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Language and Literature

he Armenian language is an independent, one-language subgroup within the Indo-European language family. The Armenian alphabet, which consists of 38 characters, was created in 405 A.D. by a monk named Mesrop Mashtots (the original alphabet had 36 letters, two characters were added later). The first work of literature with the new alphabet was the translation of the Bible from Greek. This translation has been since regarded as a masterpiece by many linguists.

During the centuries the dialect into which the Bible was translated became the standard language - Grabar (Krapar), or Classical Armenian. Numerous literary works, both original and translations, were written in that period in grabar. Many works in Classical Greek, Latin and other languages exist today only in their Armenian translations. A unique collection of priceless ancient documents is preserved in the National Depository of Manuscripts, the Matenadaran, in Yerevan. 

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. 

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.
 

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. 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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Courtesy of 
Armenian Embassy Washington DC 
Web site: www.armeniaemb.org
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Updated 27 December, 2002 ..
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