8

From what I see at this wiki page, these two versions of Armenian show differences in phonology and sometimes in grammar which are greater than, say, a difference between Russian and Polish (and quite close to that between Finnish and Estonian).

So, are books written in each one of these two dialects equally intelligible for a speaker of each version of Armenian? Or is there one-direction understanding (as it is the case with Estonian speakers, who can intuitively understand most of spoken and written Finnish, but whose speech is hard to be deciphered by an unprepaired Finnish speaker)?

  • It is very misleading to take some example sentences and compare the string distance. Notably "inchpes" in the phrase "Inchpes es?" ("How are you?") is perfectly valid and understood Eastern, and the word is used in other contexts, it is just less common in that context. The grammatical variants (eg "Hayoc" vs "Hayeri", "qezi" vs "qez") are also understood by all and occur in songs for example. For any variants of any language we can create examples that look unintelligibly different to a non-speaker. – Adam Bittlingmayer Jun 26 '17 at 17:32
8

Eastern and Western are just two codifications, the total dialect variation within Armenian is similar to that within English and arguably much less than that within German.

As noted in the other answer, while the spoken dialect continuum developed over a thousand years, the minor fork in codifications only happened in the past two centuries.

One soft proof of their intelligibility is that you will hardly find a website which is in both Eastern and Western Armenian, nor will you find subtitles in television interviews.

Eastern vs Western

Here is the situation across the aspects that affect intelligibility:

Eastern Armenian is more conservative in terms of pronunciation. Western Armenian is more conservative in terms of grammar and in terms of orthography.

Both Eastern and Western Armenian have taken on new vocabulary for some concepts that emerged since their split, at least informally.

Soviet Armenian has taken on, via Russian, more internationalisms like desinfekcia, but Western Armenians will often understand those thanks to their better knowledge of French or English.

Western Armenian was more influential historically, while Eastern Armenian is much more influential since the Genocide.

How we know this

Armenian and Georgian have been written since the 4th century, so there is a reasonably sized corpus of "grabar", Classical Armenian from before and during the split, from which these assertions are derived. Even the pronunciation can be reconstructed, because of loanwords from Greek, Aramaic, Latin, Iranic, Kartvelian and so on, and using the comparative method.

Intelligibility in Practice

So educated Eastern Armenian speakers can read Western Armenian without any problem, because it is basically classic Armenian.

In theory, Western Armenians can understand spoken formal Eastern Armenian because the pronunciation is very clear, and they may be exposed to it.

But in practice there are many Russian words and other jargon in the street language that are difficult. This is more of a factor for intelligibility than any aspect of grammar or pronunciation.

But the use of Russian words as opposed to French or Arabic or English words actually has nothing to do with Eastern and Western.

Definition of Eastern and Western

Commonly people use "Eastern" to mean Soviet Yerevanian and "Western" to mean the diaspora, especially in the Levant.

But the Western/Eastern dichotomy is highly imperfect.

Firstly, it was always a dialect continuum, someone in Gyumri, someone im Kars and someone in Erzurum spoke similarly, no matter in which group we would place them today.

Secondly, some speakers in Russia, Soviet Armenia and especially Georgia speak with Western pronunciation, but because they were in the Soviet Union, they are familiar with the so-called Eastern orthography and vocabulary. Conversely, speakers in or from Iran, which includes those in places like India and Singapore, speak with Eastern pronunciation, but because they were not in the Soviet Union, they are not familiar with the so-called Eastern orthography and vocabulary.

So there are actually 4 basic groups: Western and not Soviet, Western but Soviet, Eastern and Soviet, and Eastern but not Soviet.

Forces of Harmonisation

Then there are those who moved across those groups more recently. To ask if Vartan Oskanian or Levon Ter-Petrosyan or their parents speak Eastern or Western Armenian is like asking if Elon Musk speaks British or American English.

In essence, a series of events - the Genocide, and today the flight of hundreds of thousands of Armenians from Syria and Iraq, whose families had found refuge there during the Genocide - has severely endangered Western Armenian, by killing most of the speakers and scattering the surviving ones across the world. It is strongest in Lebanon and Syria.

Those few Western Armenian speakers who do re-settle in the slice of historic Armenia where Armenian is still spoken inevitably learn Eastern Armenian instead, but also contribute words amd expressions and effectively force some dialect levelling. In the 1910s and 1920s a few hundred thousand refugees from the West arrived, roughly half the people in Armenia are descended from one, and that proportion is surely much higher in Yerevan. In Georgia too this is a non-trivial phenomenon, most Armenians in the Armenian-majority areas had fled from near Erzurum around the time of the Hamidian massacres.

Then there is net economic emigration, so for example an estimated 100,000 Eastern Armenian speakers now live in Istanbul, perhaps a similar number in Western Europe, and more in the United States, generally always to places where there was an earlier and continuing wave of Western Armenian speakers. Similarly the Armenians of Iran, while safe and very successful there, also emigrate in high numbers.

The net effect of this is that the Eastern and Western speakers keep coming into contact with each other, if not in historic Armenia then in places like Rostov, Boston, Los Angeles, Istanbul, Bulgaria, the Emirates, Zurich, San Francisco and so on. (Concrete examples where I know of speakers of both.) And online, and in music, film and television.

This contact, combined with a more than thousand years tradition of writing and emphasis on literacy arguably precisely as a means of bridging the imposed divide, has led to the constant harmonisation of the formal and informal standards, so that even new scientific words and so on are mostly the same in both variants.

Relative to Other Languages

This is in fact not so unique, half the world's major languages are polycentric. Standard formal British English and standard formal American English are quite similar, whether written or spoken. However, within each, the most unintelligible dialects are barely intelligible to someone who has learnt only the standard, let alone to someone who has learnt only another standard. We could say similar for German or Spanish.

And we can make an analogy regarding the fact that often one variant is perceived as archaic, and one as corrupted, when in fact the other variant is just as often archaic or corrupted, but in any case perceiving something as archaic or corrupted is also a tacit admission of intelligibility.

As an aside, one could argue that the divide has been the key to maintaining the language, as it is the only common language between Armenians living for centuries in the different spheres, very very few of whom are monolingual in Armenian. In that there are some parallels to Hebrew in the 19th century, and Romanes and Kurdish today. These languages were never very useful for, say, marketing, they are useful as a lingua franca between the different nodes of the community.

Summary

So, in summary, they are as mutually intelligible as the variants of the language we are writing now, but it is not so much a question of some metrics of the phonetic, grammatical or lexical differences, but of the sociopolitical reality, which is that the two standards do not exist in total isolation from one another, in contrast to, say, Homshetsi.

  • This answer is great, except it requires to be "wikified" a bit. Some links to prove statements within would also help a lot. – bytebuster Jun 26 '17 at 13:07
  • 1
    @bytebuster Thanks. Added sections. Re sources, well, I know spoken Eastern Armenian with heavy doses of Russian, and not especially well, and without any literary basis - I am basically the worst case scenario - and I never had a serious problem communicating with those who speak Western Armenian. – Adam Bittlingmayer Jun 26 '17 at 17:55
6

There are the following differences:

  1. The current Armenian language (which is also considered as Eastern Armenian) was created by Khachatur Abovian, who is best remembered for his novel, Wounds of Armenia. Written in 1841 and published posthumously in 1858, it was the first novel published in the modern Armenian language using Eastern Armenian based on the Yerevan dialect instead of Classical Armenian. Since then, language started diving, but in current Armenia modern Armenian is used for everything.
  2. In 1915, after the Armenian Genocide in Ottoman Turkey, lots of Armenians escaped the country in the hope of finding a life and saving themselves; most of them were in Western Armenia, so basically speakers of Western Armenian, and they still that now. Of course, their language is also influenced by the countries where they are living, for example Western Armenian from the US is different from Western Armenian from Turkey or Syria.
  3. The differences are quite huge also, because basically, Khachatur Abovian completely changed the language, and unfortunately, in schools we do not learn Western Armenian, so for people from current Armenia it is quite hard to understand Western Armenian, apart from Church personnel who use Western Armenian as their language, though learning modern Armenian also.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.