Genocide and Identity cont.

The following piece is an excerpt of Nina-Nevart Minassian’s Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) entitled ‘How The Armenian Genocide Of 1915 Affected The Identity Of The Armenian Diaspora Today’. Nevart will commence her university studies at University College London from 2015, reading for a degree in History.

Invented by Mesrop Mashtots in 405 AD, the Armenian language has played a fundamental part in keeping the identity alive, it has been an instrument of strengthening the tie to their homeland. Without the language the connection to Armenia may have gradually waned, and so, many families in the western diaspora have made a conscious effort to send their children to Armenian Sunday Schools and other supporting organisations where they are taught to read and write in the mother tongue. This idea is supported by the data given in the 2000 US Census which has identified 202,708 out of 385,488 Armenians living in the US as speaking Armenian as ‘Language Spoken at Home’. This evidence suggests that there are a greater percentage of American-Armenians who speak Armenian at home as opposed to those who do not, indicating the importance of the language. Indeed if this was not the case and the data presented actually represented the number of people in US who do not speak Armenian at home, we could infer that the language was not essential in preserving the heritage and that perhaps other cultural factors have had a greater significance. For example, if an Armenian family living in the diaspora did not know the language, there is a greater chance that they would not attend mass at Church which is usually delivered in Armenian. In effect, this family would find it more challenging to integrate into the Armenia community in the area as the Church and its associated organisation offer many social opportunities and provide a regular time for members of the community to meet and socialise. Therefore, without the language, perhaps their tie to the Armenian Church and indeed social interactions with other members of the community would be weaker than if did speak the language.

The diaspora in Bulgaria is a prime example in showing the role that language has played in both uniting and dividing the people in more recent years. The development of the diaspora in Bulgaria was heavily affected by communism in Eastern Europe which greatly restricted the activities of the ethnic minorities. The language, having played a fundamental part of cultural preservation was challenged by the communists who sought after the Russification of the ethnic minorities in the USSR. Consequently, Bulgarian-Armenians were strongly encouraged to adopt the eastern Armenian dialect as oppose to the western dialect, as it was associated with Soviet Russia. However, the eastern dialect was traditionally not as widely used. Although the adoption of a different dialect does not appear to pose as great of a significance as perhaps converting from Christianity to Islam, the communist era arguably “managed to separate and alienate one generation of Armenian speakers from another.”  In this criticism, Mari Firkatian demonstrates that the confusion which arose from the linguistic reform “was the most long lasting and harmful influence of the communist period”. It can be argued that although divisions within the Armenian race were heightened by the linguistic barrier, the Armenian identity itself was not harmed.  This is particularly evident in the case of the Armenians in the Middle-East whose “linguistic and cultural self- preservation took precedence over the practicability of blending into the basic fabric of the host state”, as suggested by Richard Hovannisian.

Alike to the other thriving Diasporas, education formed a fundamental part of preserving the language. Many Armenian schools were established in Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and Iran. In Aleppo, there were some 100,000 Armenians, making Syria the largest host nation for the Armenians in the Middle East at the time. Similarly to Syria, Iraq was home to around 35,000 Armenians, with the majority arriving in the 1920s.

Although both Firkatian and Hovannisian are of Armenian descent and perhaps appear biased in their assumption that the language has an enormous influence on the Armenian identity, their supporting evidence paired up with the non-biased data discussed in the US 2000 Consensus, would suggest that there are a wide range of sources which support, rather than reject this notion. Taking these sources and factors into account, it appears that is through the Armenian language that even if one was not born, had not visited or been immersed in the culture of the motherland that they can still feel and call themselves an Armenian.

Nevart’s full EPQ will be on our website in the near future.

— Nina-Nevart Minassian

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