Learning Armenian In the Fourth Generation

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By Harry A. Kezelian

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

One of the most controversial issues in the Armenian community in America is the use of the Armenian language. This very newspaper was founded in 1932 to cater to the English-speaking generation of Armenians who were born in America, because they were unable to read the Armenian-language newspapers such as Baikar. Yet, in places like Lebanon and Syria, speaking, reading, and writing Armenian is a prerequisite for membership in the community — not to mention in Armenia, where it is the official language. Many Armenians who have immigrated to the US from Armenia or the Middle Eastern countries in the past 40 years seem to think that one who does not speak Armenian is no Armenian at all. We heard this claim not only from them, but also from their American-born children, who have been fortunate enough to learn Armenian from their parents.

When I was young, I heard some Armenian-speaking children my age refer to people like me as soods (fakes). This seemed to primarily revolve around our inability to speak Armenian. I did not know the Armenian language growing up, other than the bits and pieces that were used in our home. Words like gatig, choor, misig, havgit, bachig, anoushig, hokis, and phrases like parev, inchbes es, and khent es inch es were in my vocabulary, but that was about all, and I knew that some of this was baby-talk. I knew that my Armenian name was Haroutiun and this was stressed to me a great deal, as it was an inherited family name. We were raised as Armenians — myself and all of my first cousins — in the active Armenian community of Detroit. We were proud to be Armenian by descent, attended Sunday School and St. John’s Armenian Church, and ate home-cooked Armenian food. We went to Armenian festivals, bazaars, dances, and weddings at which Armenian music was played. When we got to be the right age, we learned to dance Armenian line dances. We were taught our family history, what towns in Turkey we were from (Fenesse, Kharpert, and Sepastia), and how great-grandma survived 1915. Our parents were dues-paying Church members, Sunday School teachers, choir singers and generally active members of the Armenian community. But the only people in the family who spoke fluent Armenian were our grandparents and their generation. Our parents were born in America, and our grandparents were born in America. Our great-grandparents, most of whom were deceased, had been born in “the Old Country,” before the Genocide. In other words, we were typical fourth-generation, Armenian-American children. The idea that we were “not Armenian” didn’t cross our minds for a minute, until we encountered those who made this claim based on our language skills.

I, for one, ignored those who didn’t consider me “really” Armenian. I didn’t know why they were wrong, but I knew they were wrong. Later I learned the historical reasons. But this essay is about learning Armenian, and indeed I did learn Armenian. My reasons for learning it had little to do with the shaming that me and my friends sometimes received for not speaking Armenian, because although I was shy and lacking in social skills, I was nevertheless an adamant defender of my own pride and that of my family and friends. The reason I wanted to learn Armenian was simply because I knew it was our ancestral language, because my grandmother and some of my aunts spoke it and I wanted to be able to also, because we had old books written in the language, and just because I wanted to know as much as possible about our heritage. Undoubtedly, being a book lover also made a difference. And so, I began my journey.

There was a time at a very young age when I had some kind of bizarre assumption that since all the older people in my family spoke Armenian, I would one day speak Armenian too at their age. When I realized that this was not true, I asked my parents to teach me Armenian. They replied that they didn’t really know the language. Then I asked my grandparents to teach me. They said they had no idea how to teach it, they just spoke it casually. And that is how I became possibly the only child in Armenian-American history to ask my parents to send me to Armenian school. In the one year that I took weekly Armenian classes (age 12-13), I learned the alphabet, and nothing else. I could read Armenian but didn’t know what I was reading. The same thing happened to my best friend. The problem was that the teacher assumed all of our parents spoke Armenian, and that we could practice with them. I realized this problem quickly and told my mother I wanted to quit. But the goal of learning Armenian burned within me. During my high school years, I had an Armenian-English dictionary and tried to form words and sentences using it. I practiced the alphabet, scribbling my name in Armenian in the margins of my notebooks. Finally, I found a clever way to learn things from my grandmother and aunts. The three of them would speak Armenian to each other in restaurants very frequently. They would use it when they didn’t want someone to know what they were saying. If a wild looking character entered the restaurant, one of them would say “Asi ov e? Naye, marte khent e.” This always seemed to happen at the same restaurant, which we frequented once a week. One day, I tried a new experiment. If they said a phrase I didn’t know, I would ask them afterward what it meant. I would also try to get them to explain each word in the phrase.

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It was around this time that I learned the history of why some Armenians didn’t speak Armenian and some did. And I’m not talking about those who were completely assimilated and forgot about being Armenian. I mean those who, like my parents and their friends, remained extremely active in the Armenian community. It happened this way. Those who had come to America early on, including many survivors, gave birth to a generation of children born in the US in the 1920s – my grandparents’ generation. Having immigrant Armenian parents who didn’t speak English very well, for the most part they grew up speaking only Armenian in the house. They didn’t learn English until they went to kindergarten. Of course, in the 1930s there was no such thing as an Armenian day school or kindergarten in the States. Apparently, the culture shock that ensued when they first had to learn English was a bad experience for them. They were called “foreigners” and insulting names, and made to feel like lesser people by the dominant WASP society. When they grew up and had kids of their own in the 1950s, their hurt Armenian pride made them, like me, defiant to the outside world and they plunged themselves into Armenian community life. But they didn’t want their children to feel like “foreigners” as they had, so the vast majority, active or not, chose not to speak Armenian to their children in the home. They wanted to prove they were genuine Americans, but at the same time, they were loyal to most of the other Armenian traditions, in particular, the church. In this way my parents and their generation grew up in a happy, loving Armenian-American environment although they spoke English as their native tongue. I should note that due to the immigration quotas in place from 1924-1965, growing up in the 1960s, there were few Armenians coming in from other countries, and therefore there were very few people my parents’ age who did speak Armenian. Not knowing Armenian was considered normal. And so, when they raised me and my generation, they attempted to do it the same way their parents had raised them. The only problem was, in the meantime tons of Armenian refugees had poured in from the Middle East, and they were having kids too. Those kids were my age, and though they were lucky enough to learn Armenian from their parents, some of them also inherited the idea that those who hadn’t were sood. As the group with American-born parents grew up alongside the group with foreign-born parents, the cultural clash was inevitable.

I further learned that the concept of Armenians who didn’t speak Armenian didn’t start in America. I found out that in Ottoman Turkey, there were whole towns, villages, and regions where the Armenians only spoke Turkish. Kayseri (Gesaria) was notorious for this, as was Yozghat. These were two backgrounds that were common among my fourth-generation peers in Detroit. Nobody in the old country had suggested that Armenians from Gesaria were not real Armenians because they didn’t speak the language. They knew very well they were Armenian and they were devout members of the Armenian Church. They too, were murdered in the Genocide. But the most irritating piece of information was this: the majority of the Armenian population of Lebanon and Syria hailed from Cilicia, and most of the Armenian urban communities in Cilicia were Turkish-speaking, such as Adana, Aintab, and so on, and others spoke unintelligible dialects from places like Zeitoun and Kessab. They didn’t speak this language in the Old Country, they learned it in Beirut. In truth, it is an amazing accomplishment of the Lebanese and Syrian Armenian communities that they were able to form a strong Armenian school system and teach Standard Western Armenian to this group of people who almost all spoke only Turkish or some rural dialect. They actually revived a language in the Diaspora, which defies all odds. But unfortunately, this seems to have been partially accomplished by shaming those who didn’t speak Armenian, for example with the slogan “Turkeren khosoghin, hayeren badaskhaneh.” This not only led to conflict when the Lebanese Armenians later migrated to America, but it was historically inaccurate. How could a Lebanese Armenian claim that only the Armenian speakers were real Armenians, when their own grandparents spoke nothing but Turkish? Were their grandparents Turks, then? And on top of that, they were saying this to the Armenian-Americans, most of whose grandparents came from the provinces of Kharpert, Sepastia, and Dikranagerd, all solidly Armenian speaking areas, Kharpert dialect being one of the closest to “standard.”

But knowing this, I still wanted to learn Armenian. Our folk music and our badarak, which I loved, were sung in that language. It didn’t make you a “real” Armenian either way, but it held the key to a deeper understanding of our culture. We have books upon books written in Armenian, and they are not ever going to all be translated into English. In those books are the riches of our culture. And we can say the same about folk songs and even everyday conversation, the feel, the rhythm, the idiomatic phrases of the language. And what about visiting Armenia? What about speaking Armenian to visitors from overseas? What about passing on our heritage for goodness’ sake!

And so, when I went to college at the University of Michigan, I took four semesters of Modern Western Armenian under one of the greatest living scholars of the language, a product himself of the Armenian schools of the Middle East, Prof. Kevork Bardakjian. I put more effort into it than any of my other classes. After all, it was undergrad, and people said it was the time to “take whatever classes you like.” I frequently called my grandmother to get her take on some of the phrases, because I wanted generational transmission to be an important part of my learning the language. By the end of the two years, I could read, write, and speak Armenian at something like an elementary school level.

I continued my education. I was fortunate to find my grandfather’s Armenian Saturday School textbook, and I was even more fortunate that it was Roupen Zartarian’s reader Meghraked. Unlike most Armenian children’s textbooks, this used colorful yet simple language, was written by a major literary figure, and because it was written before the Genocide it had a historical value that made it very interesting to me. Since I was a history buff, and since my family hadn’t really read Armenian since the 1920s, my identification with the Armenian language was tied in not with the Diaspora, but with pre-1915 Anatolia.

Zartarian was born in Kharpert (where two of my great-grandparents were born) and considered a member of the “provincial” school of Western Armenian literature. His numerous old-fashioned words, and his short folktales written in verse with some dialect and Turkish words and folk song-like rhymes enthralled me. And I was ecstatic when I found a reference to the Tamzara, written by someone who undoubtedly witnessed that old Western Armenian folk dance many times in its original form on its home soil.

My next challenge was to gain better fluency in conversation. At the same time, I had decided to train to become a subdeacon under the head deacon at St. John’s, Onnig Boyajian. Deacon Onnig, upon seeing that I could read Armenian well, was delighted to take me on. Since I addressed him in Armenian almost from the beginning, he would speak to me during our lessons or during badarak almost exclusively in Armenian. His Armenian, spoken in a deliberate Bolsetsi accent, was easier to understand than that of many others. My conversational skills were improving so much that when I briefly attended Seminary, some of the other students, born in Jerusalem and able to speak fluent Armenian a mile a minute (which I could barely understand), commented to me that “Inchkan makoor hayeren ge khosis” (What clean Armenian you speak!)

The most recent stage in my Armenian-language learning has been to tackle real literature. The first book I chose to read was Aykegoutk (the Vintage) by Peniamin Noorigian. This is by no means a world-renowned book, but it is very, very good writing. I chose it because Noorigian was one of the few writers who had been born in the Old Country and grown up there long enough to really understand its lifestyle before the Genocide, but had also immigrated to America around the same time as my great-grandparents, and wrote his book in this country afterward. Unlike some other more political writers, Noorigian impressed me because he had founded the first and only independent Armenian literary journal in the United States, Nor Kir, which lasted a little over 15 years. He seemed to be a man who thought for himself and did not blindly follow the tenets of ideology. At the same time, he was steeped in tradition, being the favorite student of the father of provincial literature, Tlgadintsi, whose works he compiled and published in Boston in 1927. My great-grandfather was from the same village as Noorigian (Hussenig, Kharpert), and when I found out he had donated to the Tlgadintsi book, I was sold.

Reading Noorigian was difficult but enjoyable. I was fortunate that by this time, the well-known website Nayiri was up and running and I could find the meaning of an Armenian word in a matter of seconds, though I often had to use the dialect dictionary. Noorigian’s book was basically a collection of unrelated short stories about his childhood in Hussenig. But the writing! How can I describe it? It was fresh like springtime. It was like dew sprinkled on countryside grass in the morning. It was full of difficult dialect words, but looking these up and learning their meaning was a pleasure for me. These words were always interesting: Noorigian does not deal in big formalistic words, but forgotten dialect and slang that is poetic and beautiful and reeks of the countryside and the small towns. And in his writing, I always heard the voice of a 12-year-old boy, as wise as a child can be, but not yet corrupted by adulthood. If Noorigian had any youthful love affairs or mischievous adventures, he left that out of the book. He spoke in the innocent but wise voice of a twelve-year-old, happy in his life in the Armenian countryside (though occasionally, his current self would make a side comment about the loss of that lifestyle), in the freshness of spring, his head wet with the morning dew. And I suppose when I heard that voice, I heard the voice of myself, when I was twelve, and I had eagerly, innocently asked how I could learn the language of my forefathers.

I am writing this to implore the youth of my generation, the 4th generation born in America, to learn Armenian. But do not let anyone tell you that you “have to learn it” to be Armenian. That is nonsense, even from the most conservative historical point of view. Do not learn it because you feel an obligation. Do not learn it because someone made fun of you for not knowing it. Do not learn it because you don’t feel Armenian enough. Instead learn it because it is your birthright. Learn it because it is the key to unlocking the treasures of your heritage. Learn it because it is beautiful, as beautiful as a spring breeze or morning dew. Learn it because it is a secret language. Learn it so you can use it in real life. Learn it because it is the language of your great-grandparents. Learn it so, just maybe, you can one day teach your children. Learn it because you are Armenian enough.

(Harry Kezelian is a resident of Detroit.)