This is a personal love letter to the Armenian written language, for looking so amazing. After all, we’re talking about a script for an Indo-European language with fairly close affinities to Greek and Albanian (though also to the Indo-Iranian family of northern India and Central Asia), that originated from a Christian country (albeit one identified with the unique Armenian Apostolic Church), which was invented by a Christian theologian, Mesrop Mashtots, in AD 405. And yet … it looks more like Thai than anything in the European linguistic family. It may have derived from one of the Pahlavi scripts of ancient Parthia, or from Greek, but in fact resembles neither. There are also some fascinating and controversial hints that Mashtots may have developed the Armenian alphabet from a local pre-Christian script.

Whatever its origins, the Armenian written language owes some of its uniqueness to the structure of the Armenian tongue and to Armenian history. For one thing, Armenian is agglutinative, with the only other Indo-European language sharing this characteristic being Persian. (Think of the long rolling words of Finnish, another aggultinative language.) It has numerous consonant clusters. It has a complicated system of noun declension, meaning plenty of noun suffixes. All this naturally influences the appearance of the script, which in its modern form has 38 letters.

Furthermore, Mashtots created the Armenian alphabet as part of an assertion of national and Christian identity at a time when western Armenia was governed by the Byzantine Empire and much of the population were pagan, especially Zoroastrian, unbelievers. And throughout Armenia’s subsequent history, despite its ancient origins, it has been little changed, and has remained a touchstone of Armenian identity through tragedies like the Armenian genocide, and the Armenian diaspora.

Indeed, some authorities on Armenian have dubbed Armenia a “bibliocracy,” uniquely dependent on its script and its written language for its identity. But history doesn’t need to be evoked to valorize the sheer fantastic beauty of the Armenian alphabet. (And thanks to the Armenian Forum for some of the samples here.)

That’s a brief Wikipedia-level tour of the Armenian written language. What a wonderful world that has such wonders in it.


  1. Love those Armenian characters. They strike me as midway between the excessive swirls of Arabic and the perhaps too blockish characters of most European languages. The Roman alphabet we use was, after all, developed from Roman inscriptions that of necessity had to be easy to carve in stone.

    Those who enjoy this, might want to subscribe to the marvelous “The History of English Podcast,” now in its 61st episode.

    Available on iTunes and elsewhere.

    Notice that there are links to earlier podcasts on “The History of the Alphabet” and a series, “Beowulf Deconstructed,” about the Old English of Beowulf.

    Old English is so far removed from our English that only an occasional word is recognizable. But even if you can’t understand, its rolling phrases are quite beautiful. It’s the perfect language for story-telling and worth learning just for that. I find it easy to understand why Tolkien became a scholar in the language.

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