Ahead of Mother Language Day Hovhannes Zakaryan: “The Armenian language is a great cultural asset; it is an amazingly flexible and powerful language”

There is a lot of talk about issues related to the Armenian language. There are various measures proposed for preserving the purity of the language, and importance is mostly attached to moving the issue of language to the legal level and providing solutions at the state level. Nevertheless, the Armenian language, which continues to develop and bears the stratification of conversational language, continues to be distorted and often violated…In this sense, Mother Language Day is a sort of call for alertness, care and a celebration of love that, unfortunately, ends on that day…However, the Armenian language is the daily bread  of the Armenian nation, “the sacred bread on our table”, as an Armenian poet once said. We Armenians and the society have to be the ones preserving the language. I talked about this and other issues during an interview with Candidate of Philological Sciences, Associate Professor and Head of the Linguistics Section of Tatev Scientific and Educational Complex Hovhannes Zakaryan for Hayern Aysor.

Karine Avagyan: Mr. Zakaryan, you have been in the field of linguistics for many years and are a candidate of sciences. As far as I know, your doctoral thesis is ready. That is to say, you constantly deal with language-related issues. Please, share your observations of the current issues of the Armenian language.

Hovhannes Zakaryan: We Armenians have inherited a perfect, well-devleoped language from our forefathers, but, of course, there is always work to do. If a language is a living organism, then it obviously undergoes changes and grows, and we need to manage to meet the requirements of the times. If not, Armenian will become a backward language. This is being done to a certain extent. We Armenians manage to keep the language relatively clean and perfect to the extent that even foreign Armenologists are amazed at how the Armenian language is so perfect. However, this is not enough. Language is not only structure, but also function. If there is no function, a language becomes a dead language. I must say that we Armenians face a lot of problems in terms of function. There are flaws and shortcomings, and the ones to blame are the public, relevant state bodies, religious authorities, as well as society and intelligentsia, which are somewhat indifferent. If we take a look back, we will see that sometimes a lot more has been done for language, more efforts have been exerted and a bigger struggle has been led for the language in the times when Armenians had no statehood…Today, in this sense, it seems that we shouldn’t have had any problems, that we should have paid more attention to the language and should have allocated more funds for the solution to language-related issues, but today, less attention is paid to language and culture. The public has also become very indifferent. This is also caused by the authorities because not much importance is attached to Armenian language and culture. Outside influence also has an impact. After all, we Armenians are in big ‘cultural wars’. Anyone who introduces a certain culture in Armenia somehow imposes the culture on us and tempts people to learn the languages of the particular country and become devoted to the culture of the foreign country. This is also a way of proselytizing, and people become, shall we say, “deserters” as they go and become devoted to foreign cultures and become English-speaking and Russian-speaking Armenians while living in Armenia. We have a lot to fight for. You need to use a language and make sure it is applied so that it develops. Today, Armenian needs to be fully used on the Internet so that people can receive the information they need in Armenian and not be forced to visit Russian-language and English-language websites. Unfortunately, we Armenians are quite far from that. True, individuals and non-governmental organizations are doing a tremendous job, but this is not enough. There is also a need for government support. Let me bring up an example. According to the Law on Radio and Television, there shouldn’t have been foreign-language films and animated films on television a long time ago. A time limit was set, and the number was supposed to decline and those films were supposed to eventually stop being aired, but for some reason, that law was amended. Now only Armenian Public Television makes sure the films broadcast on Armenian Public Television are translated into Armenian.

Karine Avagyan: Don’t you think Mother Language Day should turn into a day of a pan-national celebration and attach more importance to it?

Hovhannes Zakaryan: Of course. For instance, there are TV advertisements about St. Sarkis Day and billboards in various parts of the city, but you won’t see billboards or advertisements devoted to Mother Language Day. There is not much effort and not much funding. There are even funds for St. Valentine’s Day. However, the most important holiday is Mother Language Day. After all, the mother language is the Armenian nation’s national asset.

Karine Avagyan: Everyone knows that the Armenian language is distorted everywhere – on the streets, in homes and on television. What measures do you suggest to fight against this?

Hovhannes Zakaryan: Let’s not approach the word “distortion” so painfully. If a language is a living language, then it also has to be distorted. I’m not saying completely distorted because it depends on the field…Language is distorted in any country. Take Great Britain where there should have been pure and classic English, but this is not the case since English is distorted everywhere and mostly in the United States of America. There was  time when the best expert of English was Levon-Zaven Surmelian. There was nobody among indigenous Anglo-Saxons who knew English as good as him. It is obvious that average people will distort the language. We compare this with an ideal, but ideals exist only in the minds of certain individuals and even outside because no matter how well those individuals know Armenian, they might speak in conversational Armenian at home and jargon on the street. It’s clear that this is the way it has to be. The important thing is for us to achieve that ideal for the Armenian language as a perfect version of the literary language and have this become a standard for everyone. As far as the use of Armenian on the street is concerned, I consider it a result of ignorance and believe it will fade away over time. What is painful is that we only hear this kind of language in Armenian films. Fortunately, when the soap operas of other countries are translated from foreign languages, we hear purer, literary Armenian. It seems as though the main characters of those soap operas (average people) should be using jargon, but this is not the case.

Karine Avagyan: Mr. Zakaryan, more and more people have been expressing their concerns about Western Armenian. There is a fear that it might die, right?

Hovhannes Zakaryan: Of course there is. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, Western Armenian is not used in many fields, Armenian communities of the traditional Armenian Diaspora are declining in number and becoming weak because assimilation is also in progress. That is to say, the number of bearers of Western Armenian is also on the decline, and the number of Armenian-speaking Armenians is incomparably less in certain places like France. For instance, there are no Armenian-speaking Armenians at all in Poland. The second reason is emigration. People are leaving Armenia, taking with them their knowledge of Eastern Armenian and becoming assimilated abroad. They go and open schools where they teach Eastern Armenian, and the child of a family speaking in Western Armenian might attend the school. We see a competition between the two ramifications of the Armenian language, but Western Armenian suffers more.

Karine Avagyan: What are some of the measures you would suggest to save Western Armenian from extinction?

Hovhannes Zakaryan: Armenia is not the place where we have to preserve Western Armenian. Remember when the first repatriates came to Armenia years ago. They were the bearers of Western Armenian, but the second and third generations of those repatriates no longer know Western Armenian.

Karine Avagyan: Mr. Zakaryan, in any case, there is a need for Armenians in Armenia to preserve and learn Western Armenian. Schoolchildren read books by Western Armenian authors, learn their works by heart, and often, without understanding what those works are about. Based on this, there is also a need to incorporate Western Armenian language lessons in the curriculum. Do you agree?

Hovhannes Zakaryan: Of course, I agree! Western Armenian is taught to a certain extent and for a couple of hours. If a teacher knows Western Armenian, he or she teaches it during class. If the teacher doesn’t know the language, it is not taught. Even if children learn Western Armenian in school, they can’t preserve the language. Teaching Western Armenian will only help children read and understand the works of Western Armenian and Diaspora Armenian writers. That is to say, Western Armenian needs to be preserved in the environment in which it is spoken and in the Armenian communities within which the members are traditionally bearers of Western Armenian…But you can see the scourges in those communities. Western Armenian is truly at risk of extinction. Armenia needs to be stronger and have an impact on our compatriots so that Armenians abroad wish to preserve their national identity and aspire to preserve the language.

Karine Avagyan: Armenia’s state language is Armenian. In that case, why do the corresponding bodies allow the placement of signs in only English and Armenian on the walls of stores, offices and other structures? Who has the powers?

Hovhannes Zakaryan: The law requires that Armenian has to be written first, but the law doesn’t provide many details. I used to work for the State Language Inspectorate and managed to have the municipality establish a special procedure for inscriptions on signs, but every new mayor would annul the already existing decisions, and we needed to make more efforts every time. There are also penalties prescribed for foreign-language signs, but this is a long and difficult process. You have to file a lawsuit, participate in trials and reach a fair verdict. The State Language Inspectorate has powers in that regard as long as it exists…I’m sure you know the rumors that were going around about the existence or non-existence of the inspectorate.

Karine Avagyan: During my interviews, I usually express my wishes to my guest, but in this case, I would like to hear your wish for the Armenian language, our mother language.

Hovhannes Zakaryan: The Armenian language is a great cultural asset. It is an amazingly flexible and powerful language. We Armenians need to be able to be the worthy bearers of our language. The people need to be able to appreciate that great wealth.

Karine Avagyan: Thank you, Mr. Zakaryan! Let’s hope our mother language, the crosier of our long march (as an Armenian poet said) is in the center of attention and under the care of generations, the people and the State in all times.

Karine Avagyan

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