Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Reform of Armenian Orthography - March 4, 1922

The reform of Armenian orthography in 1922 unleashed a decades-long controversy throughout the Armenian world that has not stopped until this day.
In January 1921, historian Ashot Hovhannisian (1887-1972), Commissar of Popular Education of the newly-established Soviet Armenian government, organized an advisory meeting about the orthography reform as part of a policy to foster education and fight illiteracy. Linguist and philologist Manuk Abeghian (1865-1944), who had written extensively on the issue since the late 1890s, presented a position paper on the issue. The paper repeated in its essentials the main theses of another paper (published in the same year) that he had read during a commemoration of the 1500th anniversary of the creation of the Armenian alphabet in 1913. Abeghian suggested to suppress the letters օ (o) and է (e) and replace them by ո (vo) and ե (ye), as well as a series of orthographic changes that signified a radical departure from the standard usage that had been the general norm since the Middle Ages.
Hovhannisian presented the paper to a special committee, which accepted its suggestions, and had it printed and sent to various parties, with the wish of “hearing the voice of the users of the Armenian language, particularly those worried with education.” No replies were received. After the end of the February rebellion in April, Hovhannisian was replaced by translator and journalist Poghos Makintsian (1884-1937), who continued his predecessor’s efforts and created a new special committee in February 1922. This committee presented to Makintsian the conclusions of its discussions of Abeghian’s paper. Makintsian, instead of transmitting them to the Soviet of Popular Commissars (equivalent to the Council of Ministers), chose to present Abeghian’s suggestions. The Soviet, under the chairmanship of Alexander Miasnikian, approved them on March 4, 1922, and ordered their execution. In the same year, Abeghian published his paper with the title “Guide of the New Orthography of the Armenian Language.””" It was the first book in the new spelling.
The reform stirred huge discontent in Armenia and in the Diaspora. The great poet Hovhannes Tumanian wrote a letter to the Soviet of Popular Commissars in May 1922, where he expressed his disagreement: “I, as an Armenian writer and chairman of the Union of Armenian Writers, come to declare my astonishment and to protest against the attitude of the Commissar of Education of Armenia in this important issue. Mr. M. Abeghian has made a proposal and published it. Very well. But where did the Commissar of Education of Armenia learn that both Mr. M. Abeghian and himself, the Commissar of Education, are infallible, and without subjecting the proposal to examination, have decreed to adopt it and write and print only with that [spelling]?”
The reform was actually spearheaded by the Soviet regime as part of a general policy of adopting the Latin alphabet to write the languages of non-Russian peoples of the Soviet Union. Makintsian himself, who had presented a paper in 1919 (“On an Uniform Latin Alphabet for the People of the Socialist Federative Soviet Republic of Russia”) at a conference in Moscow, admitted in an article published in Russian on November 29, 1924, in the daily Zarya Vostoka of Tiflis: “I would have not cast my vote in favor of that reform under any circumstance if I had not considered it a step towards facilitating the work of going to the Latin characters . . . If the reform of the Armenian alphabet is bound to freeze and remain halfway, in that case it would be better to return to the old spelling without further ado. . . The sooner we throw to the archive the angular, ugly, and eye-damaging ‘Sahak-Mesrobian’ alphabet, the sooner we will get rid of Abeghian’s spelling.”
On August 22, 1940, yet another reform of spelling was decreed, executed by linguist Gurgen Sevak (1904-1981). It marked a partial return to the traditional spelling and it is the one in use until today in the Republic of Armenia, as well as among its emigrated citizens throughout the world. The Diaspora which was born after 1915 uses the traditional spelling, which Iranian Armenians also use, with small differences, as Eastern Armenians used it before Soviet times.
The title page of Sayat Nova's Armenian poems published in 1931 which utilizes the Soviet Armenian orthography of 1922.