How Armenian cuneiform was deciphered – Suren Ayvazyan

“…Words that were considered borrowed from Persian and other languages were already present in Armenian a thousand or even one and a half thousand years ago.”

In 1959, I began deciphering the Armenian cuneiform script, laying the foundation for the principle of phonetic correspondence.

Here, one could start from the premise that the “Urartian” language is not Armenian and compare “Urartian” words with Old Armenian ones. The correspondences identified in this process would indicate borrowings, that is, the transition of words from the “Urartian” language to Old Armenian. Academician Gr. Kapantsyan, having analyzed the works of several researchers, counted thirty-two such “Urartisms.” It would be possible to continue comparing the lexical material of the “Urartian” and Old Armenian languages – in case of success, science would gain even more “Urartisms.”

In this way, one could also come to the denial of the “Urartian” language: if, for example, the number of “Urartisms” in Old Armenian suddenly turned out to be excessively large, constituting, say, sixty or eighty percent of the total known number of “Urartian” words. The theory of linguistics does not allow for such massive borrowings, and in such cases, we are talking about the identity of languages, their dialectical relationship, and so on.

So, this path was quite simple and suggested itself. However, I could not accept it because all the data related to the concept of Movses Khorenatsi about the existence of the most ancient Armenia in the III-I millennia BC convinced me that the Armenian cuneiform script should have been written in the Armenian language.

I noticed the following testimony from linguists: “…so far…we are not able to establish the true pronunciation of Urartian signs and are forced to give them the same sound value as they had in Assyrian.”

Comparing the deliberately phonetically distorted “Urartian” lexicon with the Armenian one made no sense: only coincidence could lead to lexical parallels. And in general, should one be surprised by the small number of “Urartisms” after this?..

But if this is the case, I reasoned, it should be recognized that the Armenians (or “Urartians,” as the Assyrians called them), borrowing the Assyrian cuneiform code, slightly modified it, adapting it to express the specific phonemes of their speech.

This means, first, that scholars read the “Urartian” cuneiform as if it were Assyrian, without taking into account the changes that the “Urartians” made when they borrowed it. And second, they pronounce words with a known distortion since they cannot know exactly how the “Urartians” pronounced them. Is it possible to determine which signs of the Assyrian cuneiform the Armenians (“Urartians”) changed when they borrowed it? Yes, it is possible.

Well-preserved terms can undoubtedly be used to judge the change in cuneiform signs when borrowed. I chose several terms, the correspondence of which did not cause any doubt. The first of them was the name “Biayna,” which has a correspondence in Armenian – “Van.”

In one of the records, this term is written as follows:


bi – a – na – [ – ]

(Kur— a determinative for place names; in square brackets— grammatical ending).

In Armenian, this term sounds like “Van” (Russian transcription), therefore:

  1. bi = “v”
  2. a = “a”
  3. na = “n”

So, I got the first three precise values of the signs in the Armenian cuneiform code: the bi sign of the Assyrian cuneiform was changed by the Armenians to “v”, a was not changed, and the na sign was pronounced as “n”.

The next term “Arcibini” has an indisputable correspondence in Armenian “Arciv”.

I wrote:

ar – si – bi – ni

ar – ts(i) – v(i) – n(i)

  1. ar = “ar”
  2. si = “tsi”
  3. = 1) bi = “v(i)”
  4. ni = “n(i)”

Now I had six precise correspondences at my disposal. I started restoring the meaning of other cuneiform signs using the known ones.

I took the word “arshe”, which means “youth”. It is written as follows:

ar – Še:

The first sign is already known to me: 4) ar = “ar”. The meaning of the sign is unknown, but it can be assumed that it has not changed much. Indeed, in Armenian, there is the word “ars” – the genitive case of “ayr” (“husband”) in Old Armenian (compare: “Ars+en = “Arsen”).

Therefore, it can be assumed that the sign Še = “s(e)”. Let’s see if my assumption is correct, are there any other words where Še = “s(e)”?

Yes, there is, for example, the word:

Še = ri (“separately” – old translation)

s(e) — r(i)

In Old Armenian, “ser(i)” means “completely”, “entirely”. If we insert this word into the context, instead of the old translation:

“…what the warriors took, they drove separately”, we get a new, more accurate context:

“…what the warriors took, they drove it completely” (meaning “entirely”).

Now we can record another correspondence:

  1. Še = s(e)

In a similar way, revealing step by step the changes that the Assyrian cuneiform code underwent among the Armenians, I increased the number of verified signs to ninety-seven. In other words, it was already possible to say precisely, with examples, how ninety-seven cuneiform signs borrowed from the Assyrians sounded in ancient Armenia.

The key to decryption was found, the second stage of work began. If only the values of the signs I established are correct, then, by substituting these values, I should get words that are different in sound but not in meaning. In other words, when reading, I should get Armenian roots, but the meaning could not change: after all, the texts were checked according to bilinguals.

At the same time, each deciphered word served as a check. If I made a mistake in at least one sign, then, having repeated several times in different words, this incorrectly read sign would lead to a distortion of the roots, and therefore, the text.

By inserting the found values of the signs into the cuneiform texts, I obtained 550 names, geographical names, and other words with Armenian roots.

The meanings of the newly found words either repeated the previous ones or clarified them, which is already the best proof of the correctness of the decryption.

As an illustration, I will give an excerpt from the text: the beginning of the fifth column of the so-called Khorkhor Chronicle – cuneiform on the Van rock, on the road leading to Khorkhorunik (a region in Armenia).

It should be noted that the Armenian roots in the given text are a thousand years older than those known to us from Mesropian writings. These roots are older than grabar (archaic grabar), and therefore they are sometimes found in dialects, of course, in a somewhat distorted form.

In our reading (Russian transcription):

“Argistē age… saytayetsi, amrotsē aretsi; ays i… avanē atayetsi, patarnerē amastayetsi, 3270 tarsa, alk naskayetsi, akl shen eri agayetsi”.

Old translation:

“Argishti says: ..I pushed back; I conquered the fortress; in the place (?).. I devastated the country, burned the cities, killed 3270 people, took some alive, and led others away”.

New translation:

“Argist says: … I pushed back; I struck the fortresses; this… country I devoured (destroyed), overthrew the cities, 3270 (souls) of the adult population, some I killed, some I captured alive”.

Now, using the Explanatory Dictionary of the Armenian Language by St. Malxasyanc and the “Armenian Root Dictionary” by Gr. Ačaryan, let’s determine the meanings of the words in this text.

  1. “Argist – here the root ‘argi’ – ‘sun’; cf. ‘Galust’ (Armenian name);
  2. “age” – preserved in “ag+ag+ak” – “cry”, in ancient times could mean “to speak”;
  3. “sayta+yeцi” = “saytak+el” – “to reject”, “to repel”;
  4. “ar+etsi” = “par+el – “to strike a strong blow”;
  5. “ata+yeцi” = cf. “ut+el” = “to eat”, “to devastate”;
  6. “patarner” – “pat+ar” = “pat+arnul” – “surrounded by a wall”, that is, “city”;
  7. “amastayetsi” = “am(a)+astal” – “to overthrow”;
  8. “tarsa” = “tars” – “in years”, “adult population”;
  1. “alk” = “other”, “different”:
  2. “tsaska+yeцi” = “tsask” from “tsasumn” – “strong anger”;
  3. “shen+erie = “shen+eri”; here “shen” – “alive”;
  4. “aga+yeцi” = ‘aga+el” – “to capture”, “to abduct”.

As we can see, all twelve words of the given excerpt have Armenian roots.

And here is the “metric” of Yerevan, also an excerpt from the Khorkhor Chronicle, where it is said about the foundation in 782 BC by King Argist of the fortress of Eruvuni.

In my reading:

“Khaykin barshen, Argistē Minayi (vordin) age, kagak Eruvinin shenkastavi Vana erkrin ujashen, gulan erkrnerē nayahа (yetsi), koranē kol-kin(etsi) aynu, ari shenitari istin. Khzor arnashen tsatavi istin, 6600 ganashen ayrtsgavi istin Khate (ev) Tsopan erkrnerits”.

Old translation:

“By the command of the god Haldi, Argishti, son of Menua, says: I built the city of Irpuni for the might of the country of Biainili (and) for the pacification (?) of the enemy country. The land was deserted (?), (and) there was nothing built there before. I performed mighty deeds there. 6 (?) thousand 600 warriors of the countries of Khate (and) Tsopani I settled there”.

New translation:

“To the god Hayk, the ruler, Argist, son of Mina, says: I erected the city of Eruvuni (for) the powerful country of Van, struck fear into the enemy countries, devastated their lands, left no buildings there. I accomplished great feats there, settled 6600 warriors (in the form of) people there (from) the countries of Khate (and) Tsopan”.

Thus, the Armenian cuneiform was deciphered. It showed (and it seems that the provided examples convincingly prove this) that there was no separate “Urartian” language, distinct from Armenian; the cuneiform inscriptions were written in the language of ancient Armenia.

Researchers still have to trace the development of the grammatical structure of the Armenian language over a period of more than a thousand years – from the 8th century BC to the 5th century AD. In this regard, Armenian dialects are invaluable, as they preserve a multitude of the rarest forms that once prevailed in the language.

The deciphering of the Armenian cuneiform completed several decades of research in the field of Armenology related to the restoration of the teachings of Movses Khorenatsi about ancient Armenia.

Deciphering the cuneiform also finally clarified the issue of borrowings in the Armenian language. It was proven that words that were considered borrowed at a later time from Persian and other languages were already present in Armenian a thousand or even fifteen hundred years ago.

Therefore, they either go back to the common Indo-European proto-language or were borrowed by other languages from Armenian.

By Suren Ayvazyan

How Armenian cuneiform was deciphered?

The Armenian cuneiform was deciphered by Armenian scientist Suren Ayvazyan. He used a comparative method, studying cuneiform texts and comparing them with Armenian word roots. This method allowed him to trace the connections between cuneiform signs and the Armenian language.

First, Ayvazyan studied the cuneiform signs and determined their meanings. Then he substituted the found values of the signs into the cuneiform texts, obtaining words with Armenian roots. Using Armenian dictionaries, such as Stepan Malkhasyants’ Explanatory Dictionary of the Armenian Language and Gevork Acharyan’s “Armenian Root Dictionary,” he determined the meanings of the words in the texts.

The deciphering of the Armenian cuneiform showed that the Urartian language, considered separate from Armenian, actually did not exist, and that the cuneiform texts were written in the language of ancient Armenia.

This discovery concluded decades of research in the field of Armenology, related to the restoration of Movses Khorenatsi’s teachings on ancient Armenia, and allowed for clarification of the issue of borrowings in the Armenian language.

Conclusion and translated article by Vigen Avetisyan

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