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Review of Dora Sakayan's Modern Western Armenian
for the English-speaking World
Sakayan, Dora. Modern Western Armenian for the English-speaking World. A Contrastive Approach. Montreal: Arod Books, 2000, 400 pp. ISBN 0969987927.
Who wants to learn Armenian? – In the first place, probably second and third generation Armenians born in the diaspora, also language historians interested in Armenian and Indo-European linguistics and scholars doing research on the early period of the Christian Churches in the Middle East, and perhaps a few undergraduates who will choose to fulfill their language requirements with something other than the regular Western European languages. Whatever their motivation, all these students will be grateful to Professor Sakayan for the excellent manual that is now available to them for acquiring proficiency in West Armenian.
During its history, the Armenian language split into two standard variants. The Eastern variant, with its cultural epicenter located right outside the capital of the present day Republic of Armenia, and the Western one radiating from the once intellectually dominant city of Constantinople. Today East Armenian is the native language of the nation’s population and of the ethnic Armenians of Iran, while West Armenian is spoken by ethnic Armenians in the Middle East and by most of the diaspora Armenians. The two variants are mutually intelligible.
Modern Western Armenian is indeed an introduction to the Western variant, based on the latest methodological principles developed for the teaching of modern languages. Each of the textbook’s twelve units contains a dialogue, a piece of prose, the vocabulary items of a given semantic field (profession, clothing, city life, etc.), and a chapter of grammar, followed by remarks highlighting the contrasts between English and Armenian structures. The student is also given tips on pronunciation and spelling, and provided with a series of exercises.
The twelve instructional chapters are followed by four appendices: texts with a cultural character, ready-made phrases to be used in specific conversational situations, a tabular presentation of grammatical forms and a two-way lexicon. The use of the book is also greatly facilitated by a detailed index of linguistic items.
Among the book’s many merits, clarity is most striking. The information is presented in simple language, accessible to high school students and undergraduates, but also accurate enough for professional linguists to convert it into their own jargon. The pronunciation is also easy to recognize. Since the book is written with the English speaker in mind, words are transliterated using a system based on English spelling (ch and sh for the initial sounds of choose and shoes) or English conventions (zh for the initial sound of the French jour). Clarity is also manifest in the lay out, where the information is presented in a way that is pleasing to the eye, and also propitious for learning and committing to memory.
Another important merit of the book is the availability at the end of each chapter of a good number of exercises with a variety of tasks to be performed. It should also be mentioned that the book, in spite of its featuring two alphabets, contains very, very few typos and transliteration inconsistencies.
The amount of vocabulary is considerable, perhaps overwhelming in the early chapters, where the student is not only confronted with the task of learning new words, but also that of mastering a completely foreign writing system, but the problem is not unsurmountable since the teacher can easily reduce the assignment. A teacher will also be needed to provide the model and, in some cases, alternate pronunciations (the diphthong iw, for instance, is often reduced to a single sound very much like the French vowel u, as in rue).
It is in the nature of publications to include items that another author would have treated differently. In that perspective, one could quibble with Professor Sakayan over some of her translations, over her use of the English present perfect to translate an aorist, over whether the suffixes -s and -t are possessive articles or enclitic possessive markers, or whether the two verbs ‘to be’ are aspectual or rather modal variants of one another. But such small matters are by no means an impediment to learning, and the book is an excellent tool for achieving proficiency in West Armenian.
For further information contact:
University of Nijmegen, The Netherlands
Bernard Bichakjian is Professor of French Linguistics and department chair at the University of Nijmegen in Holland. He received his doctorate from Harvard University in 1972 and is an accomplished Indo-Europeanist. He received France’s Chevalier de l’Ordre national du Mérite in 1982.