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.