"The Language is not in decline, we are"



“The language is not in decline, but we are, collectively,” Hratch Tchilingirian


The Armenian Studies at University of Oxford organized a conference/workshop, entitled “Western Armenian in the 21st Century”, which was held in Oxford on 21-23 January 2016, with the financial support of the Caluste Gulbenkian Foundation.

 Hayern aysor presents an interview with Dr. Hratch Tchilingirian, sociologist in the Faculty of Oriental Studies, University of Oxford, who was the initiator and chief organizer of the conference.

What was the main purpose of the conference?

The main purpose was to explore the issue of vitality of Western Armenian in the 21st century.  There are many political and socio-economic realities and circumstances imposed, willingly or unwillingly, in the 21st century, especially in the Diaspora, that have an impact on the prospects of Western Armenian, for instance, the situation in the Middle East. Beyond speaking and teaching the language, the future of Western Armenian is determined by its vitality, which among other factors requires an army of people who think, create, write and publish in Western Armenian.  The two-day workshop focused on these issues.

Who were the participants and how were they chosen?

First, I should note that this gathering was not about methodological, technical or theoretical issues, but about the current problems in the Armenian Diaspora and their effects on the language. As such, this was not an academic conference in the traditional sense, but a practical workshop.

The majority of the participants were writers, intellectuals, media representatives, publishers and some professionals and academics―about 30 participants from the Middle East, Europe, North America and writers in Western Armenian who live in Armenia. I wish we could invite 200-300 participants, but our choices were limited by funding resources and the format of the workshop which required small group discussions.   Our intention was to take a small step towards a new thinking and new direction, with the hope that the leadership in Armenia and the Diaspora would not remain indifferent towards the critical issues regarding the vitality of Western Armenian culture in this century.

In your opinion what are the main challenges of Western Armenian in the 21st century and what should be done to tackle them?

One of the fundamental and significant questions is living the language, that is, how to make the language part of daily living and not just teaching or learning it. Today, it seems that we are consumed by expensive efforts to teaching and learning the language. Of course, teaching and learning are essential, but cannot be ends in themselves.  The language has to be a living experience.  For decades we have turned the language into an ideological leitmotif in our national discourse.

Today, the language is not in decline, but we are, collectively. We should give equal attention to the other side of the medal: that is, the “mediators” of the language: the writers, intellectuals, “creators” in the language, in short, those who “create content” in Western Armenian. And today, in the 21st century, the “mediator”, the intellectual lives in a world where there are imposed political, economic, social and especially technological circumstances, which have an influence on both the “creator” and the vitality of the language. For instance, living in a fast moving digital age provides vast opportunities, but also expensive challenges. Of course, not all problems could be solved at the same time or with equal priority. What’s missing today in the Diaspora is institutional solutions. There are many individuals, I would say heroic individuals, who resolve many problems in the Diaspora through their personal intellectual, financial or organizational means. But long term solutions require serious resources which are beyond the means of individual persons, that is, solutions and structures that only institutions can bring to life. There is also the issue of creating new institutions that needs serious thinking.

-What or who can keep Western Armenian vital, when the speakers of the language are spread all over the world?

During our deliberations, it became very clear that one of the key nods or aspects for the vitality of Western Armenians is having a critical mass of writers, intellectuals, artists, publishers, in short, “content creators” and consumers in Western Armenian.

Being dispersed has its peculiarities, but it is not an insurmountable situation. Let us not forget that we have had a Diaspora for 1000 years and today, 100 years after the Genocide, Western Armenian is used in daily life. We should recognize that, unlike the Republic of Armenia, the Diaspora has vast experience in preserving “Armenian identity” (hayapahpanum).  It has preserved Armenian life even without having an independent  Armenia. It is not perfect, but it has.  Indeed, it has even kept the dream of an independent state alive starting in the Far East in the 18th century and outside the borders of present day Armenia in the 19th century.  The Diaspora has been a permanent and valuable reality in our national life and history and will continue to be so in the future.

-Do you think it is possible to bring closer Eastern and Western Armenian branches of the languages, if yes, in what ways?

Personally, it is not clear to me as to what is or should be brought “closer together”. There are already people who use or speak Armenian in such a way where both dialects are mixed. To me the issue is a practical rather than theoretical problem.  People generally do not utilize the language based on expert instructions or standards but in the context of practical everyday encounters.  The language should not be viewed simply as the “savior” of Armenian identity, but as basic means of communicating meaning and feelings.

I am not a linguist or literary expert, but I believe that we should live and develop both dialects equally because they are both indispensible parts of our national culture.

What are your future plans, the future phases?

Soon we shall publish a report and distribute it to the public for further discussions. The report would provide a summary of the discussions, the key problems and some suggestions for solutions.

Of course, there is enormous work that needs to be done and such projects should continue. The implementation of such a national project is not within the mandate, nor the resources of Oxford Armenian Studies. We tried to be the catalyst for new thinking and new approach; it remains to be seen whether the leadership in Armenia and the Diaspora would create a bridge of dialogue with the intellectuals, the “creators of substance”, and extend the necessary opportunities and financial means in order to secure the vitality of Western Armenian in the 21st century. Of course, I’m not naive nor expect that the leadership will immediately extend a hand in the full sense and on the level needed, rather than just through symbolic gestures.  But then, there are always pleasant surprises in life.

Lusine Abrahamyan

(Հայերէն տարբերակը)

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