How the 1,600-year-old Armenian alphabet copes with the challenges of the digital era
The Armenian alphabet, an essential part of Armenia’s cultural identity, faces Latin and Cyrillic fonts, both widely used for sending text messages and writing online in Armenian. To reverse this practice, Armenian font designers and artists are trying to encourage the use of Armenian letters, but they face an uphill struggle.
Sixty-four-year-old font designer Edik Ghabuzyan likens the predicament of Armenian fonts in the digital era to a story by the late Japanese writer Kobo Abe. A Japanese man, from childhood, has seen an American warship floating off the coast of Japan. The ship sits idly, but the man sees its image every day and, with time, it changes his mentality.
For Ghabuzyan, head of the Armenian National Book Chamber’s Department of the Creation and Preservation of Armenian Computer Fonts,and other Armenian typography specialists, the dangers of such a change are real.
“If we will continue do this, one day we could lose our language,” Ghabuzyan believes. “Preserving Armenian letters is a national security issue.”
Working in a tiny room in the Armenian National Library, Ghabuzyan and his co-workers design fonts for the Armenian alphabet like a fashion designer would create clothes for a seasonal wardrobe -- something for every need, be it modern, official, stylish or decorative.
In 2010, at the government’s request, Ghabuzyan added two Unicode fonts, Mariam and Grapalat, to that portfolio to improve the readability of Armenian-language documents online and on cell phones. Official documents were supposed to be switched to the new fonts.
But even today, from force of habit, government offices or the Armenian Apostolic Church still send Latin-letter SMS’s.
Ghabuzyan calls it “a bad habit.” The question is how to break it.
In the 1990s, when Armenia urgently needed computer fonts, ordinary graphic designers lacked the knowledge of computer technology to provide them. Enthusiastic IT geeks decided to solve the problem. Edik Ghabuzyan was among them.
"We weren't professional font designers. At first, we created a lot of useless stuff. However, if we hadn’t started at that time, then our country would remain without [digital] publishing,” he says.
The first challenge was to convert Armenian fonts from ASCII code, developed in the 1960s so that computers could read text, to the Internet’s more sophisticated Unicode, which can handle a larger number of characters.
Until first Unicode Armenian fonts were created in 2010, Armenian-speakers, however, still had to rely on Latin or Cyrillic fonts for writing on portable digital devices, like mobiles, smartphones and tablets. No other alternative existed.
Pure numbers explain the reason for the delay in developing mobile-friendly Armenian fonts. Armenia contains roughly about half of the world’s several million Armenian speakers, but fonts are not regularly purchased there -- smaller publishers and media often prefer free fonts or, in some instances, just turn a blind eye to copyrights, commented Arqmenik Nikoghosyan, editor-in-chief of Antares publishers.
“Educated” readers of both books and electronic texts could change that, he says. Font options in the past few years have, in fact, diversified, he adds. Today, roughly 500 Armenian fonts are actively used, Ghabuzyan estimates.
In the past, demand for Armenian fonts was relatively limited. “In Soviet times, there was only one body which was responsible for font design,” Ghabuzyan recollects, in reference to the All-Union Research Institute of Polygraphy Engineering. “They designed them for all of the alphabets in the Soviet Union, most of which were based on Cyrillic letters. Only the Armenians and Georgians had their own alphabets and the state didn’t pay much attention to creating many different fonts for us.”
“The [Institute] rejected most of the graphic drafts, breaking the anatomy of our letters. It made them less readable.”
Ghabuzyan claims that today’s Armenian fonts show the influence of Latin letters. -- the impact, no doubt, of English’s role as the dominant international language.
But Armenia has a long history of adapting linguistically.
As the first country to adopt Christianity as a state religion, Armenia, at the beginning of the 4th century, had to solve the problem of how to disseminate the religion among its people. Church services were conducted in the Greek and Syriac languages, which ordinary people didn’t understand. The creation of an alphabet for the Armenian language, some 100 years later, enabled the religion to become truly national.
Until the start of the modern era, the Armenian alphabet used four different scripts.
Erkatagir was created in the 4th century by the inventor of the Armenian alphabet himself, the priest Mesrop Mashtots, and is used now for capital letters.
Most modern fonts, however, are based on Bolorgir, which dates to the 13th century. The remaining two are the slender 16th-century Notrgir (which did not require as much expensive paper for writing) and the 18th-century cursive Shghagir script.
Politics as well as the desire to educate illiterate Armenians and disseminate knowledge of scholarly international writings prompted the invention of these scripts, says Gevorg Ter-Vardanyan, head of the Department of Manuscript Studies at Yerevan’s Mesrop Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts.
In the early 20th century, the German philologist Franz Nikolaus Finck termed this process a “programmed transfer of culture,”Ter-Vardanyan notes.
The transition to the Armenian alphabet occurred relatively quickly, he adds. Priests, who had been taught to read and write in Armenian at church schools, opened other such schools throughout the country. A national literature soon followed.
As the Bible and other significant Christian works were translated from Greek and Syriac into Armenian, other countries’ alphabets impacted the design of Armenian letters. "The Armenian and Greek/Byzantine scripts were influenced by each other,” Ter-Vardanyan explains. “There was interaction with Latin culture, and, later, with the Russian language.”
Back to Basics
Forty-six-year-old artist and graphic designer Ruben Malayan, though, sees an opportunity for the Armenian alphabet to make its mark even in the Latin-letter-dominated digital age. He’s using calligraphy to explore that possibility. “[The] Armenian language is so rich that you can create something new based on your heritage,” he believes.
Malayanbecame interested in Armenian calligraphy several years ago, when researching an article for Sterling Publishing’s “The World Encyclopedia of Calligraphy.” He realized that little is known about this aspect of Armenia’s art and history. Greater attention has generally been paid to its illuminated manuscripts, for which several schools existed in medieval times.
Today, Malayan teaches Armenian calligraphy at Yerevan’s Tumo Creative Technology Center, a digital-media learning hub, and creates modern designs based on calligraphy scripts. He claims the courses enable his teen-aged students to obtain not only handwriting skills, but, also, to develop their creativity.
“If we will start to teach calligraphy in schools as a main subject, our children will have a certain cultural foundation” in Armenian art and history, he says.
Such a grounding, he believes, will help correct what he terms Armenia’s “serious problem” with the use of professionally rendered, creative fonts in outdoor advertising. Like Ghabuzyan and his team, Malayan believes that greater attention needs to be given to developing typographies free of foreign influences.
In Soviet times, the use of Cyrillic meant plain fonts were favored for Armenian over the the slanted fonts that make Armenian text more readable, he notes. That only changed in the 1950s.
Malayan contends that the digital era requires change, as well – and calligraphy can play a role.
"Calligraphy is the basis of typography. New forms are born on paper and only then go into the digital space and become a font,” he says.
Like the Mekhitarist monks, an Armenian Benedictine group founded in the 18th century, Malayan and other font designers assert that “the beauty of the Armenian alphabet” should be “a matter of honor.”
Even in the digital era.