Shamakhi: A Lost Dialect, a Lost Identity

Armenian has numerous regional dialects spoken within and outside the country. While the Armenian dialectal diversity is impressive, much of it is endangered. Language endangerment, a process gradually leading to language death, unless it is reversed is of interest not only for linguists. It is inevitably connected to the loss of cultural heritage encoded in each dialect and a distinct identity it is associated with. 

Shamakhi, one such Armenian dialect is on the verge of extinction. Interviews with several Shamakhtsis with partial or full Shamakhi origin currently living in Armenia reveal how they feel about the current state of their dialect.

The Shamakhi dialect, which is somewhat similar to the Karabakh dialect, was originally spoken by Armenian communities in the city of Shamakhi and the surrounding areas, now in the territory of Azerbaijan. Historically, the city was part of various political systems and several empires, including the Persian (16th-19th centuries) and Russian (19th century) empires.

Nevertheless, Shamakhi had been home to Armenians for centuries. Historically, the population of the city was predominantly Armenian until ca. the beginning of the 18th century, when the Armenian share of the population started to decrease.

This trend continued into the following centuries. In 1918, there were 15 villages with a homogeneous Armenian population in the area: Matrasa, Meisari, Qarqanj, Qalakhan, Arpavut, Khanishen, Dara-Qarqanj, Mirishen, Zarkhu, Saghian, Pakhraqush, Giurjilar, Ghajar, Tvarishen and Balishen.[1] 1988 was the turning point for the Armenians living in Azerbaijan and not only.  

At the threshold of the dissolution of the USSR, Armenians in Nagorno Karabakh and Armenia started vast street demonstrations in early 1988 demanding the reunification of the Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (historic Armenian territory that was ceded to Azerbaijan in 1923 as an autonomous region) with Armenia.

The Karabakh Movement later turned into the Nagorno Karabakh conflict that forced hundreds of thousands of Armenians to flee Azerbaijan. As a result of forced migration, Shamakhetsi Armenians left their homes for good, some relocating to Armenia, others settling in Russia or elsewhere.

There is no doubt that the sharp decrease in vitality of the Shamakhi dialect was triggered by the Nagorno Karabakh conflict. After forced migration, the community of Shamakhi speakers was never fully restored, while the ties between its members either loosened up or were completely lost. This made maintenance of the dialect extremely challenging.

I had a chance to find the trace of several Shamakhetsi Armenians currently living in Armenia. Some of them have a full Shamakhi origin (both parents), for others it’s partial (one parent). One would think that if the Shamakhi dialect is possible to maintain at all, this would be easier in Armenia rather than in an Armenian diasporic community elsewhere. However, the situation is not very promising. Everyone I talked to about Shamakhi confirmed that they are aware of its endangerment and the overall unfavorable environment for the dialect’s revitalization in Armenia.

Tigran Ivanyan, 50, considers himself a speaker of Shamakhi. Both of his parents are fluent in the dialect: they used to live in Matrasa, an Armenian village in the Shamakhi area, before they moved to Armenia in the late 1980s.

Although Tigran has a strong emotional attachment to Shamakhi, he admits that the younger generation does not speak the dialect. His son Sevak, 25, stresses that Shamakhi as a dialect does not play any significant role in his life. This idea was also articulated by Sevak’s contemporaries. Ruben, 24, understands Shamakhi and like Sevak, neither speaks it nor regards it as ‘his’ language. The younger interviewees clearly do not have any Shamakhi identity.

Instead, for them the dialect is simply a matter of their ‘roots’ and cultural heritage. “Now that it is obvious that the next generation will not speak the dialect, it is important for us to transmit the knowledge about our roots,” Ruben said. “The generations to come should know where their ancestors come from and what language they spoke. Now the dialect is utterly a matter of our history.”

While the Shamakhi dialect is clearly perceived as a thing of the past, it is also highly valued as a powerful and important source of cultural input into the present. Shamakhetsi Armenians take pride in having the dialect as their ancestral legacy. Both old and young Shamakhetsis emphasized that it is very important to ensure that the dialect is documented and preserved as a linguistic relic. More than speaking Shamakhi, they want to transmit the knowledge about the dialect to future generations.

Despite an overall positive attitude toward the dialect by Shamakhetsi Armenians, the potential for its revival is limited. The striking characteristic about Shamakhi is that it was so well preserved for centuries as an Armenian minority dialect, but lost its vitality after its speakers left for Armenia.

The fact that the Shamakhi dialect used to be well maintained in its original territory is not surprising. Shamakhetsi Armenians were an ethnic, religious, and linguistic minority and had a necessity to mark and defend their group identity; this includes preserving their language, as “languages, codes, and cultures frequently become associated as the distinctive property of ethnic groups.” [2]  Conversely, Shamakhi speakers are no longer an ethnic or religious minority, they became part of the relatively homogeneous population of Armenia.

In this context, the Shamakhi dialect is just one of a great number of local vernaculars. In Armenia, people are known to be proud of their dialectal diversity, and it is a common thing to stress one’s regional identity. However, unlike other Armenian dialects that represent different localities throughout Armenia, the Shamakhi dialect doesn’t easily fit into this paradigm. It is a ‘landless’ dialect: it lost its connection to the original territory and is not attached to any region within the country.

Interestingly, the vitality that the dialect enjoyed before the Nagorno Karabakh conflict was the result of maintaining a primarily Armenian identity, as opposed to the local Shamakhi identity. When reunited with their compatriots in Armenia, Shamakhetsi Armenians felt safe in that there was no longer any external threat to their ‘Armenianness’. This, along with many other factors, played a negative role in the destiny of the dialect that is currently on its way to extinction.

By Narine Vlasyan EVN Report

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *