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To Sustain a Language
By Eddie Arnavoudian


Armenian News Network / Groong
August 9, 2000


“Modern Western Armenian” by Dora Sakayan. Arod Books, 365pp. Montreal, Canada, 2000. ISBN 0-9699879-2-7

Every effort to preserve the Armenian language in the Diaspora is welcome. Dora Sakayan’s, in the form of her ‘Modern Western Armenian’ text-book is particularly so.
          Nowhere in the Diaspora is Armenian an everyday language anymore, the way it used to be in Lebanon for example. To secure and fashion their lives in the Diaspora Armenians have to employ the dominant local language, their own acquiring secondary, and for the vast majority almost exclusively domestic use.
          Yet knowledge of Armenian, whether it be by those of Armenian parentage or foreigners can be immensely valuable and fulfilling. It is a medium through which one can reach and appropriate some marvellous achievements of civilisation. For Armenians in particular, it is also a means of perpetuating and refining the best features of a heritage that has and continues to play an important role in the formation an Armenian’s world-view and sensibilities.
          But learning any language, especially one that is not the normal publicly spoken tongue can be a serious business. Sakayan’s book will help the determined student to simplify this serious business, additionally providing her or him with a taster of aspects of Armenian literary culture and offering a great deal of pleasure and intellectual satisfaction.
          Composed of 12 basic units introducing different aspects of the language, including word formation, pronunciation, orthography and writing, the book provides a steady passage from the simplest to the most complicated aspects of modern Armenian. The three units that I have examined thoroughly are admirable for their clarity. Especially useful are the easy to grasp transliteration signs and transliterated words and pronunciations. A systematic journey through the volume’s units will enable the student to at least read and write Armenian proficiently. Speaking will naturally take additional practical effort and will be determined by the evolution and/or retreat of the language in any particular sphere of the Diaspora.
          Besides the units there are sections devoted to selections of readings from Armenian literature, conversational gambits, grammatical tables, and an Armenian- English and English-Armenian glossary. The glossaries are also very good. I was however surprised that despite containing a significant number of complex words, it omitted some which are rather important for the Armenian community. Thus there are no English entries for words such as ‘community’, ‘collective’, ‘social’, ‘welfare’, all quite critical in the task of sustaining Armenian life on either side of the Atlantic.
          Even as it is devoted to the study of Western Armenian, the book could, for a new edition, be improved with a substantial introduction on the history of the Armenian language that also delves into the historical origins of the division between its Western and Eastern variants. This is particularly important in view of the influx into the Diaspora of Armenians from Armenia and the appearance of the eastern variant in the home, the media, the TV and the Internet . Any student of Armenian in the Diaspora will inevitably come across Eastern Armenian and it is well worth indicating that there are no insuperable barriers between the two.
          Indeed, the time is coming, if it is not already here, to abolish the distinctions between Eastern and Western Armenian. We already have a tradition of writers who have with facility put to use the virtues of both branches of Armenian - Avetis Aharonian, Leo, Gostan Zarian immediately come to mind. In this regard it should be noted that while there is a very good selection of readings from Varouzhan, Tekeyan, Medzarentz and others in Western Armenian, there are none in Eastern Armenian, while in one case a reading from an Eastern Armenian author, Nar-Toss, has been unnecessarily rendered into the Western variant. Let us hope this will not be repeated in any new edition of this valuable book. In any event, a student will have relatively easy access to Eastern Armenian texts.

The book consists of 12 units. Each unit, in its turn, contains twelve sections:

The Appendix includes additional texts and other useful tools for reference:

Each unit opens with dialogues, a short exchange of utterances used in a given situation, to promote oral skills for recurring life-settings, enabling students to interact in Armenian by carrying out fundamental speech acts.
          In the first half of the book, all newly introduced Armenian words and texts are accompanied by a Latin-based transliteration to facilitate both the spelling and the pronunciation of Western Armenian words. This transliteration system takes into account not only graphic correspondences, but also phonetic subtleties of Armenian.
          Although grammar (morphology and syntax) is treated as an important aspect in mastering the language, other linguistic areas also receive attention. Grammar in this book is not a goal in itself, but a means of achieving “communicative competence.”
          A special section on Armenian-English contrasts analyses particular structural differences between the two languages.
          Each unit contains a special section, pronunciation, focusing on particular sounds, word accent, syllabification, etc.
          To acquaint students with Armenian folklore, each unit includes a few Armenian proverbs with their English translation. These proverbs are thematically and structurally related to the main topic of each unit.
          Cross references throughout the book and an index at the end of the appendix bring related linguistic materials together.
          Writing is practiced throughout the first four units in which the 38 letters of the Armenian alphabet are introduced. Letters are presented as calligraphic samples along with their printed and transliterated counterparts.
          Each unit concludes with exercises which aim for the development of communicative competence. To ensure the crucial shift from traditional third-person sentences - which are often isolated and unrelated - to “I-and-you” interactions, various forms of communicative exercises are introduced.
          Along with the section of readings, grammar tables, and an extended Armenian- English and English-Armenian glossary with all Armenian entries transliterated, the appendix contains a collection of gambits. These are routine formulas or “pre-fabricated” parts used in everyday speech that are readily transferable to recurrent life-settings.

Dr. Dora Sakayan was born in Salonica (Greece). There she attended elementary and high school, subsequently completing her secondary education in Vienna (Austria). She received a Ph.D. in Germanic philology in 1965 from Lomonosov State University in Moscow. She worked at Yerevan State University for twenty years, including ten years as Chair of the Department of Foreign Languages. Since 1975, Prof. Sakayan has been living in Canada. She is a Professor of German Studies at McGill University (Montreal, Quebec).



About the author:

Eddie Arnavoudian holds degrees in History and Politics from Manchester, England. He has written on literary and political matters for “Haratch” in Paris and “Nairi” in Beirut. His reviews have also been published in “Open Letter” in Los Angeles.

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