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 St. Mesrob Mashtotz Anchor188
The inventor of the Armenian Alphabet, 406 AD.
Line artwork by Minas Minasian
Colour enhanced version by SSS Graphics

Copyright © 1999 HyeEtch. All rights reserved

The Armenian Alphabetin in gold on marble
St. Etchmiadzin 1976,

Armenia Treasures of St. Etchmiadzin

Copyright © 1999 HyeEtch. All rights reserved


The Armenian Alphabet
Colour enhanced version by SSS Graphics

The Armenians

Copyright © 1999 HyeEtch. All rights reserved



Armenian Genocide FrontPage Armenian History FrontPage Armenian Apostolic Church Lebanon FrontPage

Armenian Language

Armenian is an Indo-European language spoken in the Caucasus mountains and also used by the Armenian Diaspora. It is its own independent branch of the family of the Indo-European languages. From the modern languages Greek seems to be the most closely related to Armenian.

The Armenian language dates to the early period of Indo-European differentiation and dispersion some 5000 years ago, or perhaps as early as 7,800 years ago according to some recent research.

Graeco-Armenian hypothesis

Armenian is regarded by some linguists as a close relative of Phrygian. Many scholars such as Clackson (1994) hold that Greek is the most closely related surviving language to Armenian. The characteristically Greek representation of word-initial laryngeals by prothetic vowels is shared by Armenian, which also shares other phonological and morphological peculiarities of Greek. The close relatedness of Armenian and Greek sheds light on the paraphyletic nature of the Centum-Satem isogloss. Armenian also shares major isoglosses with Greek; some linguists propose that the linguistic ancestors of the Armenians and Greeks were either identical or in a close contact relation. However other linguists including Fortson (2004) comment "by the time we reach our earliest Armenian records in the 5th century A.D., the evidence of any such early kinship has been reduced to a few tantalizing pieces."

Iranian influence

The Classical Armenian language (often referred to as Grabar, literally "written (language)") imported numerous words from Middle Iranian languages, primarily Parthian, and contains smaller inventories of borrowings from Greek, Syriac, Latin, and autochthonous languages such as Urartian. Middle Armenian (11th–15th centuries AD) incorporated further loans from Arabic, Turkish, Persian, and Latin, and the modern dialects took in hundreds of additional words from Modern Turkish and Persian. Therefore, determining the historical evolution of Armenian is particularly difficult because Armenian borrowed many words from Parthian and Persian (both Iranian languages) as well as from Greek.

The large percentage of loans from Iranian languages initially led linguists to classify Armenian as an Iranian language. The distinctness of Armenian was only recognized when Hübschmann (1875) used the comparative method to distinguish two layers of Iranian loans from the true Armenian vocabulary. The two modern literary dialects, Western (originally associated with writers in the Ottoman Empire) and Eastern (originally associated with writers in the Russian Empire), removed almost all of their Turkish lexical influences in the 20th century, primarily following the Armenian Genocide.

While it contains many Indo-European roots, its phonology has been influenced by neighboring Caucasian languages, so that it shares a three-way distinction between voiceless, voiced, and ejective stops and fricatives.

Armenian was historically split in to two vaguely-defined primary dialects: Eastern Armenian, the form spoken in modern-day Armenia, and Western Armenian, the form spoken by Armenians in Anatolia. After the Armenian Genocide, the western form was primarily spoken only by those belonging to the diaspora.

Armenian is written in the Armenian Alphabet, created by Saint Mesrop Mashtots in 406 AD.

The Armenians are a predominantly Christian ethnic group, primarily of the Armenian Church. Whether Armenians are Europeans or not is a bone of contention, as the people of Caucasia have become increasingly disregarded as being Europeans over the past couple of centuries. This process was arguably accelerating as the term "European" increasingly is being used to refer to citizens of the European Union rather than peoples of ethnic European origins, but the recent (2004) inclusion of Armenia in the EU "New Neighborhood", which is expected to lead to membership in the long term will once again swing the pendulum in the direction of Europe.

Eastern Armenian

Eastern Armenian people, and the dialect are basically those Armenians and the dialects they speak which originated in the Russian and Persian Empires (basically, the the former USSR and Iran). Eastern Armenian is still written in the original spelling system invented by Mesrop Mashtots by Iranian Armenians, but in the former USSR a new, simplified spelling system is used.

Western Armenian

Western Armenian people, and the language, are basically those Armenians and the dialects they speak which originated in the Ottoman Empire (basically, anywhere outside of the former USSR and Iran). Western Armenian is still written in the original spelling system invented by Mesrop Mashtots.

One thing the Western Armenian language has which Eastern Armenian does not, is a special way to say "very", depending on the word in question. For example, instead of using shad which is the standard word for "very" in describing something that is very black, the word sep can be used. It has no meaning on its own, but in conjunction with the word black, sep sev comes to mean very black. Here is a list of known examples.

  • sep sev, jep jermag, gas garmir, gas gabid, tep teghin, gas gananch, lep letsun, bas barab, mis minag, ship shidag, dzups dzur, chop chor, tap tats, pas parag, nip nihar etc...

Armenian Alphabet

  Ա   ա    a    a   այբ  1
  Բ   բ    b    p   բեն  2
  Գ   գ    g     k   գիմ  3
  Դ   դ    d    t   դա  4
  Ե   ե    e,ye    e,ye   եչ  5
  Զ    զ    z    z   զա  6
  Է   է    e    e   է  7
  Ը   ը    ə    ə   ըթ  8
  Թ   թ    t'    t'   թո  9
  Ժ   ժ    jh    jh   ժե  10
  Ի   ի    i    i   ինի  20
  Լ   լ    l    l  լյուն  30
  Խ   խ    kh    kh   խե  40
  Ծ   ծ    ts    dz   ծա  50
  Կ   կ    k    g   կեն  60
  Հ   հ    h    h   հո  70
  Ձ   ձ    dz    ts   ձա  80
  Ղ   ղ    gh    gh  ղատ  90
  Ճ   ճ    ch    j   ճե 100
  Մ   մ    m    m   մեն 200
  Յ   յ    y    h   հի 300
  Ն   ն    n    n   նու 400
  Շ   շ    sh    sh   շա 500
  Ո   ո    o,vo    o,vo   վո 600
  Չ   չ    ch'    ch'   չա 700
  Պ   պ    p    b   պե 800
  Ջ   ջ    j    ch   ջե 900
  Ռ   ռ    rr    rr   ռա 1000
  Ս   ս    s      s   սե 2000
  Վ   վ    v    v   վեվ 3000
  Տ    տ    t    d տյուն 4000
  Ր   ր    r    r   րե 5000
  Ց   ց    ts'    ts'   ցո 6000
  Ւ   ւ    u    v   ու 7000
  Փ   փ    p'    p' փյուր 8000
  Ք   ք    k'    k'   քե 9000
  և   ևվ yev,ev yev,ev   և  
  Օ   օ    o    o   օ  
  Ֆ   ֆ    f    f   ֆե  



Invented in 405 by Mesrop Mashtots with the assistance of Sahak Partev in order to translate the Bible into Armenian.

First printed documents appeared in Armenia in early 16th century. A century later, in 1662, an Armenian cleric, Father Voskan was sent to Amsterdam by Catholicos Hakop, to prepare printing of the Bible in Armenian. Four years later, the job, which consisted of casting Armenian letter types, producing wooden carvings for the illustrations, etc. was completed, and the first Bible in the Armenian language was printed in Amsterdam in 1666.

It is said that some letters of the Armenian alphabet were based on the Greek ones. However, more than a visual similarity, the Armenian and Greek alphabets are rather very close in the letter/sound order. Actually a Greek colleague allegedly helped Mashtots with creating the Armenian alphabet.

Furthermore, the alphabet is composed as a prayer, beginning with A as Astvats (=God) and ending with K' as K'ristos (=Christ). The original alphabet had only 36 letters. Later, three more characters were added:

- և (yev) : actually a conjunction meaning "and". It is used only in minuscule. Therefore when using capitals, it must be written like two letters- ԵՎ. On the beginning pronounced “yev”, in the middle of the word “ev”.

- Օ : it is being used in the eastern Armenian on the beginning of the words when it is needed to be pronounced as “o”, instead of “Ո”, which is pronounced “vo” on the beginning of the words. In western Armenian, it is commonly used in the middle of the words. - ֆ (F)


                                 Armenian Alphabet Monument at outskirts of Oshakan Village.


The transliteration system I use is very simple, based on the Latin character equivalents assigned to each letter in the alphabet above. Each letter has an English equivalent letter, or combination of letters.

For example, the Armenian word for Jacob, "Հակոբ" would be pronounced "Hakob" in Eastern Armenian, or "Hagop" in Western Armenian. Kalousdian in Eastern Armenian Kaloustian in Western Armenian.

It is important to remember that the eastern and western dialects differ in transliteration, because some Armenian characters are pronounced differently.

For example, in Armenian, the equivalent of the English name Peter, is Petros in Eastern Armenian, and Bedros in Western. As you can see the P and the T are pronounced differently in Western Armenian. This name would be Pedro in Spanish, where only the letter T has changed. This is because the Armenian alphabet contains a few "middle sounds" which English has for the most part lost.

For example, the P and B sounds have a sound somewhere in between those two sounds that English speakers (and often Western Armenians) will have a very difficult time perceiving. If you say the English word "sports", you may notice that you are actually pronouncing this middle sound without even noticing it. Most people are not pronouncing a clean P, but something that sounds more like a B, but not quite... this is the sound that Eastern Armenian uses for the second letter of the Armenian alphabet. Western Armenians do not use this difference as much, pronouncing more of a clean B. Western Armenian also differs in vocabulary and conjugation from Eastern Armenian, which is used in the Republic of Armenia today.

Dating Armenian Monuments

Knowledge of the Armenian alphabet is useful but not essential for appreciation of Armenia's cultural patrimony. However, one sure way to impress on-lookers, including local worthies, is by deciphering the date on medieval inscriptions.

Dates are generally marked by the letters ԹՎ or the like, often with a line over, indicating "t'vin" ("in the year") followed by one to four letters, each of which stands for a number based on its order in the alphabet. In the Middle Ages, Armenians used a calendar that started in AD 552 as the beginning of the Armenian era.

To translate into standard years, simply add 551 to the number. Thus, should you see an inscription reading ԹՎ ՈՀԳ, simply check the alphabet table up and see that this equals 600+70+3+551= the year of Our Lord 1224.


Armenia's remarkable alphabet

By Ken Gewertz

Harvard University Gazette, MA Nov 3 2005

Saint's sturdy Armenian alphabet focus of meetings Harvard News Office

In Yerevan, capital of Armenia, the manuscript library known as the Matenadaran possesses an almost sacred status. Situated on a hill, it is approached by a long cascade of white marble steps flanked by statues of the great figures of Armenian literature. Chief among these is St. Mesrops Mashtots, who gave Armenia its alphabet.

According to James Russell, the Mashtots Professor of Armenian Studies at Harvard, the fifth-century saint gave Armenia much more than an efficient system for rendering its language into written form. By means of his invention, Mashtots gave Armenians a cultural and religious identity as well as the means to survive as a people despite the efforts of larger and more powerful neighbors to subsume or destroy them.

Armenians pride themselves on being the first nation to adopt Christianity, an event that is supposed to have occurred in the early fourth century when St. Gregory the Illuminator succeeded in converting Trdat, the king of Armenia. But according to Russell, there is much evidence that after Trdat's death, the country was in the process of reverting to paganism.

"Mashtots' principal purpose in inventing the alphabet was to change Armenia's cultural orientation from the Iranian East to the Mediterranean West," Russell said. "He gave Armenia the means and the incentive to remain Christian."

Having an alphabet allowed Armenians not only to translate the Bible into their own language but works of Christian theology, saints' lives, history, and works of classical literature as well. It also allowed them to develop scholarly institutions and a literature of their own.

"Within a century, Armenians had a library of classical and Christian learning and were able to build their own literary tradition. As a result, they became independent and almost self-sufficient, and they became impervious to attempts by Rome to Hellenize them or attempts by the Sassanian empire to re-impose Persian culture on them."

On Oct. 28 and 29,2005, Harvard hosted an international conference to consider the achievement of Mashtots, its historical background, and its wider influence. Organized by Russell, the conference was sponsored by the Armenian Prelacy of New York, the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, and the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Harvard. It was held under the patronage of His Holiness Aram I, Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia.

Fortunately for scholars, Mashtots is known in the historical record.

One of his disciples, named Koriun, wrote a biography of his mentor, which records many details of his life as well as the process by which he formulated his alphabet. The biography tells us that Mashtots came from an aristocratic family, that he served in the royal court, and that he was ordained a priest and founded several monasteries. With the support of King Vramshapuh, and with the aid of a Greek scribe named Ruphanos, he embarked on a project to develop an Armenian writing system.

Mashtots studied various scripts as models, including Greek and Syriac. He might also have given careful consideration to a version of Aramaic script developed by the Parthian prophet Mani, promulgator of the gnostic doctrine of Manichaeism. According to Koriun, Mashtots' synthesis of all these elements came to him in a dream, resulting in a 36-character alphabet. Two more characters were added during the Middle Ages, bringing the number of letters in the present-day Armenian alphabet to 38.

According to Russell, this synthesis reflects a deliberate effort on Mashtots' part to borrow elements from Eastern scripts but reorient them to give them a more Western character. All known alphabets are derived ultimately from the letterforms of the Phoenicians, but Eastern writing tends more toward the horizontal while Western alphabets emphasize the vertical. Mashtots' preference for vertical elements reflects his effort to reorient Armenia toward the Christian West.

More information about Mashtots' alphabet has been gleaned through careful study of manuscripts. In recent years, computer analysis has helped scholars to focus with greater precision on the formation and evolution of letter shapes. One of the pioneers in this field, Michael Stone, professor of Armenian at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, was the keynote speaker at the conference. Stone is the chief author of the recently published "Album of Armenian Paleography," which uses computer techniques to analyze the development of letters over time and is a great help in accurately dating manuscripts.

Besides studying the letter shapes, scholars have also tried to understand Mashtots' reasons for ordering the letters as he did.

Russell, who has studied this problem and delivered a paper on the subject, believes that the order of the letters reflects his familiarity with number symbolism of the sort found in a Hebrew text called the "Sepher Yetsira," or "Book of Creation," thought to be an early work in the kabbalistic tradition.

One measure of the alphabet's success is the fact that there have been few changes in the letters or in the spelling of words since Mashtots created it in the fifth century.

"This is a very striking circumstance," Russell said, "especially when you compare it with English where spelling has changed a great deal in just the last 500 years. It shows that the Armenian alphabet was already so perfect that there was little reason for it to change."

Perhaps an even more convincing argument for the importance of Mashtots' achievement is the survival of the Armenian people through a long and often trying history.

"Mashtots' real achievement was to create a culture that became a repository for both Eastern and Western traditions, that was cosmopolitan, but had a strong anchor of its own. He made Armenia a culture of the book, a 'bibliocracy,' and that has been their key to survival, because you can carry a book into exile, but you can't carry mountains and trees."

James Russell organized a conference to discuss the fifth century Armenian alphabet invented by St. Mesrops Mashtots. Russell said, 'Mashtots' principal purpose in inventing the alphabet was to change Armenia's cultural orientation from the Iranian East to the Mediterranean West.'

Mesrop Mashtots

Saint Mesrop Mashtots (Armenian: "Մեսրոպ Մաշտոց", W. Armenian pronounced Mesrob Mashdots) (360 - February 17, 440) was an Armenian monk, theologian and linguist. He was born in Hassik, Taron, Persian Empire (today's Armenia).

Saint Mesrob is best known for having invented the Armenian Alphabet, which was a fundamental step in strengthening the Armenian Church, the government of the Armenian Kingdom, and ultimately the bond between Armenians in the Armenian Kingdom, the Byzantine Empire, and the Persian Empire. He is also traditionally believed to have invented the Georgian alphabet but this belief does not stand up to scientific scrutiny. In Georgia the credit is usually given to King Farnavaz. According to the Matenadaran, a monument and museum in Yerevan dedicated to Mesrob Mashdots, he also invented the Caucasian Albanian alphabet and even the Ethiopian one as well.

He is buried in Oshakan Church, a village of the same name 8 km southwest from Astarak_Town.

        Oshakan Church                            TOP 

           1875 AD - Aragatsotn Marz


          Oshakan Church - where Mesrop Mashdots is buried        Mesrop Mashtots statue in Oshakan Village

Language and Literature

Armenian literature began to develop with the creation of the Armenian alphabet in 405-406 A.D. and the subsequent translation of the Bible into Armenian. Amongst the first texts to be translated and studied were those of the great Greek philosophers, politicians and theologians. The study of these ancient thinkers allowed for the deprovincialization of the Armenian culture. It also helps to explain why the first texts written by Armenians are neither naive nor primitive. One such early piece was the epic poem "David of Sasun," celebrating the efforts of the Armenian bravemen who fought against Arab domination and for the freedom of the Armenian people. 

The oldest form of poetry, the hymn of religious inspiration, has played a major role in Armenian literature for centuries. This lyrical poetry, a combination of poetry and chant designed for use in religious services, has been written by the Armenians since the 5th century.

Religious lyricism reached its pinnacle in the 10th century with the works of Grigor of Narek. His masterpiece, the Narek, is one of the most widely read works in Armenia.  

The 12th century witnessed the rise of yet another summit of medieval lyricism in the person of Nerses Shnorhali (the Gracious). This Catholicos left his Lamentations on the Fall of Edessa and many sharakans, or hymns, used in the Armenian mass. Grigor and Nerses lived and worked during the "Golden Age" of Armenian literature as the art of writing was flourishing. It was toward the end of this period (1095-1344) that poetry, including poems on love and other secular themes, began to appear and grow as an important force in Armenian literature. 

In the 13th and 14th centuries, Constantine of Erznka began to write poetry of spring, love, light and beauty, images which he allegorically exalts the great mysteries of Christianity. In Constantine one can see a broadening of the poetry, a movement away from more rigid ecclesiastical terminology and toward a freer, more open use of language. 

In the 15th and 16th centuries, love poetry came to exist in Armenia. Basically common to all Eastern literatures, love poetry and its forms were recreated in Armenia, a country that had no such tradition behind it. Nahapet K'utchak embodied this new movement in poetry. 

This new poetic form continued to the time of Sayat Nova. This greatest of writers composed in Armenian, Azeri and Georgian, singing of courtly love and the unattainable beauty of the beloved. 

The death of Sayat Nova, in 1795, came on the brink of the modern era. At this time in history, the world was becoming increasingly integrated. Armenian children were being educated in the universities of Europe. A new spirit emerged, a lay spirit. Works once thought to be vulgar, written in the laic tongue of the commoner, finally attained the dignity of literature. New genres such as the novel, the ballad and the short story were born as Armenians were affected by the currents of rationalism, symbolism and decadence encompassing Europe; but, the themes of these works remained traditionally Armenian. Authors wrote of the land and its peasant customs, the coveted fatherland, and the yearning for freedom. 

The nineteenth century beheld a great literary movement that was to give rise to modern Armenian literature. The veritable creator of modern Armenian literature was Khatchatour Abovian (1804-1848). Abovian was the first author to abandon the classical Armenian and adopt the modern for his works, thus ensuring their diffusion. Abovian's most famed work, The Wounds of Armenia, returns to the theme of the Armenian people's suffering under foreign domination. Khatchatour Abovian dedicated his life to writing and educating others on the subject of Armenia and her people.

The Armenian national movement was given impulse by yet another great writer. Raffi (Hakop Melik-Hakopian) was the grand romanticist of Armenian literature. In his works, Raffi revived the grandeur of Armenia's historic past. In the story "Gaizer," the heroes fight for the liberation of their people. This theme of oppression under foreign rule is also evident in the works "Djelaledin" and "Khente." 

The literary tradition of Khatchatour Abovian and Raffi was continued even as Armenia came under Communist rule. This revival of tradition was carried out by such writers and poets as Hovhaness Toumanian, Yeghisheh Charentz and the like. This revival took place under the Communist system, much restricting the freedom of expression of the writers. 

In the late 1960's, under Brezhnev, a new generation of Armenian writers emerged. As Armenian history of the 1920's and of the Genocide came to be more openly discussed, writers like Paruir Sevak, Gevork Emin and Hovhanness Shiraz began a new era of literature.

Today literature thrives in the Republic of Armenia as well as in the Diaspora. Writers use one of two standardized vernacular dialects, Westerns Armenian and Eastern Armenian, whose names reflect their geographic origins.

Throughout centuries of foreign domination the retention of the Armenian language seems to have been one of the people's greatest defenses against assimilation. It is difficult to express the deep feeling Armenians have for their language, which many regard as the lifeblood of their culture. 


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