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ORTHOGRAPHY, STATE & DIASPORA A Political Analyst's View on Unified Spelling Problem By Haroutiun Khachatrian Armenian orthography has existed in two variants for 80 years now, which has become another dividing factor between Armenia and its Diaspora. If we overcome this problem, we can say that we are a nation capable of acting in accord, otherwise, we can hardly do so. Indeed, the change in our orthography does not affect any external forces' interests. They won't even notice what orthography we use in writing. This is only our problem and its solution (whichever variant we opt for) will certainly contribute to the unity of Armenians and vice versa. So far, mainly professional linguists have discussed the issue, i.e. whether it was right or wrong to reject the classical orthography in 1922. I'll try to analyze the problem as a public-political rather than a linguistic one, since the establishment of unified orthography in Armenia and in the Diaspora is a political issue that eventually will have to be solved by politicians. And so: Armenia and a sizable part of the Diaspora, i.e. the Armenians living in the territory of the former USSR (the so-called `internal Diaspora'), use the new orthography, and the `external Diaspora' and also the Armenian Apostolic Church have remained loyal to the `classical' orthography. A `compromise' between the two systems in impossible and senseless, as it would mean creating a third orthography with additional problems. That is, we must make a decision: either we all adopt the classical spelling system, or we all use the new one (the notorious problem with the Armenian letter conveying the sound [u] - a digraph consisting of two elements - has nothing to do with it, and must be solved in any case). The argument of those who advocate the new orthography is naturally its easiness, and those supporting the return to the classical spelling system substantiate their opinion by the fact that by rejecting the classical orthography we severed ties with our classical culture. Without concealing that I myself am an advocate of the new orthography, below I'll try to give reasons why it is impossible to revert to the old spelling system not proceeding from my own preferences but basing on a sober analysis of the situation. RETROSPECTIVE VIEW ON CULTURE Paruyr Sevak used to say: in order to know Armenian perfectly, one must know four languages: Grabar (Old Armenian), Middle Armenian, Eastern Armenian and Western Armenian. It leads a non-professional to the obvious conclusion: Ashkharhabar (Modern Armenian) and Grabar (Old Armenian) are different languages (like, for example, Latin and Italian, the latter being a descendant of Latin) and consequently, it is not necessary that they should be written with the use of the same orthography. That classical orthography is more difficult and does not correspond to the current two Armenian languages is not new: it was not without reason that its reform became an agenda issue still at the beginning of the 20th century. The author of that reform (its initial variant) was not at all a Bolshevik evildoer who negated the past (often the reform of 1922 is branded as a `Bolshevik Conspiracy'). It was Manuk Abeghian, who is considered to be the greatest specialists in medieval Armenian literature until today. So, in fact, the aspiration of the supporters of a return to classical orthography is that all Armenians will know Armenian as perfectly as possible, i.e., that they will know not only Ashkharhabar (Modern Armenian) but also Grabar (Old Armenian). It is a very welcome aspiration, but, unfortunately, it is an unfeasible luxury for us. Let those who advocate classical orthography tell Italians: you break ties with your glorious Roman past, and in the name of restoration, adopt the Latin orthography. Or try to convince Germans to restore the pre-Lutheran orthography, and the Russians to restore their old orthography, explaining to them that after the spelling reform in 1918 (also initiated by the Bolshevik government) they lost the spirit of their epics. Be sure that your suggestion will at least perplex them. Your interlocutors will explain that the currently applicable orthography does not at all prevent them from being aware of their old culture (indeed, I am not sure that I can understand Narekatsi worse than the one who writes Modern Armenian using the Old Armenian orthography). True, there are languages, such as English for example, that have not changed their spelling for centuries, but many did change. But going back to the pre-change spelling system after an effected change is perhaps unprecedented. Don't we, Armenians, have any other domain to distinguish ourselves from others in the world? PERILS OF LITERACY Every spelling reform is painful for a literate man. The example of one German newspaper is notorious. The paper decided to study whether it was possible to waive the illogical rules of German spelling according to which upper case is used in writing all nouns. It started to publish one article every day with lower-case nouns. The experiment was put an end very soon to by the angered readership. From this perspective, the 1922 spelling reform (even if we consider it to be a fatal error) was carried out in a very convenient time when the sweeping majority of Armenia's population was illiterate. Due to that circumstance, there was no need to conduct a mass reeducation campaign: most people simply began to write and read using the modified orthography only. Today, the situation is different, and like in every country that has a high degree of literacy, an attempt to reform orthography in Armenia will meet with stiff public resistance. In case of change resistance is sure to emerge also in the `distant' Diaspora, but I dare predict that it will be on a smaller scale. The reason is evident: the Diaspora (I hate this to sound insulting) is less `literate' than Armenia when it comes to the mother tongue. I mean the following. All citizens of Armenia, including non-Armenians, study the language, while in Diasporan communities the study of the language is optional (unfortunately, only a minority chooses it). In Armenia schools are really Armenian, that is, they teach all subjects in Armenian - from history up to chemistry, while in the Diaspora children attending Armenian schools use their mother tongue only in studying the language proper, history and related subjects. In Armenia, written Armenian is an active language. The citizens of Armenia write in Armenian most of their daily correspondence, beginning from business contracts, bank receipts and court suits and ending with letters and kids' scrawl on walls. Most of Diasporan Armenians, even if they can write and read in Armenian, at best do so out of their business activities, simply, to say so, for their pleasure. There is one more problem, a change in the usual mode of spelling would create more difficulty for those who write, rather for those who read (for example, residents of Armenia can well read the texts written with the use of old orthography). And, as residents of Armenia not only read, but also write in Armenian more often than their Diasporan compatriots. In short, Armenian in Armenia is a state language, in the Diaspora - it is not. It obviously follows from what was mentioned above that to carry out a spelling reform in Armenia is a much more difficult thing to do than in the Diaspora. It would be so even if the new orthography was more difficult than the classical one, but as it is, in fact, vice versa, the complication gets tripled. TECHNICAL DIFFICULTIES Even if we agree that the 1922 spelling reform was a fatal error, then to make an opposite step in Armenia today would be an awfully difficult, not to say impracticable thing to do. The change in the spelling of the state language in Armenia must be carried out at once, at the state level, from top to bottom: more than one orthography cannot be applied in a country. It means that all citizens of the republic, in particular, all officials (from the president and judges to the lowest-ranked policeman) must admit that they are illiterate and begin studying an orthography alien to them. No one can predict from what moment it will be possible to consider that the country is already prepared for passing on to a new orthography. Meanwhile, in the `distant' Diaspora the reform can be made gradually, implanting the new orthography in the course of years. The application of two orthographies at a time is quite acceptable there. By the way, this phenomenon already exists - many of those who left Armenia recently use the new orthography, and there are even newspapers using the new orthography there. PSYCHOLOGICAL HANDICAPS There will emerge no less serious psychological obstacles to the re-establishment of classical orthography in Armenia. A considerable part of Diasporan Armenians, at least those whose active language is English or French, find it quite natural that there is no unequivocal interconnection between the way a word is written and pronounced. For example, a native speaker of English is used to spelling out a word unknown to his interlocutor (in a letter-to-letter way) after dropping it in a conversation. Meanwhile, an Armenian taught to write using the new orthography has no need for any `spelling', the orthography he knows makes it possible to decide the way the new word is to be written in 99 cases out of 100. For this reason, the following scenario can be predicted. When Armenia's Armenian hears the name of the French city of Marseilles (Marsel in Armenian), he puts it down without thinking, as he knows a clear rule: the sound [e] in an inner position is always written with the corresponding letter `e' (`yech', the 5th letter of the alphabet). The advocates of classical orthography will tell him: so that you maintain ties with your forefathers' high culture, from now on you must remember that the sound [e] in this word must be written with the use of `e', the 7th letter of the Armenian alphabet. Armenia's Armenian will naturally protest: `For which of my sins do I have to cudgel my brains? What has the city of Marseilles to do with Mesrop Mashtots?' POLITICAL PROBLEMS Let's consider the most formidable challenge - the political one. An orthographic reform in Armenia can only be carried out according to a decision made by its leadership - the President and Parliament, and, unconditionally, only through a referendum. Obviously, new difficulties besides those considered above will arise, and they will immediately become a subject of active political speculations. For example, it is not difficult to foresee the following. As we already mentioned, along with other traps, the reform is a very expensive pleasure to afford: first, teachers are to be retrained, then the entire population of the country is to be taught anew; new literature is to be printed in huge volumes; road signs, paper money, seals, passports and other things bearing inscriptions are to be replaced by new ones. What will be the source of financing this tremendous project if Armenia cannot even afford to pay its officials decently? They say that some philanthropists from the Diaspora have volunteered to allocate funds to this effect. But as soon as someone just mentions it, no doubt, there will begin a real storm in Armenia: `Don't we have anything else to spend money on? People do not have enough to eat and do not have proper clothes to wear, people are abandoning the country and you're wasting huge money only to complicate our orthography.' Only a leader inclined to political suicide will take the initiative. Let's not forget another aspect of our reality - emigration still looms large in the country as Armenians continue to abandon their homeland. They leave, of course, in search of livelihood. But for many of those leaving Armenia it has become something like itching, they concoct all imaginable and unimaginable excuses to convince their neighbors and themselves that Armenia `is the wrong place to live in'. I have no doubts that the probable change in orthography will give a fresh and drastic impetus to such sentiments. They'll say: `Armenia is the only country that makes the lives of its citizens miserable by means of complicating orthography. It's not a country to live in.' And we will no longer be able to object to this. It will, indeed, be the only such country in the world. WE MUST RESPECT THE STATE Hereby I could put a full stop to my arguments, but I find it necessary to add another remark, probably the most arguable one. I mentioned above that during the Bolshevist rule it was not only Armenian that underwent an orthographic change. Four years before the reform of Armenian orthography, in 1918, the Bolshevist government also carried out a reform of Russian orthography, simplifying the way of writing many words, abolishing a number of archaisms and even excluding some letters from the alphabet. Similarly, the reform in the Russian spelling system sparked off a vigorous protest among the Russian Diaspora. However, hardly a decade had passed that the Russian Diaspora put up with the new orthography, and the Russian Church followed suit. The Russian Diaspora, which, for sure, was no less opposed to the Bolsheviks than the Armenian Diaspora, did not consider itself to be entitled to oppose the decision of the then Russian State. Alas, the Armenian Diaspora was less respectful of the contemporary Armenian State. The most painful is that the Armenian Church acted the same way. And here is the result - we still have no Holy Bible orthographically meant for an Armenian living in Armenia. Even the latest Eastern Armenian translation was printed with the use of classical orthography alien to the residents of Armenia as if for maintaining the existing gap between the Church and the public at large. The foreign sectarians, whose fast spread in Armenia is a matter of widespread concern, take care not to make this elementary mistake in their preaching strategy: it does not occur to them to bring literature written in classical orthography to Armenia. By the way, I retract my statement made at the beginning of the article: there is at least one external force interested in our orthography's remaining divided, namely, the sectarians. From a political analyst's point of view, it is obviously the Diaspora and the Church rather that the Armenian Government that committed a fatal error for the simple reason that arguing with the state over this issue is improper. It is possible to dispute a pending change, but if the state has taken some step, it means that it is always right ever since. So, I urge my compatriots from the distant Diaspora and our Church fathers to start writing Old Armenian applying the orthography that has been used in the Armenian State by four generations of people, for as long as 80 years now. It will be both a way to pay tribute to the Armenian State and a contribution that can hardly be estimated in monetary terms. Simply, we must admit one thing: it is the Republic of Armenia that is, first of all, the center of Armenians. -- Haroutiun Khachatrian is an economy and political analyst in Yerevan, Armenia. He publishes articles in Armenian newspapers and on the www.eurasianet.org site. He is the Editor-in-chief of the Noyan Tapan Highlights weekly.