The Armenian Script is a plain alphabet with a use dating back to about 400 AD. Legend tells it was developed by an Armenian monk, Mesrop Mashtots; if that is true, then Mesrop got his inspiration probably from Greek, which he followed closely in the order and names of the letters, but not in their shapes (some people claim to see Pahlavi, Aramaic or Geʿez influence in the latter). At about the same time, two more similar alphabets were in use: The Kartvelian in Georgia and the Albanian in Azərbaycan; the former is usually considered slightly younger that Armenian, but the latter might well be older.
As with all Caucasian alphabets, the Armenan letter shapes look complete arbitrary; there is, however, some systematic graphical correspondence between upper and lower case letters (true also in Greek). The alphabet is intended to be phonemic, and is more or less so for Classical Armenian; Modern Armenian, on the other hand, has experienced some sound shift which make the letter–sound correspondence more involved. To make things worse, there are two different Modern Armenian dialects, which have take two rather different developments from Classical Armenian:
- Classical Armenian had a three-way distinction between voiced, voiceless and aspirated in a number of sounds (plosives, affricates), all togeher five triples of the type (g/k/kʰ).
- The West Armenian dialect, the former language of the former Armenians in the former Ottoman Empire, merged voiced and aspirated into aspirated. This left a gap in the sound system, which was closed by turning the voiceless series into voiced. The triples thus collapsed into pairs (kʰ/g) or more exactly degenerated triples (kʰ/g/kʰ).
- The other dialect, Eastern Armenian, is the language spoken in the Republic of Armenia (formerly part of the USSR). Eastern Armenian modified the unvoiced series into an ejective one, but made no other changes. Thus, five true triples remained, for example (g/ḳ/kʰ), where the underdot marks the ejective.
This is not particularly complicated, but it results in unrestrained chaos when unsystematic transliterations from Armenian (
wrayt az yoo speek) is considered, as often found on the web. Where West Armenians naturally write g, and East Armenian will probably choose k (or, more rarely, kh); and an East Armenian g may correspond to what a West Armenian writes as k or g. This looks pretty random, unless he crucial information West or East is supplied.
A word found in an typical homegrown transcription inspired by English is, thus, very difficult to identify with a true Armenian lexeme. A not entirely theoretical expample: Some English speaking source claims that thyme is dzotor in Armenian. Assuming the source speaks Western Armenian, the Armenian spelling could be c̣ot́or or c̣odor in my transliteration (the two spellings have equal pronunciation in Western Armenian); on the other side, it might be joṭor or jot́or if the source dialect is Eastern Armenian (the two would not be pronounced the same, as the T is aspirated in the latter; but this is very unlikely to be indicated in a nonscientific romanization). It turns out that the first alternative is the correct one. There are more complications, and not the least is the only Armenian–English dictionary on the Web uses a private Bullshit Encoding that maps Armenian letters into the PUA (several years ago, it mapped them into Latin Extended, which of all no-gos is the no-goest). A script fixing the encoding (and thus making copy&paste work) is available to interested parties.
Systematic transliterations are not easy, either: Because West Armenian has too few sounds, any transliteration must take either Classical or Eastern Armenian as its basis; apart from this, every possible convention for marking aspirates and ejectves can be found, as in the Georgian case. Armenian, however, has some more vowels (three E, two O, though not all are used in the current orthography) and continuants whose pronunciation depends on the dialect.
My homegrown transliteration operated similar to the one emplyed for Georgian: It is overdecorated but easy to understand, as aspiration is consistently indicated by an acute and ejective glottalization by an underdot. Palatals get a caron, and some consonants are transliterated in Semitic style (ḫ,ġ). A counter-intuitive feature (shared by Georgian) is that c and j are affricates (pronounced ts and dz, respectively), and they take palatal sound values only when carrying a caron (č and ǰ spoken as ch and j, respectively).
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