Michael Stone, Professor of Armenian Studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, was the guest speaker at St. Nersess yesterday evening at the Seminary in New Rochelle, New York.
Prof. Stone delivered a lecture entitled, "Why Have an Armenian Alphabet?" The lecture was the second in a series dedicated to the 1600th anniversary of the creation of the Armenian alphabet by St. Mesrob Mahsdots and his patron, Catholicos St. Sahag.
(To hear Professor Stone's lecture, Why Have an Armenian Alphabet? click here).
The Seminary's impressive dark-panelled living room was filled to capacity as Professor Stone presented an illustrated history of the development of the Armenian letters. Shining the spotlight on the great fifth-century creator of the Armenian characters, St. Mesrob Mashdots, whom Stone called "a genius," he also traced the changing shapes of the Armenian letters throughout the centuries.
"Mesrob Mashdots did not invent the notion of an alphabet," Stone said at the beginning of his talk. That achievement predates Mesrob by some 2200 years. An alphabet is an integrated system of writing in which each sound or phoneme of a spoken language is associated with one and only one sign. "This proved to be a much more economic way of writing than using ideograms," Stone said, "in which a sign must be created for each and every idea to be communcated."
"What Mashdots did," Stone continued, "was to compile all of the sound-units orphonemes of the Armenian language, and to assign a single character for each one. This is no small undertaking. It takes a genius to do what Mesrob Mashdots did."
According to the fifth-century biography of Mesrob Mashdots by his pupil, Koriwn, the Armenians first attempted to create a system for writing their language by using an existing alphabet invented by a certain Syrian "Daniel." These characters were probably based on the semitic Syriac alphabet, which comprises 22 consonants and no vowels. The system proved inadequate for writing Armenian, which has many speech-sounds that do not exist in Syriac.
When Mesrob then set out to create his alphabet, he was clearly influenced by the existing Greek alphabet, not so much in the shape of the characters but in their sequence. The last letter of the Armenian alphabet is keh. Stone suggested that Mesrob made this the 36th and last letter of the alphabet because it is the first letter in the Armenian name for Christ, Krisdos, and Mesrob was inspired by Revelation 1:8 in the Bible: "'I am the Alpha and the Omega,' says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty." By referring to "alpha" and "omega," the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, the passage emphasizes God's eternity and omnipresence. The Armenian letter keh, particularly in its earliest form, looks like a cross.
The first letter of the Armenian alphabet, Ayp, is the first letter of the Armenian word for God, Asdvadz.
No written documents survive from the fifth century, making it impossible to know the precise forms that Mesrob designed. The earliest surviving written Armenian text is the so-called Queen Mlkeh Gospel, which is written on parchment and dated 862 AD. The large and elegant characters with rounded corners are all uncials, that is, capital letters. This style is calledMesrobian or Yergatageer. The latter means "iron letter," perhaps because these early Armenian characters were incised into stone using an iron chisel.
An Evolution in Style
The earliest samples of Armenian writing are not found on parchment at all, but inscribed into stone. A stone inscription in Tekor, in western Armenia, dates to the late fifth century, not long after Mesrob invented the alphabet. Even earlier are more than 100 Armenian graffiti inscriptions found along pilgrim routes in the Sinai desert and in Nazareth. Several of these, which were discovered and documented by Professor Stone himself, can be dated to the fifth century.
At a lecture at St. Nersess two years ago, Stone related his discovery of these ancient graffiti and their significance.
Stone displayed a slide illustrating some of these graffiti. He pointed out significant differences in the shape of certain letters such as ayp, vev, dyoon and men, compared to the characters we are familiar with today.
Other styles of Armenian script include bolorgeer, a slanted style which is the ancestor of the earliest printed characters. It first appears in some 10th-century manuscripts, particularly in colophons, editorial asides appended to many manuscripts by the scribes who wrote them. "These are informal writings," Stone emphasized. "They are to be distinguished from formal texts like Gospels and liturgical books, where the style of writing is often quite different." The bolorgir style does not appear in "formal" writing until much later.
"It is my hypothesis," he continued, "that the various styles of Armenian script — yergatageer, bolorgeer, nodrgeer andsheghageer — do not represent consecutive stages in the evolution of Armenian writing," Stone said. "Rather, I believe that the informal script of one stage becomes the formal script of the next stage. Each stage had its formal and informal style."
Professor Stone took a few minutes to introduce his recent book, an Album of Armenian Paleography (Aarhus University Press, 2002), which he has co-authored with the noted Armenian scholar Dickran Kouymjian and Henning Lehman. This impressive work contains more than 200 samples of Armenian writing from securely-dated manuscripts. The album intends to provide a "benchmark" against which to compare undated manuscripts. About 25,000-30,000 Armenian manuscripts survive in depositories throughout the world. The largest collections are in theMatenadaran in Yerevan; in the Patriarchal library of Jerusalem, and in the library of the Mechitarist fathers on the island of San Lazzaro, near Venice.
As Prof. Stone was speaking, he displayed a slide of the dedicatory page of his book, which reads: "This Album of Armenian Paleography is dedicated to the memory of Mesrob Mashdots on the occasion of the 1600th anniversary of his invention of the Armenian alphabet."
A lively period of discussion followed Dr. Stone's lecture. In response to one question, he ruled out any connection between the Armenian and the Ethiopian alphabets. Some of the Ethiopian characters bear a striking resemblance to certain Armenian letters.
On the other hand, Stone stated forcefully, "I have no doubt whatsoever that Mesrob Mashdots created all three Caucasian alphabets--the Armenian, the Georgian and the Aghvan. The oldest forms of these three alphabets bear a remarkable physical resemblance."
"St. Nersess Seminary," Dr. Stone said in closing, "is an extraordinary institution. This is going to be the armenological center in North America very quickly."
In his introductory remarks, Dr. Abraham Terian, Academic Dean and Professor of Armenian Patristics surveyed the remarkable achievements in Dr. Stone's scholarly career. At Hebrew University, Stone is Professor of both Armenian Studies and Inter-Testamental Literature, which Terian called, "the blank page in your Bible between the Old Testament and the New Testament." This body of literature is twice the size of the Bible itself.
An enjoyable reception followed the lecture, during which numerous guests, clergy, seminarians and former students greeted Professor Stone and engaged him in conversation.
The next lecture in the Seminary's Fall Lecture Series will take place on Monday, November 14, when Mr. Jason Demerjian will present a talk entitled, "Women in the Canons of the Armenian Church."