The Mystery of the Armenian Languagen

The Armenian language in itself is beautiful. But it pretty much appeared out of nowhere, with no discernible links to known linguistic branches. Where did the Armenian language come from?

Background Information:

Armenian is a language that is spoken by roughly 7 million native speakers throughout the world. It is classified as an Indo-European language, but constitutes its own branch within the greater Indo-European linguistic family. The Armenian language is the sole language classified within the Armenian branch (unlike the Romance, Slavic, and Germanic branches, for instance, which all comprise of multiple languages).

The Armenian language is at least 2600 year old, however, there are no attestations of the language until the early 5th century CE (1600 years ago), when the Bible was translated into Armenian (before this, Greek and Aramaic/Syriac Bibles were used). It should be noted that 2600 years is the youngest conservative estimate, and the language is quite possibly 1000 years or more older (at least in its proto form). We know the Armenian language existed by the 6th century BCE because it was mentioned by the Persians in texts dated to this time and in Greek texts dated shortly after.

While it is pretty clear that genetically ethnic Armenians are native inhabitants of the Armenian Highlands (a region that encompasses eastern Turkey, modern-Armenia, southern Georgia, western Iran, and western Azerbaijan) it is unclear where the Armenian language came from and when it first developed.

One other point: while most of the world knows the country as «Armenia» and the people as «Armenians,» Armenians call themselves «Hye» (or «Hay»/»Hai») and their country as «Hayastan.» Hye is pronounced like «hi» or «high» in English and «Hayastan» is pronounced as «High-ya-ston.» Traditionally, these names are derived from Armenia’s legendary patriarch, Hayk/Haig.

This is where things get interesting:

In the 9th century BCE, Urartu, which is also known as Ararat (of which Urartu is etymologically related) and the Kingdom of Van, arose in what is now eastern Turkey when a number of tribes confederated. At its height, Urartu spread throughout much of the eastern half of modern Turkey, much of the modern Republic of Armenia, and into modern Iran and modern northern Iraq.

In 590 BCE, Urartu fell and was conquered by an Iranian people known as the Medes. Around this same time, an Armenian family, known to the Greeks as the Orontid dynasty and to Armenians as Yerevanduni dynasty, established their supremacy over Urartu. The region was first annexed into the Median Empire, but shortly after the Orontid Armenian king joined forces with Cyrus the Great, and killed the Median king. Armenia subsequently became a satrapy of the Persian Archaemenid Empire. After a few centuries as a Persian vassal state, Armenia managed to establish itself as an independent kingdom under the rule of the Orontids.

Here’s the problem though: the Urartians did not speak an Indo-European language. In fact, their language is not thought to have been related to any other language besides Hurrian, spoken by a people who ruled over parts of eastern Asia Minor, northern Syria, and northern Iraq and disappeared around 1000 BCE. While it is believed that there are a number of Urartian and Hurrian loanwords into Armenian, and some have suggested that there were Armenian loanwords into Urartian, it is clear that Urartian and Armenian are two distinct languages.

Besides a few words and names into Urartian that may have Armenian origins, it almost seems as if the Armenian language came out of thin air.

The Armenian language has posed a problem for linguists and historians for over 100 years.

A number of possible origins for the Armenian language have been posited. Here’s a summary:

The Urartians:

As stated above, the Urartian language was not Indo-European. However, there is a theory that Urartian (which only survives in around 400 or so words) was the language of the court, whereas the people spoke some early variant of Armenian. Another theory is that the Armenians lived in Urartu contemporaneously with the Urartians, however, they were either conquered or subservient to the Urartian overlords.

The Armens:

In 1924, Danish linguist Holger Pederson noted lexicon, morphological, and other linguistic similarities between Armenian and Greek. He and other linguists began suggesting a common origin for the two languages. This theory corresponds with the ancient Greek claim that the Armenians are descendants of the Armens (Arimoi), a tribe said to be from Thrace, and related to the Phrygians, a people that lived in what is now western Turkey. According to Herodotus, the Armens were lead by a chieftain named Armenos and the tribe eventually settled in Armenia around the 7th century BCE, bringing their language with them. Part of the issue with this theory is that there appears to have been an Armenian linguistic element in Urartu prior to the 7th century BCE.

Additionally, there is very little evidence to confirm the Armens’ existence besides Herodotus’ (and also Strabo’s) claims, let alone their spread eastward, nor is there a significant Balkan genetic imprint on ethnic Armenians, which means if the Armens did come into Armenia from elsewhere, their numbers must not have been substantial enough to leave a mark on the native populations.

An alternate theory postulates that the Phrygians came from eastern Turkey and moved westward rather than the reverse.

The Hattians:

The Hattians were a group of people that lived in what is now central Turkey nearly 5000 years ago. It is believed that the Hittites took much of their culture (including their capital, Hattusa, and possibly even their name) from the Hattians.

According to this hypothesis first suggested by Peter Jensen (1898), «Hay originates from the Hittite ethnonym Hatti. The Hittites adopted this name from the previous inhabitants of Asia Minor, the Hattians. Concerning the historical context, Jensen considered the Armenians as the linguistic successors of the Hittites, which is unacceptable (Hittite is an Indo-European language very different from Armenian). In our times a fervent advocate of this hypothesis [as I understand, about the specific ethnonym Hay, and not the wholesale linguistic succession of Armenian from Hittite – A.B.] was Diakonoff…» (p. 36)

Part of the issue with this theory is that the Hattians (unlike the Hittites and, later, the Armenians) did not speak an Indo-European language. Additionally, archaeologist and researcher Armen Petrosyan criticized this theory because of the lack of personal names of Armenian origin in this region in antiquity.

The Mushkis:

The Mushkis were tribe apparently from the Balkans who were most likely related to the Phrygians. They settled in central Turkey, around what is now known as Cappadocia.

According to noted Russian linguist and Near East expert Igor M. Diakonoff:

«Concerning the Armenization of Armenia’s historical center – Ayrarat and the Ararat plain – it is notable that Argishti I in 782 B.C. populated the newly built Erebuni fortress (modern Erevan) with 6600 «military people» from the lands of Hate and Supani (i.e. to the west and east of the confluence of the Euphrates and Arsania), who would have been speakers of Proto-Armenian, partially or completely. Initially, the Proto-Armenians had been considerably less in number than the local inhabitants of the Armenian Highland. Nevertheless, due to historical circumstances, their language became the common means of communication, and the other ethnic groups merged with them.» (p. 37)

Petrosyan presents a similar criticism for this theory as for the Hattian theory:

«The weakest point of Diakonoff’s theory is that he does not present names from this hypothetical broad cradle of the Armenians and its neighboring territory that can be etymologized in Armenian more or less reliably. From the data of that period the only valid argument of people’s ethnic origins can be the linguistic affiliation of their personal names. … Among the personal names of this area none have an Armenian appearance.»

The Hayasans:

Hayasa (sometimes called Hayasa-Azzi) was a kingdom in what is now northeastern Turkey. Obviously the name Hayasa sounds remarkably similar to the ethnonym «Hye/Hay» that Armenians use for themselves. There is an argument that «-asa» is a Hittite suffix meaning «land of.» So Hayasa could be interpreted as meaning «land of the Hay (Hye?)» There is little information about what language the Hayasans spoke, so it is possible that they spoke an Indo-European language and maybe even proto-Armenian or Armenian proper.

As there is such scant information about the Hayasans, many Armenoloigists have proposed their own theories: that Hayasans were really a tribe from the Balkans, that the Hayasans mixed with a Balkan tribe, that the Hayasans mixed with another, local group, or that the Hayasans were proto-Armenians.

Petrosyan’s criticisms are as follows:

«In this hypothesis the Armenian ethnos does not appear in the Urartian records by its name. In the ocean of the Urartian onomastics there are no names that contain the element hay(a)-(Hayasa is not recalled after the Hittite period; in its place the Urartian sources mention the kingdom of Diauhi). Also, there is no information in the Urartian sources that would hint at the conquest of the Highland by the people of Hayasa. The absence of historically recorded succession from Hayasa to post-Urartian Armenia is considered one of the primary important bases for negating the Hayasa hypothesis (Diakonoff…)». (p. 47)

«One of the essential weak points of this hypothesis … is the absence of names reliably etymologized from (Proto-) Armenian in the supposed primary territories of the Proto-Armenians. It has been noted that the Hayasan names are few in number.» (p. 48)

«Thus, the Hayasa hypothesis, which is widely held among specialists, also has its weak points and underdeveloped theses. On the one side, it seems difficult to deny that two such similar names – Hayasa and Hay-k – are connecetd with each other (other arguments in favor of the hypothesis are the localization of the followers of the forefather Armenos and Armenian pre-Christian temples in the region of former Azzi-Hayasa). On the other side, there are difficulties that make it hard to accept the Hayasa-Armenia succession.» (p. 49)

The Etuinis:

The Etuinis were a tribal confederation located in what is now Armenia and northeastern Turkey along the border with Armenia. Apparently the Urartian kingdom and the Etuini tribes fought one another quite a bit. The Urartians conquered the Etuinis, and eventually the Etuinis uprose against the Urartians. The language of the Etuini is not known but at least one personal name is apparently of Armenian origin.

Petrosyan connects «Etuini» with «Hye» in the following way:

One of the possible prototypes of the ethnonym Hay, as we have seen, could have been *hat‘iyo- from the Indo- European *poti-yo- or, if it is linguistically and historically possible, from Hatti. There are no cuneiform signs for the sound /o/. It has been conveyed as u; almost always the Urartian cuneiform u conveys /o/, and Diakonoff, in the English version of his book,transcribes Etiu as Etio (Diakonoff 1984: 133-134, n. 21). There are no cuneiform signs for the sound /h/ either, and it could have been left out.19 The Urartian e probably sounded like wide /ε/ or even as /æ/. This is possibly the reason that in Armeno-Urartian parallels in the beginning of words the Urartian e usually corresponds with the Armenian a (Diakonoff 1958: 48-49; Djahukian 1987: 428, 431, 441, cf. e.g. Urart. euri ̳master,‘vs. Arm. awriord ̳maiden, master‘s daughter‘). It can be assumed that in ancientArmenian, or at least in one of its dialects, the sound /a/ had such a (closed) pronunciation, that it was perceived and transcribed as e /ε/æ/ in Urartian. Hence, the Proto-Armenian *hat‘i(y)o- could have been transcribed in Urartian as etiu (the e/a variance is common in the renderings of foreign names, cf. e.g. Assyr. Enzite = Arm.Anjit, Arm. Ekełeac ̳ = Gk. ‘Akilishnhv)…It could have remained in Urartian in this archaic form, whereas the original *hat‘iyo- could already have been transformed into hayo in Etiunian-Armenian in the Urartian times.

Additionally, according to Assyrians texts, Urartu was destroyed by «the people of Etuna.»

There are no records of anybody entering Urartu besides the Medes and the Scythians, another Iranian tribe. Additionally, according to Armenian tradition, the Armenian king Aram conquered the southern parts of the Armenian Highlands. Aram was presumably from the north, in an area that would correspond to the Etuini homeland.

Both this theory, and potentially the Hayasa theory, suggest that the Armenians lived contemporaneously with the Urartians in Urartu, but were potentially a separate people.

Additional notes on names:

Armenia seems to be a very ancient toponym.

The Egyptians under Thutmose III spoke of «Ermenen» in 1446 BCE.

The Hebrew Bible refers to the land of «Minni» and places it in the Armenian Highlands. A theory is that Armenia is a version of «Har Minni» or «mountainous Minni.»

There was a Hurrian kingdom called «Armina-Subartu» (also known as «Arme-Shurpria») located along the Turkish border with Iran.

«Urmani» was apparently attested in an inscription by the Urartian king Menua. (a lot of my information comes from this article by Armen Petrosyan. If you want more info, this is a great source)

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