The ancient Armenian or Haikan language (now dead), notwithstanding the great antiquity of the nation to which it belongs, possesses no literary documents prior to the fifth century of the Christian aera. The translation of the Bible, begun by Mesrob (q.v.) in the year 410, is the earliest monument of the language that has come down to us. The dialect in which this version is written, and in which it is still publicly read in their churches, is called the old Armenian. The dialect now in use-the modern Armenian-in which they preach and carry on the intercourse of daily life, not only departs from the elder form by dialectual changes in the native elements of the language itself, but also by the great intermixture of Persian and Turkish words which has resulted from the conquest and subjection of the' country. It is, perhaps, this diversity of the ancient and modern idioms which has given rise to the many conflicting opinions that exist as to the relation in which the Armenian stands to other languages. Thus Cirbied and Vater both assert that it is an original language; that is, one so distinct from all others in its fundamental character as not to be classed with any of the great families of languages. Eichhorn, on the other hand (Sprachenkunde, p. 349), affirms that the learned idiom of the Armenian undoubtedly belongs to the MedoPersian family; whereas Pott (Untersuchungen, p. 32) says that, notwithstanding its many points of relation to that family, it cannot strictly be considered to belong to it; and Gatterer actually classed it as a living sister of the Basque, Finnish, and Welsh languages.
As to form, it is said to be rough and full of consonants; to possess ten cases in the noun-a number which is only exceeded by the Finnish; to have no dual; to have no mode of denoting gender in the noun by change of form, but to be obliged to append the words man and woman as the marks of sex-thus, to say prophet-woman for prophetess (nevertheless, modern writers use the syllable ouhi to distinguish the feminine; Wahl, Geschichte d. Morgenl. Sprachen, p. 100); to bear a remarkable resemblance to Greek in the use of the participle, and in the whole syntactical structure; 'nd to have adopted the Arabian system of metre.
The history of its alphabetical character is briefly this: until the third century of our aera, the Armenians used either the Persian or Greek alphabet (the letter in Syrian characters, mentioned by Diodor. 19:23, is not considered an evidence that they wrote Armenian in Syrian characters, as that letter was probably Persian). In the fifth century, however, the translation of the Bible created the necessity for characters which would more adequately represent the peculiar sounds of the language. Accordingly, after a fruitless attempt of a certain Daniel, and after several efforts on his own part, Mesrob saw a hand in a dream v write the very characters which now constitute the Armenian alphabet. The 38 letters thus obtained are chiefly founded on the Greek, but have partly made out their number by deriving some forms from the Zend alphabet. The order of writing is from left to right. Mesrob employed these letters in his translation of the Bible, and thus insured their universal and permanent adoption by the nation (Gesenius, article Palceographie, in Ersch und Gruber). See Tromler, Bibliothecae Armenicae spec. (Plan. 1758); Schroder, Thesaurus ling. Armen. antique et nove (Amsterd. 1711); Cirbied, Gram. Armenienne (Par. 1822); Petermann,. Grammatica Armen. (Berol. 1837); also, Brevis linguae Armenicae grammatica, literatura, chrestomathia, c. glossario (ib. 1841); Calfa, Dictionnaire Armenienne (Par. 1861). SEE SHEMITIC LANGUAGES.