Armenian vs. Ottoman Turkish Scripts

One pebble on the beach of history that begs examination might be labeled ‘the advantage of a written language.’

When the Seljuk Turks began their invasion of Armenia, the Armenians had been using their alphabet, had their sacred book the Bible translated into their heart language, and had developed literature in their mother tongue – at least five centuries earlier. The Turks, however, arrived on Armenia’s borders with a spoken language and a borrowed script that didn’t fit Turkish. The Ottoman Turks were hampered in their cultural development and the political organization of their empire by their lack of a written language.

Unfortunately, Arabic was the only script with which the Turks were familiar. Mohammed’s prohibition of the translation of the Muslims’ sacred book the Koran meant that Arabic script and vocabulary became the framework for the written language of the Ottoman Turks. During the Ottoman Empire, Turkish was written in Arabic script, with consonant sounds spelt as they would be in Persian or Arabic and usually with the vowels missing. This system of writing was prohibitively difficult to read.

Most schooling for children during the Ottoman Empire consisted of learning to do sums and memorizing passages of the Koran in Arabic. Verification of a student’s comprehension of the regurgitated phrases was not a priority.

Both the governmental oversight of the wide variety of ethnicities in the Empire and the education of its young proved torturous under the Ottoman Turks’ inadequate script.

The disadvantage of a cumbersome form of written communication continued to plague the Turks for an additional decade beyond the 1915 elimination of Ottoman Turkey’s Armenians – along with their advantage of a written language.

Ancient Land, No Natural Boundaries

In the 1980s, when I taught English night classes for new immigrant adults in Pasadena, California, two-thirds of my students were Armenians. Yet none of them listed their country of origin as Armenia. Rather, they declared that they came from Cyprus, Russia, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt.  Hmmm. Now that’s a head scratcher.

One young woman in the class told me she spoke Turkish, as well as several other languages. She also said she had no idea why because she had never lived in Turkey. The only reason that she spoke the language of a country in which she had never lived, I guessed, must have been due to her parents and perhaps her grandparents. They must have used Turkish in their daily life when the young woman was a girl. At least several of the older members of her family must have lived in Turkey originally and left the country.

The Armenian students of the class were in fact en diaspora. Ground zero must have been Turkey. But why? What happened to the original country of origin?

Once more, turning over some pebbles on the beach of history yielded some interesting scenarios.

Tradition among Armenians links them through Haig [Haik] to Japheth, a son of Noah, the man of antiquity who landed the ark on Mt. Ararat. Centuries later, an Indo-European group called Armen joined the descendants of Noah on the high plateau around that twin-peaked volcano. This combination of people groups gave the Armenians their spoken language and pre-Christian culture.

In the century prior to Jesus’ birth, an Armenian king extended the borders of his country from the Caspian Sea to Phoenicia on the Mediterranean Sea and from the Black Sea to the plains north of Iraq. So, at one point in its three-thousand year history, Armenia was a large country. 

As nations around the Armenians grew in size and strength, Armenia’s lack of natural boundaries made it easy to invade.

Zoroastrian Persians and Muslim Arabs were among those nations who did – after the Armenians had already adopted Christianity. Neither invader, however, was successful in converting most Armenians to a different belief system.

In the tenth century, Seljuk Turks pushed out of what is now Turkmenistan east of the Caspian Sea and invaded lands south and southwest of that sea. In 1071 A.D., the Turks defeated the Byzantines on the eastern edge of their empire at the Battle of Manzikert [Malagzirt] near Armenia’s Lake Van. This defeat opened up the Anatolian Plateau (and Armenia) for invasion by the Seljuk Turks. Within four hundred years, the Turks had taken all of Anatolia, the Byzantine city of Constantinople, and established the Ottoman Empire.

Wars over and around Armenia’s plateau homeland and invasions by other groups such as Tartars and Kurds continued. Armenians were forced to share their homeland with people of many languages, cultures, and religious creeds. In the end, Russia, Persia (Iran), and the Ottoman Turks chopped up Armenia’s territory between them, but the largest number of the Armenian people were concentrated in six eastern provinces of Turkey. During the latter part of the nineteenth century, approximately three million Armenians lived under Turkish rule.

In 1915, all that changed.

First Christian Nation

When searching for information about the Armenian language, one fact about Mesrob Mashdotz drew my interest. The person who encouraged him to form the alphabet was Sahag the leader of the Armenian Christian Church. As early as the fourth century, Armenia had a growing Christian community and needed the Bible translated into its own language for its believers to flourish. By 433 A.D., scholars completed the translation of the Bible into Armenian. Hmm… How did Armenians even become Christians?

While I knew that the Book of II Kings (chapter 20, sentence 37) in the Bible mentions the land of Armenia (dating its existence around 681 years before Jesus’ birth) and the Book of Acts in the Bible describes the journeys of Paul, the Apostle, to cities of what is the western part of modern day Turkey, I had never learned how the people of Armenia became Christians. A little digging revealed the following story.

The few Armenians that heard about and practiced Christianity between 60 and 301 A.D. were persecuted by the Armenian kings. Late in the third century, a man named Grigor Lousavoritch went to Caesarea. While there, he became a Christian and brought his new faith back to Armenia. His attempts to share his faith landed him in the Armenian king’s dungeon. There Grigor languished for fifteen years. Grigor was suddenly released in 301 A.D. after the king’s sister had a dream. In her dream, an angel told her that their persecution of Christians must stop. Grigor was not only released, but he also baptized the king and his family at their request. Armenia became the first people to adopt Christianity as their national religion.

That means that prior to 1915, Armenians had identified themselves as Christians for one thousand six hundred fourteen years, long before Seljuk Turks invaded Armenia or the Turks even became Muslims.

Two Pebbles from the Beach of History

How does one tell the story of another people, that isn’t one’s own? By turning over one pebble at a time. When writing fiction based on a people’s history, the writer must figure out which pebbles require his or her attention. How does the writer know which ones to turn over? By sleuthing the answers to specific questions. 

Perpetually curious about Asian folk, in the 1970s I befriended a Vietnamese refugee newly-arrived in the Oregon community where I was living at the time. While my main goal was to help the woman and her family with their adjustment to life in the U.S., I wanted to find out some things about Vietnam, especially the language. I thought it totally unlikely for an Asian country like Vietnam to use Romanized script like English, Spanish, or German did. When my new friend wrote out the Vietnamese words for the the numbers one through ten, the basic colors, and common names for girls and women, I thought, Vietnamese looks like a Frenchman designed the spelling of the vowels  for the Vietnamese language. I decided to research the answer to the question, “Did a Frenchman have anything to do with the formation of the script for the Vietnamese language?”

My delight grew into wonder as I did my research. In the early 1600s, a Frenchman named Alexandre de Rhodes left Portugal to serve as a Jesuit missionary in Japan. Due to the persecution of Christians in Japan, de Rhodes went, instead, to Macao and then Vietnam. He learned Vietnamese and gave the language a Romanized phonetic script called quoc ngu that has been used since. WhenVietnamese rulers exiled Alexandre de Rhodes from their country, he was reassigned by the Jesuits to Persia. De Rhodes, the French linguist who gave the Vietnamese their script, was buried in the Armenian Cemetery of the New Julfa quarter of Isfahan, Persia.

Ten years after I had met the Vietnamese refugee, another question directed the turning over of another pebble. In my English as a Second Language (ESL) night class, one of the Armenian students repeatedly asked, “Teacher, who write English?” At first, his question seemed nonsensical, but he always asked the same question whenever he became frustrated with the spelling of English words. My student was implying, “Whoever developed the English writing and spelling system must have been crazy!” Guessing that the student’s question came out of his knowledge of the history of his own language, I asked myself, “Did a specific person design the Armenian writing and spelling system?” After all a specific person had done that for the Vietnamese language.

Research showed me that, indeed, one man had. Mesrob Mashdots was an Armenian scholar of the Greek, Syrian, and Persian languages. Armenian  up to Mesrob’s time had been an unwritten language. Late in the fourth or early in the fifth century, Mesrob invented the symbols for the seven Armenian vowels. By borrowing symbols from the Greek and Assyrian languages, Mesrob added twenty-nine consonants to form the original thirty-six lettered Armenian alphabet. With the later addition of two letters, this same Armenian alphabet has remained in continuous use for sixteen hundred years. The fact that the Armenian alphabet bears no resemblance to a Romanized script reinforces, in my mind at least, the alphabet’s antiquity.

Two questions, then, had piqued my curiosity, and initiated my research. But they hadn’t as yet compelled me to write a story that must be told. That came later.