Armenian language, member of the Thraco-Phrygian subfamily of the Indo-European family of languages (see Indo-European). There is evidence that in ancient times a distinct subfamily of Indo-European languages existed that is now called Thraco-Phrygian. To it belonged Phrygian (an ancient and now extinct Indo-European language of Anatolia) and Thracian (a now dead Indo-European tongue of the Balkans in antiquity). Modern Armenian may well be a direct descendant of Phrygian. Today Armenian is the mother tongue of more than 5 million people, of whom over 3 million live in Armenia; 1 million live elsewhere in the republics of the former Soviet Union; and the rest are in the Middle East, the Balkans, and the United States. Armenian is an old, rich, and vital language. Although spoken in antiquity, it was not recorded in writing until the early 5th cent. AD At that time an alphabet of 36 letters was specially designed for Armenian by St. Mesrop, who used Greek and Iranian letters as a basis. Later, two more letters were added to the alphabet. In its early, or classical, form, Armenian is called Grabar or Krapar. This was the literary language until the 19th cent. and is still the liturgical language of the Armenian Church (see Armenian literature). It differed greatly from the spoken language. Grammatically, it has six cases for the noun and nine tenses for the verb, but it has lost gender. The modern form of Armenian, now used for literature as well as for speaking, dates from the 16th cent. and is known as Ashksarhik or Ashksarhabar. Its grammar is simpler than that of Classical Armenian. The history of the Armenian people is reflected in the sources of the words borrowed by their language. For example, Armenian has absorbed words from Persian, owing to Parthian domination in the centuries immediately before and after Jesus, from Greek and Syriac as a result of Christian influence, from French during the Crusades, and from Turkish in the course of several centuries of Turkish rule. For grammars see S. L. Kogian (1949) and K. H. Gulian (1954); John A. Greppin and A. A. Khachaturian, Handbook of Armenian Dialectology (1986).
Armenian literature: The Armenian Church fostered literature, and the principal early works are religious or hagiographical, most of them translations. The first major Armenian literary work is a 5th cent. translation of the Bible; its language became the standard of classical Armenian. Early Mesopotamian influence resulted in Syriac translations (Aphraates and St. Ephraem Syrus). Armenia then turned to the West for literary inspiration, producing translations of many religious works (Athanasius, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory Nazianzen, and John Chrysostom). Among secular works are renderings of Aristotle and of the romance of Alexander. The original writings of the golden age are confined to saints' lives and histories. The 5th-century history of Moses of Khorni contains practically all that is known of pre-Christian Armenia, its folklore and epics. Later historians include Thomas Ardzruni (10th cent.), Matthew of Edessa, who described the Crusades, and Stephanos Orbelian, who wrote of the Mongol hordes (13th cent.). A tradition of nationalistic epic poetry, influenced by Muslim form, emerged; the best-known example is David of Sassoun. The principal figure of the 12th cent. is Catholicos Narses IV, a prelate and poet notable for his literary style. After the decline of Armenian cultural centers in the 14th cent., the literature of Armenians abroad was heavily influenced by their host countries. In 18th-century Constantinople, Mechitar (1676–1749), a monk of the Catholic Armenians, founded a community (the Mechitarists) to cultivate Armenian letters. Their headquarters are now in Venice, and they are the principal Armenian publishers. Anticipated by the late 18th-century folk poetry of Sayat Nova (=Haroutioum Sayadian), the 19th cent. saw a considerable revival of Armenian letters and the establishment of a modern literary language. The major novelists of the 19th cent. were Khachatur Abovian and Hagop Melik-Agopian (called
). The 1915 Turkish massacres sent many Armenian writers (including Hagop Ochagan, Nigoghos Sarafian, and Zareh Vorpuni) into exile, which became the subject of their writing. After the incorporation of part of Armenia into the Soviet Union in 1921 the poet Leguiche Tcharentz and novelist Alexander Bakountz perished in Stalin's purges. Notable writers of the period were the poet Avetik Issahakian and the historical novelist Derenik Demirdjian. More recent figures include the poets Parouyr Sevak, Hovhannes Chiraz, and Hrant Matevosian.
See Z. C. Boyajian, ed., Armenian Legends and Poems (2d ed. 1959); J. Etmekjian, An Anthology of Western Armenian Literature (1980).