Turkish & Armenian

I was a huge Eurovision fan as a small kid. The first blogs I made on Azbuz.com, a Turkish blogging service that I used as a thirteen, fourteen year old for my mid-school class, featured posts with an embedded YouTube video of Sertab Erener performing at the forty-eighth Eurovision Song Contest in Riga, Latvia, which she won for Turkey for the first time in its Eurovision history. My craze for the Song Contest was so enormous that, thanks to bilingual announcements during the voting in French and English, I learned country names in French by heart when, as a high school sophomore, I watched the two thousand and ten version of the Contest every day for the course of a month during which I didn’t have internet connection as we moved to a new apartment with my family. “(any contestant country in French), douze points” was a classic sentence that I got used to hearing. I also learned most things by heart other than the country names in French then. What happened literally at every second of the show.

What I came to realize during the endless hours of watching the show was how our neighboring countries bore resemblances to our culture, or in some cases, how their performances on the show reminded me of the regional culture that neighbors them directly. For example, the Greek entry “My Number One”, of two thousand and five was performed by Elena Paparizou and granted Greece their first Eurovision victory that year. In her performance, there was a solo that featured a Cretan lyra, which I likened to the Turkish kemençe when I first watched her performance as a kid. As it so turns out, the Turkish kemençe is a descendant of an ancient music instrument which it shares with the Cretan lyra. Even according to Wikipedia, kemençe is called ‘Pontic lyra‘, referring to Pontus, a Black Sea region neighboring the Caucases where kemençe is played by people. The song was quite popular in Turkey until two thousand and tens and one could hear it in most places.

Another country that reminded me of Turkish culture was Armenia. This time, their songs were very much like the culture that we find in the eastern parts of Turkey. The two thousand and ten contender for Armenia performed a song called Apricot Stone. The performance also featured a well-known duduk player, Djivan Gasparyan.

A group of musicians playing Davul and Zurna during the Hidirellez celebrations in Istanbul in May of two thousand and two

Back then, the sound of the duduk came to me quite familiar because also in Turkey a similar instrument, zurna, was played traditionally during wedding ceremonies or other celebrations. Zurna is played along a double-sided drum called davul in wedding ceremonies across Turkey. All these familiarities got me more curious in my understanding of the Armeno-Turkish relations, which bewildered me from an early age due to my passion for the late Ottoman period as events of nineteen fifteen made up a large portion of one of the last governments of the Empire stretching three continents at its peak so much as it would affect the course of events surrounding the new Republic.

The number of resemblances between the two countries is also in other places to be found, too. In my hometown city of Kayseri lived more than fifty thousand Armenians, most of whom were deported in the coming years of the First World War. Kayserians today are known for their wit and business mindset, a clear attribution given to Ottoman Armenians who lived in the city more than a hundred years ago. On the other hand, some main dishes peculiar to Kayseri are sometimes associated with Armenians, for example mantı, a small dumpling filled with ground beef as explained by an Armenian living in the city  in a YouTube video.   According to a doctoral thesis about population changes in Kayseri between nineteen fifteen and nineteen twenty, a number of six thousand seven hundred sixty one Armenians stayed in the city after the deportations, largely through the interventions of high ranking government officers who knew these Armenians personally (Durmaz, 2014, 101). Most of these Armenians had to convert to Islam to avoid deportation. My maternal grandpa once told me of his Armenian friends who left the city in early nineteen sixties for Istanbul, at whose house he used to stay when he made business trips to the city. Another friend’s father once told us that his dad had an Armenian best friend who emigrated abroad. Such stories are probably uncountable.

Knowing these, I only grew more curious about the language aspects of things. Most people in Turkey know that we share tons of words with most Balkan nations due to centuries of Ottoman sovereignty over the peninsula. I have personally seen a lot of Greek and Serbian words that resemble or sound similar to their Turkish counterparts. But such a case for Armenian has never occurred in any way for me. If two peoples lived side by side for centuries, and they were getting along just fine only two generations earlier before one left, could we also share cognate words? The answer, as you might have already realized with the examples of musical instruments – only if you know some Turkish already, that is –, is yes. The words duduk and zurna are in use in everyday Turkish, and seemingly they are also used in Armenian.

For a start, Armenian and Turkish are two distant languages if one is to speak linguistically. Armenian is a member of the broad Indo-European family of languages that branch out to many subdivisions including Italic, Indo-Iranian languages. While most other languages fall into one group within Indo-European languages, e.g. Russian, Ukrainian and Bulgarian are Slavic languages, Armenian on its own makes a whole subdivision. Turkish, on the other hand, belongs to an entirely different language family, Turkic languages, to which Azerbaijani, Uyghur, Krygyz and other central Asian languages belong. There are other proposals for a wider language family that includes Turkic, Mongolic and Koreanic language groups among others, called Altaic language family, deriving its name from the Altai mountain range in Central Asia. This only remains a proposal and is disputed by many scholars.

What brings Turkish and Armenian together is the emigration of Turkic tribes out of Central Asia into Anatolia and events that happen from then on. Turks on the Anatolian peninsula founded many states that fell eventually. The most notable of these states was the Ottoman Empire which lasted for six hundred years claiming sovereignty over the Armenian heartland in eastern Anatolia. Ottomans allowed minorities in their Empire use their own customs, religious law and language so long as they payed the jizya tax, an extra tax levied on minorities in the Ottoman Empire as well as most other Muslim jurisdictions. This paved the way for Armenians in the Empire to nourish and enjoy their culture pretty much with no direct influence by the Empire and live in the Empire side by side with other minorities and the Turks. While some Armenian strongholds were no longer Armenian-majority towns due to conflicts, Armenians also moved to other parts of Anatolia, e.g. to Smyrna in the early sixteenth century. Armenians were also known as millet-i sadıka by the Ottomans which meant the ‘loyal nation’, showing the integration of Armenians in the Empire. Examples of Armenians taking public offices in the Empire are numerous. All these show us the level of exchange between the two peoples, causing transmission of many cultural items that lead the way to linguistic borrowings from each other. These are only superficial explanations for a history so deep and complicated but not to make an excess of the topic, it better be kept concise.

I searched YouTube for the topic as most people do and found a video where a native speaker of Turkish and Armenian compare the similliarities between the two languages. The video that inspired me for writing this article and educated me about the relationship between the languages seem to be taken down by the owner. I do not really know why the video has disappeared but I was going to quote from it heavily were it still around. But it is not. Another source is, though, still around and is more sound.

Nişanyan Sözlük is an online dictionary of Turkish etymology created by a linguist of Armenian origin and it remains the most comprehensive dictionary of its kind by far. I have always used this dictionary since high school. A detailed search in which words of Armenian origin are selected gives out sixty words. One interesting example would be cağ kebabı, a regional dish peculiar to Erzurum, a city in eastern Turkey.

Cağ kebabı

According to an entry on Nişanyan Sözlük, cağ is derived from an Armenian word meaning ‘spit’. The dish is a kebab prepared by putting lamb meat on a spit. Hence, the name. Another example is the word örnek meaning example. This word’s origin is, though, very controversial. Some people say that it originates in a Turkish stem word –ör meaning to lift or to raise.

If one intends to find more information on the topic, Armenian Loanwords in Turkish a book published by Robert Dankoff in nineteen ninety-five investigates the topic on a larger scale and can be a reliable source. The book also features a postscript essay called “A Note on Turkish Words in Armenian” which is about, well, what its title suggests. When it comes to Turkish words in Armenian, the number is around four thousand according to an essay published on a project website of Marmara University, an Istanbul-based public university.

The case at hand is far much deeper to look into all the details. There are many words that are used and of Armenian origin. The similliarities between the two cultures are more common in the eastern parts of Turkey, however, Armenian touch on the Turkish culture can be seen anywhere in Turkish life.  There are many people of renown in Turkey who come from an Armenian origin, for a start point. I saw that my curiosity for connections between the two cultures is not baseless and there is so much to discover and study.


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.