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The History of the Armenian Alphabet

May 22nd, 2023ArmeniaLanguage

The Armenian alphabet, a unique writing system with 39 distinct characters, was created to represent the Armenian language. Its invention is attributed to Mesrop Mashtots, a scholar and linguist in the early 5th century AD. The Armenian alphabet has undergone various transformations throughout history, reflecting the linguistic, cultural, and political changes in Armenia. This article provides a comprehensive history of the Armenian alphabet, from its inception to the present day.

Origins of the Armenian Alphabet

Before the creation of the Armenian alphabet, Armenians utilized different writing systems for various purposes. The Aramaic script, for instance, was used to transcribe the inscriptions of King Artaxias I during the 2nd century BC. Syriac script was employed for religious texts, while Greek script was utilized for both religious and secular documents, as well as for inscriptions on coins. However, these scripts were insufficient for representing the unique sounds of the Armenian language. The inadequacy of these scripts prompted Mesrop Mashtots, a scholar and linguist, to create a new alphabet specifically for the Armenian language. Mashtots was commissioned by King Vramshapuh of Armenia and Catholicos Sahak Partev, the Armenian Church leader, to develop the alphabet.

The Need for a Unique Writing System

The Armenian language, an Indo-European language with unique phonetic and grammatical features, could not be adequately represented by the existing writing systems. The adoption of Christianity as the state religion of Armenia in 301 AD further highlighted the need for a distinct alphabet that could be used to translate religious texts and propagate the Christian faith among the Armenian population. The translation of the Bible and other religious texts into Armenian would not only help spread Christianity but also preserve and develop the Armenian language and cultural identity.

The Invention of the Armenian Alphabet

In 405 AD, Mesrop Mashtots completed the Armenian alphabet, initially consisting of 36 characters. The order of the characters was likely influenced by the Greek alphabet, with some similarities in the sequence. These original 36 characters were as follows:

Note Bene The shaded letters were subsequently added. Ա (A) Բ (B) Գ (G) Դ (D) Ե (E) Զ (Z) Է (E) Ը (Y) Թ (T') Ժ (ZH) Ի (I) Լ (L) Խ (KH) Ծ (TS) Կ (K) Հ (H) Ձ (DZ) Ղ (GH) Ճ (CH) Մ (M) Յ (Y) Ն (N) Շ (SH) Ո (VO) Չ (CH') Պ (P) Ջ (J) Ռ (R') Ս (S) Վ (V) Տ (T) Ր (R) Ց (C') Ւ (W) Փ (P') Ք (Q) և (YEV) Օ (O) Ֆ (F)

The first known text written in the Armenian script is a translation of the Bible, which Mashtots and his disciples completed shortly after the invention of the alphabet. This translation played a crucial role in spreading the alphabet and the Christian faith across Armenia.

The Golden Age of Armenian Literature

The creation of the Armenian alphabet ushered in a golden age of Armenian literature and cultural development. Spanning from the 5th to 8th centuries AD, this period saw the emergence of many prominent Armenian writers, scholars, and theologians, such as Agatangeghos, Koryun, Yeghishe, and Movses Khorenatsi who contributed to the development of the Armenian language and culture. Works on history, theology, philosophy, and science were written in Armenian during this period, enriching the nation's cultural heritage.

The Addition of New Characters

Over time, the Armenian alphabet underwent a few modifications. In the 12th century, three new characters were added to the alphabet by the scholar Mkhitar Gosh, bringing the total number of characters to 39. These additional characters were introduced to represent foreign sounds present in loanwords from other languages.

The Evolution of the Armenian Script

Throughout history, the Armenian script has evolved in style and form. Three primary script forms have developed:

The Armenian Alphabet Today

The Armenian alphabet remains a vital part of Armenian identity, culture, and heritage. Today, it is used to write the modern Eastern and Western Armenian dialects, which have diverged due to historical, political, and social factors. In the age of digital technology, the Armenian alphabet has been integrated into various platforms, ensuring its accessibility and preservation for future generations.

The Armenian alphabet, a unique and essential aspect of Armenian culture and identity, has a rich history spanning over 1600 years. From its invention by Mesrop Mashtots in the 5th century to its modern applications, the alphabet's transformative journey tells a story of a nation's linguistic evolution, cultural enrichment, and enduring resilience.