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Areal Typology of Proto-Indo-European: The Case for Caucasian Connections

Early contacts between Proto-Indo-European (PIE) and the languages of the Caucasus seems to have taken place. Proto-Indo-European is related to the West Asian autosomal component.  This component occurs at a a level  greater than 50% level in modern North Caucasian speakers, is absent in Europe prior to 5,000 years ago, and occurs at levels greater or equal to 10% in most present-day Indo-European speakers from Europe.

Although we were not able to find certain proofs of lexical borrowing between PIE and North Caucasian, there are a few undeniable areal-typological parallels in phonology and grammar. Some features generally attributed to PIE are not found in the majority of languages of North and Northeastern Eurasia, while they are common, or universally present, in the languages of the Caucasus (especially North Caucasus). Those features include the high consonant-to-vowel ratio, tonal accent, number suppletion in personal pronouns, the presence of gender and the morphological optative and, possibly, the presence of glottalized consonants and ergativity.

Experts on Indo-European languages agree that the Proto-Indo-European divisions took place 4000 years BC into separate branches that pursued independent paths of linguistic evolution. Similarly, around 3500 BC, the Proto-Armenian tribes — whether European in origin (the Thraco-Phyrigian theory firmly held by Western scholars,) or Asian (Aryan/Indigenous/Asian) — developed an economic structure in the geographical space that became to be known as the Armenian plateau, based on agriculture, metal working and animal husbandry.

Recent archeological evidence in Armenia confirms several agreements between this civilization and Indo-European culture. It is almost a certainty to presume that this led to the creation of a distinct identity and culture that was separate from the other human groupings in Asia Minor and Upper Mesopotamia.

For linguists, very often, beginnings are problematical and sometimes exploratory approaches, since even a beginning must have a history–a past that prepared its way. Occasionally, scientific approaches to determine the origins or the beginnings of ancient languages are highly speculative.

Determining the origins of a language requires a paradigm and framework. The paradigm in the case of the Armenian language is the assumption that it belongs to a family of over 100 languages, collectively described as Indo-European that share the same origin. The framework for this assumption is the analysis of the words and the sounds of the languages that share an Indo-European heritage.

The study of a language to determine its origins and evolution deals primarily with its oral characteristics, and most contemporary linguists work under the belief that spoken language is more fundamental, and thus more important to study than written language. Thus, Armenian is considered to be mainly an offshoot of the Indo-Hittite group of languages. The consensus among linguists who accept the affiliation of the Armenian Language with the other languages of the Indo-European family is that it constitutes an independent branch within the group.

Nowadays the language of the Armenian people has a rich vocabulary. Centuries-long Persian rule added a lot of Persian words to the language. The spread of Christianity imported numerous words from Syriac and Greek. French words were borrowed during the Crusades. And for the long time of the oppression of the Ottoman Empire a part of Turkish words penetrated into the Armenian vocabulary. Taking that into account, there are eleven thousand routs (nine hundred of them originated from the Indo-European language), seven cases, eight types of declension, five moods, three voices and three persons in the Armenian language.

Within its language family Armenian is considered as one of the ancient written languages. The system of writing in Armenia was created at the end of the 4th century AD, when the Armenian alphabet was invented. That started the process of translating literature from other languages into Armenian. Owing to that we can read the monuments of ancient literature in the Armenian language, and we keep them for the other generations since the originals of those works were lost long ago. The first translator into the Armenian language was the linguist Mesrop Mashtots, who translated the Bible.

At the beginning of the 5th century Armenian literature contained over 40 works written in the Classical Armenian language “Grabar” which had some affinities to such ancient Indo-European languages as Sanskrit, Greek and Latin, as well as to Ancient German and Ancient Slavic. Lexically and grammatically “Grabar” was an independent language which took one of the ancient Armenian dialects as a basis.

The next epoch of the development of the Armenian language fell on the 10th century, when along with “Grabar” a new Middle Armenian language appeared. It became the language of secular works (poetry, books on medicine and agriculture). Gradually Middle Armenian evolved into New Armenian (since the 17th century) spoken by approximately 10 million people all over the world.

The modern Armenian language is split into two standardized literary forms – Western Armenian (with the Constantinople dialect) and Eastern Armenian (with the Ararat dialect). The Eastern Armenian language is used as a standard language by the Armenians living in Armenia, India, and ex-USSR republics. The Western Armenian language is used as a standard language by the Armenians living in the USA, Italy, France, Lebanon, and other countries. The main difference between the Eastern and Western variants is that the first one is the official language of the country since the twenties of the last century.

The Armenian language is justly considered unique. It belongs to the Eastern group of the Indo-European language family and has a number of common points with the Slavic, Indo-Iranian and Baltic languages. The geographic location of the country explains the affinity of the Armenian language to several western and Indo-European languages. Armenian hasn’t become a dead language as, for example, the Latin and Ancient Greek languages of that group. On the contrary, it is going on to develop, expand its lexis and improve its grammar.

Initially, several other suppositions were postulated. European scholars of previous centuries have tried to study and classify this language. Mathurin de la Croze was one of the earliest scholars in the modern era in Europe to seriously study Armenian language but his primary interest was religion. While he qualified the Armenian language version of the Bible as the “mother of all translations” and compiled an impressive dictionary of German-Armenian (circa 1802), he limited his studies to lexicology without going deeper into their origins.

Immediately after the establishment of comparative linguistics by Franz Bopp, Petermann in his Grammatica linguae Armeniacae (Berlin, 1837), on the basis of Armenian etymological data available in Germany at the beginning of 19th century, was able to speculate that Armenian is an Indo-European language.

Nine years later, in 1846, and independent of the work of Petermann, Windischmann, an specialist on Zoroastrian scriptures, published in the Abhandlungen of the Bavarian Academy an excellent treatise about Armenian, and came to the conclusion that Armenian goes back to an older dialect which must have had great similarity with Avesta (the language of Zoroastrian scriptures) and Old Persian, but to which foreign elements had been added much earlier.

But while Pott doubted that Armenian is an Aryan language and only wanted to admit a strong influence of Aryan on Armenian, Diefenbach, on the other hand, observed that this assumption did not suffice to explain the close relationship of Armenian to Indic/Sanskrit and Old Persian, a view which Gosche also adopted in his dissertation: De Ariana linguae gentisque Armeniacae indole (Berlin, 1847).

Three years later, in the Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft, under the title “Vergleichung der armenischen consonanten mit denen des Sanskrit,” de Lagarde compiled a list of 283 Armenian words with their etymological definitions, without going into in greater detail about the character of the language.

In the preface to the second edition of his Comparative Grammar, (1857), Bopp, the pioneer in the field of comparative linguistic studies, designated Armenian as Iranian and attempted, though without success, to explain its inflectional elements.

de Lagarde in his Gesammelten Abhandlungen (1866) asserted that three components are to be distinguished in Armenian: the original basis; an Old Iranian alluvium resting on it; and a similar New Iranian, added after the founding of the Parthian kingdom. Nonetheless, he did not give the distinguishing characteristics of these three layers, and for this reason his opinion has not been taken into further consideration.

Fr. Müller, who since 1861 had busied himself with the etymological and grammatical explanation of Armenian in a series of treatises (Sitzungsberichte der Wiener Akademie), penetrated much more deeply into the essence of the Armenian language, which he interpreted as certainly Iranian.

The Russian linguist Patkanoff followed German orientalists in his summarizing treatise “Über die bildung der armenischen sprache,” which was translated from Russian into French and published in Journal Asiatique (1870). In any case, Müller’s view that Armenian is an offshoot of Iranian was not disproved in its time and was accepted as the prevailing and established theory.

A significant shift from this Persian theory emerged due to the monumental work authored by Heinrich Hübschmann whose extensive research concluded that Armenian stands in the sphere of the Aryan-Balto-Slavic languages and more specifically, between Iranian and Balto-Slavic. His extensive research on the Armenian language had also the merit of validating the existing family tree of the Indo-European languages as well as enhancing the schematics of the classification (of Indo-European languages), since Armenian would be the connecting ring of both parts in the chain of the Aryan/Persian and Balto/European languages, and not merely an independent branch between the two components.

But if Armenian is to be the connecting link/member between Iranian and Balto-Slavic, between Aryan and European, then, Hübschmann concluded, it must have played the role of an intermediary at a time when they were still very similar to one another, a time when evolution had not yet drawn the present sharp boundaries between them and they were still related to one another as dialects.

More recent linguists and experts on the Indo-European languages solidified Hübschmann’s conclusions and further enhanced the research. The Swiss linguist Robert Godel and some of the most prominent linguists or specialists on Indo-European studies (Emile Benveniste, Antoine Meillet and George Dumezil) have also written extensively on different aspects of Armenian etymology and its Indo-European heritage.

Not surprisingly, other theories about the origins of the Armenian language have also been suggested. In a sharp departure from the Indo-European theory, Nikolai Marr advanced the theory of “Japhetic” origins and, based on certain phonetic characteristics of Armenian, together with the Georgian, derived from one common language family, called Japhetic and related to the Semitic family of languages.

There are some who consider also the possibility of the Armenian plateau being the epicenter of the language wave. Recently, new research on this assumption has led to the formulation of the Glottalic theory by Paul Harper and other linguists that is becoming an accepted alternative by many experts on Indo-European languages.

In addition to the dubious theory of Persian origins, Armenian language is often characterized as being closest to Greek. Yet, neither of these attributions, the result of often borrowed information, is seriously validated from a purely philological perspective. The Armenian philologist Hratchia Adjarian has compiled an etymological dictionary of Armenian which compilation contains 11,000 entries of Armenian root words. Of these, the Indo-European component is only 8-9%, loan-words constituting 36% and an overwhelming number of “undetermined” or “uncertain” root words that constitutes more than half the vocabulary.

The significant number of “undetermined” and “uncertain” root words in Armenian (almost 55% of the vocabulary) is a clear demonstration of the elusive nature of the language that defies conventional classification and/or affinities with the neighboring cultures, whether Greek or Persian. It is perhaps more sensical to explore an affinity to the etymological link with the extinct languages (i.e. Hurrian, Hittite, Luwian, Elamite or Urartean) known to have existed in the Armenian Plateau (currently known as Anatolia in Eastern Turkey.)

Within this context, Armenian, with an uninterrupted evolution through time and geographical space, continued to evolve and be enriched by neighboring cultures, as attested by the loan words, and, after the alphabetization of the languages, to be further enhanced by exchanges with distant cultures. Consequently, it is safe to assume that the Armenian language in its current expression has a history of approximately 6000 years.

Perhaps an anecdotal linguistic detour is in order to better understand the nature of Armenian language. The Behistun inscriptions in central Iran of 520 BC are often cited as the first mention of the word Armenia. Subsequently, because of this designation, for many, historians included, the story of “Armenians” begins in the 6th century BC. Yet, this “beginning” is only a superficial and arbitrary conclusion.

The claim of Armenian “beginnings” at the 6thcentury BC overlooks or ignores the fact that the Behistun monument tells the same story, on the same fresco, in three different languages: Old Persian, Elamite and Akkadian. It is true that the oldest surviving record of the word “Armenia” is in the Cuneiform/Old Persian text of this monument, yet, the word “Urartu” in the Elamite (a much older language than Old Persian) text is used instead of “Armenia.”

Dienekes’ Anthropology Blog: On Tocharian origins

Armenian hypothesis

Armenian language


Old Armenian

Middle Armenian

Eastern Armenian language

Western Armenian language

Glottalic theory



Armenian alphabet

Amaras and Armenian Alphabet

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