Keeping a language alive
New classes aim to revive endangered dialect of Western Armenia
When Houri Berberian became the Meghrouni Family Presidential Chair in Armenian Studies at UCI in 2016, she had a vision of what the School of Humanities program could become.
With the aid of donors (Southern California is home to the nation’s largest Armenian community), her vision is coming into focus with a comprehensive approach to Armenian history, including courses such as “Armenians and Armenia in Modern World History” and “Armenians and Armenia in Ancient to Early Modern World History.” But Berberian wanted to add more depth to the curriculum.
For her, that meant creating a language series in Western Armenian.
Why the specificity, given that Armenia is a nation about the size of Maryland tucked into Eurasia east of Turkey? Because the majority of Armenians were divided between the Russian and Ottoman empires, two vernacular Armenians – Eastern and Western – developed independently of each other in the 19th century.
In 2010, UNESCO declared Western Armenian an endangered language, largely because almost all of those speaking it are found in the diaspora, either refugees or descendants of survivors of the 1915-1918 Armenian genocide perpetrated by the Ottoman government. In the Republic of Armenia, Eastern Armenian is now the primary language – and the only one taught in schools.
“It was very important for me and for the donors to teach Western Armenian – not because it’s better than Eastern Armenian or anything ridiculous like that, but because it’s dying,” Berberian says. “This is the language that, in a sense, the genocide tried to eliminate by eliminating its speakers. So it’s crucial historically for the descendants of Western Armenian speakers to be able to pass down the language.”
The idea for the quarterly course series drew some skepticism at first. People were not convinced that students would be interested in such offerings. But to their surprise, enrollment in Armenian 1A quickly reached maximum capacity.
Held in a conference room in Krieger Hall, the class meets twice a week and covers the basics of the Western Armenian language. Circled around a large table, students are either reading alone or partnered up around a book. Lecturer Talar Chahinian tells two of them who grew up speaking Eastern Armenian how to pronounce the word meaning “homework.”
“It’s actually a lot closer than I thought it would be,” says third-year political science major Tereza Agesyan.
At the front of the room, Chahinian goes over a passage the class just read to clarify its significance. Barab appeared in the text – this is a new word for Eastern Armenian speakers. The instructor explains that although it literally means empty, it could also be used as an insult meaning stupid.
One student interjects, “Hey, my grandma calls me that!”
With the success of the Western Armenian language series under her belt, Berberian is looking to the future. She hopes to build an Armenian studies center focused on the diaspora and to have an endowed chair for Armenian women and gender studies – the first of its kind.
“I want our program to be a place where community and culture can grow,” she says, “to not only serve the goals of the field of Armenian studies, but also directly connect and collaborate with larger disciplines and the university’s mission of research, education and public service.”