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To sustain a language

Armenian News Network / Groong
August 9, 2000

"Modern Western Armenian"
by Dora Sakayan
Arod Books, 365pp
Montreal, Canada, 2000
ISBN 0-9699879-2-7

Book Review

By Eddie Arnavoudian

Every effort to preserve the Armenian language in the Diaspora is
welcome. Dora Sakayan's, in the form of her 'Modern Western Armenian'
text-book is particularly so.

Nowhere in the Diaspora is Armenian an everyday language anymore, the
way it used to be in Lebanon for example. To secure and fashion their
lives in the Diaspora Armenians have to employ the dominant local
language, their own acquiring secondary, and for the vast majority
almost exclusively domestic use.

Yet knowledge of Armenian, whether it be by those of Armenian parentage
or foreigners can be immensely valuable and fulfilling. It is a medium
through which one can reach and appropriate some marvellous achievements
of civilisation. For Armenians in particular, it is also a means of
perpetuating and refining the best features of a heritage that has and
continues to play an important role in the formation an Armenian's
world-view and sensibilities.

But learning any language, especially one that is not the normal
publicly spoken tongue can be a serious business. Sakayan's book will
help the determined student to simplify this serious business,
additionally providing her or him with a taster of aspects of Armenian
literary culture and offering a great deal of pleasure and
intellectual satisfaction.

Composed of 12 basic units introducing different aspects of the
language, including word formation, pronunciation, orthography and
writing, the book provides a steady passage from the simplest to the
most complicated aspects of modern Armenian. The three units that I
have examined thoroughly are admirable for their clarity. Especially
useful are the easy to grasp transliteration signs and transliterated
words and pronunciations. A systematic journey through the volume's
units will enable the student to at least read and write Armenian
proficiently. Speaking will naturally take additional practical effort
and will be determined by the evolution and/or retreat of the language
in any particular sphere of the Diaspora.

Besides the units there are sections devoted to selections of readings
from Armenian literature, conversational gambits, grammatical tables,
and an Armenian-English and English-Armenian glossary. The glossaries
are also very good. I was however surprised that despite containing a
significant number of complex words, it omitted some which are rather
important for the Armenian community. Thus there are no English
entries for words such as 'community', 'collective', 'social',
'welfare', all quite critical in the task of sustaining Armenian life
on either side of the Atlantic.

Even as it is devoted to the study of Western Armenian, the book could,
for a new edition, be improved with a substantial introduction on the
history of the Armenian language that also delves into the historical
origins of the division between its Western and Eastern variants.
This is particularly important in view of the influx into the Diaspora
of Armenians from Armenia and the appearance of the eastern variant in
the home, the media, the TV and the Internet . Any student of Armenian
in the Diaspora will inevitably come across Eastern Armenian and it is
well worth indicating that there are no insuperable barriers between
the two.

Indeed, the time is coming, if it is not already here, to abolish the
distinctions between Eastern and Western Armenian. We already have a
tradition of writers who have with facility put to use the virtues of
both branches of Armenian - Avetis Aharonian, Leo, Gostan Zarian
immediately come to mind. In this regard it should be noted that while
there is a very good selection of readings from Varouzhan, Tekeyan,
Medzarentz and others in Western Armenian, there are none in Eastern
Armenian, while in one case a reading from an Eastern Armenian author,
Nar-Toss, has been unnecessarily rendered into the Western variant.
Let us hope this will not be repeated in any new edition of this
valuable book. In any event, a student will have relatively easy
access to Eastern Armenian texts.

			    *  *  *  *  *

The book consists of 12 units. Each unit, in its turn, contains twelve

I       Dialogues
II      Text
III     New Words and Expressions
IV      Thematic Groups of Words
V       Grammar
VI      Armenian-English Contrasts
VII     Word Formation
VIII    Pronunciation
IX      Orthography
X       Writing
XI      Exercises
XII     Proverbs

The Appendix includes additional texts and other useful tools for

Grammar Tables
Armenian-English Glossary
English-Armenian Glossary

Each unit opens with dialogues, a short exchange of utterances used in
a given situation, to promote oral skills for recurring life-settings,
enabling students to interact in Armenian by carrying out fundamental
speech acts.

In the first half of the book, all newly introduced Armenian words and
texts are accompanied by a Latin-based transliteration to facilitate
both the spelling and the pronunciation of Western Armenian words.
This transliteration system takes into account not only graphic
correspondences, but also phonetic subtleties of Armenian.

Although grammar (morphology and syntax) is treated as an important
aspect in mastering the language, other linguistic areas also receive
attention. Grammar in this book is not a goal in itself, but a means
of achieving "communicative competence."

A special section on Armenian-English contrasts analyses particular
structural differences between the two languages.

Each unit contains a special section, pronunciation, focusing on
particular sounds, word accent, syllabification, etc.

To acquaint students with Armenian folklore, each unit includes a few
Armenian proverbs with their English translation. These proverbs are
thematically and structurally related to the main topic of each unit.

Cross references throughout the book and an index at the end of the
appendix bring related linguistic materials together.

Writing is practiced throughout the first four units in which the 38
letters of the Armenian alphabet are introduced. Letters are presented
as calligraphic samples along with their printed and transliterated

Each unit concludes with exercises which aim for the development of
communicative competence. To ensure the crucial shift from traditional
third-person sentences - which are often isolated and unrelated - to
"I-and-you" interactions, various forms of communicative exercises are

Along with the section of readings, grammar tables, and an extended
Armenian-English and English-Armenian glossary with all Armenian
entries transliterated, the appendix contains a collection of gambits.
These are routine formulas or "pre-fabricated" parts used in everyday
speech that are readily transferable to recurrent life-settings.

Dr. Dora Sakayan was born in Salonica (Greece). There she attended
elementary and high school, subsequently completing her secondary
education in Vienna (Austria). She received a Ph.D. in Germanic
philology in 1965 from Lomonosov State University in Moscow. She
worked at Yerevan State University for twenty years, including ten
years as Chair of the Department of Foreign Languages.  Since 1975,
Prof. Sakayan has been living in Canada. She is a Professor of German
Studies at McGill University (Montreal, Quebec).

Modern Western Armenian is available from, which has
deservedly featured it on the front of their internet bookstore.

Eddie Arnavoudian holds degrees in History and Politics from
Manchester, England. He has written on literary and political
matters for "Haratch" in Paris and "Nairi" in Beirut. His reviews
have also been published in "Open Letter" in Los Angeles.

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