By Harout S. Manougian,
International recognition is a common Armenian struggle. The recent recognition (or re-affirmation) of the Armenian Genocide by both houses of the U.S. Congress was the result of decades of advocacy. The Republic of Artsakh seeks international recognition but significant progress has not been made since its 1994 ceasefire with Azerbaijan. Much less attention has been given to the recognition of the Western Armenian language.
In the same way that the Armenian Genocide happened whether Donald Trump uses the word or not and that Artsakh is self-governing whether it hosts foreign embassies or not, the Western Armenian language is used both within Armenia and in the diaspora whether the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) considers it a separate language or not.
Fortunately, two years ago, on January 23, 2018, Western Armenian was given its own language code (“hyw”) in ISO Standard 639-3, granting crucial acknowledgement by the international body. Six years earlier, a different application to include it had been rejected by the oversight committee.
This international standard is not the sole arbiter on whether a language exists. Western Armenian had already been listed in the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger (with the status of “definitely endangered,” meaning that children mostly opt not to use it, even if they understand it). However, ISO 639-3 does assign three-letter codes to languages (“eng” for English, “est” for Estonian, etc.). The codes are used in computer systems (like library catalogs) to ensure consistency. As its intention is to “provide as complete an enumeration of languages as possible, including living, extinct, ancient and constructed languages, whether major or minor, written or unwritten,” it has become a proxy for recognition in the digital age.
The Struggle for a Western Armenian Wikipedia
Wikipedia is currently available in 299 languages. Since April 2019, Western Armenian is one of them, but it was a long road to get there. Previous applications had been rejected as no ISO code existed for Western Armenian. Most major world languages have a two-letter code assigned in ISO Standard 639-1 (“en” for English, “et” for Estonian, etc.). The Wikimedia Foundation uses these codes to create the URL for the Wikipedia in each language (“en.wikipedia.org” for the English Wikipedia, “hy.wikipedia.org” for the Armenian Wikipedia). They could also use a three-letter code from ISO 639-3 if the language does not have a two-letter code (ex. “arz” for Egyptian Arabic or “pms” for Piedmontese).
With only one Armenian Wikipedia, articles could be written using either Eastern grammar and reformed spelling (predominant in the former Soviet Union), Western grammar and classical spelling (predominant in Turkey, Syria and Lebanon) or Eastern grammar and classical spelling (predominant in Iran). In the same way, articles using either American or British spelling conventions coexist on one English Wikipedia site.
At first, articles written in Western grammar and classical spelling were being edited to make them more easily readable by people in Armenia. Remember, anyone with Internet access can edit a Wikipedia article. To avoid the effective removal of Western Armenian, however, applications were filed to create a separate Western Armenian Wikipedia site, where the articles could retain their original form. These applications were all rejected on the grounds that Western Armenian did not have its own separate ISO code. A 2011 application to split the Armenian ISO code into Eastern Armenian and Western Armenian was rejected because it stated that the main difference between the two was the Soviet-era spelling reforms (championed by Manuk Abeghyan in the 1920s, with some rollbacks by Gurgen Sevak in 1940). The ISO registration authority was under the impression that it was an American English/British English relationship and felt that one language code was sufficient.
In reality, however, the relationship is more akin to that between Norwegian Bokmål and Norwegian Nynorsk, which have their own standard written forms, their own separate three-letter ISO 639-3 codes, “nob” and “nno” (and even separate two-letter ISO 639-1 codes, “nb” and “nn”) and their own separate Wikipedia sites.
Alas, without an ISO code, the Armenian Wikipedia settled on a compromise: articles written in Western Armenian would get their own separate page on the site with “(Western Armenian)” appearing at the end of the title of the article. There would be two articles on the same topic, as in “Komitas” [Կոմիտաս] and “Gomidas (Western Armenian)” [Կոմիտաս (Արեւմտահայերէն)]. It was a hack of sorts, effectively creating a separate Western Armenian Wikipedia embedded within the main Armenian one.
Wikimedia Armenia wasn’t satisfied with this temporary arrangement, however. In 2017, it partnered with the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, INALCO and Evertype to submit a new application to the ISO for the creation of a Western Armenian language code. It gathered evidence to support the application, detailing the schools, newspapers and university programs that were centered specifically on Western Armenian, clarifying how it was qualitatively different from – even if mutually intelligible with – Eastern Armenian.
This time, the oversight committee understood the dynamics better and agreed to create a new code.
Armenian Language Codes in ISO 639-3
There are now five different forms of Armenian officially registered as part of ISO 639-3:
- “xcl” refers to Classical Armenian (grabar), the literary form of the language to which the Bible was translated in the fifth century, after the invention of the Armenian alphabet by Mesrop Mashtots.
- “axm” refers to Middle Armenian (mijin hayeren or sometimes “Cilician Armenian”), the form used in the Middle Ages, notably adopting the two additional letters of “Օ” and “Ֆ” to incorporate words with foreign origins.
- “hye” refers to “Armenian,” that is, the modern form of the language currently used in the Republic of Armenia. Notably, the official language name was not changed to “Eastern Armenian” in the standard.
- “hyw” refers to “Western Armenian,” the form predominant in Turkey, Syria and Lebanon.
- “aen” refers to Armenian Sign Language
For completeness, another application should be filed to also add “hyx” as the inclusive macrolanguage to the standard. Other languages such as Norwegian, Kurdish and Chinese have a macrolanguage code as well, used to refer to the larger grouping in general.
Wikimedia Armenia was established as an NGO in 2013 to promote wiki projects (Wikipedia is by far the largest project but not the only one) in Armenia. It is headquartered in Yerevan and serves as the Armenian chapter of the Wikimedia Foundation, headquartered in San Francisco. In 2014, it set the goal to create a Western Armenian Wikipedia site. To build and support the community that would sustain it, they initiated a number of projects, providing wiki training to teachers, students and journalists across the Middle East and Europe. The participants joined a Facebook group to continue their collaboration. The group still connects remotely for weekend-long “editathons,” where they work on Western Armenian Wikipedia articles, often with a specific theme.
Azniv Stepanian, Wikimedia Armenia’s Western Armenian Coordinator, explained how she saw a Western Armenian Wikipedia site as a tool for advancing the language in the digital age. She was personally involved in the ISO application and, finally, on April 1, 2019, launched the Western Armenian Wikipedia site. All the articles previously created with “(Western Armenian)” in their titles were migrated over. The site now counts over 7000 articles. The focus of the organization for 2020 will be connecting linguists with subject matter experts to create new technical words, using Wikipedia to spread them across the Western Armenian-speaking world.
Due to the efforts of Wikimedia Armenia, Western Armenian is now officially recognized by the ISO. Besides enabling the Wikipedia site, it also opens the door to being included in Google Translate, Microsoft Windows localizations, the Facebook user interface, etc. Notably, it also allows book publishers to more easily sell translation rights separately for the two forms of the language. Adapting the language to the online world will be an important step to removing it from UNESCO’s endangered list and now anyone can play a role in the effort from the comfort of their living room.
Harout S. Manougian is a volunteer legislative assistant to an Armenian Member of Parliament. He is a former municipal politician from Toronto and holds a Master in Public Administration degree from Harvard University and a Master in Engineering degree from the University of Waterloo.