Definitely Endangered: Armenian language as intangible cultural heritage of Artsakh

London –  (27.05.2021) — Dr Jasmine Dum-Tragut gave an insightful and informative lecture entitled, Definitely Endangered: Armenian language as intangible cultural heritage of Artsakh. This talk was organised virtually by the Diocese of the Armenian Church on 27th May. Anna Der Tavitian, a member of IIWGNK, kindly moderated the lecture on behalf of the Church. 

This talk was the fifth in a series of lectures about Armenian religious and cultural heritage in Artsakh sponsored by the Diocese in the United Kingdom, under the auspices of the Primate, His Grace Bishop Hovakim Manukyan.

Dr Dum-Tragut is both a linguist and an Armenologist. She works with and at the Language Institute, named after Acharyan, at the Armenian Academy of Sciences. She is currently undertaking cutting edge research on The Sociolinguistics of Armenian in Karabakh, which includes a qualitative assessment of the vitality of the Armenian language as well as issues of multilingualism in the area. She has been a pioneer in terms of bringing the Eastern Armenian dialect to the attention of the international community and her seminal work, Armenian: Modern Eastern Armenian (2009), has approached both the standardised dialect and the vernacular. 

Dr Dum-Tragut introduced her audience to a brief outline of the sociolinguistics of the Armenian language in Artsakh. She also spoke more generally about the various functions of the Armenian language in the Karabakh region and how language is “itself a vehicle, channel and transmitter of cultural heritage”. She further adumbrated how language itself assists in constructing the ethnic identity of a people and the beliefs they hold about being a member of a particular ethnic or social group. 

Extant linguistic data from the beginning of the C20th shows that the Karabakh dialect was one of the most commonly spoken Armenian dialects at the time. After a lengthy period of living under the Persian Empire Karabakh was then incorporated into the Russian-speaking world. During the Tsarist period Artsakh was a multilingual territory due to the fact several ethnic groups were living side by side. From census records taken from the Elisabethpol Governorate about two thirds of the population spoke what was then termed Tartar (Turkish and later known as Azerbaijani), Lezgin and other Caucasian languages. However, Russian quickly dominated as the lingua franca and Artsakh became one of the centres of a Russian-speaking population. When Stalin was in power the Russian language became mandatory in non-Russian schools and this led to a landscape of a bilingual Artsakh. 

Dr Drum-Tragut introduced us to some fascinating case studies of Russian Prisoners of War in Austria during World War One. Among the group of 7,000 POWS there were 191 ethnic Armenians who all spoke an array of languages; including, Armenian, Russian, Tartar and Persian. There were surprising cases of young men who were skilled labourers but didn’t have much of a formal education and yet they nearly all spoke at least three languages.

However, the distortion and falsification of history propagated by Azerbaijan has led to a monoethnic language policy in the country. Azerbaijan swiftly replaced any Armenian place names and in Azerbaijan’s Constitution the sole official language is Azerbaijani, meaning that this is the language that must be used in all functions and all spheres of life. Minority languages are certainly in danger of dying out in Azerbaijan; in 2001 they signed the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages but this was never ratified. Lezgin appears to be the only minority language that is accepted by Azerbaijan. Therefore, there is a very real danger that the Artsakh dialect is becoming an endangered language. 

After the lecture the audience asked several questions following the main presentation. To conclude, both Anna Der Tavitian and Bishop Hovakim thanked Dr Dum-Tragut for her most lively, interesting and in-depth talk. 

The recording of the talk is available via this link