In her previous article, Karmun Khoo had just signed up to learn Armenian. This week, she grows noticeably frustrated with the complexities of the language. 

My second week of Armenian lessons is proving to be far more difficult than the first. My biggest struggle? Forming word combinations with the letters I’ve learned. For example, “red flower” is karmir tsaghik.

I do not know many adjectives, so I spend the next few minutes attaching karmir to any word I can spell. This leads me to karmir koshik (“red shoes”), which is perfectly useful, but karmir tert (“red newspaper”) sounds like a Communist publication. Not exactly what I was going for.

I decide to ask Marina how to spell my name, so that I can write it on top of all my assignments. She promptly responds with կարմւն խու. The novelty of signing my name in a foreign script excites me, but I begin to feel a little demoralized because there seem to be multiple letters for the same sound.

Over the years, I have worked out little tricks to help me master new pronunciations. This includes using my own transliteration system. While it has worked swimmingly for French, German, and Spanish, translating Armenian characters into English letters seems to be a greater challenge. For example, the letters ծ and ձ both sound like “z” to me. And my own name, Karmun Khoo, uses two different letters, կ and խ, that, to me, have the same sound: “kh.”

***

Thankfully, I am not left alone to fester in my frustration all week. As promised, a virtual tour of the Armenian Genocide memorial, Tsitsernakaberd, has been organized. At the appointed hour, I hop onto Skype, hoping to meet some of my classmates who have already posted on the forum. My first thought is that there are more Armenian students than I had expected. It seems that modern Armenians, scattered around the world in a cultural diaspora, have an unfulfilled hunger for their long-suppressed culture. It’s encouraging to see so many young Armenians gathering online to share their heritage, though it makes outsiders like myself feel a bit “excluded from the party.”

The Genocide memorial resembles a long, thin, and three-dimensional triangle that shoots up from the ground into the sky. Ani, the instructor for “Armenian History,” describes the monument as a symbol for rebirth. Alongside this giant triangle of rebirth are 12 large slabs arranged in a perfect circle. They represent the 12 provinces of Armenia that were lost to Ottoman invaders. In the middle of this circle is a flame that never burns out.

Even though I’m struggling with the alphabet, this virtual tour strengthens my resolve. Here’s a language that’s been preserved despite the attempted ethnic cleansing of its people. The camera pans to a high wall behind the memorial, where a long list of names are inscribed in Armenian text. I know that, one day, I’ll stand in front of this wall in Armenia’s capital and read the names aloud.

***

Newcomers to the Armenian language often feel that all discussions about Armenia are focused, in some way, on the Genocide. This is not completely true. While the Genocide is an integral part of history and deserves to be remembered so that it will never happen again, Armenian is also a language filled with kindness and hope.

I learn some new conversational phrases, like shnorhakal em, or “I am grateful,” and can’t help but feel that shnorhakalutyun, “thank you,” must be derived from it. Phrases like neretsek (“Excuse me”) and knerek (“Sorry”) also seem related, and finding these patterns brings me great joy. I am able to express this joy because the conversational module includes the phrase “urakh em”: “I am happy.”

I am also enchanted to discover that Armenians use the phrase “I’m touched” to express deep appreciation. It is pronounced sgatsvats em and conveys a sense of gratitude that the English language is unable to match. By the end of the week, I start to regret my earlier frustration with the intricate alphabet. I was being childish, growing disappointed after realizing that Armenian wasn’t an easy language to learn.

But I didn’t sign up for “easy.” I signed up for a language that, in the words of Osip Mandelstam, “cannot be worn out; its boots are stone.” Mandelstam, a controversial Soviet author who wrote the book Journey to Armenia, also described the Armenian language as possessing “layers of air in the semi-vowels.” When I pronounce Armenian words myself, the sound is less ethereal and more “clunky stammer,” but there is an unmistakable beauty in the language that even my clumsy diction can’t tarnish.

***

I end the week with a history lesson about the natural resources in Armenia. The pre-recorded lecture lists a dazzling array of treasures: salt in Nakhijevan, copper in Zanzegur, oil in Karin, iron deposits in Lake Van, glittering gold in Sotk, and — what a delight! — hot springs in Jermuk and Arzni. Metals are not the only products of the land. Armenia is also known for its apricots, which is known as “prunus armeniaca,” the “Armenian plum,” in homage to its land of origin.

As a big fan of the juicy fruit, I am suitably excited by this discovery; I begin to write the word for “apricot”: ծիրան (pronounced tsiran.) Imagining the sweet flesh of the fruit and its bright orange-yellow hue brings me closer to Armenia. Food is a huge part of culture and I cannot wait for the next lesson, which will teach me the names of different edible items. In the meantime, I continue practicing my limited arsenal of phrases.

After all, to be able to speak even a modest amount of Armenian is a great pleasure to me. It’s a blessing to be able to read foreign letters, form elaborate words, and hear new sounds every single day. In the Armenian spirit, let me give thanks: shnorhakal em.

I am grateful.

10 Comments

  1. Edward Yong on

    wonderful to see a second Singaporean in modern times learning Armenian! i did a year of Grabar in university 😀

    • Edward, that is so interesting that there is a curriculum for Armenian studies at your university! What is the state or involvement with the Armenian Church of Singapore, if any?

      • Edward Yong on

        hi Patrick. i did my Grabar in London, where a professor of Comparative Linguistics offered Classical Armenian, along with Old Irish, Gothic, Ancient Greek, and Sanskrit. it was just the language, not an Armenian Studies course, unfortunately. there are no Armenian classes in Singapore, a pity. i am a friend of the Armenian Church community here in Singapore, and i sing for the services when they happen.

    • Karmun Khoo
      Karmun Khoo on

      Hi Edward,

      May I plug the AVC (Armenian Virtual College)? That is how I am learning Armenian. Feel free to contact me if you’d like to talk about language learning!

      • Edward Yong on

        hi Karmun,

        i’m sure it’s excellent, but it only offers Modern Armenian, which isn’t particularly high on my list of languages to learn. i’m only really interested in Grabar (Classical Armenian), and i have the all the textbooks and lexica anyway.

  2. I’m so glad that you’re continuing to write – I learn more about my own language with a fresher “outside” perspective – but you are no longer “outside” Karmun jan! So great to read this

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