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.