They did not see it as theirs.

This is my 11th year of living in America, and in May I went back to Armenia for the first time. Relatives, childhood friends, and new acquaintances alike kept expressing surprise that I had a strong command of Armenian. I guess, somehow, the expectation was that within a decade I should have forgotten the language.

Is that what should have happened? Do people leave the language at the port of entry when they walk in?

During these 11 years, English has grown to occupy a sizable space in my day-to-day activities. Although it could be said that in Glendale one is continually surrounded by Armenian, I do find myself thinking in English, writing in English, and (most of all) reading in English. At home, the language spoken is that of Gyumri. Outside its walls, the Armenian I speak is the “proper,” dominant dialect of the Ararat Valley. The English I speak has hues of various Armenian accents all over it.

In short, there is a distinct language of home, and distinct languages of the world outside of home.

I work as a researcher in Armenian Studies, and a considerable amount of my time is spent reading old letters and translating from early 20th century Armenian publications. I am in my happy place among those yellowing pages. But I increasingly find myself alone in my excitement as I come to see the language on these pages as a remnant of a bygone era, when the language was a living, breathing organism and not just a relic preserved in old volumes that brings joy to an intrigued researcher.

In the course of next three weeks, I will be visiting an Armenian summer camp near Fresno to teach two of the educational sessions—one on identity, and one on traditions. My audience will consist of 8-16-year-old Armenian Americans.

How do I tell them in English that Armenian matters? Does my telling them in English make it matter less? And what do I reply when they ask “why?”

For a couple of days during my trip to Armenia, I got to go back to Gyumri and visit friends and family, and for the first time in a very long time my tongue was free. There was no need to polish words into “proper” forms, or speak in cold English phrases (once, a graduate school classmate who is from Kosovo said speaking in English is like speaking in traffic signs: bland, emotionless).

In reality, language was what I had returned to… In language is where I was—and have been, I realize—at home.

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