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Harvard University: Armenia's remarkable Alphabet (1600Y)

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 PostPosted: Wed Nov 09, 2005 10:26 am    Post subject: Harvard University: Armenia's remarkable Alphabet (1600Y) Reply with quote Back to top

By Ken Gewertz | Harvard University Gazette, MA | Nov 3 2005

Saint's sturdy Armenian alphabet focus of meetings

Harvard News Office

In Yerevan, capital of Armenia, the manuscript library known as the
Matenadaran possesses an almost sacred status. Situated on a hill,
it is approached by a long cascade of white marble steps flanked
by statues of the great figures of Armenian literature. Chief among
these is St. Mesrops Mashtots, who gave Armenia its alphabet.

According to James Russell, the Mashtots Professor of Armenian
Studies at Harvard, the fifth-century saint gave Armenia much more
than an efficient system for rendering its language into written
form. By means of his invention, Mashtots gave Armenians a cultural
and religious identity as well as the means to survive as a people
despite the efforts of larger and more powerful neighbors to subsume
or destroy them.

Armenians pride themselves on being the first nation to adopt
Christianity, an event that is supposed to have occurred in the
early fourth century when St. Gregory the Illuminator succeeded in
converting Trdat, the king of Armenia. But according to Russell,
there is much evidence that after Trdat's death, the country was in
the process of reverting to paganism.

"Mashtots' principal purpose in inventing the alphabet was to
change Armenia's cultural orientation from the Iranian East to the
Mediterranean West," Russell said. "He gave Armenia the means and
the incentive to remain Christian."

Having an alphabet allowed Armenians not only to translate the Bible
into their own language but works of Christian theology, saints' lives,
history, and works of classical literature as well. It also allowed
them to develop scholarly institutions and a literature of their own.

"Within a century, Armenians had a library of classical and Christian
learning and were able to build their own literary tradition. As a
result, they became independent and almost self-sufficient, and they
became impervious to attempts by Rome to Hellenize them or attempts
by the Sassanian empire to re-impose Persian culture on them."

On Oct. 28 and 29, Harvard hosted an international conference to
consider the achievement of Mashtots, its historical background, and
its wider influence. Organized by Russell, the conference was sponsored
by the Armenian Prelacy of New York, the Davis Center for Russian
and Eurasian Studies, and the Department of Near Eastern Languages
and Civilizations at Harvard. It was held under the patronage of His
Holiness Aram I, Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia.

Fortunately for scholars, Mashtots is known in the historical record.

One of his disciples, named Koriun, wrote a biography of his mentor,
which records many details of his life as well as the process by which
he formulated his alphabet. The biography tells us that Mashtots came
from an aristocratic family, that he served in the royal court, and
that he was ordained a priest and founded several monasteries. With
the support of King Vramshapuh, and with the aid of a Greek scribe
named Ruphanos, he embarked on a project to develop an Armenian
writing system.

Mashtots studied various scripts as models, including Greek and
Syriac. He might also have given careful consideration to a version of
Aramaic script developed by the Parthian prophet Mani, promulgator of
the gnostic doctrine of Manichaeism. According to Koriun, Mashtots'
synthesis of all these elements came to him in a dream, resulting
in a 36-character alphabet. Two more characters were added during
the Middle Ages, bringing the number of letters in the present-day
Armenian alphabet to 38.

According to Russell, this synthesis reflects a deliberate effort on
Mashtots' part to borrow elements from Eastern scripts but reorient
them to give them a more Western character. All known alphabets are
derived ultimately from the letterforms of the Phoenicians, but Eastern
writing tends more toward the horizontal while Western alphabets
emphasize the vertical. Mashtots' preference for vertical elements
reflects his effort to reorient Armenia toward the Christian West.

More information about Mashtots' alphabet has been gleaned through
careful study of manuscripts. In recent years, computer analysis has
helped scholars to focus with greater precision on the formation and
evolution of letter shapes. One of the pioneers in this field, Michael
Stone, professor of Armenian at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, was
the keynote speaker at the conference. Stone is the chief author of
the recently published "Album of Armenian Paleography," which uses
computer techniques to analyze the development of letters over time
and is a great help in accurately dating manuscripts.

Besides studying the letter shapes, scholars have also tried to
understand Mashtots' reasons for ordering the letters as he did.

Russell, who has studied this problem and delivered a paper on
the subject, believes that the order of the letters reflects his
familiarity with number symbolism of the sort found in a Hebrew text
called the "Sepher Yetsira," or "Book of Creation," thought to be an
early work in the kabbalistic tradition.

One measure of the alphabet's success is the fact that there have
been few changes in the letters or in the spelling of words since
Mashtots created it in the fifth century.

"This is a very striking circumstance," Russell said, "especially
when you compare it with English where spelling has changed a great
deal in just the last 500 years. It shows that the Armenian alphabet
was already so perfect that there was little reason for it to change."

Perhaps an even more convincing argument for the importance of
Mashtots' achievement is the survival of the Armenian people through
a long and often trying history.

"Mashtots' real achievement was to create a culture that became
a repository for both Eastern and Western traditions, that was
cosmopolitan, but had a strong anchor of its own. He made Armenia
a culture of the book, a 'bibliocracy,' and that has been their key
to survival, because you can carry a book into exile, but you can't
carry mountains and trees."

Photo: James Russell organized a conference to discuss the fifth
century Armenian alphabet invented by St. Mesrops Mashtots. Said
Russell, 'Mashtots' principal purpose in inventing the alphabet was
to change Armenia's cultural orientation from the Iranian East to
the Mediterranean West.' (Staff photo Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard News
Office) http://www.news.harvard.edu/gazette/2005/11.03/09-mashtots.html
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