Arab rule over Armenia, lasting through most of the 6th to the 10th century, caused a decline in the production of literature in Armenian. In the 10th century Thomas of Ardsruni, an important historian, appeared, as did the poet and bishop Gregory Narek. In the 12th century the patriarch Nerses the Gracious, poet, theologian, and historian, wrote prayers and hymns still in use. New literary forms began to appear in the 13th century, but for the next four centuries Classical Armenian literature was confined to the monasteries. A body of literature in the contemporary or vernacular language, however, was produced by such poet-minstrels as Sayat-Novain the 18th century.
During the 18th century Armenian congregations were established in many cities in Europe, as well as in Asia. A special impetus toward the preservation of Armenian literature was given by the establishment in 1717 of a college and convent on the island of San Lazzaro near Venice by the Armenian prelate Mechitar de Petro. In Venice, and at another congregation established later in Vienna, Mechitarist monks are still producing literature in Armenian.
Beginning about 1850 a modern school of Armenian writers came into existence, especially in the Russian and Turkish parts of the country; the members of this school wrote exclusively in the dialects of Modern Armenian. This movement produced works in every literary form, though none of its writers won an international reputation; the movement is also responsible for important collections of Armenian folklore. After the founding of the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1936, literature in Armenian was encouraged and carefully monitored by the Soviet government. The most successful field for the Armenian writer in the 20th century was journalism, with many periodicals written in Armenian being published in various parts of the world.
The Armenian language, which forms a separate branch of the western group of Indo-European languages, is the mother tongue of the Turkish Armenians and of the Armenians in Armenia, where it is spoken by 2,850,000 people. In other parts of the former Soviet Union, especially in the neighbouring republics of Georgia and Azerbaijan, it is used by some 1,300,000. Armenian emigrants and refugees have taken their language with them all over Asia Minor and the Middle East and from there to many European countries, especially Romania, Poland, and France, and to America, particularly the United States. In all, Armenian is probably spoken by about 5,500,000 people around the world.
After the introduction of Christianity to Armenia about AD 400, the language began to be written down; an alphabet of 36 letters was invented, according to tradition, by Mesrop Mashtots. (Two letters were added later.) Admirably suited to the phonology of Armenian, it is still used in various forms by Armenians all over the world. The oldest writings in the language date from the 5th century; they are preserved in manuscript form from the 9th century. Grabar, the written language of the 5th century, the golden age of Armenian culture, is traditionally said to be based on the dialect of Tarawn on Lake Van. To what extent the spoken language was split into dialects at that time is not known. The language of the literature from the 5th to the 8th century is remarkably homogeneous, but by the 9th century the influence of the spoken dialects was noticeable, especially in legal and historical texts. Among the Middle Armenian varieties of Grabar, the best known is the 12th- and 13th-century chancellery (court) language of the Armenian kingdom in Cilicia. More or less corrupted versions of Grabar continued as the literary language until the middle of the 19th century.
In addition to the two literary languages, there are a great number of dialects, some of which are so different that the speakers cannot understand each other. It is estimated that before World War I some 50 distinct dialects were spoken. These dialects, however, have lost ground in Transcaucasia, under the pressure of the standard written language.
When the scientific study of Armenian started in the 19th century, the language was considered an Iranian dialect, a mistake easily explained by the vast number of Iranian loanwords in the vocabulary. Subsequent studies, however, have convincingly shown Armenian to be an independent member of the Indo-European language family. According to the Greek historian Herodotus, Armenian was a variety of Phrygian, a tongue presumed to be Indo-European. What little is known of the latter is insufficient to support or confirm such a claim.
Also characteristic of Modern Armenian is the importance of the passive forms of the verb, which are strictly parallel to the active forms, and the emergence of a special negative conjugation with differing forms for verbs in instances like I read and I don't read. Whereas Old Armenian was rather close to ancient Greek in many respects, Modern Armenian is typologically much closer to Turkish. Among the features that illustrate this similarity are the agglutinative system of declension (that is, the compounding of several linguistic elements of independent meaning into a single word), the use of suffixes to indicate possession, the employing of passive and causative forms for all verbs, and the use of postpositions (grammatical elements that are placed after the word) instead of prepositions (as were used in Old Armenian). The vocabulary of the written languages is purely Armenian, being based almost exclusively on that of Grabar, with very few loanwords from the neighbouring languages. (The Iranian loanwords mentioned above were incorporated into Armenian before the creation of the written language.) (H.K.V./Ed.)