One of many languages in the Sandcastle Girls
My mom recently passed on to me the Sandcastle Girls, a novel set during the Armenian Genocide around 1915, when Armenians were deported en masse from the Ottoman Empire and over a million people were killed or died of diseases, starvation, or exhaustion.
In spite of the heavy background, author Chris Bohjalian manages to propel the characters forward with some levity, and keep you anchored with a love story and a story of discovery, as the American grandchild of Armenian survivors searches for understanding of her past. In Eastern Turkey, I came very close to the Armenian border, but I never entered the country. What’s the deal with the Armenian language, I now wonder?
Same family as English
To be fair, the Indo-European language family is a big tent – containing English, Greek, Sanskrit, Italian, and German, to name a few – but still, it’s neat to discover a new family member. Here are a few somewhat recognizable words between Armenian and English:
մայր mayr “mother”
ամառ amar “summer”
and my favourite:
արմունկ armunk “elbow”
The root of both armunk and English’s “arm” is the Proto-Indo-European root Har-mo, meaning joint of that which is fitted together. The same root of “harmony”, no doubt. I had never thought about the connection between “arm” and “harmony.”
Quite the alphabet
English has 26 letters in its alphabet. Armenian has 36. I found it interesting that for about 250 years many books written in Turkish were printed using the Armenian alphabet. Apparently the alphabet conveyed Turkish language sounds better than the Arabic or Greek scripts, and it was an alphabet read not only by Armenians, but also non-Armenian elite.
Dialect still spoken in Turkey
The Hemshin people, a diverse group that migrated to or through what is now the Hemşin province of Turkey, initially identified as Armenian and Christian. Those that stayed in the Hemşin province converted to Islam and now speak only Turkish, but those nearby in Hopa and Borçka apparently still speak a dialect of Armenian. When I traveled in this northeastern region of Turkey, I never heard this language (to my knowledge), but I realize I did see green and blue eyes, as well as bagpipe music and maize-based cheese fondue for breakfast, which I now know are associated with this unique people.
Tragically, even now, people in Turkey are afraid to talk about Armenian ancestry or to utter the term “Armenian Genocide”, because the government refuses to accept the term and will imprison journalists or writers who use it. In light of that, I value and commend authors around the world who use their relative safety to remind us of what happened.