Loanwords in Armenian
A close scrutiny of loanwords in the Armenian language – or in any language, for that matter – is essentially a demonstration of the close contacts between the speakers of the language and their neighbors. In other words, the dictionary of the language is a living testament to its history and the history of its speakers. When it comes to Armenian, in its Classical period (prior to the 11th century CE), it has borrowed from such diverse languages as Latin, Urartian, Akkadian, Syriac, Aramaic, and Arabic. Note that the latter four are all Semitic languages, which helps explain why there are so many lexical parallels between words in Modern Armenian and Hebrew, as was pointed out to me by Lusine Sargsyan.
To start with Urartian, it was the language of a powerful kingdom of Urartu in the area around Lake Van in what is now eastern Turkey. Urartu, noted for its mineral wealth, was a formidable foe to the Assyrian Empire until its demise in mid-6th century BCE. After the conquest of Urartu by the Empire of the Medes, the immediate predecessor of the Persian Empire, circa 590 BCE, the successors of the Uratians had close contacts with the Babylonians who reigned for only two centuries.
Babylonians spoke Babylonian, a language which together with Assyrian, was a descendant of Akkadian, a Semitic language that was used in Mesopotamia and East of Asia Minor between 2500 and 1500 BC. Some of the borrowings from Akkadian to Armenian include (examples are from http://armenianlanguage.org/etymology/etymology.html):
Akkadian’s descendants, Babylonian and Assyrian, were the two major tongues spoken in what is now Iraq and parts of Syria, Turkey, and Iran. They stopped being spoken in about 500 BCE, but continued to serve as scholarly and liturgical languages until the first century CE. Their gradual fading from use had to do with pressure from Aramaic, yet another Semitic language.
Aramaic is the original language of large sections of the biblical books of Daniel and Ezra, the main language of the Talmud, and presumably the language spoken by the historical Jesus. Yet, despite the significant role that Aramaic has had in Christianity, loanwords from that language into Armenian are not limited to the confines of religious vocabulary:
This points to the existence of earlier contacts between Armenians and the groups that used Aramaic; however, it must be remembered also that Aramaic has served as one of the lingua francas in the Persian Empire, with which Armenians speakers had extensive contacts, as indicated by the wealth of Parthian and later Persian loanwords. In fact, the majority of loanwords in Armenian which have an identifiable source come from these Iranian languages.
Another Semitic language that has had a major lexical influence on Armenian is Arabic. Between the 7th and 11th centuries CE, the close historical connections between Armenians and Arabs, often turbulent, coincided with the Golden Age of the Arabic culture. Notably, Armenian loanwords of Arabic origin include mostly words to do with everyday objects, not Islamic realities, as is the case for many other languages that borrowed heavily from Arabic (e.g. Malay, Urdu, etc.):
In fact, when it comes to religious vocabulary, many Armenian loanwords come from Greek, many of them introduced through the translation of theological and ecclesiastic literature from Greek into Armenian after the adoption of Christianity by the Armenians in 301 CE. However, the total of Greek loanwords in Armenian is relatively small, less than 200 root words, by some estimates. Still, it is important to note that the adoption of Christianity by the Armenians created a cultural obstacle to the Sanskrit/Persian/Parthian elements that existed for almost a millennium.
Another source with fewer than expected loanwords in Armenian is Latin. This is perhaps unexpected, given the close cultural connections between the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia and the Crusaders; but one shouldn’t forget that Armenian Apostolic Church belongs to the Orthodox form of Christianity, which must have limited the penetration of Latin words into the Armenian language.
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