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Armenian Culture, Science and Education Development Foundation
07/09/2015

The origin of the Armenian Alphabet

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Did the Armenians have an alphabet before Mashtots? There is evidence which supports this assertion.

One of the Classical accounts about the existence of an Armenian alphabet comes from Philo of Alexandria (20 BCE – 50 CE), who in his writings notes that the work of the renowned Greek philosopher and historian Metrodorus of Scepsis ( ca. 145 BCE – 70 BCE),On Animals, was also translated into Armenian. Metrodorus was a close friend and a court historian of the Armenian Emperor Tigranes the Great. Amongst his great works, Metrodorus also wrote the biography of the King of Kings, Tigranes the Great. Another Third Century Roman History and Church theologian, Hyppolytus of Rome (170-235 CE), in his Chronicle, while writing about the history of the reign of his contemporary, Emperor Alexander Severus (reigned 208-235 CE), mentions that the Armenians are amongst those nations who have their own distinct alphabet.

Philostratus the Athenian, a renowned sophist of Second and Third centuries AD in his The Life of Apollonius of Tyana, wrote:

“And they say that a pard was once caught in Pamphylia which was wearing a chain round its neck, and the chain was of gold, and on it was inscribed in Armenian lettering: ‘The king Arsaces to the Nysian god.’” (Philostratus, The Life of Apollonius of Tyana, Book II, Chapter II, pp. 120-121, tr. by F. C. Conybeare, 1912)

According to the Fifth Century Armenian Historian Movses of Khoren, Bardesanes (154-222 CE) of Edessa, who founded the Gnostic current of the Bardaisanites, went to the Armenian castle of Ani and there read the work of a pre-Christian, Armenian priest by the name of Voghyump, written in the Mithraic (Mehean or Mihrean lit. of Mihr or of Mithra – the Armenian national God of Light, Truth and the Sun) script of the Armenian temples in which, amongst other histories, an episode was noted of the Armenian King Tigranes VII (reigned from 144-161, and again 164-186 CE) erecting a monument on the tomb of his brother, the Mithraic High Priest of the Kingdom of Greater Armenia, Mazhan. Movses of Khoren notes that the renowned scholar Bardesanes, translated this Armenian book into Syriac (Aramaic), and later also into Greek. Another important evidence for the existence of a pre-Mashtotsian alphabet is the fact that the Armenian heathen pantheon included Tir, who was the Patron God of Writing and Science.

A 13th century Armenian historian, Vardan Areveltsi, in his History, notes that during the reign of the Armenian King Leo the Magnificent (reigned 1187-1219), artifacts were found bearing “Armenian inscriptions of the heathen kings of the ancient times…” The evidence that the Armenian scholars of the Middle Ages knew about the existence of a pre-Mashtotsian alphabet can also be found in other medieval works, including the first book composed in Mashtotsian alphabet by the pupil of Mashtots, Koriwn, in the first half of the Fifth Century. Koriwn notes that Mashtots was told of the existence of ancient Armenian letters which he was initially trying to integrate into his own alphabet (according to the research done by Gevork Nazaryan, Armenologist, Historian (http://www.armenianhighland.com/index_light.html).

Although a lot of the ancient Armenian culture was swept aside with the dominance of the new religion, there is still some pagan influence felt today, a reflection of which can be found in that very god, Tir, referred to as the “Writer” or “Grogh” (“Krogh” in Western Armenian). God Tir who was the God of Literature, Science and Art, the God of wisdom, culture, science and studies, was also an interpreter of dreams. Tir was the messenger of the gods. His temple was called “Aramazds grchi divan” and meant for studying sciences. His temple was the seat of oracles, the interpreter of dreams, the defender of arts and letters. Tir was called the scribe of Aramazd.

The problem of the origin of the Armenian alphabet has always been on the focus of the attention of Armenology. Traditionally in scientific circles the opinion that the Armenian alphabet essentially was formed on the base of the Greek, Aramaic and Iranian letters has gained ground.

Vahan Sargsyan proposed a new method to decipher the Armenian letters – the method of internal reconstruction. The author observes the problem of the origin of the Armenian letters apart from the external comparison exclusively basing on data internals of Armenian.

The essence of the internal reconstruction is as follows:

The Armenian alphabet has a national root which derives from rock-carvings dating from the period between V and II millenniums BC, as well as from the symbolic images of celestial bodies, etc..
The internal reconstruction of the Armenian letters is based on the connections between the sounds and characters. In time the Armenian sound have bore certain changes and precisely by those changes was the correspondent modifications of the characters caused. And if the connections between the Armenian sounds are reestablished, thus, in that way the relationship between the letters is reconstructed. In Armenian the sounds do not exist independently from each other, that is why neither the Armenian letters are independent from each other. And everything that has taken place in the system of Armenian soundhas simulataniously been reflected also in the system of the characters of the language – in its alphabet. If we want to etymologize a word we add it to another one, and if we want to explain the origins of any sound we connect it with another one. The same occurs with the Armenian alphabet to decipher the characters of which is possible via adding one letter (character) to the other.
Thus in the internal reconstruction of the characters the mechanisms of the internal reconstruction of words and sounds are applied, that is to say, the order of the development of words and sounds is applicable to the characters too. Leaving the unessential details apart, we can see that three major principles have been affected the formation of the Armenian letters: partition of the grafic image, duplication of the character, metathesis.
Let’s briefly present the process of formation of the Armenian alphabet underlining the principal tendencies and orders.

The available data show that up to fifth century AC the Armenian alphabet has passed a long route of development and has carried certain changes. In the formation of the Armenian alphabet the first letter Ա (A) has played an enormous role. Up today it has been believed that Ա would have had Greek or Semitic origin. Actually the letter Ա derives from he ancient rock carvings where it symbolized first – the image of the sun, later on, it imaged a man and a ram. First the sun was symbolized by a simple circle which was pronounced as արեւ (arev) which later was devided and the syllable ար (ar) was conserved. Such partition of the word caused the partition of circle. As a result the circle transformed into the character Ա, as follows:

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The parted circle according to its structure stands rather close to the symbols of ram which are rather frequently met in rock carvings. As the result of the changes of these symbols the character Ա  emerged. Here we have some of the above mentioned symbols:

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As it seems probable, in ancient times this Armenian character has stood for the ար  (ar), as the animals imaged by them are the rams the Armenian names of which are առն արու (arren, aru). There is also an Armenian word այծ (aits) “goat”, the old form of which is արտի (arti) “wild mutton”, formed by the root ար (ar). It is not casual that Armenians have given to the rock carvings the denomination իծագիր (itsagir) “goat scripts”. As it refers to the denomination այբ (aib) for the letter Ա (A), it is connected with the Armenian word արեւ (arev) “sun” (result of the transformation արեւ – այբ (arev-aib)) that is to say ancient Armenians have called the first letter of their alphabet by the name of the sun.

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