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Փ (Pure) Language: The Positive, Negative and Neutral of Armenian Language Contact and the Reality of a Pure Language

June 10, 2024


By Hratch Demiurge


New Փ (Pure) Language: The Positive, Negative and Neutral of Armenian Language Contact and the Reality of a Pure Language

H-Pem breaks its own long-form writing record with long-time contributor Hratch Demiurge and his analytical take on Armenian language purism. Demiurge is a comedian, poet, teacher, and translator of Daniel Varoujan's Pagan Songs (2019) and, along with his students, Hagop Baronian's My Ledger (2024).

Our platform is a space for people to exchange ideas, engage in dialogue, and reflect. Demiurge’s newest piece, Փ (Pure) Language: The Positive, Negative and Neutral of Armenian Language Contact and the Reality of a Pure Language, argues for a new paradigm of 'purism' and a new way of assessing the influence of foreign languages on Armenian. Read it now.


Though what follows concerns linguistics, I am not a linguist, thank God. Like all modern branches of science, linguistic science has been divorced from all teleological concerns, that is, an ultimate purpose for pursuing it. For example, ask a scientist of any kind, whether linguistic, biological, or political, the following:

“For the sake of what are you engaged in this science?”

They will more than likely answer, “For the sake of science.”

“But science is a means, is it not? My question is, what is the ultimate goal of your pursuit of this science?”

“Goal? Science has no goal. Science exists to explain.”

“But knowledge exists to serve some end, does it not?”

“It does not.”

“Science is a method, my friend, not an end. What is the end of science?”

“I do not inquire into ends. That is superstitious nonsense and none of my concern. I describe and make no judgments about what I describe. Rocks collide: I note that a collision took place and record the consequences.”

“But should those rocks be allowed to collide?”

“What an ignorant thing to say! Science has nothing to do with ‘should’ or ‘ought’.”

“What if your head happens to be located between those two rocks?”

“Then I note that my head was between those two rocks when they collided and I record the results.”

“What if you have no head left after they’ve collided?”

“Then I note that I no longer have a head and I record the consequences of not having a head…”

Thus, my arguments below are not based purely on linguistic science, but rather on the ethical implications of certain linguistic trends among Armenian speakers. My aim isn’t merely to describe that something is the way it is, but to judge whether it should be or not. And because my aim is ethical, it is also political, since politics is essentially applied ethics. But I can already hear  modern scientists of all branches shout,

“Aha! I have you now! Politics has no place in science!”

However, I don’t mean “political” in the petty, partisan way it is misused today. I mean political in the grand Aristotelian sense of politics as the master science that dictates to all the other sciences what subjects they should study, to what extent they should be studied, and, most importantly, to what end they are studied.

Language Contact or Collision?

Last year I wrote a response to Jennifer Manoukian’s essay against language purism. Anyone interested in that particular set of anti-anti-language purism arguments may read it here. A few months ago, I stumbled upon another shot across the bow of language purism in a more offhand,  conversational setting on Dr. Shushan Karapetian’s podcast “Language Therapy with Dr. K” in the episode titled “Speak Beautifully: Language Dynamics in Armenia from an Anthropological  Lens”. Among other linguistic issues, she and her guest, Lilit Ghazaryan, a PhD candidate in linguistic anthropology at UCLA, briefly discussed language purism, putting forward the usual claims of academic linguists, namely, that borrowing is natural and cannot be stopped; that there is no pure language and the aims of language purism are illusory. Nearly all academic linguists are thorough Heracliteans in this: they not only think you can’t step into the same river twice, but according to them, you can’t speak the same language twice. Thus, Dr. Karapetian and her guest on this particular episode of the podcast dismissed concerns over the saturation of foreign words in the Armenian language as the natural and normal result of the perpetual flux of “language contact”, a term used by academic linguists to denote the interaction of two different languages or dialects and the transfer of features, including vocabulary and grammar, from one to the other.  To me, the use of the neutral-sounding term “language contact” to describe the influence of foreign languages on Armenian seemed euphemistic at best and misleading at worst. Considering that nearly all of the languages that have impacted Armenian have been the result of warfare and imposition, language collision seemed a more appropriate term. 

After she was kind enough to read a very early and very different draft of this article, I  personally met and spoke with Dr. Karapetian, and, as a result of her critiques and suggestions,  the article underwent many changes. The most obvious of these changes was the disclaimer I  wrote and placed at the outset as a caveat that my arguments are not based on purely academic linguistic grounds, but linguistics with an eye to ethics. Whereas there is no good and bad in linguistic science, ethics is the science of what is bad and what is good; and, as we shall see, Dr. Karapetian and other academic linguists refrain from evaluating the goodness or badness of language change as a rule.

Another important change I have made to the original article is a narrower focus on a single  point: analyzing the presuppositions that underly the term “language contact” as used by academic linguists. For example, during our discussion, Dr. Karapetian said that “language contact is never neutral”, which was a counter to my argument that foreign languages have made their way into Armenian through force by hostile peoples and empires and not by a neutral or humane exchange which the phrase “language contact” suggests. In the original version of the article, I had argued that to say foreign languages like Arabic or Turkish made their way into  Armenian via “language contact” or that this was a “natural development” was like saying an egg made “contact” with the side of a mixing bowl and then “naturally developed” into an omelet. I had also written that in the past millennium at least, the Armenian language had  “developed” the way a brand “develops” on a cow: the animal’s owner presses the head of the red-hot branding iron against its hide until a word “naturally develops” there. Surely these circumstances had to be taken into account, I thought. I noted that it wasn’t language contact in the Armenian case, but an almost non-stop semantic siege which, I argued, was unnatural,  undesirable, and unnecessary.

In contrast, Dr. Karapetian and her podcast guest on that particular episode spoke of language contact and the natural development of the Armenian language in the abstract, as if it occurred in a vacuum or between two interchangeable, ethereal things without considering the quality or source of that contact. Dr. Karapetian made it clear to me in our discussion that neither the source nor the quality of the contact was of any concern viewed through a purely linguistic lens.

Academic Linguists vs. Lay Linguists

She is of course on firm academic linguistic ground when she says this. In their essay titled “Assessing Language Contact: Linguistic Purism and North Frisian,” linguists Johanna Gregersen and Nils Langer note that academic linguists only describe changes in language through language contact, whereas lay or “folk” linguists (by which they mean unserious, unscientific dilettantes) go on to evaluate these changes.

Crucially, the fact that languages change is never evaluated [by academic linguists] as being beneficial or harmful to the ability of a language to express the thoughts of its speakers...Languages change, but they do not become better or worse (p. 160).

From where I stand, it seems to me to be a false dilemma to attribute the evaluation of good and bad to “folk” linguistics while limiting “academic” linguistics to descriptions only. In the most basic pedagogical theory, cognitive skills are routinely and rightly ranked based on intellectual depth and rigor. Acquiring knowledge and explaining phenomena represents the lowest and most basic mental activity, whereas thought processes that go beyond the rehearsal of the facts into extending, analyzing, and critiquing those facts are classed the highest. Significantly, evaluation is classified as a higher order of mental activity than mere description. But like other modern scientists, academic linguists have abdicated the responsibility of evaluating and have relegated this important duty to those they believe to be, and in many cases are, beneath them, namely,  “folk” linguists.

Confucius rightly said that learning without thinking is useless and thinking without learning is dangerous. Likewise, to describe without evaluating is useless, while evaluating without an accurate description is dangerous.

Clearly laying out the presuppositions of their guild, Gregersen and Langer stigmatize those academic linguists who, because they specialize in smaller minority languages, commit the sin of going beyond descriptions of changes into evaluations of those changes. Due to the fact that smaller languages tend to be influenced by larger, more dominant languages, the changes the former undergoes are seen as endangering their prior character. They write:

Yet, in regard to language contact, such an evaluation can be found expressed by academic linguists, too. However, such evaluations are almost exclusively restricted to scholars working on smaller languages, i.e. languages that are (perceived to be) unilaterally receiving influence from bigger languages (p. 160).[1]

Note the parenthetical and patronizing “perceived to be” in the authors’ statement: they won’t even allow scholars of smaller languages and those of us who speak smaller languages the concession that what they are anxious over is even taking place! But even if it were taking place,  according to them, it is neither good nor bad. I find this way of expressing oneself highly disingenuous and detracting from even their good points.

Earlier I said that academic linguists were Heracliteans, but they’re not real Heracliteans. Even  Heraclitus espoused an eternal, unchanging logos or principle; and, a good life was one lived according to this logos. However, as a guild, academic linguists do not view any change as good or bad because they do not believe in any objective measure by which goodness or badness could be determined. In other words, they are followers of the relativistic and sophistic Protagorean position that “All beliefs and appearances are true,” or that “All contradictions are true.” If there is no standard, then nothing is good or bad, but all are equally good and bad. This is where academic linguists’ war against language purism, which evaluates a better or worse, comes in.

On language purism, in a similarly dismissive tone, the same authors write, “As the principal readership of this chapter will be academic linguistics, we need not discuss the futility of such endeavors, given the false premises on the purported purity of languages when they are first attested or named” (162). In a footnote, they further explain this position:

Languages are not born or come into being. Instead, a language comes into existence when humans give linguistic variety considered to be sufficiently distinct from its surrounding varieties. When this happens, the new “language” will, of course, consists [sic] of elements of other languages. There is, therefore, never a pure state” (p.162 f. 3).

Note that the above is again a paraphrase of Protagoras, specifically his old sophism that “Man is  the measure of all things; of the things which are, that they are, and of things which are not, that  they are not.” If human beings are the measure of all things, then there is no objective or universal standard for anything and so it must be arrived at by a democratic consensus. In this view, it is not merely that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but that all opinions are equally true. (The phenomenon of people talking about “their truth” as opposed to “the truth” is a  consequence of this same way of thinking.) Academic linguists have adopted this position for language: all languages are equally man-made and all are equally capable of expressing the thoughts and opinions of individuals which ultimately are all equally valid and true.

Let academics call what follows “folk” or “lay” linguistics, but I’m neither lay nor folk. I view this issue as I try to view all intellectual matters, from a philosophical point of view which is as disdainful of the haphazard opinions of both the illiterate and the semi-literate herd as it is wiser than the erudite but merely descriptive and therefore sterile academic view which makes no judgments and, by its own admission, has no judgment.

Never Neutral?

But on what grounds is the goodness or badness of language change, more specifically, language contact to be assessed? As we have just seen, academic linguists think there are no such grounds.  I hold that there are. I won’t be arguing for anything metaphysical or Platonic, but rather common empirical measures that will be familiar to everyone.

Dr. Karapetian’s response to my thesis that language contact is too neutral to describe the overwhelmingly negative circumstances of foreign words in Armenian—“language contact is never neutral”—got me thinking: is language contact in fact never neutral? Aside from the fact that if language contact is never neutral, then it is always either positive or negative, if I can show concrete historical examples of neutral language contact, then, by extension, I can easily show that language contact can objectively be deemed negative or positive, which “language contact” is insufficient to describe.

Criteria for Positive, Negative, and Neutral Language Contact

It is a broad statement to say language contact is never neutral. A more systematic approach would be to quantify language contact based on a set of criteria. I propose a scale of -10 to +10,  with -10 being the most negative circumstances under which languages influence one another and +10 the most positive, with 0 being completely inert neutrality.

I suggest that the criteria for placing individual cases of language contact along this positive/negative scale should be the following simple, empirical and measurable factors:

  1. Whether or not the adoption of the foreign word was voluntary. The voluntary nature of language adoption should be an important factor in determining whether any given instance is positive or negative. There are laws against coercion and subjecting others to acts against their will for good reason, and the voluntariness or involuntariness of certain actions makes a difference not only in determining the length of sentences but whether something is a crime to begin with. If two adults engage in mutually desired and voluntary physical contact, that is entirely legal, and perhaps even beautiful and good. But if the same exact type of contact were made minus the consent of one of the parties, then it is a crime considered despicable and intolerable even among criminals. Thus, voluntariness is a very significant factor in language contact.
  2. Whether or not the adoption of the foreign word was necessary. Was an equivalent word absent in the original language or is it redundant? A loanword being necessary mitigates potential negative effects, such as confusion of native speakers and cultural/political hegemony of the lender.
  3. The total quantity of words borrowed is also significant. If too great, even voluntary and necessary borrowing could potentially be negative if the language has already voluntarily and of necessity borrowed[2] what it needed from some other language at an earlier date and which, over the course of time, has been assimilated and attained a character of its own. As in money,  borrowing less is always better, and the smaller the loan, the less in the negative one will be. [3] Greater borrowing inevitably pushes the balance toward the negative end. This factor is acknowledged by academic linguists of the small languages mentioned by Gregersen and  Langer, in this case, experts in the Frisian language who wished to prevent encroachments on  Frisian from German: “While they acknowledge that language change is natural in principle, they argue that where the degree of change is too high, it may result in the destruction of the language” (Gregerson, 173).

Negative Contact

As such, the negative end of the scale will be characterized by degrees of 1)  voluntariness/compulsion, 2) necessity/redundancy, and 3) the volume of words borrowed at one time. For each factor, a number from -10 to +10 may be assigned and then averaged to determine the final value. For example, being forced to speak a foreign language at gunpoint is -10 on voluntariness. Thus, an overall -10 would represent the extremest form of compulsion characterized by imposition by physical force of redundant/unnecessary words already existing in the native language, and all this in a very large, overbearing quantity.

Undisputable examples of negative language contact are not difficult to find. The forced  “Americanization” program for the native Indian tribes of America is one example. As official government policy, the children of native Indians were forced to attend boarding schools where they were not only taught English, they were completely forbidden from speaking their native language. Their very names weren’t safe, as the traditional tribal names given by their families were Anglicized. Additionally, they were indoctrinated into Christianity through church visits and forced to forget and leave behind their ancestral traditions.

Let the words of the academics ring in your ears as you read these examples: “No language  change is better or worse.” “There’s no such thing as negative language contact,” etc.

In the Ottoman Empire, the Armenian language was suppressed at various times, with an 1880  ban on the very word “Armenia” from appearing in print following the Ottoman defeat in the  Russo-Turkish War in 1878. Armenians and their language on the Russian side of the border,  however, didn’t fare much better, with the Russification policy of the same decade seeing the closure of Armenian schools, which, though later reopened, were now subject to strict government laws that discouraged the Armenian language in favor of the adoption of Russian.

“No language change is better or worse.” “There’s no such thing as negative language contact.”

Or consider successive British bans on the Irish language, such as Article III of the Statute of  Kilkenny in 1367 and then the 1537 law called An Act for the English Order, Habit and Language which banned the Irish language from being used in the Irish Parliament. This was followed by the 1541 ban on Irish being spoken in all English-controlled areas. Over the course of a few centuries, the criminalized Irish language was replaced with the foreign English tongue.

“No language change is better or worse.” “There’s no such thing as negative language contact.”

I leave it to others to think of other examples of which there are countless. Is it proper to call any of these scenarios “language contact” and not some more accurate name? Is it proper to say of these examples that “Languages change, but they do not become better or worse”? Who can disagree with assessing each of the foregoing examples as -10 on our scale and examples of negative language contact due to the changes being 1) enforced and involuntary, 2) unnecessary, and 3) wholesale to the point that two of these languages were completely replaced and, as in the case of Irish, only spoken by pockets of purists?

An academic linguist here says, “Fools! Don’t they know that there is no ‘pure language’? The  English spoken in Dublin is just as good as the Irish formerly spoken there. Can’t they order  Guinness just as well with English as they could with Irish?”

Lesser degrees of compulsion, redundancy, and quantity would be assigned less negative, though still negative, numbers. Coaxing someone to speak a foreign language with the promise of food,  as Christian missionaries have often done, will be something like -5 because it is non-voluntary and, though coercive, represents a lesser degree of force, with the potential redundancy of the words and their total quantity carefully weighed. A French bakery pretending not to understand  English and only serving customers who order en Francaise might place at a -2. The borrowing of a West African word like “banana” into Armenian will be a -1, since it is only one word, voluntarily accepted and previously lacking, and, while it is a loanword, West Africans never attempted to exterminate Armenia, which, if they had, would immediately have driven the score further down the negative scale for obvious reasons. The Frankish Crusaders marrying into  Armenian royalty in Cilicia and introducing the title “baron” might be considered not very involuntary, though high in redundancy and light in quantity, therefore, a -2 or -3, perhaps.

Positive Contact

On the other, positive end of the scale, there will be a range of positive contact, characterized by varying degrees of voluntary, necessary, and limited adoption. For example, a +10 would represent the case of philanthropic extraterrestrial aliens visiting a country and freely bestowing terminologies for previously unknown cosmic elements and inventions while asking for nothing in return. Because knowledge of these things was previously lacking, voluntarily accepted, and did not wholesale replace the existing language, but seamlessly integrated into it, it can be considered a +10.

Note that because men are by nature greedy, dishonest, and unjust, there are endless examples of  -10s with an infinite number of variations of negative contact, whereas I can’t think of a single example of a +10 other than a fanciful hypothetical about benevolent space aliens.

Neutral Contact

With these criteria and scale in mind, can we think of any cases of neutral language contact? If such a thing exists in this wicked world, it would consist of an even trade, a give and take. A  trade would be neither positive nor negative and, canceling each other out, leave the two sides neither as a debtor nor as a creditor. This would be the model of neutral language contact. Has it ever occurred?

I myself am aware of a case of neutral language contact in history, but there are probably others. The Japanese relationship with the Dutch in the 17th century gives us one example. At this time in its history, Japan was in its sakoku, or “closed country” period in which all foreigners, i.e.  Europeans, were banned from entering Japan since the Spanish and Portuguese had attempted to dominate and colonize the island through aggressive and underhanded proselytizing of  Catholicism by the Jesuits. However, Japan allowed one exception to this ban, namely, Dutch traders, who, unlike the Spanish and Portuguese had not tried to subvert Japanese culture,  religion, and government. The Japanese allowed the Dutch to trade in Japanese goods in exchange for what the Japanese called Rangaku or “Dutch learning”, a term used for the latest scientific developments on the continent of Europe. The Japanese gave the Dutch what they wanted, silk, etc., and in turn they received goods and scientific inventions along with their terminologies like beer (biru), coffee (kohi) eye-glass lenses (renzu), glass (garasu), rubber/gum  (gomu), thermometers (tarumomētoru), telescopes (teresukoppu), electrical generators (erekiteru), electricity (erekishiteito), lamps (ranpu), and pistols (pisitoru), voluntarily integrating the terminologies for these into the Japanese language. However, the Japanese went one step further and invented an entirely different, second set of characters for the sole purpose of rendering these foreign European words, carefully distinguishing native Japanese words written in hiragana from those words borrowed from Europe written in the second set of characters called katakana. Anyone who has tried to learn Japanese has run into the difficulty of learning two sets of characters, one for rendering native Japanese words and another entirely for foreign borrowings.

By every measure, this limited, necessary, and voluntary contact between the Dutch and Japanese may be considered neutral language contact. The nature of the contact between languages was limited, i.e. Dutch did not wholesale impact the Japanese language, and the words that were adopted were carefully marked out as borrowed; the words borrowed previously did not exist in  Japanese and thus were necessary and proved beneficial; and, lastly, it was entirely voluntary and desired by the Japanese, for the Dutch, unlike the Spanish and Portuguese, had not attempted to subvert and conquer Japan. This, I suggest, is a 0, or as close to a zero as one can get on the scale based on the criteria stated.

If the Japanese had been modern academic linguists, Armenian or otherwise, they would have almost certainly raised the following objection:

“But much of Japan’s language consists of loanwords from Chinese in the form of kanji! The children of the sun borrowed in the past and the children of the children of the sun will continue borrowing in the present and the future.”

But this kind of reasoning has me at a loss: how does borrowing in the past necessitate borrowing in the future? On the contrary, having borrowed in the past means one does not need to borrow in the future. One borrows to have, and once one has borrowed once, one does not need to borrow any further unless one lacks something absolutely necessary, the borrowing is voluntary, and it is limited in quantity.

Concerning Japan’s debt to China, the fact is that after indeed having borrowed heavily from China and to a lesser extent Korea, the children of the sun turned these borrowings into something that was neither Korean nor Chinese, carefully cultivating the language in the blessed isolation which only an island can provide, becoming something unique, developing into a thing of its own, different from every other thing: Japanese.

Now compare what occurred to Japan a couple of centuries later in 1853. Four huge smoke-belching warships led by American Navy Admiral Matthew Perry appeared off the Japanese coast and threatened to destroy Japan if it did not open itself to trade (i.e., plunder). The steam-powered warships were equipped with high-powered Paixhans cannons capable of shooting high-velocity explosive shells, the likes of which the still sword-wielding Japanese had never dreamed of. Outgunned and threatened with extermination, Japan unwillingly ended its self-imposed isolation meant to protect itself from precisely this, aggressive European imperial powers. The shogun was forced to sign the Orwellian “Treaty of Peace and Amity” by Perry and, in this way,  Japan was invaded by naked, brutal force. As a result, Americans and other Westerners ran amok in Japan, thumbing their noses at Japanese customs and laws, which they claimed did not apply to them. Over the course of the next hundred years, an oil embargo, two atomic bombings on  Japanese civilian populations, and the military occupation of Japan later, hundreds of English gairaigo (loanwords) and wasei-eigo (English-constructed loanwords) litter the Japanese language. Keeping in mind the “necessary” factor of language contact, here is a very short list:

Iesu: yes 
Nō: no 
Miruku: milk 
Ruru: rule 
Biru: building 
Purezento: present 
Kisu: kiss 
Ansā: answer 
Meiku: make 
Tonneru: tunnel 
Gibbu appu: give up 
Happi endo: happy ending 
Rirakksu: relax 
Faito: fight 
Tekisuto: text/textbook 
Janpu: jump 
Bukku kabā: book cover 
Tenshon: tension 
Doraibu: drive 
Baa: bar 
Oba: over 
Komasharu messeji: commercial message 
Sararīman: salary man 
Gyaru: gal 
Jūsu: juice 
Moningu koto: morning coat 
Ofu: off, on sale 
Sutairu: style 
Jendā furī: gender free, gender equality 
Chiketto: ticket 
Ibento purannā: event planner
Suta: star 
Wai Shatsu: white shirt 
Daburu: double 
Chaji: charge 
Toraburu: trouble 
Onriwan: only one, i.e. unique 
Depāto: department store 
Sekkuso: sex 
Penisu: You know what this is

Though not included here, looking at lists of English words in Japanese, many are for illicit sexual subjects. Evidently, English in Japan is frequently used the way Greek was used in classical Rome, i.e., as a language suitable for erotic subjects. The Roman satirist Juvenal says the following to an elderly Roman woman who happened to use Greek: “Though you might pardon it for a young girl, if you’re nearing eighty-six years old, should you still be speaking Greek? That language is not decent in an old woman’s mouth. Whenever that lascivious ζωὴ καὶ  ψυχή (my life, my soul) comes out, you’re using words in public that belong exclusively to the bedroom.”[4]

It is difficult to put an exact number on the total number of English words in Japanese because it grows by the day. In 2013, a 71-year-old Japanese man filed a lawsuit against the Japanese public broadcasting company, the NHK, for its excessive use of these foreign words. The man claimed the onslaught of gairaigo caused him seishinteki kutsū, psychological pain. The lawsuit was not heard in court, but a local paper came to the man’s defense, saying that “the feeling is well understood,” since foreign katakana words were more prevalent than ever in all aspects of Japanese life, from the private sector to the government. The article cites government figures and university professors who freely mingled English phrases in their Japanese, which, we are told, often come across as “gibberish to many citizens”. Showing the wide applicability of the second criterion stated above, namely, necessity, it goes on to say that the English phrases used “have  perfectly good ways to express the same thing using Japanese.”[5]

Now, can anyone seriously read the words from the list above and then say they are no different from the words Japan borrowed from the Dutch? Who will argue that the voluntary, limited, and beneficial language contact between the Dutch and the Japanese is the same as the torrential influx of English into Japanese since 1853, which is both involuntary (invasion and occupation)  and unnecessary (penisu)? Is it not misleading to call these two vastly different scenarios by the same word, “language contact”?

I know the ansā of the academic linguists: this is a happi endo. “There is no pure language,” etc.,  etc., etc. But without a doubt the contact just described is -10 in voluntariness; a -8 or -9 in redundancy, because some small number of useful industrial or scientific terms have also made their way into the language; and a -6 or -7 in quantity because, at the very least, Japanese is still dominant in Japan and many of the wasei-eigo (English loanwords) make no sense in English and are still quarantined in katakana. Averaging these numbers brings Japan’s language contact with America from 1853 to the present to an overall -8, negative language contact.

The Semantic Siege

Academic linguists relegate evaluation of the changes in a language to “folk” linguists even though, as I have shown above, evaluation is a higher-order task than mere description. But they ignore the quality of that contact to the detriment of the truth. An academic need not lose their cherished objectivity by more fully assessing the nature of a given instance of language contact if they follow the set of objective criteria of voluntariness, necessity, and total volume.

I think only now with the framework I have set out above is my original argument against the sentiments expressed on Dr. Karapetian’s podcast understood:

The contact that Armenian has had with other languages, namely, Persian, Latin, Greek, Arabic, Turkish, Russian, and English has largely been the involuntary result either of an Admiral Matthew Perry-like invasion, subjugation, imposition, or else cultural coercion in every degree of nonvoluntary compulsion from -1 to -10, but generally closer to -10 since Armenia has been ruled by each of these empires for the better part of the past two thousand years.[6] Furthermore, on top of the compulsion, the vast majority of words borrowed have been completely and totally unnecessary, yielding multiple synonyms for common words that already existed in the Armenian language. In the first version of this article, I wrote that when it wasn’t a simple matter of having foreign words imposed on us, the vast majority of words voluntarily borrowed by Armenians weren’t and aren’t highly specialized technical terms in cutting-edge science and mathematics as Armenian once borrowed from classical Greek in the Hellenistic era. The people from whom we borrowed in the recent past and present are a far cry from the Athenians or Alexandrians. Moreover, the words borrowed are for vulgar things like socks, rags, buckets, potatoes, and other mundane miscellanea. I added that it was one thing to have a healthy exchange with an equally developed or more developed nation, but it was another entirely to be overrun and dominated by barbarians or a people of yesterday and pretend like there was a choice in replacing native words with their foreign ones.

Armenian Isn't Pure, it's Փ

The original version of this article was a discussion of the specific statements made by Dr.  Karapetian and her podcast guest on language contact, but the present version was inspired by their statements to analyze the deeper, underlying presuppositions of the entire field of academic linguistics, which is quite far from the scope and focus of the original.

How I wish to conclude this revised article is also far from how I concluded the original. In fact, it is a complete repudiation and reversal of it. Originally, I concluded with a conciliatory statement that we could all agree that there is no pure language. I reinforced this statement by saying that it was understood by reasonable people that no language falls out of the sky, no matter what we were taught as children about Mesrop Mashdots and his alphabet having done just that.

While it is still true that no language falls out of the sky, I now firmly hold that there indeed is such a thing as a pure language, just not the kind of “pure” agreed upon by both academics and the common folk. It’s interesting, in fact, that both the common folk and academics share the same concept of what a pure language must be, the only difference being that the folk believe in it while academics refute it as a straw man. There is another, higher view of a pure language,  which is similar neither to the folk nor of academic conceptions of it.

The view that language is born like Athena full grown from the head of Zeus[7] or like Jesus from a virgin mother is not the only kind of pure there is. The idea most people have of purity is of something untouched, created spontaneously and from thin air. Nothing comes from nothing and everything comes from something, yes, but that doesn’t mean that some thing is every thing. A table is its own thing even though it came from a tree. Its form as a table is what makes it a table and not a chair. We don’t deny the purity of the table as a table just because most of its materials came from a tree and the remainder of its parts from brass. And so, the conception of purity as the virgin goddess Athena being born full grown from Zeus’s head or the virgin Mary giving virgin birth to a demigod without intercourse with any man is not the kind of pure I think a language can be. Most people equate virginity with purity just as they view a pure language as being one that is untouched or born full grown from the mind of God.

But that’s merely the vulgar view of purity held by the folk and academics alike. A person or thing isn’t born pure, it becomes pure. We’re all born out of a mélange of filth, but then we’re bathed, swaddled, and become pure. Subsequently and many times a day thereafter, we dirty ourselves, and as many times as it occurs, our parents change our diapers and we become pure again. Languages likewise come from mixed, ignoble origins, but once cleaned and refined,  become pure. Purity isn’t an original state, it’s a process.

For example, all domestic dogs share a common wolf ancestor and, over the course of millennia, they have been bred, crossbred, and inbred to create countless breeds of all different shapes, colors, and sizes. Out of this impure chaos, surely nothing pure could emerge? Nevertheless, that is precisely what we have in pure dog breeds. These pure breeds are easily identifiable by the naked eye and cannot possibly be confused with any other breed, each breed being its own unique type. No academic linguist denies the existence of pure-bred dogs simply because they all started out as a wolf or that wolf started out as a gopher, or whatever its evolutionary precursor was.

While there is no such thing as pure Dog or pure Language, there is such a thing as a pure breed of dog and a pure type of language. Until a type is created, it goes through endless mutations and contortions, like the sea god Proteus. But, like Proteus, if it is held down long enough, its transformations from seal to lion to serpent to leopard to wild boar to water to a tree stops, and it takes its true and final shape or form, its telos, and like Proteus, it tells us its secrets. Language is indeed Protean, and as in Homer’s epic, it needs a hero to hold it down for a certain length of time: only then will it give us directions home, as Proteus eventually did Menelaus. In dogs, this telos is the dog’s aesthetic or practical purpose, such that a sheep dog is preserved as a sheep dog quite pure once it achieves its form, and a guard dog likewise retains its form as a guard dog because of its sociability, intelligence, loyalty, ferocity, etc. Likewise, languages are types that have gone through a multitude of transformations, molded and shaped by the inner soul of their speakers until they become a mirror of those people, making them different from every other language, unique in their mix of constituent parts.

This was foreshadowed earlier when I described the Japanese language as having been entirely borrowed from Chinese and Korean, yet, with time, isolation, and the genius of its speakers, the language developed into something neither Korean nor Chinese, but something which people with a little knowledge can easily distinguish as uniquely its own thing, and which is not mutually intelligible with its early influences, Japanese.[8] This is precisely what we have in  Armenian, which though as heavily influenced by Persian as Japanese was by Chinese, is not mutually intelligible with its influencer, such that the Armenian language to a Persian may as well be Chinese.

Peter Hrechdakian of the Armenian DNA project once characterized the results of Armenian genetics as being “uniform in its diversity”, a wonderfully paradoxical and ambiguous phrase for the “ambiguous people”, as Tacitus called Armenians two thousand years ago. An initial coalescing of tribes and peoples in distant antiquity from around 1000 B.C., followed by isolation for thousands of years with very little admixture of surrounding peoples, is the process that created the Armenian type, genetically unique and different from surrounding peoples. The same process created the Armenian language, a pure type, an identifiably separate language  “uniform in its diversity”, the black sheep of the Indo-European language family whose closest relative is Greek, influenced strongly by Iranian.

Do Not Borrow

As convincing as this might be to many, I am aware, however, that academic linguists dislike biological metaphors in relation to language. For instance, Gregersen and Langer disapprovingly list the following linguistic terms coined on the analogy of biology:

The bigger language is seen to be “displacing” the smaller language…Such changes in speaker behavior are usually not observed in a distanced way by minority language scholars but rather are seen as a reason for concern, with the linguists feeling compelled to slow down or reverse the process. Such concerns are illustrated by the choice of technical terms that recur to biological metaphors, e.g. the notion of language death, the need to revitalize language or conceptualization of language ecologies, and the creation of the term linguicide in analogy to homicide and genocide, perceptions that for big languages are traditionally found only in the period before 1900 (164).

Here academic linguists revert to the doctrine of perpetual flux, and no doubt they would agree  with the Roman poet Ovid, “Nothing dies, everything changes.” Very well. I offer a different analogy for language other than biology, one that is perhaps even more apt, namely, the analogy with money. People coin words as they coin money; words, like money, then circulate among a group of people and serve the purpose of facilitating exchange. Also, words, like money, can be borrowed from others.

But is it good to borrow money or words? Plutarch answers this question in his essay “That We Ought Not to Borrow”. He offers a number of arguments against borrowing money, many of which also apply to borrowing words.

He begins by discussing a law suggested by Plato in which individuals are forbidden from  drawing water from their neighbor’s property until they have dug as far as they can in their own  land: “he allows people that cannot make a well of their own to use their neighbor’s water, for  the law ought to relieve necessity.”[9] (The “necessity” factor in the criteria I laid out finds support  in this statement.) Plutarch then adds the following, which, again, the reader should read “word”  where he writes “money”:

Ought there not also to be a law about money, that people should not borrow of others, nor go to other people’s sources of income until they have first examined their own resources at home, and collected, as by drops, what is necessary for their use? But nowadays from luxury and effeminacy and lavish expenditure, people do not use their own resources,  though they have them, but borrow from others at great interest without necessity.[10]

Ought there not also to be a law about words? Plutarch later explains that no one should ever borrow money for any reason, his main contention being that borrowing money at interest is a scam from which one will never be able to extricate themselves. (Considering the average American has more than $5,000 in credit card debt and that student loan debts total nearly $2 trillion, Plutarch and the ancient in general were right.) In all cases, he argues that it is better to be poor and free rather than to be rich and in debt. He encourages people to rely on their own resources and their own labor rather than voluntarily enslaving themselves to others. People think borrowing money when they have nothing means they are thereby in the positive, but  Plutarch argues that whereas before one had nothing, after having borrowed, one has less than nothing because now they are in the negative. “Have you anything? do not borrow, for you are not in a necessitous condition. Have you nothing? do not borrow, for you will never be able to pay back.”[11]

But unlike in borrowing money, many will say, there is no interest charged for borrowed words and so the risk is not the same. Oh, but in loanwords as in loaned money, there is always risk.  The interest rate on loanwords has been very steep for Armenians. When not simply imposed by  force, borrowing has been the result of, as Plutarch noted about those who borrow money, “from luxury and effeminacy and lavish expenditure” and that “[Armenian] people do not use their own resources, though they have them, but borrow from others at great interest without necessity.”  The collateral our ancestors put up against the loanwords they lavishly borrowed was the Armenian language itself, and at least once in our history, the entire Armenian language nearly defaulted on its debts and was on the brink of being repossessed and handed over to our Persian lenders. When European accountants, I mean, linguists…were going through our books, they saw that Armenian was in deep, deep debt to the Persians, and many seized our tongue and handed it over to Iran. However, others who looked at it more carefully noticed that, no, we weren’t bankrupt: a few assets still remained in the language and there was an Armenian substrate which the Persians didn’t own. Though the loans weren’t forgiven, the schedule was thankfully extended.[12]

Who do we have to thank for buying us some time? Without a doubt it was a small number of stubborn purists like the men who founded the Gaelic League in 1893 to preserve and encourage the use of Irish and resist the total anglicization of Ireland; men like the 71-year-old Japanese retiree who sued the NHK for psychological pain induced by its farrago of English gairaigo, or his ancestors who had the ingenuity and foresight to create a whole separate set of symbols to mark off European loanwords in katakana. All of these were purists, without whom the tapestry of human languages and civilization would have been much less varied and interesting, and who stubbornly fought to preserve the type, which, contrary to the academics, can be pure. Just because something begins in impurity, doesn’t mean it can’t become pure. Purity arises out of impurity, just as order comes from chaos.


[1] I wonder if linguists who hold this view are consistent in their reasoning. Imagine if a Home Depot or Starbucks were to open in their town and, as usually happens, small, locally owned businesses were to be undercut by all-pervasive, cheap goods, leading to their customer base drying up and the small stores eventually shutting down. From owning their own shops, the former small business owners start working as employees of these supranational corporations. Would academic linguists view this as “no better or worse” because selling hammers or coffee in your own store is the same as selling hammers of coffee at a Home Depot or Starbucks? Yet, what big corporations do to small businesses is what big languages do to small languages. Would most academics be consistent? I have my doubts.

[2] Or, of course, if it itself has coined its own word. Contrary to Gregersen and Langer, not every word is borrowed from some other language. People invent words as well.

[3] Even in the present where borrowing and lending money is viewed as a respectable and useful service as opposed to antiquity where it was viewed as fraudulent and unnatural, a microloan to a Bangladeshi fishmonger of $15 to buy a fishnet is recognized as not so harmful as an unpayable $100,000,000 loan from the International Monetary Fund with a high rate of default and ensuing austerity, i.e. pawning off one’s resources to pay down the unpayable debt.

[4] Juvenal, Satire VI.

[5] “When does one’s native language stop being native?” Japan Times. August 25, 2013.

[6] Armenians sometimes try to save face or pretend they did themselves what was actually imposed on them, such as the 1922 imposition of the “Reform” orthography by the Bolsheviks. Some like to pretend it was scholar Manouk Abeghian who was responsible and not the Soviets.

[7] See above where this is the academic linguists’ narrow conception of purity: “Languages are not born or come into being.”

[8] “What is pure Japanese?” This question by academics meant to stymy purists isn’t as difficult to answer as they think. What is pure Japanese? The language used in Japan in 1543, one day before Europeans first came into contact with it; or, better, in 1853, one day before Japan was invaded by America and subsequently subjugated. It was at either of these times that the Japanese had developed into a type, different and not mutually intelligible with the language of the mainland, having taken the shape of the spirit of the people of Japan.

[9] From Morals: Ethical Essays, translated by Richard Shiletto, p. 365.

[10] Ibid., p.365-366.

[11] Ibid., p. 369.

[12] The ancient Persians forbade borrowing money because borrowing forced the debtor to tell lies, which went against the Persian ethical law that one should always speak the truth (Herodotus, Histories, 1.136). The wisdom of this is seen in the disputes some Armenians have with neighboring people, for example, when they confidently claim that “dolma” is an Armenian word when it is pretty clearly Turkish. As the Persians knew, the initial act of borrowing almost of necessity leads to this kind of dishonesty, conscious or unconscious.

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