“We must know the white man language to survive in this world. But we must know our language to survive forever.” (Darryl Babe Wilson, a Native American).
The recent well-justified alarm that western Armenian is among the world’s thousands of endangered languages (that is, predicted to die in the next 100 years), important though it is, is not enough. What this language, culture and people need is the development of therapeutic undertakings and approaches.
The case of endangered languages is just a short-cut way of referring to endangered cultures and cultural identities, especially in an era where globalization, definitely not a culturally neutral or impartial phenomenon, has rendered reversing language shift an unequal struggle for linguists.
As an Armenian sociolinguist, not only am I committed to pursue the goals of strengthening my own endangered language, culture and identity via objective persuasion and advocacy of positive attitudes to foster intergenerational continuity but also to seek a reasonable compromise with respect to the culturally stronger dominant languages neighboring Armenian diasporic communities.
Admittedly, such a combination of sensitivity and of priorities is difficult to achieve; hence, the demanding task of strengthening endangered languages.
Linguists have identified thousands of the world’s languages that are endangered because of a recognizable syndrome that varies in kind and degree, from one endangered language to another. Similarly, the cures must also vary.
The bulk of Armenian diasporic communities were formed after the 1915 Genocide. Since then, the impact of forced dispersal, survival in host countries and the dominant majority languages on the status of their language and the linguistic and attitudinal behavior of their members has been tremendous.
Seven years ago, when I began researching the vitality of western Armenian in Beirut, Lebanon, the findings almost shocked the Armenian community but slowly generated an awareness of the current trends in language maintenance, language shift and transmission of their ethnic, minority language whose alphabet, like the Ten Commandments, was bestowed on Mesrob Mashdots in a divine vision.
What unfolds is deterioration in the status of western Armenian and the oral fluency of its speakers. The generational disparities in attitudes and perceptions demonstrate that along with the significant changes in the way different generations of Armenians grasp their ethno-cultural identity, there are also considerable differences regarding feelings of loyalty to their ethnic language, homeland and heritage.
After 97 years of diasporic existence, some Armenian communities seem to have developed a defeatist, pessimistic stance towards the preservation of their ethnic language, with a stubborn conviction that I am French. Why should I speak Armenian? What good will it do me in France? I am American. I feel American. The fact that my ancestors were Armenian a 100 years ago has no significance to me. Why do we always have to make it hard on ourselves? We have to move on with our lives. Who cares if nobody ever speaks Armenian any more? We will never go back to Armenia or western Armenia. What is the good of wasting time, pressuring our kids, demanding that they speak
Armenian? I don’t speak Armenian but I feel Armenian. Let’s admit it. In today’s world, Armenian is a useless language. Armenian is so difficult. English is much much easier. English is my mother tongue now. I do everything in English and don’t need Armenian. Forget it. It’s a lost case. Have you ever heard how Armenians speak Armenian in Armenia? Let them worry about their language. I don’t want to hear about it. It makes me feel guilty. Life is already hard. Don’t make it any harder. I wasn’t born in Armenia. Why should I speak Armenian? How is Armenian going to help my children find a job? There is no future in Armenian.
Indeed, there is very little a sociolinguist can do when faced with such attitudes emanating from members of a group whose ethnic language is endangered. At this moment, many Armenian children are not being taught Armenian, and parents do not realize that soon it will not be there to be revived. As a sociolinguist I must make this as clear as possible, but it may not change many minds.
Rightly, linguists assert that besides being linguistically expressed, behaviors such as the education, the religious beliefs and observances, the self-governmental operations, the literature, the folklore, philosophy of morals and ethics, the medical code of illnesses and diseases, childhood socialization, establishment of friendship and kinship ties, greetings, jokes, songs, benedictions and maledictions are usually enacted through the specific language with which these activities endured, have been identified and inter-generationally associated. Hence, as efforts and awareness campaigns are directed at slowing down environmental damage, similar efforts should be directed at helping the world’s endangered languages and cultures, including western Armenian and culture. Any reduction of language diversity diminishes the adaptational strength of the human species, which constitutes a huge intellectual loss and reduces the most direct glimpses at the creativity of the human mind. Also, it represents an incalculable loss of scientific data, which causes a loss of traditional cultures and identities, stultifies human creativity and leads to totalitarianism.
Joshua Fishman, the prominent linguist, describes the proponents of “one language, one culture as ‘reductionists’ whose ‘realism’ reduces human values, emotions, loyalties and philosophies to little more than hard cash and brute forces.” Alts’iisi, a Navajo, puts it this way: “When the words of all people become one, then the world will come to an end. Our language is holy, and when it is gone, the good in life will be gone with it. When the old ones said that the world would end with the disappearance of our language, they meant that the young people could not hear, understand and heed the teachings, words of encouragement, expressions of love, scoldings and corrections that were offered by the parents and elder relatives; nor would they be able to pray. Without prayers, our lives cannot be good, for without words there can be no prayers.”
These are far from being exhaustive lists, but hopefully they get across the message that optimally all efforts must be exerted to instill pride in the Armenian language and identity and create a linkage system, whereby young Armenian parents, adolescents and children utilize the Armenian language or relearn it and transmit it intergenerationally.
(Dr. Arda Jebejian received her PhD inlinguistics and teaches at universities in Lebanon and Cyprus.)