The Armenian alphabet
In 405 AD, the remarkable diligence of Mesrob Mashtots, a monk in the Armenian royal court, was responsible for a critical landmark in Armenian history. Mesrob was commissioned by the Church to devise a suitable alphabet to replace the various types of cuneiform then in use, in order to create a new written language to unite the population and make the scriptures available to them.
Armenia’s history has been one of persecution, oppression and war which gradually resulted in a small landlocked country presently just ten per cent of its original size. In those troubled times, Mesrob believed that his new alphabet would be key to the survival of the cultural identity of a people. He was proved right and the unique ‘aybuben’ has played a pivotal role in Armenia’s history. Even as recently as the twentieth century, when Armenia was under Soviet control the Russian language with its Cyrillic alphabet was poised to replace the traditional Armenian.
In 1991, when Armenia became an independent republic, things began to change and the Armenian Ministry of Culture now even has a Department of Saving and Creating Armenian Fonts – seizing on the opportunities offered by Unicode and OpenType to encourage the provision of good quality digital type for Armenian communications which they see as vital to the future development of the country. Only three years ago, Armenian speakers worldwide celebrated the 1600th anniversary of their unique alphabet, the ‘aybuben’.
The Armenian language
The Armenian language is an independent member of the Indo-European group of languages. (The official language of the Republic of Armenia is called Hayeren, the classical Armenian language used in old manuscripts and religious texts is known as Grabar). Originating in this remote mountainous region, the language never spread widely or permanently. However, faced by enemies on all sides and regularly subject to invasion and genocide, Armenians gradually fled their homeland and settled in many other countries. Nowadays, many more Armenians live outside of Armenia than in the country itself so the language is an important factor in the preservation of a cultural identity which unites the diaspora.
Of course, the unique alphabet was vitally important in this, enabling a religious and literary culture specific to the Armenian people to grow, develop and survive.
Mesrob Mashtots (c.361–440 AD) is said to have seen the thirty-six letters of the new alphabet in a vision from God (some say in letters of fire!). It was adopted in 406 AD by an edict of the Armenian King Vramshabuh and has remained virtually unchanged since then. Mesrob was canonised for his alphabet so has since been revered as a Saint in the Armenian Apostolic church (the oldest Christian church in the world) with a tomb at Oshakan marked by an alphabet-incised stone.
Although the legend of Mesrob’s holy vision is an accepted part of Armenian folklore, there is evidence of some considerable effort in his creation of the new alphabet and he was certainly a visionary.
After extensive travel and study, Mashtots began with the concept of creating a character for each phoneme in the Armenian language to develop a completely unambiguous phonetic alphabet, thus avoiding confusion in pronunciation or the need for diacritics. He also created new punctuation. Mashtots began by adopting the Greek pattern of writing from left to right and the abecedary of the Greek alphabet was partially followed. Some characters corresponded to the Greek sounds and Mesrob added others to denote sounds unknown in Greek – a total of thirty-six characters.
The true origins of the letterforms themselves still remain a mystery – but the character shapes show evidence of influence from various sources, both Eastern and Western… New theories are still being developed, but it is known that a famous Greek scribe, Rufinus, assisted with their refinement.
These original uncial letters feature simplicity; perfect proportions and good legibility. They later became used as the capital (majuscule) forms. The upright, rounded forms – a shape seen often in ancient (and modern) Armenian architecture – are known as erkatagir. (The name means iron letters, though the reason is unclear). The lower case (minuscule) characters developed from handwriting in the 11th and 12th centuries, as the scribes began to slope the letters and make them smaller. This sloped cursive style is known as bolorgir, meaning ‘round script’ – though actually its forms are often rather angular. Another style, notregir (notary hand) developed in the 14th century, an upright cursive which was more economical with pen strokes and was used generally for annotation.