Armenians celebrate 1600th birthday of their writing system

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Tue Dec 13 17:10:57 UTC 2005

>>From the NYTimes,  December 13, 2005

Armenians Celebrate Their Letters

IT'S not every day you are invited to a 1,600th birthday party, let alone
one for an alphabet. But last week, that's exactly what brought more than
200 people to a parking lot in New Milford, N.J., across the street from a
CVS and a karate studio, where they huddled together in a shivering herd,
clapping their mittens and whispering prayers in frosty breath to the
Armenian alphabet, created in the fifth century.

The Hovnanian School, a private day school that teaches the Armenian
language, held the party and celebrated the occasion by unveiling an
alphabet mural. The moment the white sheet dropped from the wall,
revealing the 38 freshly-painted letters, even the hooded priests in heavy
Darth Vaderish cloaks let out a cheer. "Armenians have a bit of a love
affair with their language," explained Ara Araz of Wyckoff, whose three
children attend the Hovnanian School. "I guess it's what keeps us

Linguists say the Armenian alphabet is one of the oldest in the world that
is still in use. It has proved remarkably durable, surviving a carousel of
empires, vast migrations and even genocide. Armenia is a small country
with a big diaspora, and its language is valued as the glue that has held
the community together. Today's 38 letters vary little from the original
36, which were first brushed by an Armenian monk around A.D. 405 in order
to translate the Bible. And just a few more A B C's of the alphabet, so to
speak: Like every other known phonetic alphabet, the Armenian alphabet
ultimately traces its roots back to the Phoenicians, who invented the
first known phonetic script.

In the fourth century, Armenia was split between the Persian and the
Byzantine empires, and the little country had to make a choice: East or
West. Eastern letters (as in Arabic) tend to be horizontal. Western
letters tend to be vertical. The Armenians chose a vertical script
inspired by Greek and Syriac and thereafter cast their fate with the West.

The crowd that huddled together on the freezing cold asphalt in New
Milford was actually taking part in one of many alphabet soirees held this
fall by Armenians across the world, in Los Angeles, Lebanon, Germany,
Russia and, of course, Armenia. And so, as sheet cake was sliced and
plastic glasses of Martini & Rossi raised, the partygoers sang, "Happy
birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday dear Ayp Pen Keem"
- the Armenian A B C's - "happy birthday to you."

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