Armen Chakmakjian

On being Armenian…and languages…

In Random on August 19, 2015 at 2:32 am

So what is it to be Armenian? I’ve written before of the circuitous route that my sides of my family took to get to America. Unfortunately for many years, the Armenian Genocide defined our people. We were the genocide people…this would be in contrast to the 3000 years of history that would have — should have — defined us.

So who were the Armenians. There are so many stories. No, we aren’t Greek, nor are we Arab, nor are we Persian, nor are we Russian, nor are we Turkish. It becomes hard to define us because until recently there was 600 years in which we were not defined by borders which would indicate a nation-state.

In 2014, my wife and I were in Rome. Our older son was the Northeastern University TA for the semester abroad students in Rome and met us at the Vatican. Of course my wife cried. He took us for his tour of Rome, breaking us away from the very good tour we were on. But this was special. How often can you be taken around the Eternal City by your son, an American citizen by birth and Armenian by descent on both sides? We went everywhere. I think my Fitbit said I walked 32000 steps that day. At one point we came up to an obelisk in honor of Marcus Aurelius. Using my Jesuit Latin training I read the inscription: Marco Aurelio Imperatore, qui vicit Germani, Partheni et Armenii (Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who conquered the Germans, the Parthians, and the Armenians). Hmmm…we were there…and a force to be reckoned with. Enough that they put the inscription on the 1700 year old obelisk. Our son took us around and ordered food in Italian, asked for directions in Italian, conversed with other people, and told us what the signs mean (although I could pick off enough of the Italian from my own Latin training).

Later that trip, we ended up breaking away again from the tour in Venice. When everyone else went to Burano, we got on a vaparetto to go to San Lazzaro, the monastery of the Armenian Catholic Mekhitarist Monks (San Lazzaro Degli Armeni). It was amazing. Armenian Monks in Venice who are there to preserve Armenian culture and make a bridge to the West. For Armenians, they are the equivalent of the Jesuits to the rest of the world, teachers in many countries.

Later that same summer, my younger son took a trip to Venice to take a 3 week Armenian intensive class. He’s a linguistics major at Brandeis, who at that point knew Armenian due to his training in 15 years of Armenian Saturday school and who took 7 years of latin from 6th grade on (just like his older brother). At Brandeis, beside his theoretical linguistics classes, he took a class in Hebrew, and began his journey to master French.

I’ve been trying to learn French recently. I was using Rosetta Stone, and I got through a fair amount of stuff. I can pick through people speaking common things if they go slow. I’m not going to claim that I can speak it…I can ask for water, a towel and say, “She is wearing red shoes.” Not astounding and definitely not living up to my immediate ancestors, progenitors or progeny.

My father was always proud of the fact that he could converse in Italian and Arabic, beside Armenian and Turkish. He also had some training in French and would chuckle when someone would say an expression in French. My father worked in the Bar Finish Department at Carpenter Steel in Bridgeport, grinding steel bars to thousandths of an inch of polish, to support his family. He often helped out the International Institute in Bridgeport doing translations of Turkish documents and letters into English for Armenian newcomers. I often saw him sitting at the dining room table with our two Turkish-English and English-Turkish sözlüğü (dictionary) doing the translations of these items, noting the pages and then writing the translation. Talk about moonlighting…

His younger sister, Mary, knowing French, Armenian and Arabic and Turkish, would later learn Spanish and Portuguese to be able to travel to various countries setting up manufacturing facilities for the Warner Bra Company.

I thought of my grandfather reading an Italian newspaper in Bridgeport to keep up his fluency, he knowing Italian, French, Arabic, Armenian and Turkish (and probably some more). My mother without a lot of formal training, spoke and understood Armenian, Turkish, and Greek, and knew a bit of French too.

In our house growing up, my mother spoke fluent Turkish with my father while using Armenian and a smattering of English with us. My father always spoke English to us, in that almost too perfect British-English he learned in Bethlehem, Beit Jamal, Ramleh and Jerusalem. When we had guests over, the men went outside to smoke and spoke in Turkish to each other. They spoke in English and Armenian to us depending on what they wanted. The women spoke Armenian to us. A man and his wife might speak Turkish to each other, but a man speaking to another man’s wife would invariably speak Armenian (and the reverse was the same). Every once in a while, depending on the guests, we’d hear a drop or two of Arabic…and my mother might say a few things in Greek just to spice it up (of course she was born in Bolis…Constantinopolis…hey, it’s Istanbul not Constantinople, Istanbul not Constantinople…it’s a long time gone from Constantinople…even old New York was once New Amsterdam. Why they changed it, I can’t say…people just liked it better that way).

So as you can see, language was somehow ingrained in our being…not just Armenian or English. The ability to speak in multiple languages was not only valued it was EXPECTED. We are Armenians, at the crossroads of civilization. People had to get through Armenia to get somewhere else for trade or conquest. The Apostles Thaddeus and Bartholomew separately came to Armenia to preach. St. Gregory the illuminator, the founder of the Armenian Church in 301AD (30 years before the Roman Empire) has an enormous statue now just outside the entrance to St. Peter’s Basilica, just as you take the exit ramp out of the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel. Pope John Paul II visited Armenia in 2001. Pope Francis spoke eloquently on the subject of the Armenian genocide. While I listened to his homily in Italian, I heard what he said and could pick through the Italian and I could tell what he was saying.

Armenian, Latin, French, Italian, English…Hebrew…Turkish…Arabic…Spanish…Portuguese…Greek…

So why do I tell you all this. Honestly, I’m writing this for other Armenians more so than the rest of readers. Our Armenian political and secular culture, especially in the diaspora, emphasizes knowing Armenian as a sign of inclusion. If your Armenian isn’t that great, or you don’t speak it at all and maybe just know the food, you can be ostracized. In our Armenian diaspora-inspired-chauvinism, if you don’t speak fluent Armenian, you are considered something less or lost.

My younger son, who is in Venice for a second August, to learn and improve his Armenian at the University of Venice and with the Monks of San Lazaro told me that one of the clerics emphasized that what defined us as Armenians for ages and ages what not simply how well we spoke Armenian but rather that we not only spoke Armenian well but that we also spoke and read and wrote with native fluency in whatever nation we happened to live in. He emphasized that that language ability made us brokers of all things for many centuries in the ancient world and in the middle ages…intellectual thought, financial transactions et cetera. From my son’s brief description of the lecture (over the phone), the break between ancient Armenian and Greek intellectual cultures was due to the fact that in the middle east and roman empire, Hellenic culture was the epitome of thought and ancient greek the language of intellectualism. He who didn’t converse in Greek was a barbarian. Armenian intellectuals from the 4th Century on, rejected this notion. As I thought about this, it also seemed to coincide with the Chalcedonian break from the greater church as well as the wars with the Persians ending with the treaty of Nvarsag. From my study of Roman history and culture, the Romans viewed the Hellenic culture as aspirational also. There was some inference to Anglo-Saxon culture also buying into this theory (this probably is why there was such an emphasis on the classics in western education until recently…when I read a biography of St. Thomas More it emphasized rhetoric and hurling insults in latin and greek as training).

When I was in college, while taking my engineering and computer science classes, my liberal arts concentration was in literature. I took classes that included Drama, Novels, and Poetry. The poetry professor was a visiting instructor, Sam Abrams of beat generation fame (you know Jack Kerouac, Alan Ginsberg and whatnot). On a particular day where I had classes from 8AM to 5PM straight with no breaks — Electronics Lab, Circuits Lab, Circuit and Electronics lecture, my Programming class…and this class at noon. I had run to get a sandwich in the student union and got to class a couple of minutes late. I had to sit in the only available chair which was the one desk separated from the rest near the doorway — this made me visible to everyone in the class as it was pointed sideways back at the class…I felt like I was getting a timeout. I began to unwrap my sandwich while he collected his thoughts.

Suddenly, he turned to me and asked, “Are you…Chakmakjian?” I affirmed my name (I can’t remember if he pronounced it correctly). He then began to talk about powerful metaphors and started to read one of the poems I wrote (you can find them on scribd) that mentioned a plane flight to Boston and I was describing the fact that I was going for interviews, how tired I was, what the food was like and then the frazzled blonde flight attendant who I described as “my future ex-wife.” (Esther has read the poem so there’s no harm…hey I was 22 years old and waxing poetic!). He thought that line was awesome and was telling the class on how powerful that metaphor was in light of the culture we lived in. Anyway, he then turned to me and said, “You are Armenian?”


“How many languages do you know?”

Oh boy, here we go. I was late, he read my poem and now he’s about to embarrass me by outing my cultural upbringing. “Well, obviously English, and Armenian, and a basic amount of Turkish…and I suppose can use my high school Latin if I were stuck in Rome.”

He chuckled, then turned back to the class and said, “Every Armenian I know seems to know 4 or 5 languages…it seems genetic. It’s really amazing.”

I never thought of it as amazing, I just thought it was. In retrospect, I guess I now appreciate his point of view…


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