Conference on Western Armenian Held at Oxford

Lusine Abrahamyan

The multidimensional problems related to the vitality of Western Armenian as a language and the search for solutions is a serious concern in recent years. A number of community cultural and educational leaders, activists and experts in the Diaspora, who are concerned about the future of Western Armenian, are engaged in the process of tackling these issues. Indeed, the future of Western Armenian, recently classified as an “endangered language” by UNESCO, has become one of the most critical questions discussed in Armenian society and the media.
Armenian Studies at the University of Oxford (Faculty of Oriental Studies), with the financial support of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, held a conference on Jan. 21-23 that addressed the issue.
The conference, entitled “Western Armenian in the 21st Century,” brought together leading writers, intellectuals, experts, publishers, editors, and journalists from the diaspora, as well as from Armenia, who think, write, and publish in Western Armenian. The conference/workshop was conducted entirely in Western Armenian.

In an interview with Armenia’s Hayern Aysor online newspaper, Dr. Hratch Tchilingirian, one of the main organizers of the conference, and a sociologist and associate member of the Faculty of Oriental Studies at the University of Oxford, explained the key aspects of the gathering, which is the first to explore in detail the future of the language recently classified as “endangered” by UNESCO.

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 teach and learn 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” (hayabahbanum).  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 realty in our national life and history and will continue to be so in the future.

- Do you think it is possible to bring closer the 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.

"Hayern Aysor," February 7, 2016 (en.hayernaysor.am)


1 comment:

  1. Interesting read. Thank you for this summary. I tend to agree with the contents except for the hayabahbanoum section. We tend to pat ourselves on the shoulder and say we had a diaspora for over 100 years....but what percentage of it has been assimilated and rapidly is assimilating? and the communities that were strong western-armenian speakers (meaning living with the language) were in the ME which now has only Bourj-Hamoud somewhat as a stronghold. To me institutions must be strengthened and higher institutions. Why not have AUA in western Armenian? plays and songs, and schools? those will produce writers and artists. Also make possible for writers to write in W. Armenian and not only academic stuff but support newspapers, and publications and theatre productions etc. I agree that we must create a living environment where W. Armenian can thrive.